Hot mid-afternoon had settled on the northeastern plains of New Mexico, pooling in the rocky, shallow, cottonwood-filled canyons and gullies that cut the grasslands like unpredictable arteries. Perched on a ledge 40 feet above the canyon floor, Floyd raised his dying rabbit call, but not before muttering, "Be ready. If it happens here, it'll be fast and it'll be furious."
Ri-i-i-ght'¦I thought as I began glassing the mountain mahogany pouring down the canyon. Bears are napping right now. Like I was 30 minutes ago.
Soft yelps came pleading out of Floyd's call, echoing shyly off the cliff walls and dying in the cottonwoods. Off in la-la land, I didn't see the boar charge out of the timber. Later, I'd claim that I was scanning the far canyonside, just in case the call prompted a bruin to stand and look our way.
Floyd twitched as if the bear already had his foot, grunting out of the corner of his mouth, "Bear! Bear! Shoot it!"
"Where!?" was the most intelligent thing I could manage. I needn't have asked. The bear exploded through a juniper tree directly below us, leaping up the first of the two sandrock ledges, providing a barrier between us...allegedly. "Right there. Shoot it!" my veteran bear guide seethed.
At less than 18 yards, I centered the bear's chest with the crosshair in my Swarovski Z3 and triggered the .308 Mossberg MVP Patrol rifle, driving a Barnes 150-grain TTSX bullet the length of the bear's body. As bears typically do, he flipped, grunted, and thrashed violently, then headed for a cottonwood thicket below. Slightly shaken by the close proximity and the intensity of the pure predatory drive I'd seen in the boar's eyes, I leapt to my feet, trying to get a clear second shot before he disappeared.
This wasn't my first bear hunt. I've shot them over bait, and spot-stalked bears in Montana and Alaska. Though such types of bear hunting are laced with adrenaline, neither comes close to the pure unadulterated dose that hits you when a big boar comes bursting through the brush, intending to chase off whatever other predator is killing that small noisy critter and eat it himself.
Staving off the shakes, I climbed down the canyonside with friend and hunting partner Rob Lancellotti, leaving Floyd atop the low cliffs to keep watch. Just as we hit bottom, he hollered. "Look-it that big old sow running up the other side!"
Sure enough, a massive black female — considerably bigger than the boar I'd just shot — was dashing up the far side of the canyon, two little brown fuzz balls in-tow. Suddenly it felt like there was a bear in every thicket, not to mention the wounded (hopefully dead) bear somewhere in front of us.
Rock vs Bear
Rob, having filled his tag on a beautiful blond earlier that day, had bravely left his gun in the truck. He didn't hang back as we crossed the canyon bottom (like I would have), but I did notice he picked up a large-caliber rock. "Nice," I thought. "If the bear gets me you can hit his head with a stone while I scream to Floyd to bring another gun."
There was no need. As we dropped into the creek bottom, Rob spotted the bear draped over the base of a cottonwood growing out of the steep creek bank.
"He looks dead," Rob whispered. "But I'd hammer him again."
I almost did, then thought of additional holes in that lovely chocolate hide. "Let's sneak up. If he twitches, I'll shoot."
I should have recognized the way the bear had deliberately draped himself over the cottonwood base wasn't indicative of death. He twitched. I fired. Heartshot, the bear scrabbled off the tree trunk in his death throes and rolled into the creek, mostly submerged, limp, red blossoming in the water around him. I knelt on the opposite bank, shaking slightly and riding an incredible wave of adrenaline.
Calling black bears doesn't always work. As with any predator, conditions have to be right, the animal has to be in the mood, and you've got to offer the proper sort of inspiration with your trusty call. But when the stars line up and a hairy, slobbering beast comes tearing in looking to steal a free meal, it's frighteningly awesome. No other type of calling experience can match it — except, perhaps, calling grizzly bears, which I haven't tried and don't intend to.
Predator-calling for bruins is a magical method of using yourself as bait to even out the stealthy odds between you and the local boar. Even when bears don't come, the call will often prompt them to stand and look, searching for the source of anguish — and exposing themselves in the process. I've never seen it personally, but experienced guides have related tales of watching a sleeping bear wake up and look, strolling to the edge of its cover, becoming visible — and thus shootable — even if it didn't come to the call.
And of course, there are those frequent times that a bear ignores your calls completely, no matter how gut-wrenchingly desperate you sound. Successfully calling bears is more art than science, but like all art, there are a few principles that must be mastered. Beyond that, it's up to you and the feeling in
There's close...then there's too close. "Make sure you've got a good buffer between you and the bear," Floyd says. Calling a bear isn't a success if you end up getting mauled.
Before wailing away on your call, find a spot where a bear can't get to you easily. Ideally, that's atop a canyonside ledge, a dump-truck-size boulder, or some similar topographical shield. The ability to see at least 30 yards is also important. Having a hungry, salivating bear in close, unseen and unshootable, is a bit too exciting.
Like any predator, a bear's sense of smell is particularly keen. But a bear's eyesight is not particularly good, so they tend to rely on scent and sound more than other wild meat-eaters.
If you've mostly hunted bears over bait, where the animals have become used to human scent from their daily grocery delivery man, it's likely you've formed a low opinion of a bear's nose. But in non-bait areas, bears usually respond to human scent with a disappearing act, astonishing in an animal so large.
Scent-control clothing and body products are of questionable value to some, but the way I see it, they can't hurt. If you like them, use them. Good hygiene is also important. But playing the wind is most critical to success. Always try to set up and call with the wind in your face.
Loud & Long
Bears seem to lose interest in a call almost as soon as it ceases. They either have short attention spans or figure that the small animal is now in another predator's gut. Once committed, you'd better have good lungs because it's best to call with few interruptions. Now, that doesn't mean you can't pause for a minute here or there during your setup.
Also, bears seem to respond well to loud calls. That's not to say you shouldn't start softly just in case there's a bear closee, but if you don't get an immediate response, quickly crescendo up to full volume and lay it on.
Raspy & Whiny
The experienced bear callers I've spoken with indicate most anything from a fawn call to a rabbit distress can work on bears. Like so many other predators, there just isn't a secret weapon that will call every bear that hears it. Outfitter Steve Jones did share one nugget of wisdom: He prefers calls that are both raspy and whiny. If you can find something that sounds like a needy mother-in-law combined with an angry stepmother, you're on the right track. Some states do not allow electronic calls for bears.
When you're the bear bait, having the right gun and load is important. Unlike coyotes and other lightweight, thin-skinned predators, bears don't usually just flop to the ground when hit. Shot presentations and angle will often be less than optimum, so you need a bullet that will both expand dramatically and impart a lot of shock as well as hold together and penetrate (very important) well on frontal or angled presentations.
Most deer-appropriate calibers work fine on black bears. Choose a good bonded, heavy-for-caliber bullet such as a Swift Scirocco II, Nosler AccuBond, Remington Core-Lokt Ultra-Bonded, or Hornady InterBond, or a partitioned bullet such as Nosler's Partition or Swift's A-Frame, or — what I prefer — a homogeneous projectile such as a Barnes TTSX or Hornady GMX.
When choosing a rifle, pick something you can work fast for quick follow-up shots at close range and shoot accurately for cross-canyon shots. Sometimes a bear will try to climb into your lap; other times it will just stand up in heavy brush and look, trying to locate the source of the call. Hunt with a gun that enables you to make the most of both situations.
Powerful lever-actions — especially those that shoot high-velocity, high-power cartridges — are excellent as long as they are accurate. Though they can't be cycled quite as fast, good bolt-actions are also excellent because they are usually a little easier to milk accuracy out of. I like compact guns with high capacity for calling bears, which eliminates many bolt-actions. Mossberg's brand-new MVP Patrol in .308 is what I shot this bear with, and it's a prime option, not only because of its short 18.5-inch barrel but primarily because it accepts high-capacity detachable magazines. Clear, low-power optics are good. You want the low magnification so you can shoot up close, and the clarity so that you can pick the dark outline of a bear out of a shadowed thicket. I've been using a Swarovski Z3 3-10X 40mm with the ML reticle, and love it.
Unlike most predator hunting, where you might call in several animals on a really good day, you might call a bear the first morning, or work hard for three or four days before a big bruin comes tearing in. That's OK. In the eyes of many sportsmen, a bear hunt is a big-game hunt, anyway.
Of course, you might call in a small bear you don't want to shoot, or a sow with cubs. That's when it can get really exciting. Quit calling (obviously), and if need be, back out of your setup quietly, prepared to fire a warning shot. Rarely will a hungry bear pursue a meal when it realizes humans are involved. On the other hand, if you've got hungry cubs crawling up your pant legs and a distressed, angry sow looking for them, you have a real problem. If cubs appear — and look hungry — get out and maintain vigilance while doing so.
The beautiful thing about calling bears is it can be combined so well with spot-and-stalk hunts. It's another tool toward success, and the most stimulating, exciting bear-hunting method I know of.
Next time you hold a license to kill in bear country, turn yourself into bait and see how fun a bruin hunt can really be.