This weekend marks the beginning of the early black bear hunting season in Pennsylvania. In fact, many states in the region are now expanding their early season bear opportunities, especially with archery equipment. One of the longtime downfalls of a late rifle season (typically third week of November here) is that many bears have denned up or reduced their travel if cold weather hits, or food sources are so diminished in certain areas that bears are forced to leave their home ranges and migrate to fatten up for the winter.
Recently, I talked with a Pennsylvania DCNR State Forest Ranger about the plethora of food sources available in the Big Woods this year. It seems everything has hit -- and hit hard -- including acorns, apples, and chokeberries. The ranger said he's looking forward to the muzzleloader season, which runs October 17-24, because many bears will still be active and feeding. Some years, he said, by the time late November rolls around, the majority of the bears in his area have moved south in search of fresh food sources.
So what should you be looking for if you want to harvest a black bear during the early season? This is something that many Pennsylvanians don't usually think of because the traditional way to hunt bears in this state is with organized drives. The dense cover of early fall, though, is going to reduce the effectiveness of that tactic, and hunters are going to have to take food into consideration and hunt bears more like they would whitetails.
The number one food source right now is chokeberries. These small, grape-like berries grow in clusters around edges of cuts, woods openings, and anywhere they can get enough sunlight and water to thrive. Once you find a patch of chokeberries, you'll know very quickly whether or not a bear has been hitting them. Torn and chewed off tops and bent stalks are dead giveaways that a bear's been working them over.
Scouting these areas, note how many clusters of berries are still hanging compared to how many have been eaten. Bears will work over some huge patches for a week or more. Many times I've walked right up on bears gorging themselves on berries along the edges of cuts and old logging roads. These are excellent places to still hunt in early mornings and late evenings. Always keep the wind in your face, walk painfully slow, and look ahead for movement. Sometimes you'll hear a few twigs snap or see a berry stalk shake as a bear feeds and be able to sneak closer. Once you're within shooting range, hunker down against a tree or other brush and wait until the bear steps out into the open.
When I find a particularly hot area where bears are feeding and I'm finding lots of pile of fresh scat, I'll set up a treestand the same way I would for deer and wait him out. If you can stay focused and patient, there's a very good chance a bear will return to feed during the course of the week.
The best chokeberry patches to hunt are found along the edge of very thick cover, and usually along the top edge of steep, rugged country. For instance, one of my favorite locations to get bears on trail camera is an old logging road that skirts along the ridge of a rocky, laurel-covered hollow. The bears no doubt den in that hollow, and you can see their tracks in the game trails leading up out of the thick cover and right to the berries. Chokeberry patches found along quiet, isolated areas will provide the best potential for daytime encounters. In my experience, bears don't come to those open, easily-accessed patches until well after dark. However, driving roads looking for patches that have been decimated by bears can be a good starting point for scouting.
Another favorite place to hunt bears during the early season is a narrow funnel between two thick cuts -- the thicker the better, in fact. These cuts are great denning areas, but they're also filled with berries and other foods preferred by black bears this time of year. I know I've found a good place when the strip of woods between the cuts is covered in bear scat. In fact, last weekend, I found such a funnel and counted 35 piles of berry-filled bear scat in varying ages of decay in a strip of woods barely 50 yards wide. The bears have been feasting there for a long time, traveling back and forth from cut to cut.
A Big Woods black bear is a trophy. Trying to harvest one during the early season, with so many food sources and so much dense foliage still available, makes it an even greater challenge. But like anything in the Big Woods, it's a worthy pursuit, and any success will be hard-earned and well deserved.
About the Author:
Ralph Scherder is an award-winning writer and photographer from Butler, PA. His work has appeared in Sports Afield, American Trapper, Bowhunter, Bowhunting.com, Fur-Fish-Game, and many others. His new book Hunting Mountain Whitetails is available from the First Fork Publications bookstore.