As America's most abundant big game animal, whitetails get most of the attention from hunters. But to many people, the most exciting big game animal in North America does not have hair, but rather wears a luxurious, shiny fur coat. It's usually black, but is sometimes dark chocolate brown, cinnamon or even blonde colored.
Yes, that animal is the black bear. Whether you hunt them in spring in western states and Canada or fall in Virginia, black bears are among the most fascinating of all big game animals. The wide variety of hunting methods you can use is particularly appealing. You can put on drives, glass and stalk, still hunt through thick cover, call them or float down rivers in bear territory. Not enough? Try hunting them with dogs or, where legal, taking a stand over bait.
The hide of a bear makes a great addition to any den or living room, and a bear shoulder mount on the wall is always a great conversation piece. Adding to the appeal of hunting bears, their meat is delicious -- like a scrumptious blend of beef and pork, but tastier than either of those farm-raised animals.
The most important appeal of bears to me, though, is that they epitomize the raw wildness that is still left in America today. Deer are great, but bears are North America's true symbol of the wilderness. Many Shenandoah Valley hunters are preparing for Canadian or western spring bear hunts now, so here are a few tips that might help on those trips.
1. To help judge the age and sex of a bear, examine its face. A big old boar has a wider face than young boars and females.
2. A great way to hunt bears in the mountains is to have two or three hunters hike to different ridges and then glass the slopes the other hunters are on. From the vantage point of an opposite ridge, you can often see bears that the person standing on that slope can't detect. Use hand signals to direct that hunter to the bear's location. Before the hunt, set up a signal system for indicating the direction the bear is and what it's doing.
3. Find the foods to find bears. This could include corn, beechnuts or acorns in the fall. In spring look for skunk cabbage, berries, grasses, roots, insects, trillium, glacier lily and winter kills.
4. Hunt prime areas. Swamps, logging roads, burns, avalanche slides, timbered areas and grassy meadows are all excellent spots to check out for spring hunts. Also hunt the edges of rivers where bears prowl looking for winter kills.
5. Learn to judge sign to tell how big a bear is. The bigger a scat pile, the bigger the bear. Also look for claw marks high on trees -- 6 feet or higher, to pinpoint a big bruin.
6. Measure the front pad prints. Measure the width of the pad in inches, add 1-1 ½ and convert to feet. You'll have a good indication of what the bear would square out at. For instances, a 5-inch pad would likely mean a 6-6 ½ foot square bear.
7. Tracking bear prints in the snow is a great way to take a bear. Find a single fresh track measuring 4½ or more inches across and follow fast until the pad marks show the bear is slowing down. Stay down wind, scan ahead with binoculars and ease carefully into shooting range.
8. Driving bears is a deadly tactic if you have a large hunting party and bears are fairly abundant. Locate fresh sign in a large dense thicket or swampy area, then spread hunters out to cover likely escape routes on the sides and at the end of the drive. Pay particular attention to ditches and gullies with thick cover. The bear may try to escape along those routes.
9. Look at a bear's legs to judge its size and age. A young bear will appear to have long legs because his body is fairly thin. An old boar will seem to have short legs because the body is deep and thick with a sagging belly.
10. Pay close attention to the sound hounds make when trailing a bear. When the dogs' voices change from a steady bawl to a frantic "chop," that means the bear is treed or at bay. Move quickly to the hounds or the bear may escape.
11. Look at the ears. Ears can help you determine a bear's size. A big bear's ears will look small compared to his body. They'll also appear to come out of the side of the head instead of jutting out on top. A young bear's ears will look big compared to his body and appear to come out from the top of the head.
12. Calling bears can be very effective, especially in western states. Use either rabbit in distress or fawn deer calls. This method brings in mostly big, hungry boars that have killed before. Find fresh sign and then position yourself on a rock or open area so you can see the quarry coming before it gets right on top of you.
And be ready. These bears may charge in at a full gallop. That's bound to give any hunter an adrenaline rush!
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.