Keys to Successful Predator Calling
By Major L. Boddicker
Key #8 - Calling Bears, Hazardous Duty
The Alaskan stream behind me was about 20 feet wide and 6 inches deep. It gurgled quietly by. I sat with my back against a huge 60-foot tall spruce tree, which towered over the stream bank. A large moose trail ran along the stream and beside the tree. I sat with my feet in the moose trail.
During the summer of 1968, I was smoke-jumping/forest fire fighting in Alaska between semesters working on my Ph.D. at South Dakota State University. I was also working on a prototype predator call as a result of consistent freeze-up failures of various calls I used in the frigid South Dakota winters. When the fire was out and while we waited for a helicopter ride out, I would walk out into the Alaskan taiga and blow my Crit'R•Call prototype.
A .357 Magnum Smith and Wesson Highway Patrolmen revolver lay in my lap. My target critters were lynx, wolf, and red fox.
The view and circumstances were breathtaking, beautiful beyond words, with the midnight sun setting to the right.
My call made a great caribou calf bawl which reverberated down the valley and across the Alaskan meadows. I spent about 15 minutes calling and turned to my left to view the dense willows to see if something might be coming. There was no sound, but the willows moved slightly.
Slowing poking out through the willows appeared an enormous grizzly bear’s head, about 20 feet away.
Did my whole life experience pass before me? No.
Did I start my Act of Contrition to prepare my soul for death? No .
I said something like, “Oh crap, get the heck out of here, you big SOB.” The bear looked at me for perhaps ten seconds, slowly backed into the willows and disappeared. At that point in life, at age 26, the razor-edge of life and death was really fun to play. That day was close enough to death to shake me up. I walked back to camp in the middle of the stream, .357 mag. in hand.
Bear calling is special, as folks say. If you don’t believe me, rent or purchase Wayne Carlton’s video, Callin’ Bears. He answers the question: “Are bear callers nuts?” He says they are, beyond any doubt.
My personal bear calling experiences are limited. I have rarely done it, on purpose. Most of the calling I do is not in bear country, so my chances are low. Over the years I have gleaned a lot of bear calling tips from my customers and users of our “bear calls” which we used to make for the Wayne Carlton label.
During November of 1997, Reid Aiton, past president of the California Trappers Association, invited me to a bear hunt in the redwood/hardwood forests of northern California. Reid’s country is beautiful, heavily timbered, with various oak trees, maples, and berry- and nut-producing plants. The terrain is steep, about 30 miles in from the Pacific Ocean. During the winter months, the area gets lots of fog and rain. It is perfect black bear country, and they are abundant.
Bear pelts prime up in November-December, just prior to their hibernation. They are out foraging for acorns and foods to fatten them, so they are in a race with Mother Nature to get fat enough to survive the hibernation period. The bears congregate in oak tree stands to forage on acorns. Redwood and spruce tree bark cambium layers are also a choice food at various times of the year. Bears damage lots of valuable trees with their feeding.
A common way they are hunted in California is to drive old logging roads and spot them foraging across the valleys and ravines. The bears are then stalked and shot.
Bear dogs are also used. Hunters will drive the back roads until fresh tracks are found, then dogs are turned loose. The dogs run the bears up trees, or the bears turn and stand at bay until the hunters arrive to shoot the bears. Many bears around the country are taken over baits from bear stands.
Over the years, many Crit'R•Call users have written us about successfully calling bears. Reid Aiton was one of the successful bear callers and thought I would enjoy calling one myself. Reid and I have worked on various fights with the California animal rights folks for years, so I was happy to get the invitation and showed up for the hunt.
Hunting bears in California requires that you apply for a license several months prior to the hunt. All in all, it was not difficult to get one or outrageously expensive.
Northern California weather is pleasant, often wet, but warm compared to the mountains and northern plains. For the first two days we hunted in beautiful, cool, dry weather. Reid and I called in oak tree stands and mixed types of forest. Then it got very wet, that continuous light cold rain which soaks you to the bone. With raingear, you get just as wet from condensation.
The forest is thick and dark; even during the day it is difficult to see very far. In the rain and fog, often the distance one can see is 5-10 yards. So, calling bears successfully means close encounters.
On the fourth day of calling, with no luck but a fleeting glance at a bobcat, we walked down a grown-over logging road into a heavy stand of evergreens. Reid and I sat about ten yards apart, looking different directions so we could safely cover each other.
I called, using a PeeWee Crit'R•Call with a .015" reed, in a very loud and raspy squall that sounds like a bear cub in distress. Three to five squalls were made with about 1.5- to 2-minute gaps between squall series.
Forest sounds in the rain are peaceful, constantly dripping as the fine rain accumulates into drips which fall onto the leaf-covered forest floor. Light wind grumbles in the tree tops, making a lot of noise to compete with approaching predators.
I was staring into the gloom, trying to see black bear and getting back lots of black lines of tree trunks and fog. It was about 10 am. I finished my fifth calling series, put down the call, looked up, and out of the gloom walked a 160-pound sow bear with a 100-pound cub. They were ten yards away, walking right at me. I did not move. They were smaller than I wanted and though both were legal, I did not want to shoot either one.
The bears walked to within ten feet of me, then caught my scent, slowly swung their heads back and forth, then turned and slowly walked off into the gloom.
Reid, sitting ten yards away, did not see or hear them.
We continued calling for two more days without success. That experience alone was worth the trip.
Bears like forests and heavy cover and rarely get far from forest, brush, or swamps. They prefer to hunt and forage at night, though they do feed during the day, particularly when just out of the den in the spring and during feed-up in the fall. If you plan to hunt bear, scouting is essential to locate where there are bear and where they are currently feeding. Their territories are large. They move to feed and will often stay for long periods in small parts of their territories, eating a favorite food.
Where legal, setting up bear baits will give good service to the caller. When the bear hits a bait, it will be loafing in the vicinity, available for calling. Calls can also be used from bear stands over baits.
Bears travel like other wildlife, using ancient trails through mountain saddles, along creek and river bottoms, taking the easiest path to get where they are going. Bear tracks can be picked up on trails and often followed to the cover they are using for feeding or loafing.
When setting up to call, put your back against a tree, rock, or bank, or have a partner cover your backside. Sit in an elevated place if possible so you have an advantage of seeing the bear’s approach. Bears’ sight is not acute so the caller can get away with some movement and less camouflage; however, their noses and hearing are exceptionally good. Be very aware of the wind direction and sounds made on a stand. Try to ascertain where the bear will come from and arrange yourself so the wind blows to you from the bear’s approach. Also, try to allow for the bear circling to get your scent by having an avenue to see it circling or a partner setting about 50-100 yards downwind to intercept it.
Set up your stands in timber with broken cover near heavier cover. Give the bear a comfortable avenue of approach.
Predator calls are often used to bring bears closer after they are spotted out of range. The technique is to drive logging roads and trails in bear country until one is spotted. Then the caller gets into position with correct wind and calls the bear into range.
Calls are also used to locate bears. When a bear shows itself from heavy cover responding to a call, dogs are released on it. The bear is then treed and shot.
Sounds used for calling bears successfully are bear cub squalls, pig and adult hog squeals, caribou and deer fawn bleats, and cottontail rabbit distress cries.
Good choices of calibers for bear are .44 mag., .308 Winchester, .30-06, .270 and larger. Bears are big, tough-skinned, with thick, fat tissues, so use enough gun! Wounded bears are real interesting to hunt.
Several years ago, a Colorado trapper and his son were bear hunting in southern Colorado from a tree stand over a bait. Late in the afternoon, a bear approached and the son shot and wounded the bear. The father and son went after the wounded bear. The bear ambushed them and attacked the father. Trying to save the father, the son shot at the bear and killed his father. Bear hunting can be dangerous, so approach it very carefully.
When I was in Idaho working for the Forest Service in 1962, we were constantly having bears break into our food storage shed, garbage cans, and kitchen at camp. Our foreman, an old-time Idaho woodsman, shot them in the lungs with a .22 semi-auto pistol. The bears would run off and die from 100 yards to ½ mile out. He didn’t appreciate bears and did not want to have to haul them anywhere. He wanted them to run away from camp and die. I certainly wouldn’t recommend any .22 caliber rifles for bears or shooting bears in that way. They are a great trophy and should be managed that way.
Bears are certainly a huge pain if they are getting into feed, livestock, garbage, or camp food. If you are interested in hunting bear, check with a game warden about hunting a problem bear, or in areas where bears are problems. That information can be very helpful in lining up a successful hunt, getting access, and locating current activities of bears.
Grizzly bears, including the Kodiak bear, definitely respond to calling much the same as do black bears. They are obviously dangerous, so take great care to avoid them unless licensed and ready to shoot one. Call areas populated with grizzly after they have hibernated or where there are several hundred yards of open country so you can see their approach and get to your vehicle.
I have had several customers who have reported grizzlies showing up in Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming and giving them a real thrill. Fortunately, everybody has gotten into vehicles or to safety before they were jumped. But, beware, bears are not funny. They eat you alive or dead.
Bears often can be hunted along with other big game during fall seasons. A long-time friend of mine sat down to call coyotes during an elk hunt. As he was squalling a cottontail distress cry, several doe mule deer ran toward him. They were joined by a large coyote, then a golden eagle, and finally a large black bear came loping up in the rear. In the melee, my friend did not shoot any of them; he just had an unforgettable memory.
If you have never skinned and butchered a bear, you are in for an unforgettable experience. I skinned out a 275-pound black bear in a blizzard in northern Minnesota in 1965.
My wife’s uncle had been standing on a huge old white pine stump for a deer stand. His feet got cold so he started stomping his feet to warm them up. A black bear was hibernating in a hole under the stump, which he had not seen. His stomping woke the bear up. He saw the bear as it lunged up at him with a loud roar. He turned and shot the bear in the head at point-blank range, using a .30-06 Remington semi-auto. The bear dropped back into its den hole. The uncle jumped off the log and ran back to the cabin and burst through the door, excitedly telling his story. The other five of us were eating lunch and warming up from the cold Minnesota pre-storm weather.
After finishing lunch, I asked the uncle if he needed help to gut and bring the bear home. He said I was nuts, no way he would bring a bear home to eat. They were worthless varmints of no value but to be shot and left. So, I asked him if he would mind if I took the skin, skull, and claws. He said that was fine with him.
He said he would go along with me to show me where it was. He was not sure the bear was dead since it had backed down into the hole and could not be seen from the entrance. I would have to go into the den after it to get it tied up and pulled up out of the den.
So, I took a long piece of rope and a pistol to take down into the den with me.
We had several glasses of adult beverage at lunch and pain was not being felt as we trudged into the increasingly furious blizzard. When we got to the stump and I looked down into the hole, I didn’t feel so brave. In fact, crawling into a den with a wounded bear would be real stupid. Stupid was a big part of my life at that time.
“You ain’t going down there are you?” Uncle Gordy asked.
“Let’s run a stick down to see if it is dead or alive,” I replied. So I got a long pole and poked it down the hole. Gordy stood back with the rifle to shoot it if it decided to come out.
“Can’t feel it, don’t hear it, must be dead,” I said. “I am going in.”
I remembered the story of General Israel Putnam of the Revolutionary War fame who crawled into a wolf den with a rope around his ankle. If the wolf attacked him, his friends were to pull him back out with the rope. So, I cut the rope in half and tied ½ to my ankle, took the other half to tie around the bear’s head.
My trusty Colt Woodsmen .22 pistol in one hand, the rope I the other, I crawled head first into the hole. “If I get into trouble, pull me out,” I said.
“Hell yes,” said Gordy.
As I crawled into the hole, my body shut out all of the light. It was pitch black in there. As I crawled down the tunnel, I reached out with the rope hand to feel for the bear. I moved about 3 feet, then lay flat and silent and listened very hard for the bear to breathe. It was very quiet. The thought occurred to me that I should back out and quit while I was ahead. In a few short minutes I had sobered up completely and rational fright had set in. Now what?
I crawled another three feet and listened, reached out with the rope hand and felt for the bear. No bear.
Three more times I crawled forward and listened.
“Hey, you dummy,” Gordy yelled. “You okay?”
Like I was supposed to yell back at that moment. So I didn’t answer, and I just tugged at the rope tied to my ankle. Gordy thought I was in trouble so started to pull me back out.
“Okay,” I said in a quiet voice. “Okay, blast it, quit pulling the rope!” I exclaimed.
I crawled ahead, reached out, and felt the bear. Man, I was petrified. Was it dead or alive? I pinched several hairs between my thumb and forefinger and pulled them a bit. Doot doot. No reaction.
“The bear is dead,” I yelled. “Give me more rope.” As I crawled into the snug den hole, some light got in there with me. It was crowded with me and the bear, which lay on a nice soft bed of leaves. The bear lay there with its paws on top of its head like it had a headache. Dead.
I snaked the rope around its neck and tied a slip-knot on it, cinched it up, then moved the bear’s legs and body around so we could pull it out. What a feeling of relief when I crawled back up the tunnel and out into the blizzard. “Done!” I said.
“That was the damn dumbest stunt I have ever seen done,” Gordy remarked. “I never would have believed it if’n I hadn’t seen it. Damn!” he shook his head. Gordy and I pulled the bear out onto the fresh snow. It had a gorgeous prime glossy black pelt.
“I’m going deer hunting.” And he walked off into the snow and wind.
“Well, thanks for the help, Gordy,” I said.
I had skinned a few rats, coons, a fox or two, lots of rabbits, and two deer before this bear. So, I knew something about it. I sure learned a lot about skinning when I bailed into that bear. I had one hunting knife with no sharpener, and one Estwing hatchet. At 1:30 p.m. I started skinning the bear. At a black 4:30 in a howling blizzard, I finished getting the skin, feet, skull, and bacculum cut loose from the bear.
The bear hair is like cutting bailing wire. It took the edge off my knife quickly. The hatchet was used and dulled the same way. Every piece of skin had to be cut from the bear through baling wire hair and 4 inches of thick fat. I sharpened the knife and hatchet on a rock, enough to keep cutting. When the pelt was loose, it weighed 60 pounds with meat and fat. I rolled it up, tied it into a blob, hefted it to my shoulder, and hiked ¾ miles to the cabin. It felt great. I still have the skin and bacculum, and treasure them.
Do I need another one? No. For me, that bear was enough, but I might go again. Everyone needs to hunt, kill, and skin one bear.
With all of the restrictions now in place on bear hunting regarding baiting, dog hunting, etc., calling bears is an effective and legal method of hunting bears. As bears expand their ranges and abundance nationwide, bear hunting is becoming more available to everyone. If you decide to hunt bears, take a predator call. It helps.
Next: Key #9—Mountain Lions – Calling’s Top Trophy