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Loaded for Bear

Spring is here, and hunters’s thoughts are turning to black bear.

Having left the dens, the bear are on the move; but there are pros and cons to hunting them in the spring. (Check with your state’s game department about regulations for spring bear hunting.) They are, to begin with, in their leanest condition of the year, meaning less fat to render into the finest lard there is, perfect for flaky pastry and pie crusts. (Bear can carry trichinosis, so make sure meat and fat are properly cooked before eating.) Their hides can also be rubbed as they start to scratch off their heavy winter coats. As well, females may be accompanied by their cubs of the year; so hunters need to be doubly sure any bear is unaccompanied by young before they shoot.

Loaded for Bear

If a bear’s hide is untouched, though, it will be in the best shape of any time of the year. In the spring, bear are actively searching for a meal. If a hunter can find winter-killed game with meat on it, this will make for a good place to put up a stand or build a blind. And of course, he can, where legal, set out baits. More than meat, though, especially early after leaving the den, a bear wants something to help unplug its intestines, blocked up for months. Wild spring berries, and wild mushrooms such as morels, attract bears; so watching patches of them could be a key to spotting bear. Bear will also seek out green grass, such as that growing on slide chutes on mountainsides, to help get things moving. As the hillsides “green up,” they turn into prime real estate for bears, making glassing for them a worthwhile hunting tactic.

How you hunt bear, whether over bait, natural or otherwise, or spotting-stalking, still-hunting being something of a long-shot proposition, will help determine your choice in rifles and cartridges. Black bear are not notoriously “thick skinned” or heavy boned, so most deer cartridges will be adequate for hunting them. One disconcerting trait of bear, though, is a tendency to drop at the shot; and while a hunter admires his shooting skill, it bounces back onto its feet and runs, even if mortally wounded. If a bear on the ground shows the least signs of life, then a second shot is a prudent investment and cheap insurance, and a lot surer than trying to hit a bear fast disappearing into the brush.

At closer ranges from a stand or blind a 30-30 BXR is a choice for bear, especially when so many hunters already have a “dirty-thirty” for whitetail. From a stand, a shotgun slug will also do an excellent job on bear.

Virtually any rimless 30 caliber, whether 308 Winchester, 30-06 Springfield, or 300 Winchester Magnum BXRs, can be an efficient bear cartridge, in particular from a stand. For spotting-stalking, though, I would likely step up to heavier bullets, such as those loaded in Browning BXC and BXS, recognizing that whereas a big-mule deer might tip the scales at upward of 250 pounds, a truly big black bear may weigh as much as 400 or more, and added punch never hurts.

A hit bear who gets into cover can make for fraught moments. With its fur and fat, a bear’s blood trail can will fade quickly. A deep-penetrating bullet offers at least the possibility of a through-and-through wound, leaving more sign to follow, and causing faster bleed out.

With any cartridge, bullet placement is everything. Debates will rage on, over where to aim on a bear to get it onto the ground as fast as possible and avoid having to creep through thick cover, following a large, dangerous animal. Proponents of the “high shoulder” shot tout it as “breaking down” a bear quickly and allowing for follow-up shots. It offers a rather small, critical target, though. Holding for the larger heart-lung area, instead, offers the chance at the heart or a double-lung shot. Either one of those means a bear dying almost immediately, or within a short distance.

With everything that can, in the words of Rabbie Burns, “gang aft agley” on a bear hunt, a hunter wants to make certain that all the elements he can conceivably control are just that–under control. And at the heart of that lies the right cartridge.

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