Calling Predatory Bears

By Predator Hunting Editor Judd Cooney

Scary Bear Called in Close


The species name Ursus horribilis means horrible bear, which pretty well describes the grizzly. They are hunted in Alaska and western Canada, but mainly at long range with spot and stalk methods. Good thing, too. I don't know many hunters who would want to face one of these fanged behemoths at close range.

At the same time, hunters frequently set up close encounters with black bears, and a growing number of intrepid game callers are even learning to imitate the predatory bears' favorite prey species.

Such pursuits should give any prudent man pause to consider. While a black bear may not be as fearsome as a grizzly, a black bear can turn from a seemingly easygoing fur ball into a deadly predator in the blink of an eye.

Dick Ray, a good friend and long-time bear hunting outfitter, was mauled by a supposedly tame black bear he'd acquired for his game park. The 300-pound bear upended Dick and bit him in the stomach and groin five times. It took 270 stitches to close the wounds inflicted in that brief but brutal encounter. Dick said the bear gave no aggressive signals, and once the assault began, he never felt so helpless in his life. The brute strength of the bear simply overwhelmed him.

Several times a year I get requests from unknowing photo editors who want a photo of a snarling black bear, but an agitated black bear rarely snarls. Instead, it pooches out it's lips like a pouting child and pops it's teeth in a rapid staccato accompanied by grunting or woofing. It's more comical than fear inspiring-as long as it's only a bluff.

I'm often asked at seminars and speaking engagements about my own encounters with bears. Probably the most threatening occurred when the Jicarilla Apaches asked me to bring my Plott bear hounds to their reservation to help them catch and kill a large black bear that was preying on tribal members' sheep and calves.

We turned the dogs loose on a fresh kill, and after a hectic 2-mile chase, my hounds bayed the bear in a narrow, rocky canyon. So I could better follow the dogs, I earlier had given my bow and daypack, which contained my .357 magnum revolver, to one of the Indian game wardens. Now, I'd gotten way ahead of the rest of the crew, toting only my trusty Nikon with hefty zoom lens.

When I topped the edge of the defile and looked down on the fracas below, I saw my gritty hounds had two bears bayed-a huge black bear and an equally large brown-colored bear.

I'd barely gotten the camera unslung when the brown broke and headed down the canyon. The furor of the dogs hot on this escaping bear's heels pulled the other dogs off the black bear, and it quickly headed out the other way on a narrow game trail that passed within 15 feet of where I was standing, and in the blink of an eye, I was face to face with an extremely agitated bear.

The instant the bear saw me standing in the open with mouth agape, it stopped and locked its beady eyes on me. Its ears flattened and its hump fur stood on end-no doubt matching the hair on the back of my neck. If that bear had wanted a piece of me, there was absolutely nothing I could have done.

The eyeballing continued for what felt like minutes but was probably only a few long seconds. Then the bear simply turned and shuffled off. You can bet I reclaimed my .357 as soon as the rest of the crew arrived.

I've experienced more potentially dangerous situations running bears with hounds than when calling, because a bear that's been harassed by hounds is in an agitated state. When bears fight hounds, they exhibit aggression, strength, surprising agility and incredible speed.

Tommy Freestone of Safford, Arizona and his dad Tom have called in more than 100 black bears for themselves and their hunting clients. According to Tommy, he's never seen a black bear respond aggressively to a call, but they don't take foolish chances, either.

All of the calling stands are set up specifically for bear, in locations where Tommy and his clients hold the advantage, usually overlooking a deep canyon or slope where any approaching bear will be seen. When a mature black bear does respond, Tommy or his client shoot at the first good opportunity.

Even with all of this attention to setup and vigilance while on stand, on one occasion Tommy and a client were surprised by a bear that slipped in on them. After calling persistently for 45 minutes without sighting a bear, Tommy and his client took off their face masks, stood up, and when they turned to leave discovered a large bear standing on its hind legs 12 yards away, quietly looking them over. Before either hunter could recover, the bruin dropped to all fours and slipped away into the surrounding junipers.

Tommy and his dad spend much of their free time photographing wildlife, especially called-in bears. During these photo shoots, some bears have gotten a little too close for comfort. One instance in particular sticks in Tommy's mind. He and his dad were working a bear up from a deep cactus- and juniper-choked canyon. They spotted the bear coming uphill and filmed the approach. When the bear was 20 yards away, it disappeared from sight in a jumble of rock, yucca plants and high grass. When it appeared again, it was on a rock 5 yards behind them.

At that point, Tommy's dad stood up and began talking to the bear. Evidently, the senior Freestone said the right thing, because the bear simply turned and walked away.

Tommy and his dad don't take such bear encounters lightly, but cougars are the critters that raise the hackles on Tommy's neck. A year ago, Tom's nephew was trying to call a bear from a deep canyon when he experienced a cat encounter that could change anyone's attitude.

He'd been calling almost continuously for 45 minutes (standard procedure for bears) without results. He gave up on the calling, positioned his binoculars on a lightweight tripod, and began glassing the surrounding countryside. After a short period of glassing, the golden warmth of the morning sun got to him and he dozed briefly, draped over the binoculars and tripod.

A light noise, or maybe a sixth sense warning, jolted him awake. When he looked up, a cougar was crouched in the open, not 30 yards away.

As he slowly moved his rifle into position, he caught a movement to his side and saw a second cougar staring intently at him from 10 yards. This cougar flattened its ears, went into a crouch, and started forward. The shocked hunter shot by instinct. When he turned back to the first cougar, it had cut the distance by half and was still coming. So he shot it, too.

As he jumped up to check on the two felled predators, a third cougar rose out of the grass 30 yards away and stood looking at him. The stunned hunter watched as it silently melted back into the brush.

Bet he doesn't sleep so well in the woods anymore.

Tommy and a client were on a bear calling stand one morning, and at the end of the session, the client, who'd been sitting against the base of a tree a few yards to Tommy's side, stood up and got the shock of his life.

According to Tommy, the client took a look over his shoulder, let out a yelp, and simply collapsed. Seems that when the client looked back over his shoulder, there was a full-grown cougar standing beside the tree, within 4 yards of where the hunter had been sitting. It was too much for the man to take, and he fainted.

I've called bears in Colorado and never felt truly threatened, though I have lost track of bears while they were closing the distance, and that certainly upped the adrenaline level. Most of my bear calling encounters have differed from the Freestones' in that I was calling in cover where I couldn't observe the bear responding from a distance.

Several times over the years, I've had bears come a little too close for comfort, but movement or noise made to let them know I was there has always been sufficient to turn them away.

Canadian and Alaskan bears can be a different proposition, however. These bears have little contact with humans and are the uncontested big dogs in their domain. There have been times when calling and photographing bears in such country when I was plenty glad I had a can of potent pepper spray backed up by a shotgun loaded with No. 4 copper-plated buckshot.

I've never had to use the shotgun. I think bears can read human body language, and the fact that I am armed and not going to back down gives them cause to pause and not follow through.

My first encounter with a huge brown bear on Afognak Island came when I was trying to call in fox for a movie camera and carried neither mace nor potent firepower. Had that bear come in from behind, I probably wouldn't be here to write these words of wisdom.

Deer hunting is big on the island, and the island's monstrous bears have learned to associate humans with fresh gut piles and deer carcasses. Not a comforting thought while you are crouched over field-dressing a deer. Several hunters have been killed.

Probably the stupidest situation I ever put myself in occurred while I was calling in northern Alberta. At the time, I was bow hunting moose but ended up calling a black bear to within 4 yards before putting an arrow between its neck and shoulder at point-blank range.

There was nothing between me and that bear, and if it had come for me, there was nothing I could have done. Fortunately, it went the other way and piled up within 30 yards.

I don't plan on pulling that stunt again anytime soon.