Planning Your Bear Hunt
As with any hunting trip, one of the first hurdles to overcome is
determining where you are going to hunt. A bear-hunting permit will
allow the hunter to hunt on either public or private land. However,
hunters must first obtain permission from the landowner prior to
hunting on private land. Once the Department has notified you that
you were selected in the random drawing, it is time to choose a
hunting area and begin scouting. Private landowners are often the
best source of information while scouting a place to hunt. Private
landowners can often clue you in to daily or periodic movements of
bears, location of natural food sources and cover, and provide
additional important information about the lay of the land.
Increased scouting of your hunting area will greatly increase your
chances of attaching your field tag to a bear.
Based on their life requirements and habits, wildlife will occupy
certain types of habitat at various times of the year. Black bears
are creatures of habit that obey the demands of their stomachs.
Because they must prepare for months of inactivity and no feeding
during winter hibernation, bears will spend the majority of their
waking hours feeding, especially during the fall of the year.
Being opportunistic, black bears will eat almost anything edible
and will generally concentrate on areas of food abundance. In
October, bears in western Maryland may concentrate on stands of
mature hardwood trees, including oak, beech, and hickory, which
produce an abundance of hard mast or nuts. They also enjoy fruits
including black cherry, apples, Aralia (devil’s walking stick),
pokeweed and others. In areas of agriculture, bears will feed
heavily on field and sweet corn. Woods that border a planted
cornfield may provide great hunting potential considering that the
forest will provide cover and travel routes for bears. Make note of
available food sources while scouting and use that information to
your advantage come hunting season.
Like all living things, bears require a source of water. Because
of their size, bears cannot rely solely on the moisture content of
their food for proper hydration. They must have a stream, pond, or
other abundant source of drinking water. Therefore, good hunting
spots may be located along a travel route to a water source or
overlooking the source itself.
Bears spend most of their lives as solitary animals and require
cover to feel secure and protected from threats such as people,
dogs, competing bears, etc. Bears typically prefer areas of dense
cover such as mountain laurel and rhododendron thickets where they
can move safely. They may also use young clear-cuts, pine, and
hemlock stands, and other dense vegetation for cover. Good cover
surrounded by bodies of water can be especially productive bear
habitat. Areas such as upland bogs, alder thickets, and swamps may
provide all of a bear’s major life requirements (food, water, and
cover) in one location making them great choices for the bear
The opportunistic nature of bears is part of the reason they
often appear in residential areas or other locations frequented by
people. Again, following the dictates of their stomach, bears are
often drawn to garbage cans, bird feeders, pet food, compost piles,
gardens, bee yards, and other backyard fixtures. The bear hunter
should not overlook huntable properties adjacent to suburban areas
that experience persistent bear problems. Some wild things require
pristine wilderness sites far from human disturbances. Bears are not
in this category. Like white tailed deer, bears have learned to
readily adapt to the urbanization of their habitat.
If you choose to hunt near residential areas, be sure to respect
legal safety zones. Also, when hunting private property, be sure
that you have obtained written permission from the landowner.
Remember, pre-season scouting is essential for successful hunting.
Meeting a private landowner and developing a good relationship prior
to the hunting season can be just as important as locating a
watering hole, bedding area, or prime feeding site.
Bears are traveling animals and the population in Maryland is
best described as regional. Tagged animals from Pennsylvania,
Virginia and West Virginia have all been recovered in Maryland.
Likewise, Maryland bears have turned up in neighboring states as
well. The home range of a bear varies depending on a variety of
factors but, generally speaking, bears in Maryland will occupy a
home range of between 13 and 50 square miles and may travel many
miles in one day. Like humans, bears prefer to travel paths of least
resistance. Within a tract of forest, a bear is more likely to
travel a trail or dirt road than to bushwhack cross-country.
Therefore, a trail linking a water hole to protective cover or a
food source such as a cornfield or oak stand would be an ideal
location to place a hunting stand. River and stream corridors are
also favored especially in open areas since they are often banked
with trees, shrubs and other cover.
Owing to their size and habits, bears will often leave abundant
sign in areas that they frequent. Scat or droppings, claw marks on
trees, and footprints or tracks can help clue a hunter in as to the
patterns and activities of bears.
Illustration depicting Bear Scat, Tracks, and Tree Scratches
An analysis of bear scat can tell a hunter several things about the animal that left it. First of all, it is an indication that a bear has been there. During the fall feeding frenzy, a bear may defecate five to 15 times a day resulting in an abundance of scat. Scat can be in the form of piles or logs, the size of which may give a clue as to the size of the bear. Scat content can help guide a hunter to the feeding site of a bear. Bears that frequent cornfields will generate yellowish scat laden with corn kernels. Bears feeding heavily on berries will leave berry scat. Scat that contains plastic wrappers and garbage indicate a bear that has been finding a source of residential trash. Animal hair, seeds, and other indigestible items will travel through a bear’s digestive system and be left behind in the scat. Since their stomach guides their habits, scat analysis can be a valuable guide to the bear hunter.
Bears have a characteristic track that is not easily confused with other animals. Because they are the largest animal in the woods, they leave the largest track. Like humans, bears have plantigrade feet, meaning their heel and toes both make contact with the ground. Unlike most mammals in the woods, bears have five distinct toes. The front feet make a track that resembles a human hand with short, stubby fingers and the hind feet show the same sort of toes attached to a long heel. The toes may or may not show the claws. A 200-pound bear will make a track approximately four inches wide. In short, big bears make big tracks.
Bear paws are well equipped with large, sturdy claws used for
climbing, digging or tearing. Sometimes bears will leave scratch
marks 6-8 feet high on trees as a sign to other bears that the
territory is occupied and defended. Other times, while scaling trees
for food, bears will inadvertently leave scratch marks. Fresh tree
scratches may help the hunter better understand the activities of