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Arkansas Bear Bonanza

Arkansas Sportsman Magazine, October 2009

By Clay Newcomb

It was October 25th, 2008 and my father and I had packed in with horses to a remote area in the Black Fork Wilderness of Polk County.  My father’s intent was to bowhunt for a big mountain buck, while my primary focus was on black bear.  Not long after we set up camp, my father Gary Newcomb of Mena, headed up the mountain to do some scouting.  As he traveled along a bench, not far from camp, he spotted a scrape 20 yards away. Gary laid his PSE bow on the ground went to investigate the fresh buck sign.  After a minute or two of analyzing the scrape he turned to retrieve his bow and was shocked at what he saw. No more than a stone’s through away, a bear had seemingly materialized out of thin air and was sniffing his bow!  The bear made no noise and appeared like a black ghost, startled, Gary threw his hands in the air and hollered at the bear!  The bear paid little attention to the commotion but eventually moved off about 30 yards and crouched down by a tree.  Slightly unnerved, Gary gathered up his bow and preceded to arrow the bruin!  The bear ran 250 yards and we recovered the bear the next morning!  This bear had likely never seen a man before, and obviously not one with a bow in hand.  Its stories like this that make Arkansas the hunter’s paradise that it is. 

Arkansas black bear have intrigued me for as long as I can remember. Truth be known, few days have passed in the last 10 years were my thoughts haven’t drifted to Arkansas’ bear country.  The black bear is an iconic symbol of true wilderness and its presence in Arkansas gives the state a unique wilderness flavor, unfound in most southern states.  Reintroduced to Arkansas in the 1950’s and 60’s after near extinction, black bear now thrive in the Ozarks, Ouachitas and parts of the Delta.  In the wildlife biological community the Arkansas reintroduction of bears is considered the most successful reintroduction of large carnivores in the world. With population numbers reaching 3,500 statewide there has not been a better time in the last 100 years to harvest an Arkansas black bear. 

Formerly nicknamed “The Bear State”, some 50,000 bears are estimated to have occupied the state at one time.  No doubt, Arkansas’s pre settlement bear habitat, ranging from the Highlands of the northwest to the ancient hardwood bottoms of the southeast Delta, was prime habitat, comparable to any black bear habitat on earth.  Black bear are eccentric creatures, mysticized by fairy tale, folk lore and media; the lumbering black giants have historically been misunderstood and misrepresented in the eye of the public.  The return of the Black Bear has given Arkansasan’s a second chance at stewarding a most valuable natural resource and at the forefront of that campaign is Arkansas’ hunters. 

Black Bear Management in Arkansas 

Myron Means, Arkansas’ new statewide Bear Coordinator has been studying and working with bears for 13 years.  Aside from being extremely knowledgeable about Arkansas bear, Mean’s is passionate about them as well. When asked about the upcoming 2009 bear season he said “I would say the general statewide forecast for the 2009 bear season would be moderate to good.  It looks like we will have at least a fair acorn crop this year in the Ozarks and Ouachitas which will probably result in moderate baiting success and mediocre to good bear harvest in early Archery season and Muzzleloader season.” 

Means said “Bear hunting is a key component of our bear management program in Arkansas. Without hunting, Arkansas’ bear population would increase which would cause a dramatic increase in bear-human conflicts.” Means said that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) would like to see 10% of the bear harvested annually in the state.  As a general rule in wildlife biology, bear managers stabilize the population by harvesting 10% annually.  The latest available harvest data showed that 400 bears were harvested in the 2007-08 season.  This is most bears that have been harvested in a single year in Arkansas since bear season opened in 1980! 

Where to Hunt 

The state is divided into 7 different bear zones, of which only 4 are open to hunting.  Zone 1 is located in the Ozark highlands and produced 65% of the total bear harvest in 2007-08, yielding 260 bear.  Bear Zone 2 is comprised of the Ouachita mountain region and produced 126 bears for a total of 31.5% of the total harvest. Bear zones 5 and 5a are found the southeastern corner of the state produced 14 bear making 3.5% of the statewide harvest. 

The Ozarks have historically been the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the bear harvest, but don’t let the numbers fool you.  Means said, “Oddly enough, there are many areas of the Ouachitas that probably have higher bear densities than much of the Ozarks, particularly the west side of the Ouachitas around Booneville, Waldron and Mena.” He added “I would like to see an increase in bear harvest for Bear Zone 2.  We have a target harvest of 150 bears which we have never reached.”  That being said, Arkansas hunters have nearly 2.25 million acres of public land open to bear hunting in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains.  What was formerly known as the ‘Bear State’ is now officially ‘The Land of Opportunity’ for bear hunters!

In the Ozarks the top counties for black bear harvest are historically Newton, Johnson, Pope and Madison counties.  White Rock Wildlife Management Area spans 5 different counties and generally comprises a good portion of the Ozarks public land bear harvests (Washington, Crawford, Franklin, Madison, and Johnson Counties). Piney Creek WMA in Newton, Pope and Johnson Counties would also be a great place to target public land bears.  Keep in mind that baiting is not legal on public land, only on private land in Bear Zone 1 and 2 is baiting legal.

The Ouachitas top counties for public land bear harvests are Scott, Polk and Yell counties.  All three counties are ‘stacked’, as it were, with massive amounts of Ouachita National Forrest.  There are several Wildlife Management Areas in the Ouachitas that would provide quality bear hunting.  Here are a few to key in on: Caney Creek WMA in Polk, Pike, Howard and Montgomery counties; Muddy Creek WMA in Scott, Montgomery and Yell County.  Winona WMA in Saline, Perry and Garland County is also known for consistently producing bear.

When to Hunt Bear

Officially closed in 1927, Arkansas began a new era when the AGFC opened a bear season that lasted 5 days in early December 1980.  During that short season only 5 bears were harvested in the entire state. However, things are much different today, the Ouachita’s Bear Zone 2 kicks off the season with an early archery opener on September 15th and runs through November 30th.  The Ozark’s Bear Zone 1 archery season starts on October 1rst and runs through November 30th.  The muzzleloader and gun bear hunts correspond with the deer seasons including a new youth bear hunt on November 7-8 in Bear Zones 1 and 2. In regards to the early opener in Bear Zone 1, Mean’s said “The primary reason for the Sept. 15 archery opener in Bear Zone 2 was to try to promote archery hunting and provide more opportunity to harvest bear on bait before the acorns fall and pull bear away. We would like to see an increased harvest in the Ouachitas.”  See agfc.com for more season details. 

Bear Baiting in Arkansas

In 2001 the AGFC broadened the possibilities for Arkansas bear hunters by legalizing baiting on private lands in Bear Zones 1 and 2.  This move by the AGFC effectively transformed Arkansan’s interest in bear hunting over night.  Guys who never dreamed they would be seriously pursuing bear found themselves intrigued by the possibility of doing something that never thought would be legal.  For the previous 21 years the Arkansas bear harvest mainly consisted of opportunistic deer hunters who, for lack of a better term, ‘lucked into’ a bear in the National Forrest.  The legalization of baiting on private land has ultimately done two things: it has given the AGFC a more effective bear management tool and number two; it has opened the floodgates of opportunity for Arkansas’ bear hunters. 

Will and Adam Beason of Booneville would be among those who have seized the ‘opportunity’.  This father and son team would have to be considered some of Arkansas’ top bear hunters.  Since 2001, Will, 47, and Adam, 27, have harvested 10 bears by bow in Yell, Logan and Scott Counties.  4 of their bears have qualified for the Pope and Young record book and 2 of these are ranked in the top 5 bow kill bears in the state! Black bear are scored by measuring the circumference of the dried skull; the weight of the bear does not affect its official score.  Considering the massive fall weight gains of bear and the subsequent winter weight loss, the skull size provides a consistent means to score and compare bear to other bear.  Adam harvested their biggest bear in 2006 that ranks #3 in the state, the bear weighed 503 lbs and scored 20 13/16! Folks, that’s a big bear! Will arrowed a huge bear in 2008 that weighed 488lbs and scored 20 7/16 and ranked #5!  Their other two Pope and Young bear rank 12th and 18th respectively.  What is unique about the Beason’s is that have consistently harvested big bears over bait.  Needless to say, their credentials speak for themselves.

Adam and Will’s success with big bear hasn’t come by accident.  By successfully targeting big bear they have done what many would say is impossible.  Will says ‘big bear are like big deer, they are like a different breed of animal, and you have to hunt them different than the smaller bears.”  The first reason for their success, simply put- they have put in some hard work.  Baiting bears isn’t as easy as it seems, it requires a lot time, and ultimately desire.  Secondly, they’ve allowed their hunting strategies to morph and evolve as time has either proved or disproved their strategies and set ups.  At one time, Adam was driving a 70 mile loop and keeping 5 different baits active.  Over the last 7 years they tried a lot of different things in a lot of different spots.

Here are a few keys that have made them successful. Some hunters think that human odor isn’t an issue when baiting bear, the Beason’s disagree.  “You can shoot small bears without scent control but the big ones are different creatures” Adam said.  They also are like to keep the bait sites stocked with a lot of bait at all times.  Though they admit that other things will work, bread and dog food covered with grease is their most successful bear attractant.  In proven areas, the Beason’s don’t put out bait until 10 before the season starts.  The trend over the years has been for bears to hit the bait hard for 2 weeks and then leave.  By dropping a fresh bait just before season, they have been able to hold bears until the season opener. 

Adam and Will attribute much of their success to the locations they bait on.  They surmise that location is the most critical factor in baiting success, ultimately, you need to be baiting where the bears want to be.  Most of their success has been on the cooler northern slopes.  They prefer baiting high rather than low and use natural terrain features like ‘hogbacks’, ‘fingers’ and ‘benches’ to create easy access to the bait. 

Myron Means, a bear hunter as well, also had some good advice for baiting bear “The best areas for baiting success are going to be those small parcels of private land located within large expanses of National Forest.  Bears are reclusive in nature and prefer to spend their time in more remote areas.  Baiting adjacent to the more rugged and remote areas should increase the odds of harvesting a bear.  By placing your bait site high on the south or southwest of side of your property, you can use the prevailing winds to blow scent into remote areas.”  Means made several insightful comments, “On years with heavy fall mast, beef fat and molasses can sometimes keep bears coming to your bait, stay away from high carbohydrate foods like corn during these times”.  Means suggested checking and restocking baits every 2-3 days.  He suggested “Get on a baiting routine and stick with it, big bears will pattern your activity.”  Means and the Beason’s both agreed that the biggest challenge to baiting bears is competing with fall mast. 

Hunting Bear without Bait

  If you’re not interested in baiting, the possibilities for hunting bear without bait have never been better. With massive amounts of public land and good bear densities, all a hunter needs to do is some homework and some serious hunting.  Hunting black bear without bait may be the biggest challenge available to the serious Arkansas sportsman.  Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of hunter’s surmise of how to deliberately and consistently harvest bear in the National Forrest, but I know few that have actually done it.  The roughness of mountain terrain and the job of getting a harvested bear out of these areas deter many from even trying.

  Black bear have massive home ranges, between 20 and 50 miles, and tend to move with food availability.  In the fall a bear may forage for 20 hours a day and consume some 15,000 calories in preparation for the winter den.  A public land bear hunter can use this to his advantage.  Mean’s said “In Bear Zones 1 & 2 the key natural foods in the fall are going to be acorns, hickory nuts and beech nuts.  If a hunter could locate a bench of mature white oaks in a remote draw with a lot of bear sign; that would be a perfect place for a stand site.  Bear sign would consist of fresh scat, rolled over rocks and logs and claw marks on trees where they’ve been climbing to get food.  In most cases, bear will feed exclusively in an area until they are disturbed or until the food is gone or a better food source becomes ripe.”  Mean’s added “Bears are ridge runners and love to move through saddles and along benches.  In the fall they are habitual in their activities and easy to pattern.”

Conclusion 

In closing, of all the time I’ve spent in Arkansas’s wilderness, the trips where I have encountered bear are all unique and unforgettable.  Few outdoor experiences can compare to a bear sighting, and even fewer to a bear harvest.  My interaction with Arkansas black bear have branded me with an appreciation and respect that’s hard to describe. It’s my hope that in the years to come, my 3 year old son Bear Newcomb, will have the same opportunity as I have had, to hunt the ancient and majestic bruins that roam the hills of Arkansas.  2009 should be a great year Arkansas’ bear hunters! Good luck and leave some for seed!