Grizzly Bear Hunting Via Animal Behavior

The following information on grizzly bear hunting via animal behavior comes from Chapter 2 of Hunting Our Biggest Game by Clyde Ormond. Hunting Our Biggest Game is also available to purchase in print.

If the big-game hunter takes the time to divide the remaining grizzly population into the total area-acres of “good” grizzly country, he comes up with a figure which makes him scratch his head. “How, with such odds, can I expect to bag a grizzly?”

Coupled to this probability is another, a real “factor X” of the hunting game. That is the fact that the grizzly bear is, by nature and habit, the most unpredictable of America’s big big-game. Like gold and uranium, he is most apt to be in certain places; but he is more likely to be where you run into him.

Two examples will indicate this:

In 1947 I stopped, en route to the Yukon, to talk with an outfitter then camped on the Bucking-Horse River in British Columbia. His partner, as guide, had been out in the bush for three solid weeks, “hunting a dude from the Northwest on grizzly.” This sportsman was well-heeled, had time, and was prepared to hunt the entire fall season if necessary on the big bruins. He and the outfitter were going to get a grizzly bear or else.

After twenty days of hard hunting, they hadn’t scored yet. But two nights before I stopped, the fellow at camp told me that a huge grizzly had located the camp cache a hundred yards away, and had torn up five hundred dollars’ worth of food and equipment. That grizzly had no business being there, but was.

Again, only last month I was elk-hunting in Wyoming from an outfitter’s permanent camp. This camp had never scored on a grizzly in all the years past. But as we slept one night, during a snowstorm, a big grizzly had located a dead horse within two hundred yards of the tents (a crippled animal which had to be destroyed), and had eaten a big share of it. Surely no grizzly had any normal business being that close to so much activity and man-smell. But the storm had deadened scent and sounds, and he’d come.

The problem of where, in grizzly country, one is apt to find the game is not the problem of the novice or average hunter alone. Even the veteran grizzly bear hunter has constantly to solve this obstacle. There are, however, ways of vastly improving one’s chances. The aggregate of these all reduce to the basic procedure of grizzly bear hunting in terms of animal behavior.

To begin, the hunter should understand the grizzly’s cycle of living, then interpret this fundamental knowledge according to the calendar seasons when grizzlies logically are hunted.

Briefly, upon emergence from hibernation, these big bears are tremendously hungry and will wander continuously over extensive areas, scouting for food. The first food for days is all vegetable. After this initial conditioning, the big bruins will eat meat. At this period they gain rapidly in weight, and begin shedding the glossy coat which has remained with them during hibernation.

In May of 1953, six of us pulled toboggan-loads of supplies over the snow for several days, to reach Wyoming’s Buffalo-Yellowstone River areas, to study the immediate post-hibernation habits of these animals, first-hand. We found a definite relationship between lateness of season, temperature, storm, emergence from hibernation, and diet. Late spring and bitter weather delayed the grizzly’s emergence. Sudden, wet storms would put the beasts again, temporarily, into hibernation. Full-grown moose spooked (as indicated from spoor) from the sight or scent of a grizzly fresh from hibernation. Yet it was a week to ten days after emergence before any grizzly became interested in the meat of a dead horse within the immediate area.

The grizzly I killed during this study was approximately two weeks out of hibernation. His stomach was shriveled to the size of two knotted fists. Its contents revealed no evidence of meat, just pine needles, grass, and the remains of some Yellow Adder’s Tooth, locally nick-named “dog-tooth violets.” This animal was light in weight for its frame. Within a month it undoubtedly would have weighed a full hundred pounds more. The hair of last year’s coat had just begun to slip a bit along the sides and belly-line. In two more weeks, this bear would have been too shaggy for a good trophy.

With the full warmth of late spring, the grizzly gradually sheds his old hair, forages widely, and fattens up with the summer months. His wanderings assume the pattern of a great, circuitous route encompassing the most remote areas of a region—often twenty miles or more in circumference. As with man, two of his greatest driving forces are the constant need for food, and the urge towards reproduction.

Season and types of available food determine the incidence of grizzlies, according to elevation. In early summer, grizzlies will root for grubs, ants, and grass-roots in open meadows. In areas of salmon spawning, the big beasts turn carnivorae and gorge on the spent fish along the head-waters of salmon streams. With the ripening of berries, they work the berry patches until the fruit has frost-ripened and fallen. The dung of Canadian grizzlies, as late as September, is usually dark purple from a preponderance of blueberries in the diet. The novice hunter is perpetually amazed at the gallonage and frequency of such piles. Grizzlies working the alpine blueberry patches seem never to get filled up, and are constantly eating.

With autumn, the grizzly’s diet turns heavily towards meat. Any carrion along his circuitous route is certain to be found and devoured, in addition to the game animals he can kill himself. And during the late fall, prior to hibernation, grizzlies methodically work the high rocky elevations where captured whistling marmots and similar rodents put on the fat needed for the Big Sleep.

Intermittently along the grizzly’s route, he will post “rubbing-trees.” These are usually sticky spruce trees, heavy with sap. Bruin uses these as curry-combs, rubbing against the trees as domestic cattle rub against posts and fences. The spruce gum and the rubbing remove the loosening hairs of last year’s pelage from his itchy hide, complementing the natural shedding.

The biggest bears habitually mark such rubbing-trees with claw-marks as high up as the beasts can reach. These mark the private domain of an animal, and serve as a warning to lesser beasts and enemies, to stay out of the way.

Similar spruce trees along the grizzly’s route are occasionally bark-stripped when the sap begins running. The sweet spruce gum and sap of the under layers apparently are necessary to his diet.

Immediately prior to hibernation, the grizzly gorges on grass and similar roughage necessary to the keeping of his alimentary canal open, yet dormant, during the winters sleep.

Knowing the grizzly’s natural cycle of living, the hunter is equipped to plan his hunting according to the animal’s field behavior. Since these big bears are purely trophy animals, it is obvious that the only logical periods of hunting are during spring and fall when the pelage is prime. Generally speaking, a grizzly’s pelt will be prime for three to four weeks after emergence from hibernation, and from about September first throughout the fall.

The legal hunting seasons are set to coincide with these periods, and the main concern of the hunter should be with the field behavior of the quarry during these two periods.

The fall hunting period is the most productive for most hunters. For one thing, the weather then is normally better. Preparation for a hunt is easier and less costly than for a spring bear-hunt. And lastly, because of incidental attractions of a fall hunt, such as fishing and more settled weather, fall hunting is more enjoyable.

Perhaps the biggest reason is the fact that grizzlies may be hunted in conjunction with other species of big-game. Not only that, but due to the grizzly’s characteristic of being unpredictable in nature and habit, the grizzly bear hunter’s chance as often as not comes incidentally. That is, his opportunity for a bear occurs while he is in the pursuit of other game.

Successful outcome of grizzly bear hunting

Grizzlies vary in coloration, but all of them have the distinguishing “silvertip” hairs along the spine.

In my own experience, this has been the rule rather than the exception. My first grizzly, for example, came as a result of hunting sheep. While glassing an alpine, wind-swept basin-rim for a suitable Stone ram, Tom Mould, my guide, spotted the big grizzled bruin digging marmots just under the rim. We gave up sheep for the day and stalked him down.

Or again, in the Cassiars, two of us were after Stone rams in the snow above timberline when we spotted a big grizzly bear digging in the open meadow a mile below—and he’s now a rug in my den. On this same hunt, my partners Gordy and Martin both scored on grizzlies, while hunting moose, via canoe, about fifteen miles down Rainbow Lake below camp. The “moose” they surprisingly saw far up the peak just under a glacier, turned out to be, in the binoculars, two grizzlies digging marmots.

Last year’s British Columbia grizzly came while I was hunting goats above Blue Sheep Lake. Surprised, after a hard day’s climb, that the near-record billies which had been scope-watched from camp for a week had suddenly “spooked,” we discovered the reason—a big grizzly. I killed him within a half-mile of where he’d scared the billies from the alpine saddle.

Grizzly bear hunting in this incidental fashion is a fine method. This is not alone because sheer hunting luck often pays off. Basically, it is because the ranges, elevations, and behavior of other species of game common to grizzly ranges are comparable and overlap.

Another productive method of grizzly bear hunting is to hunt the remains of game kills and carrion common to grizzly country. Species such as moose, elk, and sheep have a natural mortality rate. Animals die from disease, old age, and starvation. Sheep are caught in, and killed by avalanches. Aged elk are winter-weakened and drift downward to stream-beds where they yard-up and half-starve—too weak in the spring to recover. Moose are killed by wolves.

In addition to such natural casualties, there are the deaths created by hunter-wounding, and the offal left from game-kills. All these are grizzly food of a high order. While this bear’s sense of sight is relatively poor, his sense of smell is unbelievable. A silvertip can smell such carrion, especially as it becomes a bit “ripe,” literally for miles. Unlike coyotes and similar predators which avoid touching such carrion until the man-smell has left, a grizzly will strike out directly for it.

Vic Giles, a Wyoming guide, once told me that he’d backtracked a big grizzly which had come to a crippled trail-horse shortly after it had been destroyed. He swore that the grizzly’s spoor was in a straight line, and he’d followed it backward for over two miles.

Upon finding such remains, a grizzly promptly appropriates it and considers it his alone. After an initial gorging, the beast will often drag it into the concealment of surrounding bush, and cover the remains with sticks and mud till it resembles a great beaver-mound. Until everything edible has been used, the bruin will remain in the general area, returning at the daylight and dusk periods to feed. Two natural enemies, the wolf and the black bear, are a constant threat to the grizzly’s food supply. The caching and concealment of a kill is meant to thwart the appetites of these enemies.

So long as anything is left of the cache, a grizzly will guard it to the death. After gorging, he will hide conveniently close—often right on top of the mound—to sleep off his meal. Anything threatening the remainder—which, to the great bear, means anything coming upon the scene—is regarded as an enemy and is met with a to-the-death battle. This includes man, as well as lesser beasts.

“Dal” Dalziel, my bush-flier friend who has lived a lifetime among the giant bears and has personally killed scores of them, says, “Any time you smell carrion in grizzly country, watch out, old man! Ten to one a grizzly has found it also. He’ll be right there with it, or on it.”

Dalziel, incidentally, has had several hair-raising affairs with grizzlies discovered at their caches. He likes to plane-haul his dog along for such emergencies. On one occasion, at a matter of mere yards in the heavy bush, his big sled-dog Silver saved his life. Dal knew the grizzly was there from the dog’s low growl. He didn’t, however, know on which side of the cache the beast lay in wait for him. But Silver’s growl, and pointing ears, to the left side of the cache, gave Dal the necessary split-second needed to point his rifle that way.

“Did you kill him that first shot?” I asked.

“Along towards the end of the clip,” he grinned.

“And between times?”

“Silver was entertaining the brute. That’s why I’m still here.”

Other good areas to hunt grizzlies in the autumn are the open shore-lines of lakes, and the deep-worn moose-trails paralleling such bodies of water. Trails to and through the high blueberry patches are also likely spots to hunt. The grizzly, like his smaller cousin the black bear, is somewhat tender-footed, and has a high regard for the convenience of trails engineered and made by other species.

Trail hunting grizzly bears is ticklish business. In the high willows bordering moose-trails, and indeed in most any trails in bush country, vision is limited and the range in any encounter would be extremely short.

Several times in Canada’s Prochniak Creek area, I have found fresh grizzly tracks covering my own boot-prints, upon returning to camp after a day’s hunt. Several times the freshness of the dung-piles and other spoor indicated that my own approach had moved the big bear from the trail and into the bush. Another time near British Columbia’s Cry Lake, I trudged camp-ward, already burdened with a fresh grizzly hide-and-head on the pack-board, and along the muck of a moose-trail. Suddenly, at a distance of less than two rods, I found on-coming grizzly tracks with the mud still roiling up in them. Without doubt, the beast had heard me, and bounded off the trail to watch in uncertainty.

Under conditions of such short-range “hunting,” the hunter wonders just how fast, and with how much cold nerve and shooting skill he could get into action!

One of the best methods of grizzly bear hunting for me has been the simple close scrutiny of all available basin-heads within the vicinity of the hunting camp. During the fall hunting season the incidence of bears in the top apexes of basin-heads is greater than in any other area. Food-hunting for them, too, is better in the high open areas where they can see and hear better, and can travel easier and faster. Too, the hunter’s chances in such areas are greatly improved, both in the matter of spotting game at long distances and in actual stalking, over trying for game in the heavier bush. A good spotting-scope, incidentally, is worth its bother of carting along, for the leg-work it will save in the investigation of such distant areas, as well as for the sizing-up of the quarry once it has been spotted.

Lastly, perhaps the average hunter’s best “method” of grizzly bear hunting, as indeed it is with any other big-game, is to accept the hunting technique of his guide or outfitter. Such men, if reputable and reliable hosts to paying hunters, know their game and their country—else they have no business advertising for the visiting hunter. You will find as I have, however, that while in any hunting country two men’s skills, vision, hearing, and hunting ability are better than one’s. If the hunter knows his game, his own “luck” in the matter of spotting or hunting is often a real determining factor. It is true that the hunting judgment of a reputable guide should supersede the opinion of the hunter. This does not prevent the hunter’s utilization of acquired-skills and ability towards the same end.

Spring grizzly bear hunting is more limited. It cannot be combined with the hunting of other species, the season is shorter, and the overall conditions are more rugged. Yet in areas of good grizzly populations, it is highly productive. The best bet for the average hunter wishing to spring-hunt grizzlies is to locate, through advertising and correspondence, an outfitter with a good hunter-success ratio on bears, in an area that appeals to him for hunting. Such men know their grizzly country and chances. They know the varied conditions influencing such things as the period of emergence, prevalence of game, and areas being worked.

One method of spring grizzly bear hunting is to hunt the “slide” areas left by melting spring snows. These slides occur first on the steep southern exposures, taking away rocks, small trees, and underbrush. Shoots of new grass begin to grow within a matter of days, and the big bruins, fresh from hibernation, dig the new growth as a conditioner for their digestive systems.

Grizzlies are like other species of big-game in that they do most of their moving about, especially into the more open areas, in early morning and at dusk. A patient glassing of the slide areas during these hours, from concealment and down-wind from the area, often pays off.

Another kind of spring grizzly bear hunting developed in Wyoming, and which has reached something of an art there, is crudely misnamed “bear-baiting.”

To the inexperienced hunter, the word smacks of something slightly unethical. He immediately assumes that “baiting” means the same thing as baiting wild ducks, or leading something into a trap. Actually, the method is so filled with varied hazards and chances for going wrong that the results are highly speculative. When developed to its highest form, it becomes something of sheer art, and a game of wits between hunter and hunted, in seeing who can out-guess such factors and elements as wind, terrain, routes, and animal behavior.

The technique came naturally into being. Wyoming is a big state, with a vast amount of rugged terrain in the western end. The famed Tetons, continental United States’ biggest glacial field—Dinwoody Glacier, under Gannett Peak—and similar rough, high terrain are in the area. Traditionally, the only means of complete accessibility has been with saddle-horses and pack-strings. Even today, western Wyoming is still something of a “cowboy state.”

In using horses in such rough country, an occasional animal becomes crippled, worn out, or otherwise made useless. Such beasts are destroyed. Over the years, it became apparent to the observing fellow that such carcasses were eaten up more or less regularly by bears, as well as the coyotes and other scavengers. Returning days later to a bloated and “ripe” carcass occasionally produced a bear.

The next logical step was the placing of such a carcass, since it had to be destroyed anyhow, in a better spot as regarding the possibility of a bear finding it, and for better shooting conditions.

This has led to the term “bear-baiting.” Currently, when a trail-animal becomes worthless and has to be destroyed anyhow, the outfitters, packers, and guides try to leave it in a place where there is a possibility of a bear’s finding it. Then they watch it.

In order to learn first-hand something of this kind of grizzly bear hunt, I spent a week in Wyoming in early June of 1955. “Sandy” Sanders was our outfitter, hunting also a dude from Los Angeles. In order to introduce me to all the finer points of the technique, Sandy teamed up with Ben Taylor, who is considered Wyoming’s best bear-hunter. We camped at Ben’s fall elk-camp, on the Soda Fork of the Buffalo River, just east of the Tetons.

Briefly, I discovered that hunting a grizzly with a dead horse has none of the real stigma of baiting. It is, rather, comparable to the finest skill of dry-fly-fishing for rainbow trout—except that the lure is habitually less productive.

First off, from years of observation, the outfitter must determine the general, circuitous, spring routes of any grizzlies in the area. The grizzly “population” of such areas is usually but one or two animals within a radius of one day’s horse-back ride from camp—say ten miles. This is in rough timbered country composed of river drainages, pine-carpeted mountains, and blue spires and peaks rising above timberline at the ten-thousand-foot elevation. Some of it is accessible to a good mountain-broke saddle-horse, some not.

To the inexperienced hunter, a grizzly is just as apt to choose one route as another. But to one who has spent his life among the bears, like Ben, this is not true. Grizzlies in the area are apt to take a definite, though loosely-defined course of travel through certain mountain passes; meander down certain river drainages, and “work” the timbered bottoms of certain canyons.

The carcass of the worthless beast must be placed along this expected route in such a place as to intercept the travel of the occasional grizzly. The position must take into account the direction of prevailing winds, the incidence of thick timber—since a grizzly sticks to the shadows of heavy timber in his travels, not appearing in any large opening unless under cover of total darkness—and the possibility of approaching the beast, if and when he investigates the dead carcass.

Such a lure must be placed well in advance of the hunt. From four days to a week or more is necessary to give the carcass time to bloat, and stink to high Heaven. The riper it becomes, the better. Winds must blow from the carcass to the grizzly’s route of travel.

With the bait placed in advance, and ripe, the hunter then settles down to a patient game of waiting and wits. Since a carcass must be placed far enough from camp to avoid suspicion on the bear’s part, one of the best periods for hunting is eliminated—the daylight period. Saddle-horses simply cannot be wrangled and saddled in time to reach the carcass for the morning hunting. The hunter, instead, rides the distance, to be there for a half-hour’s chance at dusk. Afterward, he rides in through the dark to camp.

It’s an odd paradox that a grizzly, which fears nothing and can lick any wild beast on the continent, is by nature most shy. Under normal conditions, a grizzly wants to be left entirely alone. He’ll move from the sight, scent, or hearing of man—usually! Coupled to this is the fact that often he’ll disregard a dead carcass for no reason that is apparent, even to passing within a hundred yards without any obvious interest.

Under such conditions, any number of things can go wrong. The carcass can be placed in a wrong spot. The bear may change his normal route. He may have investigated the carcass before the hunter arrives, gorged himself, and not re-appear again. He may come at daylight and not at dusk. He may wind the approaching horses, even though they are normally tied up a quarter-mile away, and always behind a pre-determined ridge, due to shifting mountain breezes. The cackling of magpies, disturbed by the hunter which bruin cannot see, may make him wary. Or, just as likely, the coyotes and smaller black bears may eat the carcass before any grizzly finds it. Or, a grizzly may devour a carcass unmolested.

Even though Wyoming has a sizeable grizzly population “condensed” in the western end, and though bear-baiting is legal, the annual grizzly kill is but a few animals. I killed Wyoming’s first grizzly of 1953, not, incidentally, via bear-baiting but by straight woods-hunting. While on that hunt, I checked the records to learn that the previous year, only six legal grizzly kills were reported.

That figure should be something of an answer to the question of whether bear-baiting is too deadly. As I see it, allowing a dead carcass to attract a grizzly is but a means of moderately increasing the grizzly bear hunter’s chances. When developed to the point old Ben Taylor has reached, it’s sheer art and a straight game of wits with the quarry. It’s on a high sporting plane.

A fair indication of the results occurred on this 1955 hunt. After nearly a week of waiting, no grizzly apparently crossed the country. I had to leave for home without seeing more than the occasional track of a wandering black bear. Even these smaller beasts did not come near the venerable carcass.

Several days after I left, Sandy telephoned me from Wyoming. It seems that a few days later, a big grizzly had found the carcass and gorged on the decayed flesh. This could be detected from a vantage-point, two hundred yards away, with ten-power binoculars (such a bait is never approached). For a few days more, the California hunter patiently returned with Ben, but the grizzly didn’t return. Then, one evening they again returned to find a small black bear eating the carrion.

The excited hunter abruptly, and against Ben’s judgment, decided that a small rug on the floor was worth several running around in the woods. He killed the black, which of course, spoiled any chance at the big grizzly whose hind tracks measured eleven inches, plus, in the soft earth around the carcass.

Hunting the larger Alaska brown bear, nick-named the Kodiak bear because of his relative abundance on that island, is similar to grizzly bear hunting, though more specialized. It is more expensive, due to distances involved and preparation. The sport is generally more rugged in nature than grizzly bear hunting since the best season is spring, which in turn involves wet, rainy, cold weather. Brownie’s pelt is best immediately after emergence from hibernation, and the hunter’s best chance at him is in spring. This is due partly to the fact that the brown bear’s range coincides with the coastal regions where an abundance of salmon are found. The brown bear could not survive without great numbers of fish, and many trophies are taken by the hunter catching the great bears at their fishing in the salmon streams.

One hunting method is to hunt via boat. That is, the base camp is a large boat. The hunting party anchors the craft in the various inlets and harbors bounding the coastal flats. Either by glassing the surrounding areas from the boat, or by similar scrutiny of the area from short expeditions inland, the beasts are located, then stalked. The boat becomes a floating home for the party, and if game is not located one place, it is easy to move to another.

Once into good brownie territory, the hunter can interpret the quarry’s movements and the amount of game from the worn trails between “fishing-grounds.” Much of the brown bear’s habitat is flat and semi-barren, making the location of game in any area far easier than the location of grizzlies in timbered or bush country.

Alaska law requires that the bear-hunter have a guide. This helps simplify the location of game for the visiting hunter. Perhaps the best way for the hunter to arrange a brown-bear hunt is to study the advertisements of outfitters regularly taking parties into the regions where the hunter wishes to go. Having decided upon several possibilities, the hunter can, by correspondence with the outfitters, obtain their records of hunter-success, rates, references, and general set-up. I have always found that reputable outfitters were most co-operative in giving information about their areas and accommodations, as well as helping to make arrangements for the trip. They are generally happy to put the prospective hunter in contact with former clientele, who, in turn, can give the hunter the real low-down. Game officials, too, are co-operative in giving the sportsman information relative to a certain area, though naturally they are reluctant about recommending one outfitter above another.

It is entirely possible through intelligent and courteous correspondence to get a fair idea of an area and outfitter, just as it is in other business transactions. Once an initial expedition is made, the hunter can easily decide upon future trips with the same host. The reliable outfitters in any area and for any species, you will find, are most jealous about keeping their satisfied guests, and in their subsequent word-of-mouth advertising. The “repeat” business is what enables them to continue.

Click here to purchase Hunting Our Biggest Game in paperback

Grizzly Bear Hunting Via Animal Behavior

Return to Hunting Our Biggest Game Table of Contents