Black Bear Hunting: What do Black Bear Hear, See, and Smell 

When you’re black bear hunting, knowing what black bears hear, see, and smell helps you avoid detection. Beating a black bear’s senses is crucial while still hunting or cutting distance on a target some distance away.

Black bear hunters who haven’t learned how to defeat a black bear’s defenses usually find their hunts ending unsuccessfully. The bear usually picks up the hunter’s scent or hears their approach and retreats unseen. Less frequently, the bear spots the hunter’s movements before getting into the weapon’s range and escapes unharmed.

Related: Where to shoot a bear white a rifle or bow.

Black bear hunting

Black bear hunting: The one myth that spoils most hunts.

The most common black bear hunting myth is that black bears have poor vision. Most bear hunters do not realize bears can see nearly as well as they do in daylight, have color vision, and at night their vision is far superior to human night vision.

So why do many bear hunters believe black bears have poor vision? Because most bear hunters are deer hunting when they sight their first bear.

Deer hunters expect a deer to bolt the moment they detect human movement. Deer are a prey species and herbivores. If something suddenly moves near a deer, it’s a threat, and flight is required.

But deer hunters have noticed that bears who bust them do not always immediately flee. Instead, they stare at the hunters and sometimes move their heads from up and down or side to side. Sometimes they stand on their hind legs and sniff the air.

And many times, the bear will not react at all.

Black bears do not always run away upon seeing movement for one reason; black bears are predators. Movement could equal prey. So, a black bear is willing to spend time investigating (staring at you) and incorporating other senses (like sniffing the air) to determine if you are something it can eat before it decides you are a potential threat.

Related: Are black bears dangerous?

Black bear hunting

Hunting black bears: Black bear vision.

When hunting a black bear, it is best to assume the bear has nearly the same vision you have during the day. Let’s get into why this is a safe assumption.

Black bears have 120-degree binocular vision to their front. Some researchers believe black bears to be nearsighted, with difficulty distinguishing objects more than 30 yards away. Zookeepers, however, say black bears can recognize humans familiar to them (those who feed them) at over 200 feet away.

Black bears may have nearly the same color vision abilities as you. They cannot see orange and red well, but their color vision is keen enough to find fruits, berries, and even colored insects in dense brush.

Black bear hunting: Getting close, even if you are seen.

In my article “Calling black bears during the fall’s feeding frenzy,” I point out that the most effective method for hunting black bears is the Spot and Stalk. How can this be true if bears have the same visual quality as humans?

Because black bears are predators, and an adult black bear has few natural enemies. Aside from poisonous snakes, only humans represent any threat to one of North America’s largest predatory animals. And as for the snakes, the poisonous ones live only in certain regions. And black bears are conditioned to respond to them only when they are in close proximity.

Until you get somewhere within 200 yards of a black bear, your outside of its ”personal space” and neither a threat nor a suitable target for short, fast chase.

Related: What does black bear poop look like?

Black bear hunting

Black bear hunting: How well do black bears smell?

Black bears use their sense of smell as their primary means of detecting food and potential threats (such as a wildfire).

This makes sense for obvious reasons. Take the size of a black bear’s nose. The bear’s nasal mucosa (nasal cavity) is roughly 100 times the size of yours. While the nasal cavity serves to warm and humidify the air you breathe and keep harmful microbes out—it’s also where the olfactory region is located.

The black bear’s nasal cavity is so large, that few animals, including dogs, have a better sense of smell.

Just how good a black bear’s sense of smell is has somewhat confounded even the experts. However, all agree a black bear can detect the odor of a food source at least a mile away. A few researchers and hunters think a black bear can detect food odors even further away—with estimates ranging from 2-18 miles!

How to beat the nose when hunting black bear.

Black bear hunting requires scent control. There are three ways to prevent a bear from smelling you; reducing your distinctly human odors, playing the wind, and using cover scents.

Reducing your scent is the first step.

This the easy part of scent control. Do not smoke while hunting. Don’t smoke when you are wearing or in the same location as your hunting clothing. Don’t keep your gear around gasoline cans or other chemicals in your truck or garage.

Using cover scents while hunting black bears.

Cover scent eliminate or mask the odor of you and your equipment. These products include laundry detergents, dryer sheets, hair shampoos, and body washes. Scent killers spray also meant to be applied after arriving at your hunting spot. These are sprayed on you, the bottom of your boots, and all over the rest of your gear.

You can check for prices on reviews for these products on Bear scents.

If you are a new bear hunter, don’t mistake a bear attractant for a bear cover scent. 

A bear attractant isn’t made to cover the odor of your approach. Bear attractants appeal to a bear’s love of grease and sweets. A bear deep in the throes of hyperphagia will come for you with a vengeance.

Dousing yourself with bear attractant is an excellent way to become a local news story.

Related: 4 excellent bear hunting tips.

Playing the wind when stalking a black bear.

Playing the wind means always making sure the wind blows your scent AWAY from the bear. During your approach, playing the wind isn’t tricky. During the calling phase, however, it can get a bit complicated.

Even a hungry bear will be cautious and take one extra step to ensure its safety. It will try to circle behind you and catch the scent of whatever is making the sounds that caught its attention. During your stalk, you will need to find a calling spot that won’t give the bear one last chance to sniff you out.

Since you are that sound maker, and your hunt ends if it detects you, you must prevent this if possible.

How do you keep a bear from circling downwind behind you? Honestly? Well, a bit of luck and a miracle or two would be great. Barring that, if the terrain allows, a height advantage is one way to prevent it. 

But, yeah, it’s usually only a miracle that keeps a bear from circling you if it wants to. Hey, you got lucky and spotted one, right? Maybe that luck will hold for a bit longer.

Black bear hunting: How well can black bear hear?

The ears of a black bear, especially on a big ole brute, can look tiny and just a bit off. If a German Shepard’s ears look like the animal equivalent of radar dishes, the ears of a black bear look more like tea cups. But size doesn’t matter here, so don’t be fooled.

As large as they are, a bear can move quite silently. You, however, often unwittingly stomp around like a Yak in heat. Speak just a little too loud, and a bear can hear you a couple hundred yards away. March around in the woods with a bit of metal clinking together, and you’ll never even see the bear who hears you half a football field away and makes its getaway.

It turns out bears have the perfect size and shaped ears for hunting some of their favorite prey, mice and voles. Coupled with their powerful forelegs and claws, they are able to sound out these rodents and quickly rip away the branches and vegetation covering them.

How to sneak up on a bear—but only while hunting black bear!

Walking quietly while hunting black bear requires a combination of good equipment, practice, and patience.

At the very least, you’ll need to eliminate any sounds made by your footwear, loose gear, and clothing. Examine the ground before you place your foot down on it. A twig snapping or a shoe grinding rocks together will sound far too human for a bear.

Remember to keep the wind in your face and that you don’t have all day to move 50 yards. Some speed is required, so move smoothly and quietly but silently. Sounds impossible, right? It will come with experience. Think about your first time hunting deer on fallen leaves. By the 3rd time you tried it, you were probably 80% quieter.

Once you have spotted a black bear, it’s time to slow down and take every step forward like you were walking through a minefield. Feel the placement of your boot as it contacts the ground. Listen carefully as you move, and be mindful of any sounds your clothing makes. Control your breathing; it’s okay to be excited, but if it sounds like you just sprinted three miles, the bear will hear you gassing a hundred yards away.

Raise and ready any weapon as slowly and carefully as possible when you are within range. And recognize that now is not the time to smack a bow into a branch or loudly thumb your safety off.

Keep your head in the game. Remain calm. And aim to be as silent as a hole in the woods right up until the moment you take that black bear.

Black bear hunting means beating its senses and its brain.

When you are hunting a black bear, the hardest senses to beat are the strongest ones it possesses. Most black bear hunters rank them in the following order; smell, hearing, and sight. But this leaves out its most vital sense; the sense of self-preservation. That sense resides in its brain.

A black bear is one of, if not the most intelligent mammal you will ever hunt. It has superior navigation skills compared to you. It remembers past encounters it has had with other humans, including hunters. If it has a few years in this world (most black bears harvested in the United States are about 4.5 years old), it has had a least some bad experiences with humanity.

If the black bear you are hunting smells, sounds, or looks like it did during a past bad experience, that bear will turn away and hit 30 m.p.h. as it escapes.

Good luck when hunting black bear!

Related: How to identify an oak tree for bear hunting.

Dennis V. Gilmore Jr.

Dennis V. Gilmore Jr. is a former Marine Sergeant and the author of several books, including two on night hunting coyotes and red and gray fox. He has written several hundred articles on predator hunting for

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