Updated: May 14, 2020
One of the most over looked and under appreciated hunts in Arizona are the over the counter fall and spring bear hunts.
When most people think of bear hunting in the west, they picture themselves looking over over alpine Meadows, clear cuts and maybe recent burns high up in the mountains of Montana, Idaho, Oregon and California. Cold temperatures and backpacking or driving logging roads. In Arizona, we glass big, open, cactus covered slopes in the fall at elevations as low as 3,000 feet some years.
All fall bear hunts are over the counter. There are also some over the counter spring hunts. You do not need to put in for a draw to get a tag. Just buy a hunting license and a bear tag and go hunting. In fact, if you buy a tag in the spring, you can hunt both the over the counter spring bear hunts and the fall hunts on the same tag. You can kill one bear per year in Arizona (not one per season). If you kill a bear in the spring, you cannot legally kill another one in the fall.
There are also some spring hunts that require you to draw a tag. The good thing is, you can hold an over the counter tag AND a draw tag which basically allows you to hunt bears most of the year. Remember though, JUST ONE BEAR PER YEAR.
Fall Bear Hunts
In the fall, the bears come down out of the thick chaparral and pine forest to feed on the ripe prickly pear fruit. This is a great time to find a large bear, if you can stand the heat. It can be very warm on these hunts and the bugs can be bad on wet years. Sun screen and bug repellent are two must have items. Oh, and water. Lot's of water.
When there is a good pear crop and fewer acorns up high, the bear hunting can be fabulous down in the low desert. Look for long, open slopes that come down from the higher mountains. Usually the southeast slopes have the most cactus, but it does grow on the shady north slopes too and if you can find a north slope with good cactus patch it can be a real honey hole.
Being hot and the fact that bears are wearing a full fur coat, they are not normally out feeding much during the midday hours, but if you know where they are feeding at night and in the low light hours, you can get on them at first and last light. They tend to head for shade and water not long after sunrise, but will often come out early in the afternoon to start feeding in shady spots on the mountain.
Often times, you spot a bear at first light, far off, and he is heading for cover. Instead of charging after him, hoping to catch up before he goes out of sight, try just watching where he goes for shade. After the bear is in his daytime bedding area, make your move to be in a shooting position for when he comes back out in the afternoon. Very often, they will go back to the same spot to feed or at least come out of the cover in the same spot they went in.
Another thing that is important, as you might guess, is water. Deep, rocky canyons often hold pockets of water in the fall from the monsoons and in the spring from the snow run off. If you are hunting more gentle slopes then look for game and fish trick tanks, cattle ponds, and steams nearby.
When the acorns are abundant up higher, the bears will tend to stay up there and feed in the oaks. You can hunt the oaks too, but the glassing is a little harder. Calling works good in these areas.
Another good fall food source can be manzanita and juniper berries. Manzanita is a bush with red, woody branches and the berries are small and red. It often grows in old burns and can very thick on an entire ridge or mountainside.
Junipers are evergreen / cedar type trees that produce a purple berry in the fall. They often grow in the same areas as prickly pear and when the pears and junipers are both ripe at the same time can be a fantastic spot to glass.
Being in decent shape is a requirement for most of these hunts. Bears like remote areas that get little human activity, away from roads, but if you willing to hike one or two ridges away from the roads, your chance at seeing a bear is good.
All fall bear hunts are over the counter - you do not need to apply for a tag, just buy it. It is important that you call the bear hunt information line before hunting to make sure the unit you plan to hunt is still open. When female harvest objections are met, the hunt shuts down the following Wednesday. On good ears the first fall season often shuts down the first Wednesday of the hunt.
Bear Hunt Information Line - 1 (800) 970-2327
These hunts area called 'spring" hunts, but the best hunting occurs in early and mid summer when the temperatures get hot and bears are forced to go to water daily.
In the spring, we scout remote water holes. This is the best way to locate spring bears. They tend to stay in the remote and rugged canyons that have water close by. Spring bears do not move around as much searching for food, but because temperatures in early spring are very warm in AZ, they come to water frequently. Sometimes they come just to get in the water to cool off and escape the bugs.
Springs, rock pools and remote trick tanks are all good spots to check out when looking for spring bears.