Arizona Black Bears: OTC Hunts
Updated: Mar 18
What can I rifle hunt in Arizona without having to draw a tag? Black bears! Some people disregard Over-The-Counter as lower quality than draw tags, this is not the case when it comes to bear hunts in Arizona. In fact, nearly all bears taken during a given year will be during the OTC seasons. The top hunts occur during the most productive time for black bear activity, during the late summer and early fall. We have focused on learning the ins and outs of black bear hunting for more than ten years now and the Fall hunts are king.
Once the black bear breeding season winds down toward the end of summer, bears enter a state of hyperphagia. This increase in feeding activity prepares their body for the lean times ahead. As the days begin to shorten later in the year and food sources become scarce a bear will rely on its fat stores to make it through the winter. Although commonly referred to a hibernation, bears technically do not hibernate, they enter a similar but different slowed metabolic state know as torpor.
Fall black bear hunts throughout August and early September can be oppressively hot and humid at times. While high mountain nights are cool and comfortable. The waves of monsoon moisture make the air heavy and thick. At the onset of these storms, ground water conditions can change in a matter of minutes. Entire mountain ranges or single hillsides may get torrential rains, filling up water catchments, ponds, stream beds, and reinvigorating natural seeps. Rain is a fickle thing in the Southwest, however. At times, these hunts may be just as dry and scorching as the months preceding the monsoon. Pleasant conditions are always relative to location and a bit of luck. Spectacular sunsets and a far-off lightning show are almost given.
The driving force of the monsoons is the heat accumulating in the deserts below Arizona bear habitat. As the region warms in the summer months moisture is sucked up from Mexico into the hot Arizona deserts. As this water laden air rushes upwards during the daylight hours it collides with cooler air masses along the Mogollon Rim, White Mountains, and Madrean Sky islands of Southeast AZ generating enormously powerful storms. With these storms temp cool even more in bear country. Afternoon thunderstorms are a common occurrence and the predictable updrafts and passing rains are a welcome reprieve from warm glassing sessions.
Its only during the later months of the Over-The-Counter bear seasons that conditions begin to cool dramatically. The October hunts may see the tail end of monsoonal conditions or the potential remnants of a tropical storm moving across the state, up from Baja. October is generally the transition into more Fall-like weather. Nighttime temps can be downright chilly while the days typically warm T-shirt conditions. More moderate weather and the coincidence of many general deer seasons leads to roughly 45% of the annual harvest of black bears occurring during the October hunts.
The key to consistently locating bears is having an in depth understanding of the habitat they live in. Bears are much more nomadic and to the untrained hunter seemingly random in action, compared to ungulate species. High calorie foods, reliable water, and acceptable terrain dictate their movements. Two of these variables are ever changing. Mast and berry production is directly dependent on rainfall. The species of plant, elevation, exposure, age, geographic location, and other factors will effect which plants produce during a given season and which do not.
Over the last decade of hunting bears throughout Central and Eastern Arizona we have come to understand how the weather, both short term and long term, effects black bear feed conditions. The degree of variation year to year and even hunt to hunt is staggering. A dry monsoon or heat wave can cook off an up-and-coming berry crop before it has a chance to ripen and be utilized by the bears. Erratic temperature fluctuations or dramatic shifts from seasonal storms may hinder the production of flowers and then their subsequent fruits. Water, in the warm or dry months, is often ephemeral or sporadic. On top of climactic conditions, wildfire can rewrite a landscape's recipe book in a mere matter of hours.
The bear hunting mantra has always been "find the feed, find the bears." For anyone who is worth their salt bear hunting they know this is accurate. It sounds simple. In reality, it should be "find the [right] feed [at the right time, and in the right location], find the bears." The understanding of what is "right" when, where, and why, is what has always made the largest difference in finding bears or not. Then, once you have found where the bears are at, if you're a bit lucky and whole lot prepared, you too can successfully take an Arizona black bear.
Below are a few of our highlights. For more black bear hunting films, visit the black bear section of our Hunt Videos page. Information on our fully outfitted, spot-and-stalk black bear hunts can be found on our species page.