Into the Woods: How to Handle Predators
You probably hunt for the thrill of the chase and the potential of a successful harvest. But here’s another benefit of bowhunting: close encounters with a variety of wildlife. Watching a squirrel build a nest or an owl flying through the trees richens your outdoor experience.
Sometimes bowhunters catch a glimpse of one of nature’s many predatory animals. These encounters are special because predators are elusive creatures, and sightings are rare.
If the thought of seeing a bear or a mountain lion gives you more fear than excitement, don’t worry – that’s perfectly normal. You’ll certainly experience a rush of adrenaline at the sight of one of these impressive creatures. In most cases, they want nothing to do with you, and if they see or smell you, they’ll run away. But if you’re unsure what to do in these situations, we’ve put together a guide to help you.
The most common bear you’ll encounter in America is the black bear. Most have a shiny black coat, but some black bears have a reddish or blonde coat. These bears are omnivores that typically scavenge for food rather than hunt it. They eat a variety of plants, berries, honey carrion and in some areas, they prey on fawns in the spring. Bears are curious by nature and will investigate new smells, which is why hunters might encounter them.
If you see a black bear, don’t be alarmed. Enjoy watching it from a safe distance. “For the most part black bears don’t eat people; there’s only been about 65 fatalities caused by black bears in the last 100 years,” said Jamie Sajecki, the black bear project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Instead of posing a threat, bears often hang around to investigate something new. You’ll find tons of videos showing bears climbing treestands to see what’s up there.
“Bears are very curious about new things in their home range,” Sajecki said. “When a new smell shows up, they’ll usually investigate.”
If a black bear gets too close there are different measures you can take depending on the situation.
“If you’re in a treestand, you want to alert the bear before it gets close to your treestand,” Sajecki said.
Alert the bear of your presence by using your voice. Use a deeper tone and calm, assertive voice like you would use to give a dog a command. Never squeal or use a high-pitched voice, because that sounds like a wounded animal and could trigger an instinctual response. You don’t need to shout at the bear – a normal talking volume is loud enough to alert the bear to your presence. Most people will say something like, “Hey bear.”
If you plan to alert a bear, do so before it gets close to your treestand. “A bear’s first reaction when they’re scared is to climb a tree,” Sajecki said. “If you scare a bear while they’re under your treestand, you’ll probably find yourself with company.”
You might encounter a bear while you’re walking to your treestand or stalking. In these instances, the bear will likely be frightened or nervous.
“The way bears tell you they’re nervous is by stomping the ground, snapping their jaws, making a huffing noise, or they might yawn,” Sajecki said. “If they make all these signs and the danger still isn’t gone, they’ll bluff-charge.”
In these situations, the bear sees you as a threat and simply wants you to leave. Make yourself appear larger, use your voice and slowly back away. Never turn your back or run.
“One thing I always tell people with any bear encounter is to not run,” Sajecki said. “Never run away from a bear in any situation.”
In some remote areas, bears view humans as food; these bears will act very differently from a bear that’s scared.
“When a bear has decided that you are something they want to pursue as prey, they won’t make any noise and will continue to follow you,” Sajecki said. “At that point, you want to stand your ground and get ready to use your bear spray. You want to fight back in these situations.”
Carrying bear spray is a good safety precaution. A canister sprays a large cone of irritant that will deter a bear from continuing the attack.
Big cats are fascinating creatures. Thanks to conservation efforts, North America has a population of mountain lions, which go by many names, such as cougar, puma, panther and catamount. Mountain lions can run up to 50 mph, and a large male can weigh more than 200 pounds. These impressive creatures once ranged throughout North America and South America.
“Today, mountain lions are widely distributed throughout the western U.S.,” said Dr. Chuck Anderson, the mammal researcher for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “They are tied to large populations of deer and elk and any habitat that provides security and stalking cover.”
In recent years, mountain lions have expanded east into Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. You’ll even find some populations in states on the East Coast, like Florida.
Many hunters who hunt in lion country will never see one. They are cagey and smart animals that want nothing to do with humans.
“They’re a secretive animal. They’re solitary creatures that have naturally low density,” Anderson said. “Even in areas where they are common, you don’t see them.”
Anderson adds, “I think the fear of a cougar attack is largely unjustified. I wouldn’t be too fearful of hunting in mountain lion country. Your chances of getting struck by lightning are higher than getting attacked by a mountain lion.”
Despite the low risk of a violent encounter, it’s helpful to know what to do should you be faced with such an event.
“Being aggressive is the best approach during a mountain lion encounter – being big, making noise, staring them down,” Anderson said. “Avoid any submissive behavior, like turning your back, falling to the ground or making sudden movements.”
In these situations, stand your ground and get the mountain lion to leave. Don’t back away like you would with a frightened bear. If they continue their aggressive behavior, be ready to hit the lion or deploy bear spray. “You want the right kind of bear spray, the oil-based kind that’s marketed for grizzly bears,” Anderson said.
Coyotes have a huge range and are found in every state in the lower 48. They are small canines ranging in size from 15 to 50 pounds. Coyotes are typically smaller in the South and Western United States and grow larger in northern latitudes.
Most people think of coyotes as pack animals that hunt in a group, like wolves. Most coyotes belong to a family group but hunt alone or in pairs. They’ll do most of their hunting at night, which is when you’ll hear them communicating through howling, yipping and barking.
Coyotes typically eat small animals like mice, squirrels, turkeys and even deer fawns. However, they’re cunning survivors and will eat fruit, garbage and carrion.
Of all the predators discussed, coyotes are most commonly seen by bowhunters but pose no threat to humans.
“Coyote attacks on humans are almost completely unheard of,” Anderson said. “The only time you would even imagine a coyote attacking a person is a rabid animal.”
The next time you’re in a treestand after dark and hear coyotes howling in the distance, remember that they’re terrified of you, even if they sound menacing.
“Snakes … why is it always snakes?”
Like Indiana Jones, many people have a fear of snakes. But even Indy would feel pretty safe in the deer woods; snakes aren’t common in the cooler months.
You might run into a snake if you live in the South or hunt early in the season before the first frost. Most snakes you’ll see are harmless and non-venomous. These varieties are usually garter snakes, black snakes and kingsnakes. They eat frogs, insects, lizards and rodents. The kingsnake is unique, as it eats other snakes and is immune from venomous coral snakes, rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads.
The venomous varieties will eat fish, rodents, small animals like rabbits, and pretty much anything they can fit in their mouths. While humans are not considered food for snakes, they can cause you serious injury.
Most snake bites occur when the snakes are taunted or improperly handled. If you see a snake in the woods, leave it alone and you’ll be fine. Also, take care when climbing over a stone wall or log – there might be a snake laying in the shade on the other side.
If you live in an area with a high concentration of snakes, wear snake chaps or snake boots, which will prevent fangs from penetrating your skin.
Bowhunting allows us the great privilege to see wild animals in their natural habitat. If you see one of these predators, safely relish the moment – you’re one of the lucky few. If you’re ready for your next wilderness adventure, stop into an archery shop to get everything you need and some great advice.
Have you encountered a predator in the woods? Tell us your story on the Bowhunting 360 Facebook page.