Archery Talk: Bears & Bows

Whether you hunt the coast of BC, the boreal forests of Alberta or northern Saskatchewan — or in any other province or territory for that matter — no other game animal is as well-suited for the hunting archer.

With mixed emotions, I trudged into the bait site. A ton of work had gone into my first-ever bow hunt. Plenty of unknowns, and the potential for a close encounter with a bruin, promised the adventure and intrigue that this then — 19 year-old so desperately craved. That was back in the late 1980s when hunting over bait sites was first legalized in Alberta. My peers had already been throwing arrows for a couple years and they convinced me that there was no better species to cut my rookie teeth on, than black bear.

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Needless to say, like most everyone who picks up a bow for the first time, I was enamored with the idea of taking an animal with stick and string. The notion of quietly drawing back, aiming and silently releasing a projectile at close range, to bring down a bear nonetheless, was simply irresistible. Several months earlier I’d purchased a state-of-the-art PSE Polaris and invested every possible minute practicing for my upcoming spring bear hunt.

Ideal for Bow Hunting

In hindsight, that inaugural spring season was an eye-opener. Several myths were dispelled and I learned two vital lessons. First, that bear baiting is a lot of work, and second, that baiting by no means guarantees a shot opportunity. Most importantly I learned that to be an archery hunter means developing immeasurable patience. That first season I came close but did not arrow a bear. Twelve months later was different though. In early May, a boar young boar offered a broadside 10-metre shot, one that I couldn’t pass up. Grateful for the opportunity, I obliged, sending an arrow through his chest. My Thunderhead 125 let the air out of him and he folded a stone’s throw from the barrel.

It’s hard to believe that was over two decades ago. The adrenaline rush was so intense that I’ve hunted bears every year since. Oddly enough, I’ve only chosen to take a handful of bears myself over that time. On the other hand, I did run commercial baited bear hunts for several of those years. There’s just something about bears that I find irresistible! Bear baiting, by its very nature affords incredible opportunities to observe, learn, and yes, when the urge hits — even release an arrow at close range.

A lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge since then, but I remember that first spring bear season as though it were yesterday. I’ve learned that no other species is so perfectly suited for hunting with archery tackle. Whether you like waiting over bait or prefer the proactive spot-and-stalk approach, black bears are abundant across Canada and provide some of the finest hunting adventures available to today’s bow hunter.

About Bears

Contrary to popular opinion, black bears are not the vicious creatures that our mainstream media make them out to be. You’ve probably heard me say this before, but here it is again — the only thing predictable about bears is that they’re unpredictable. That said, under most circumstances, they want nothing to do with people. Yes, they’ll take unusual risks to access provisions left by people but they’ll normally do so with extreme caution.

With limited exceptions, most jurisdictions allow spring and fall bear hunting and, for the archer, this equates to opportunity. Predatory in nature, bears have little to fear, so their instincts and defense mechanisms are indeed different than most other game species. Motivated by their stomachs, when they’re not sleeping, they’re on the move foraging for a meal. For the baiting enthusiast, this creates a world of opportunity.

Baiting Bears to Bow Range

If you run bear baits, then you know that certain things work better than others. Ingredients aside, it can be an art designing a bait site that’s bow hunter friendly. Just chucking out a couple barrels in a likely looking location may produce bears, but several things should be considered to make it conducive to hunting with a bow.

I like 15-metre shots. It’s difficult to describe the rush of close-range hunting, but that’s what bow hunting is all about. High percentage locations like ridge lines along waterways are always a favourite, but caution should be taken to consider likely directions of approach and exit, both for the hunter and for the bears. Given that bears frequent bait sites more often during the evening hours, extra care should be given to analyzing thermals. Bears rely most heavily on their sense of smell to locate food and detect danger. By evading their nose, the archer increases his/her odds of avoiding detection. Choosing a sturdy tree, ideally an old-growth spruce or pine, for a stand, or constructing a well-camouflaged ground blind in proximity to the bait provisions is a first priority.

Once the bait site becomes established and bears are visiting routinely, you’ll quickly begin to understand their most likely directions of travel and be able to confirm or adjust your stand or blind accordingly. The pressing challenge for bow hunters is shot angle. I like to use two 45-gallon drums at each site. These are attached with chains to a sturdy tree. Each barrel has a small hole (i.e., 12-centimetre or less) cut in the bottom, or at mid-line, to allow the bears to pick away at the cookies, popcorn, pastries or whatever else is placed inside. As a rule, I like to rotate each barrel so that the holes are facing in opposite directions, approximately 90-degrees from each other. This forces visiting bears to stand in a desirable position. I also like to crib the bait barrels just behind that 90-degree angle, in a manner that again forces the bears to stand where I want them. Bears have an uncanny knack for sneaking in behind the barrels, reaching around and grabbing whatever they can without stepping in front of the barrels. Logs and other deadfall used to crib the barrels eliminate that option forcing them walk between the barrels and the hunter. Where regulations allow, beaver carcasses are a must, but these are typically hung from a cross-pole above the bait barrels or on trees, in a manner that makes them less accessible to the bears. A natural food source, no self-respecting bear can resist the aroma and taste of a fresh beaver carcass.

Beyond these basics, bait-hunting is a matter of exercising patience and waiting for just the right shot angle. Going to full draw when the bear is preoccupied digging at the bait or munching away, in most instances archers have plenty of time to aim and execute an accurate shot.

Spot-and-Stalk to within Bow Range

While I’ve baited bears for most of the last 20 years, I have to say that spot-and-stalk hunting is by far my favourite strategy. Again, because bears are motivated by insatiable appetites, particularly in the spring after spending a long winter in the den, they can frequently be seen grazing on cutlines, clear cuts, south-facing slopes, riverbanks, shorelines, and lush clover-laden pipelines.

For the bow hunter, closing the distance is key. While most other game species have keen eyesight, bears have relatively poor vision. Their hearing is good, but it’s not considered to be their strongest sense. Fool a bear’s nose, move in quietly, and the bow hunter has an exceptional chance at sneaking in to under 40 metres. Under ideal conditions, it is not uncommon to close that distance to 20 metres. Last spring while guiding a bear hunter, we were able to sneak up to a bear feeding just off of an oilfield road by moving slowly, keeping the wind in our face, and advancing only when the bruin had his head down actively feeding on the lush green chutes and dandelions. At one point my hunter had an 18-metre broadside shot opportunity but chose to pass on the 100-kilogram bear. My point — with a little care and attention to detail, in many instances, hunters can easily sneak to within bow range by using the wind and advancing when the bear is preoccupied with feeding.

Shot Placement & Follow Up

If you read my column regularly, then you know I’m a firm believer in shooting 3D. Very little practice compares. I like to use a MacKenzie bear target; particularly the one where the bear is positioned on all four feet. Standing bear targets are great practice, but most shots are on all fours. Although the target itself is small in stature, it provides great practice in preparation for the hunt. In fact, the smaller stature of the target is more true-to-life than most of us might think. For any bear hunter, it’s important to remember that at least three-to-six centimetres of the visible body mass is hair. Likewise, the vitals are positioned forward, directly between and slightly behind the shoulders, so understanding their anatomical make-up is imperative. For the hunting archer, shot placement is critical. Anything other than an ideal broadside or quartering away double lung shot should be avoided.

Growing Bears

On a final note, many archers have learned that baiting facilitates a selective harvest. In other words, experienced baiters continue to feed bears from year to year, until they grow one or more that meets the Pope & Young record booking minimum eligibility skull size of 18 inches. By nurturing these bears to maturity, many archers enjoy watching their bears at the bait site each year, and, when the time is right, culling the mature ones.

If you’ve always wanted to try bow hunting black bear, but haven’t made it a priority, it’s time you did. No other species is as well-suited for the archer.

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