Bow Hunting For Black Bear

Alberta is a very diverse province. The towering Rocky Mountains flow easterly through the foothills into parkland country and finally, meet the rolling native prairie grasslands that span as far as your eyes can see. Boreal forests cover the northern half of the province, providing habitat for animals of all kinds, and signs of oil exploration can be found throughout the province, giving Alberta the label of black gold. In May 2011, I was seeking a different kind of black treasure – bow hunting for black bears.

May in Alberta begins rather brown-looking in the bush. The fall leaves are matted into the ground, the occasional snowdrift exists in shady areas and the buds of the leaves are just starting to sprout.

The geese have returned north and can be found in their mating pairs and, of course, black bears emerge from their dens, sometimes a little grumpy, but definitely hungry and beginning their search for food to prepare for next winter’s big sleep. With each passing day in May, the forest paints itself green and by month end, the visibility in the bush is cut in half.

For myself, the escape from hibernation, back to nature and bow hunting for black bears keeps me energized. In years previous I’ve always baited for black bears, but this year I did not have the time to invest in running a bait site. Contrary to years past, I was only able to bow hunt the final two weekends of May.

As the kick-off to summer arrived, known to many as May long weekend, I drove out to our camp to meet up with my hunting crew. Some of the guys had managed to set up bait sites this year, but they hadn’t seen much action. Nevertheless, we adhered to the plan and checked the baits for evidence of visiting black bears that first evening. Not surprising, all the bait remained. That evening, as we cooked a late supper and chatted, we made our plan for the next day.

We decided that searching for feeding bears using a spot-and-stalk method would give us the best chance of success. We had lots of ground to hunt and the pressure from other hunters was minimal. In order to improve our chances, we split the territory and each planned to explore a specific region. The area had many dandelions and clover patches in old cuts and along cut lines, so the bears could really be anywhere and it was just a matter of putting in time to eventually find one.

The next morning we cooked up a great feast of bacon and eggs and soaked in the morning sunshine while sipping on camp coffee. We ensured our bows were all shooting straight and our gear was in order. It’s always a good idea to practice before heading afield, as it instills confidence in your shooting and equipment.

We were all eager to get out and find a bear to stalk.

After shooting our bows, we split up and went hunting. We had cell phones and, lucky for us, our hunting area had coverage. Everything was all set and we just needed some co-operating bears to capitalize on our plan.

The first area I covered, some 70 kilometres of old roads, open meadows and cut lines, didn’t have much for bear scat or food and after a thorough investigation I texted the crew for a report of what they had found. Although they hadn’t seen any bears, food was plentiful and piles of scat were everywhere. They suggested I move to a different location, north of the river and closer to them. I didn’t take much convincing so I followed my number one rule of hunting – hunt bear where the bears are. I loaded up my quad and set my bearings north along an old exploration road of black, sloppy mud.

The boys were right: once I crossed the river, the amounts of prime, green, graze noticeably improved. I didn’t drive far, about 10 kilometres in fact, before spotting a lone black bear feeding in an old forestry cut. Its focus was food and it didn’t even raise its head as I drove past and parked my truck out of sight several hundred metres north. The hunt was on!

Quickly and quietly, I geared up and grabbed my bow and arrows to begin the hunt. In all the excitement, I forgot to apply insect repellent or bring my Thermacell – a decision that would bring me huge discomfort soon after.

I walked cautiously into the bush and to the far northwest corner of the cut. Using my binoculars, I scanned the mess of downed timber, interspersed with greenery, and suddenly, like dirty oil shooting up from a derrick, there was the black bear. It hadn’t moved much and was still foraging as if it was its first meal in months.

The bear was facing away from me with a slight crosswind – all good to proceed. Being predators, black bears don’t have the best peripheral vision because their eyes are close together on the front of their face. The situation allowed me to move without cover into range from behind, or to flank him on either of its blind sides. I knocked an arrow and set onward.

I was able to ease through the woodpiles, and the ground cover wasn’t noisy at all. This allowed me to gain substantial distance in short order. Within minutes I was only 100 metres away – a chip shot with any rifle, but when you’re bow hunting, closing the last 20 per cent of the distance to get within effective arrowing range is always challenging.

Don’t be fooled in thinking bears have poor vision because of their eye location. Keeping your movement to a minimum is obviously important, but when you have swarms of mosquitoes buzzing in your ears, it’s problematic. There was no mercy from the mosquitoes as I slowed down to a snail’s pace approaching my quarry. I was getting very close and now was hidden from view by a mound of dirt, fallen trees and stumps. Although the bear couldn’t see me, the mosquitoes had their radar locked on me and seemed to be multiplying exponentially.

I slowly stood up and peered over the knoll and ranged the bear at 50 metres – still a little too far for my liking. I assessed my options and ranged some more debris and figured if I could make it to that stump just up ahead, I’d be in comfortable shooting range.

All this time, the bear hadn’t moved much and it was completely unaware of my presence. With more determination than ever not to let the mosquitoes get the best of me, I crept ahead and slithered into shooting position.

The moment of truth was nearing and I steadied my breathing by taking a few calming breaths. Suddenly, the bear looked up and moved towards me. I stood motionless while the mosquitoes swarmed me in clouds. It was intense! Face-to-face, predator-to-predator, I wanted like never before to wave my arms at the mosquito clouds, but I couldn’t. I persevered and the bear went back to feeding and turned broadside.

I estimated the distance at just over 20 metres. I stood up and drew my bow, but unfortunately there were weeds and small trees preventing a clean vitals shot. Suddenly the bear became uncomfortable and looked right at me. Despite wearing full camouflage, something must have looked out of place to the bear and he bolted. I followed immediately, trying to keep pace.

After the bear crossed a small road, it relaxed and went back to feeding on a lush dandelion patch. My range finder reported I was already back within 60 metres. I found another location to shoot from 25 metres away.

My recent, fast advance had finally given me a little breathing room from the mosquitoes and I moved closer. The bear was slightly quartering-away and looking away. With each closing step, my heart beat faster and adrenaline infused my body. It was now or never. I drew back and felt my familiar anchor points. I waited until the bear took one more step with his front leg exposing even more of its vital area and squeezed the trigger on my release.

A good hit! It roared and ran immediately, looking back momentarily at the arrow, and vanished into the woods. I listened intently, continually fighting off the mosquitoes and heard a loud moan – it was all over. I tend not to get too excited before celebrating a kill until I’ve confirmed the job, which includes tracking the animal to its final resting spot. I contacted the crew and gave them my position. They were on their way, with a back-up rifle, to help me track my bear.

It wasn’t long before help arrived and I gave them a play-by-play of what had transpired. We set off to track the bear, with myself leading the way, and immediately found blood and my arrow. Thankfully, there was a blood trail to follow as well, and a mere 40 metres along it lay my first black bear – a small boar.

That night, we skinned the bear and salted the hide and cooled the meat. Unfortunately, the other members of my hunting crew didn’t have any chances to stalk bears, but thankfully enjoyed listening to me tell my success story.

The next weekend, I purchased my second black bear tag and was able to hunt with a friend from his bait site. We had a few bears come into feed, which was exciting and comical, however, it didn’t even come close to the exhilarating feeling of stalking my first-ever black bear with a bow and arrow. Pure Alberta black gold!

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