Scott, Angie and I reached the tree after 90 minutes of hard hiking at near 7000 feet elevation. The hounds had treed the bear after a half-day’s chase up and down the rugged Idaho mountains, and it was time. The big boar, 100 feet up a thick conifer, offered an open shot if I could place my arrow through a small opening in the tangle of branches. It sounds simple, until you try and aim with your body contorted at a 60-degree uphill angle.
To those who have never followed the sound of the hounds, all this might sound anticlimactic. But hound hunting is all about experiencing all that the dogs have to offer. It’s something I truly enjoy, and the Denny’s have great dogs. The above hunt occurred in June 2016, and this black bear was my 53rd taken over 30-some years of bear hunting. I’ve taken them with the aid of hounds, over baits and on spot and stalk hunts all across North America. I love it.
Bowhunting Black Bears
Black bear hunting with bow and arrow has grown in popularity in recent years. One reason for that trend is the fact that a large percentage of nonresident bear hunters choose to pursue bruins on guided bait hunts where shot opportunities and success rates are much better than either spot and stalk or do-it-yourself hunts. Using archery gear is also popular with many bowhunters who pursue bears with dogs on guided hunting trips. And there are many of us who enjoy the challenge of trying to spot a bear, then stalk in close enough for a controlled shot.
I’ve seen several dozen black bears taken with archery gear over the past three decades, experience that has helped me formulate some definite opinions on the right stuff for a black bear hunt.
Match The Hatch
There are essentially two types of black bear hunts. For guided clients, the most common are bait and hound hunts in which shots generally come at very close range – usually 20 yards or less. The other is the spot and stalk hunt, where shots can stretch the limits of your shooting skills.
You don’t necessarily need the same rig for each situation. Unless you shoot a real “soft” set-up, for bait and hound hunts your standard treestand deer hunting set-up is adequate. On spot and stalk hunts, a bit flatter shooting bow-and-arrow set-up is a better choice. Also, keep in mind the size of the bears expected to be encountered. The large-bodied bears living in Alaska, western Canada and down the west coast, as well as bruins found in areas known for monster body sizes like the Carolinas and parts of Arizona are tougher animals to shoot through than the small-bodied bears encountered most frequently in central Canada and similar environs.
In all cases, it is important to remember that all bears have leg bones like steel pipes, scapulae like Roman shields and thick rib bones. Their muscles are thick and dense, their hair long and luxurious. It takes a fair amount of kinetic energy, broadheads with strong ferrules and scalpel-sharp blades and precise shot placement to achieve the deep penetration and the terminal performance necessary for a quick, humane death.
Bows For Bears
In this day and age of high-performance hoopla, all too many archers concern themselves with sizzling arrow speed while forgetting about the importance of deep penetration, reliability and the significance of silence when choosing a new compound bow. For black bear hunting, it is better to have a bow that’s forgiving, easy to draw and hold and consistently places the shaft on target at moderate ranges than a whiz-bang speed bow that’s noisy and groups arrows erratically.
Generally speaking, you need a bow you can draw smoothly and hold for an extended period of time. If you are a spot and stalk bowhunter, you’ll be best served if you can draw and shoot from your knees, or with your body twisted at an odd angle. And remember that while most bears are taken at close range, when spot and stalk hunting shots can be on the long side, too. The first bear I shot on a stalk hunt was taken at 37 yards, the last at 10 yards – but I have cleanly killed a couple at 50-some yards. It will pay to meticulously tune your bow-and-arrow set-up, then extend your own personal maximum shooting range.
For black bear hunting, I prefer a minimum draw weight of about 55 lbs., though my own bear bows are set at 70 lbs. Most bow companies build quality compound bows suitable for black bear hunts. What about traditional bows? Why not? Many good black bears are taken each year with both recurves and longbows. These bows are great when treestand hunting over bait, and skilled stalkers can get close enough to use them as well. If you’re a traditional archer, don’t shy away from bear hunting because you think you’re “underbowed.”
And don’t overlook the modern crossbow. Where legal, crossbows are an excellent choice. Just remember your most accurate shooting will occur if you bring along some sort of shooting sticks.
Arrow Shafts And Broadheads
When it comes to arrow shafts, I prefer the new generation of micro-diameter carbon shafts that out-penetrate anything ever made. The bottom line is matching your shaft to your bow, and shooting what you have confidence in.
As mentioned earlier, black bears have thick muscles, long hair, and big bones. Only top-quality broadheads with stout ferrules and blades so sharp they scare you are acceptable. Replaceable-blade heads, fixed-blade heads and mechanicals all work well. With mechanicals you have to check the regulations of the state in which you are hunting. Idaho, for example, does not permit them, though why not escapes me. The key is a super-strong ferrule, and strong, scalpel-sharp blades.
Black bears are dark animals usually taken on the cusp of daylight, often in shaded areas. For that reason you need fiber optic bow sight pins you can easily see under the worst light conditions imaginable. Also, make sure your bow sight has a rugged pin guard, a minimum of moving parts that can rattle loose, and can be secured tightly to the bow’s riser. Most bowhunters choose sights with multiple pins — my preference — but a growing number are choosing a single-pin sight that has a movable housing so the pin can be adjusted to precisely match the distance to the target.
In all bowhunting, knowing the exact distance to the target is the key to making the shot. That’s why carrying a laser rangefinder is so important.
Regardless, of how you set up, make sure you take the time to familiarize yourself with your bow-and-arrow set-up, and shoot it enough so that you can place that first arrow precisely where you want it, every time. Bears are big and strong, rough and tough, and cling tenaciously to life. They deserve our highest respect.–Bob Robb