I have a thing for bears and bear hunting, and I am not sure why. Whether it’s trying to sneak within spitting distance of 1,000 pounds of ferocious brown bear in the thick brush along an Alaskan salmon stream, creeping up on an ill-tempered mountain grizzly, stalking a huge black bear in the Rocky Mountain West, sitting patiently over bait, trailing a pack of hounds or calling bears in close, I simply love it.
Certainly, fear has a lot to do with it. With the strength of Superman and the speed of Seabiscuit, there’s no question that an ill-tempered bear of either subspecies can ruin your day in a flash. Even if you have a big gun backing you up, you still have to get bowhunting close. When you get close, bears have the speed and agility to be on you before you have time to blink. And so, when bears get close, the hackles on my neck are at full attention, my heart starts beating madly and my palms start sweating. Everything slows way down: every sound, every puff of wind, every flutter of leaves on the trees is magnified tenfold.
In truth, most bear hunting is pretty routine, and dangerous incidents are quite rare. But, as the saying goes, it only takes one “Oh, poop!” to erase 10 “Attaboys.”
Ursus Arctos Horribilis
Taxonomically speaking, the mountain, or interior, grizzly bear and the coastal brown bear of Alaska are the same species, the only difference being that one is much larger due primarily to a diet rich in salmon. Both can be your worst nightmare.
For example, I have a good friend and crackerjack Alaska guide, Scott Newman, who was mauled badly after going in by himself after a brown bear a client shot poorly with a rifle. Luckily Scott killed the thing with his .416, but not before it put him in the hospital for nearly a month. Another good friend and super guide has only had to shoot one bear at close range in self defense in 25 years, but that one came at him through impenetrable brush from behind when he was deer hunting on Kodiak Island. He heard “something,” and when he whirled around all he saw – as he later told me – were “lips and canines.” He shot the bear in the face with a .458 Win Mag. At 8 feet.
I arrowed my last brown bear – and I have killed 12 of the grizzly/brown bear variety (three of them with my bow) – 10 years ago this fall. I was not at full strength having had back surgery just six weeks prior, but I was able to guide a couple clients before we had a week left in the season for me to hunt for myself. A couple of days before being successful, three of us were in hip boots hiking up a salmon stream raging from torrential rains. This creek was full of brown bears of all sizes and shapes. In fact, we had showed a client 74 different bears in two days on this stream the week prior; it terrified him so much he pulled the plug on his very pricey hunt and went home.
We set up on a bear hole that afternoon with no success, but as we hiked down the river back to the boat we spotted a dandy boar cruising the stream bank. Jim pulled out his fawn bleat call – something we have used to call both black and brown bears right into our laps – and gave it a go.
One thing I have learned about calling bears is that someone needs to be watching the back door, because you never know who might try to sneak in. While Jim and his assistant watched the bear we had seen, I turned and watched our rear. Without warning a huge brown bear sow accompanied by a 300-pound cub launched over a downed log 75 yards behind us. She had heard the deer call and was coming to dinner! The sound of the rushing stream made hearing her approach impossible. All I had was my bow, so I started screaming, “Hey, hey, hey!!!” as loud as I could. Fortunately Alfredo heard me and whirled around, saw what was happening and fired his .458 at the feet of the charging sow. The bullet striking the rocks turned her and the cub, who blasted by us into the brush at a distance measured in feet, not yards. Had I not been watching and Alfredo not reacted instantly, there’s no doubt in my mind that someone would have been pancaked. For good.
A few years prior Jim and I hiked up another salmon stream looking for bears, to no avail. It was a mile back to the little cabin we were camped in, in the pitch dark, when suddenly our headlamps showed us three sets of eyes a hundred yards downstream. Uh, oh. That meant a sow and two cubs. The eyes then disappeared into the brush, and seconds later one set emerged. The sow had taken her cubs to safety and returned. She came as fast as she could, snarling, growling and popping her teeth – sounding like a banshee from hell. She stopped 20 yards away across a small stream, stood up on her hind legs and really started screaming. I kept my light on her while Jim brought the .458 to bear, firing two shots into the water at her feet. She didn’t even flinch. Again, all I had was my bow, and I was feeling pretty naked as I, trying to keep my headlamp in her eyes, dug into Jim’s daypack looking for more bullets as he covered the bear with the rifle. Then, for a reason only she knows, she woofed loudly at us, turned and left in a huff.
I am not embarrassed to tell you I nearly wet my pants on that one. Or that when we got back to the cabin we pretty much emptied the bourbon bottle.
There have been many more close encounters with big bears. I have had to go into the thick stuff twice to root out wounded bears, and that is never any fun. I love hunting them as much as anything I have ever chased around, but you definitely have to pay attention!
Black bears are another story. I shot my first black bear trailing some wonderful hounds in western Oregon in the 1980s – back when dog hunting was legal there. Since then I have hunted them all across North America in every legal way imaginable. It’s great fun, and very challenging.
And lest you think black bears are big, cuddly critters that would love for you to pet them, consider this: Over the past 110 years, a total of 63 people have been killed in 59 non-captive bear attacks, most of those occurring in Canada and Alaska, according to a study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Sows protecting their cubs, you say? The vast majority of the attacks – 92 percent to be exact – were carried out by predatory lone male bears. In other words, they weren’t scared – they were trying to take down a human for supper. And while most black bear attacks occur in Alaska and western Canada, that fact is of little comfort to the family of 22-year-old Darsh Patel. On September 21, 2014, Patel was hiking with four friends in the Apshawa Preserve near West Milford, New Jersey, when a black bear started following them. The hikers ran in different directions and found that Patel was missing when they regrouped. Authorities found Patel’s body after searching for two hours. According to the State Department of Environmental Protection, the last fatal bear attack in New Jersey was in 1852.
Most of the time bowhunting black bears isn’t an overly frightening affair – at least not until you have one try to climb into your treestand with you while you are sitting over bait. That’s happened to me three different times, and each time a quick movement has sent the bear skedaddling. I show sows with cubs great respect, of course, but am much more worried about grizzly sows with cubs than a black bear mama and her offspring. If there is food involved, there can be problems. And you always have to take great care with a wounded bear, which is one reason why, whenever and wherever it is legal, I believe in bringing a firearm along when bowhunting bears of any size and shape.
One place I have seen a high percentage of really aggressive black bears is on an island I used to hunt in southeast Alaska that gets a big run of salmon up its streams in summer and early fall. These streams meander through the thick jungle-like old growth forest, where visibility is usually measured in bow range. Creeping along still-hunting can be quite eerie, especially with fish carcasses with their heads bitten open and innards sent flying littering the stream banks. Here the big old boars rarely see people and are very protective of their fishing holes. It did not take long before we gave them the same respect we give brown bears.
Are You Ready?
Bowhunting bears is a special thing, because bears are special animals. Old bears – I had one brown bear I shot aged at 21 years – are extremely smart. Their sense of smell must be respected as you would respect the nose of any old whitetail buck. Their hearing is acute, their eyes good but not great, and their speed and power unmatched. Arrows must be precisely placed, or the odds of recovery without the aid of hounds are not good.
Are you ready for the challenge?