Many bear hunters come from a background as a deer hunter. In fact, some studies have shown that while whitetail deer hunting is the number one big game pursuit among bowhunters, the second big game animal most bowhunters target is the black bear. Unfortunately, bowhunters who have experience in deer hunting often overlook the significant differences in black bear hunting when it comes to the importance of arrow penetration and shot placement.
Let me explain. The vitals—heart and lungs—of a bear are positioned differently than on a whitetail. That’s one component to this issue, another is that a black bear’s body is much thicker than a deer’s. A mature buck may weigh over 200 pounds, but a big bear can easily weigh twice that much, which means that there’s a lot more flesh and bone for the arrow to fully penetrate. The third component, and a very important one, is the bear has a thick layer of fur, and most likely a thick layer of fat underneath the fur.
So far this isn’t anything you don’t already know, but I’m leading up to the most important point in killing and retrieving a bear: You need full penetration and a low exit wound. A lot of deer hunters are fascinated by a big hole in a deer. That’s fine because a big hole in the right place will mean the deer will bleed a lot and go down quickly. But this doesn’t carry over into bear hunting. A big hole may or may not kill your bear, but a big hole without full penetration will hurt you chances of recovery.
If you do not have an exit wound on a bear, your chances of having a blood trail to follow are very low. Add that to the fact that most bear hunting takes place in areas with thick, leafy green cover rather than open hardwoods with the leaves on the ground like you would normally encounter in deer hunting. After the shot, bears do not run usually as far as deer, but they can be a whole lot harder to find.
For these reasons, you should strive for full penetration to improve your blood trail, and a low exit wound that penetrates the vitals. This means you should choose an arrow and broadhead setup that offers a high level of kinetic energy and little resistance when contact is made. This is why most experienced bowhunters shy away from large expandable heads. Two small holes is better than one big hole any day.
Now that we have covered the issues with penetration, let’s talk about placement and angles. A bear’s vitals tend to sit a little lower in the body than a deer’s vitals. This compressed area leaves a smaller window for a double lung shot because the lungs are compressed. It is easier to put an arrow through both lungs and still contact the heart in a bear, something that’s tough to do on a deer.
Imagine sitting 18 feet high in a treestand deer hunting, and a deer walks by at 15 yards. You can easily make a double-lung shot on that deer. But suppose you are 30 feet up a tree and that deer is in the same spot, now you have a very small area in which you must place the arrow to send it through both lungs. If you are 18 feet up and the deer walks by five yards from the base of the tree, you have a tough, maybe impossible task of shooting an arrow through both lungs because the angle is just too steep.
When bear hunting over a bait we have a real advantage over deer hunters when it comes to shot angles. The bear is almost certain to be at a known distance from us. He will hopefully be at the bait presenting us with a nice broadside shot. So in order to get a double-lung pass-through, all we need to do is create the right angle by putting our treestand at the right height.
Because the bear’s vitals sit lower and are more compressed, we have a small window in which to perfect a double-lung shot. A stand 18 feet high and 15 yards from the bait is just about ideal. However, we don’t always have a tree in just the right spot, so some manipulation of the bait site and treestand height may be in order.
When choosing bait sites, keep this in mind. Don’t make the mistake of picking the bait site first and then look for a tree. In most cases, you will be better off picking the right tree, choosing the optimum height for the stand in that tree, then positioning the bait accordingly.
That doesn’t always work perfectly because nature doesn’t always cooperate. I shot a bear in Ontario last fall in which I was only ten yards from the bait, and only 12 feet up a tree because that was the only option on this site. I didn’t set the bait site up, it was a semi-guided hunt and the bait was established before I arrived.
This close-quarters hunting allows little room for error when it comes to movement. So when I looked at the shot angle, I knew I would have to be low to the ground with lots of background cover. In the end, it worked perfectly; I shot a bear through both lungs. My arrow was sticking in the ground on the opposite side of the bear as it death-moaned 40 yards away.
The ground around the bait site is often uneven rather than flat, which means adjustments must be made to the stand height based on the terrain. On steep hillsides, it seems to work best to put your stand at roughly the same elevation as the bait. If you are downhill, you may need to be way up into a tree. And if you are uphill from the bait, you may be too close to the ground to get away with any movement and you may have scent issues. Bears tend to approach baits from uphill or side-hill angles. This also gives you an advantage as evening thermals take your scent down the hillside.
Hunting from a ground blind offers another set of issues with shot placement. It’s no problem to get a double lung shot from the ground, the vitals are fully exposed at that angle. That’s one advantage to hunting from the ground. But in this case, it’s just as important to drive that arrow all the way through the bear, or all the blood may fill up the body cavity and leave you nothing to follow. It has been my experience that bears shot from a ground blind tend to run harder and farther than those shot from above. I suppose they feel more threatened when source of the arrow comes from their level rather than from above.
Anytime you are setting up a bait site, keep in mind the importance of shot angles. It’s easy to get so caught up in creating a situation where you can shoot a bear that you lose sight of the even more important aspects of recovering the bear.