By Bernie Barringer
The most heartbreaking moments I have had in hunting involve making a bad shot and losing a bear. There's nothing quite like the sickening feeling of shooting something and not being able to recover it. I'm not an Olympic or champion archery shot by any means, and it's hard to blow a 15- to 20-yard shot on a bear. I have been fortunate that problem shots I have been involved in are mostly not caused by poor shooting, but by a poor choice of a shot angle.
Bears can contort themselves into angles that few other animals can. Deer, for example, can't just plop down on their butt, put their front feet up on a barrel, or simply lie down while eating. Bears will do all that and more. When a buck wants to look behind him, he turns his long neck and looks over his shoulder. A bear will curl his body into a C shape to look behind him.
Bowhunters need to be aware of the constantly shifting body positions of bears and how these body angles affect the position of the vitals before any arrow 1s turned loose. Getting a double lung shot or heart penetration will make your recovery so much easier, so watching for the right body angle is critical.
Back in the 1980s, a bear hunt was nothing more than a dream for this bow hunter. A buddy showed up at my house with a VCR tape about bear hunting over bait in Alaska. Watching it, I was surprised to learn that the narrator kept hammering home the theme that a bowhunter should never shoot at a bear unless the bear was slightly quartering away with its nearside front leg reaching forward. These guys were totally adamant that no other shot should be taken. It seemed downright obsessive and unnecessary to me at the time.
Now, having killed more than 20 bears with a bow, I realize that these guys weren't too far off. Considering their wood-and-wheel bows of the time were only reaching speeds and energy levels that would be laughable today, a pass-through was rare on a large bear. obviously, they didn't like tracking wounded bears with minimal blood trails.
Today's bows are lightning fast and our broadheads sharp so we have more options, but we must still be patient and wait for a good body position on a bear before we put pressure on the trigger.
Bears often look broadside when they are not. A small curve towards the shooter might mean the difference between a perfect double-lung and a long blood trail. It also means the scapula or front leg might reduce the size of your target. Bears have big, thick bones which must be avoided. I suppose this is the reason there is a common belief that we should shoot for the middle of the bear. In an article published in Bear Hunting Magazine, the author described how he likes to shoot for the "middle of the middle. But we need to be careful how far we take that line of thought.
A bear's vitals are a little bit lower and a little bit back from the location of the vitals on a deer. But every bear looks bigger than it actually is because of its long fur. This is especially true in the spring. Once you get the skin off the bear you realize just how small the perfect target can be. A shot in the middle of the bear will probably kill the bear, but that shot has no margin for error. Better to shoot for the ribs; if you are a few inches off and hit the bear in the middle, you still have a killing shot. If you aim for the middle but hit four inches back, you have a gut-shot bear. It can be very tempting to shoot a bear that's lying down, propped up on a barrel, sitting, quartering towards you or has a front leg covering part of the vitals. But bowhunters who do so will find that the bad post-shot experiences far outnumber the good. The beauty of hunting calm bears at a bait site or slowly feeding on a mountainside is that you have plenty of time to wait for the right shot opportunity and it will almost always come. If not, there will be others at a later time. Better to be patient, even to the point of passing up a bear, than to be crawling through the brush following the blood trail of a bear which may not be dead. I've done that and gotten away with it, but each time, I am wondering if this will finally be the time some wounded bear really ruins my day.
I'm afraid I have learned some of these lessons the hard way. I have assembled some photos that will help you analyze several angles. Take a look at each of the accompanying photos and the descriptions and it will help you decide what shots might have a more positive outcome.