By Bernie Barringer
I do bear hunting seminars at sports show across the Midwest each year, and I work in booths at these shows for some of the companies I partner with. I get asked a lot of questions. I have found that there are a few common things that come up often, and one of these is the way people envision how and where to shoot a bear with an arrow.
With very few exceptions, the hunters asking these questions have experience bowhunting deer and many have a hard time letting go of their notion that shooting a bear is just like shooting a deer. But if you look at the vital organs on a bear, they are not only different in position, but in size. Let’s take a look at some of these issues and examine how a better understanding of the bear’s vitals can help you make more of the quick, clean, humane kills that we all desire.
Here’s one of the most difficult concepts to grasp. A bear doesn’t run much and doesn’t need the lung capacity that a deer does. Deer are built for speed and endurance, while bears are built for short rushes. The size of their lungs reflects that. The lungs of a 180-pound buck are much larger than the lungs of a 180-pound bear. You’ve got a smaller target on the bear. That is somewhat offset by the wide variations in sizes of bears. You may be about to shoot at a 180-pound bear one minute when a 480-pound bear walks in the next. You’ll never see that kind of variation in deer. Still, despite the larger target on a big bear, you’re still shooting at roughly the size of the lungs of a big buck.
A bear’s lungs set a little farther back and lower in a bear’s body cavity. A deer’s lungs are partially covered by the shoulder blade. A bear’s lungs sit almost entirely behind and below the shoulder blade. This is complicated by the fact that bears have longer fur than a deer, so there’s more space above the lungs where you don’t want to hit. On a deer, anything below the spine in the front half of the deer will get your arrow into the lungs, but in a bear, you’ll want your arrow in the bottom half of this area.
A deer’s heart is partially covered by the lungs so you can shoot the top of the heart, where all the arteries are attached, and still get some lungs for a very lethal shot. The bear’s heart sits low in the body cavity and is a very small target with little margin for error. The position of a bear’s heart in relation to the fur on its brisket can make this position deceiving. It’s better to shoot for the lungs and if you hit the top of the heart, all the better.
The last rib on a bear sits farther back than on a deer, and that’s the approximate location of the diaphragm. Shoot a hole in that diaphragm and you’re going to get at least liver, which is not a bad shot on a bear. A bear doesn’t normally panic and run full tilt until it falls over like a deer is prone to do. There are exceptions, but a bear is more likely to run a short distance, then start walking. As soon as he feels weak, he’ll usually lay down. This is not always the case but this general rule holds true most of the time.
So if you shoot the bear roughly in the middle, it’s most likely going to be a killing shot and you’re bear is going to be within 100 yards or so. There are exceptions; I have seen really big bears just walk away and keep walking. They may go 300-400 yards before dying when they do that because they aren’t using up as much oxygen with such little exertion.
You’ll often hear people say that bowhunter should shoot a bear in “the middle of the middle” which I personally believe is not the best advice. True, if you hit the bear right in the middle, you’ve likely hit the back of the lungs, the diaphragm and the liver. You’re going to have a dead bear in 30 seconds or less. But the problem comes in when you take into account that most bear hunters are not perfect shots and the adrenaline involved can cause even the most accurate target archer to waver on the shot position. I recommend that you shoot for about 4-6 inches in front of the middle. That way if your shot is off a little either way, you’re still right in the kill zone and you’ll find your bear lying in heap at the end of a good blood trail within 100 yards.
It’s really important to keep these things in mind when choosing where to shoot a bear. And the time to think it through and analyze your shots is before the bear you want to shoot presents itself. Spend some time shooting at a bear 3D target and also when you are looking at bears you do not plan to shoot, focus your attention on where you would shoot them. Burn your eyes into the spot you would want your arrow to hit. When that big old bear comes swaggering in and your adrenal glands dump their magic potion into your bloodstream, you’ll be much more likely to keep your cool and make a perfect shot right where you want it to be.