Can it be a good mix?

By Dave Samuel (Field Editor) – Bear Hunting Magazine
March/April 2006

Why is it every time you mention to a houndsman that you want to harvest a bear with your bow you see his Adams apple slide up and down as he stutters for a moment before answering? Over the years I have had the chance to see bears harvested over hounds with a variety of weapons. First, let me say that I am not opposed to archery hunting or the use of archery equipment while hunting with hounds. I have had some great experiences and seen some great kills with bows. But I have also seen the opposite end of the spectrum.

Today’s modern archery equipment is phenomenal and more than capable of delivering instant death when in capable hands. I remember a bear harvested by Jason Suckow, now head of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for Wisconsin and Minnesota, when we treed a bear for him seven or eight years ago. Jason came from a family of hound hunters and knew the ropes when harvesting a bear. He knew we needed to tree the bear and it needed to be in the right position for him to make the shot deadly with the first arrow.

Val Carlson, Harv Klein and I were hunting together with Jason and it was late in the harvest season and Jason had only a couple of days left to hunt. We finally got a good bear in a tree and it was positioned so he had the correct angle.

I admit, I had never seen such a clean harvest with a bow before this. I was standing ready to hand Jason the gun after the first shot. I was hoping it was not going to be a hit in the wrong spot with problems soon to follow. When he released that arrow, I watched the shaft bury itself in the bear. The bear twitched once and fell out of the tree, dead as a doorknob. No quivering, no bellowing, nothing. Just as they say, graveyard dead.

Recently I guided a hunter by the name of Dave Grisar. He wanted to harvest his bruin with a bow. Even though I was reluctant, I agreed. He made the comment up front that he had been practicing but also said he would like to have a firearm at the tree to back up the shot, in case of problems. Leroy Butterfield and I treed the bear for him and he made good with his promise and made an excellent shot, harvesting his bear using his bow. The bear hung up in the tree when it died and he had to climb up to remove it. Of course, the dogs were still tied back and screaming their heads off while we were giving him a hard time during his climb.

I also recall a hunter we helped for another guide. He was having a bad string of luck at getting a bear treed. Later on, we ended up with a bear in a tree and offered to let his hunter shoot it. According to the hunter and his guide, he had practiced and could shoot super tight groups on a target at 25 yards all day long. This hunter came unglued when the rush of adrenaline from being in on a bear hit him. One arrow hit the tree and others were not even that close. This bear was within ten yards of him with a slight upward angle.

A couple of years ago, Paul Kraenbuhl’s dogs had done a super nice job on a bear and got it treed after a long run. My dogs had dropped out and his had stayed with the bear to the end. The hunter was determined to harvest it with a bow, and we agreed. The bear was less than 20 feet from the hunter and not very high up the tree. It appeared it would not be a problem taking this bear with a bow as he was totally exposed. It was a small tree to start with, the bear was close to 200 pounds and the angle was right. Again, another archer that could not hold it together when eye to eye with a bear. There were arrows sticking in the tree and laying on the ground in front of the hunter before it was all said and done. I will give him credit as he finally grabbed his muzzleloader and dispatched the bear cleanly.

What can you do to prepare yourself for harvesting a bear when you are hunting with hounds? The first thing to know is that you will not get the opportunity to harvest the bear with a bow if he is on the ground fighting the dogs. The arrow may not pass all of the way through and the dogs are liable to grab onto the arrow and get themselves cut up severely. Once the bear is dead on the ground it is not safe to allow the dogs to chew on an archery harvested bear until you know exactly where the shaft is and it is removed from danger.

How can you practice those steep shots straight up that will actually simulate a shot at a bear in the tree? I know of a very simple method. Fix your target up on a pulley system and raise it right up into a tree. Make it as realistic as possible. Change the angle and distance occasionally so you are comfortable judging the best angle of penetration to get to the vitals. You can also use a ladder to place a target up in the crotch of the tree. The idea is to simulate as closely as possible what you will find when your chance actually arrives.

With the new 3D targets you could easily hook up a pulley on a bear and hoist him up into the tree. Or you can use the ladder to place it up there and retrieve your arrows. Practice as much as you would out of your elevated stand for any other hunt. It may take some extra work, but it will be worth it in the long run. I recommend this be done on a regular basis leading up to your hunt. Not just a couple of times so you think you can hit your target, but numerous times until it becomes instinctive. You should practice at that angle the same as you would practice from an elevated stand before any other hunt.

When discussing this article with Jeff Folsom, Editor of Bear Hunting Magazine, he mentioned a great idea that I plan on incorporating into my hunts when taking out hunters that wish to harvest a bear over hounds using a bow. He had been on a guided bear hunt with hounds where the outfitter puts his archers to a test. He selects a limb in a tree about the same distance and angle from the bear and says if you can hit the limb, you can use your bow. If not, you will be required to use a gun.

Many hunters, with gun or bow, get “Bear Fever” when it is time to take the shot. The rush of adrenaline can really make you shake and get you very nervous. Take your time and calm down, you do not need to rush the shot. The idea of a practice shot can really help calm you down. If you have never harvested a bear before with bow and arrow, you do not know what being so close to a bruin feels like and a hound hunt may not be the best choice for your first archery experience.

I would offer this piece of advice to an archery hunter. When you get with your guide and are explaining to him or her that you want to use a bow, tell them how you have practiced and offer to show them you are capable of hitting a target when shooting straight up into a tree.

Most of all, show respect for the animal you want to harvest. If you cannot make a clean shot, do not take a chance. Be honest and tell your guide if you are not comfortable with the angle or the shot placement due to the angle. If you have doubts, express it openly to the guide so they can help. Occasionally, you can get a bear to move around in a tree by just tapping on the tree a little. Be aware that some bears will simply bail out of the tree and be gone when this is done, but some will just get a little nervous and move around which might improve your angle, or make it worse.

If, even after all of that, you are not comfortable, pass on the shot opportunity. Let your guide run and tree another bear and maybe that one will present what you need. The goal at all times, whether using a gun or bow, is to make a quick, clean kill. Take the time to practice and you will be the one they talk about that made the clean harvest and will be welcomed back again.