Most bowhunters get their start chasing deer, but when the interest in taking a second species flares up, one big game animal gets more attention than any other: the black bear. If you’re a bowhunter who has been thinking about doing a bear hunt, think no more and start acting.
Back in the 1990s, I had more than 20 years of deer hunting experience with the bow, but I had always had a hankering to shoot a bear. I knew about the excitement and adrenaline a bear hunt can provide, and I finally took the plunge. I booked a hunt with Chris Ford in north-central Minnesota. I had it planned out; I would hopefully shoot my bear, check that off my list, have a nice bear rug to show for it, and then move on.
It didn’t exactly work out that way. You see, I have now shot 16 bears, wrote a book on bear hunting, and I am certifiably addicted. So be forewarned that bear hunting has a lot of appeal, and one bear hunt often leads to another. Whether you are thinking about doing it yourself or hiring an outfitter, you really need to check this off your bucket list—but I am not responsible for where the ride takes you.
One of the greatest appeals of bear hunting is the shock value. Think of being in a deer stand with a deer coming. You hear the footfalls crunching in the leaves, or maybe you see the deer approaching across a field. A bear hunt is not like that.
Most bears are shot over bait because that’s the only way to realistically manage their numbers across the majority of their range. A bear bait is placed in thick cover in hopes of enticing the reclusive bruin into range during shooting hours. You don’t hear the bear coming. You don’t see the bear coming. Poof! There’s a bear and he’s right there in front of you. Your adrenaline glands dump their magic potion into your bloodstream and you do your best to control your breathing and heartbeat while you ready for a shot.
Add to all that excitement the fact that the bear could kill you. He probably won’t (bear attacks are very rare), but he could, and that’s enough to heighten the experience.
Say you’re interested in a bear hunt with a stick and string. Where do you start? If you live in good bear country, you have several options, but your best one is baiting (unless it is not allowed). Hound hunting is an option only if you have a huge volume of time and money to put into it. States that do not allow hounds or baits, such as Pennsylvania, have dismal success rates, as low as two percent. Spot and stalk hunting is primarily done in the open areas of the West, and it’s one good option for either a DIY hunt or a guided hunt.
Baiting is the way most bears are harvested across North America each year. I have shot bears over hounds, and on a 2013 spot and stalk hunt in British Columbia, I shot the 42nd bear I saw. It was a very hard six-day excursion and I was grateful to be one of the successful hunters. Yet I truly am drawn to hunting over baits, I suppose because the success rates are high and the number of bears and other wildlife I have viewed at baits is quite remarkable. I have seen just about every mammal and bird found in North America while sitting at a bear bait.
Since hunting for me is more about the experience than just the kill, I enjoy the long hours on stand observing nature go about her business. Of course, watching bears is fun and action-packed, too. On a spring hunt with a good outfitter in Canada, you are likely to see multiple bears each day so you can choose which one you want. This allows hunters to select mature males for harvest.
Where should you go? The three primary states for baited bear hunts in the Midwest are Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Minnesota bear tags can be drawn about every other to every third year, while Michigan’s tags often take four to five years of applications. Wisconsin’s huge numbers of people wanting to hunt bears makes for a long wait, often 10 years between tags.
Western states such as Wyoming and Idaho offer tags over the counter so you can plan a hunt and set out with a quick turnaround. The same goes for Alaska, where bears seem to be everywhere. Maine is a destination for bear hunters worldwide, with their large population of bears and established outfitters.
All across Canada, you will find hundreds of bear hunting outfitters to choose from. Their success rates are high and several offer both spring and fall hunting seasons. Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan are the primary destinations for American hunters. However, East Coast sportsmen and women tend to head for New Brunswick or Quebec.
The cost of a bear hunt varies quite a bit. At the low end, you can get a good hunt in Minnesota for $1,000 but you will be responsible for your own lodging and food. Most hunts in Canada will run from $2,200 to $3,000 but include food, lodging, license, care of your game, and in many cases fishing packages. Most of the bear licenses in Canadian provinces are distributed through the outfitters, so you must go with a guide to experience this fine hunting opportunity. The highest end of the pricing scale would be a boat-based hunt in coastal Alaska, which could run you upwards of $5,000 but also may include all the crab, shrimp, halibut, and salmon you can eat. That certainly has some appeal.
So if you have been kicking around the idea of getting a bear rug or mount for you home and some fine eating in the freezer, along with the adrenaline rich experience of bagging a bear with a bow, now is the time to stop dreaming and start planning. You will be glad you did.
Check out the video below for an example of a bear hunt:
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.
Images courtesy Bernie Barringer