After all the work to get within shooting distance of a big bear, you need confidence in your ability to make a great shot. Bears are big, tough animals that are unforgiving when hit badly. Many new bear hunters use shot placement and strategy derived from experience in deer hunting, but bear anatomy is slightly different. More importantly, a bear’s body structure allows for some odd angles and considerations that the bear hunter must understand. Here are five keys to making a great shot this spring.
Go for a Double-Lung Hit Bears seem to always be moving, especially when you’re hunting them over bait. Perhaps it’s a predatory instinct in humans, but seeing our prey move makes us feel like we have to act quickly. The impulse to rush the shot is probably the biggest mistake a bear hunter can make.
My favorite shot is a broadside or slightly quartering shot with the nearside front shoulder forward or straight down. A broadside shot gives the most room for error and the greatest opportunity for the most lethal hit of all—a double lung shot. In my opinion, the heart shot is overrated. A double lung hit will often kill an animal quicker, it’s a larger target, and the organs are further away from big bones that stop penetration.
Bears have an unusual body structure that allows them to contort in all types of odd shapes. It can be sitting on its rump like a dog or be in a “cupped” shape with its head and rump closer to you than the torso. It could be sprawled out lying on its belly or standing up on two legs. All of these positions are much different than a deer. During the magic time when a bear is in shooting range, they’ll more often be in a bad shot position than a favorable one. You’ll need to be disciplined and wait for a broadside shot, especially if using a bow.
Hunting with firearms is more forgiving. A high-shoulder hit will drop a bear, but I still suggest a double lung hit. If you’ve got a big caliber gun, a frontal shot square in the sternum is deadly, but requires precision. If you’ve got the time, my advice is to wait for a broadside shot with firearm or bow.
Prioritize a Pass-Through Shot Bears are notoriously hard to blood trail. Their long hair and fat seem to soak up blood that would usually land on the ground. Additionally, they often inhabit thick, dense brush, which makes tracking more difficult.
Whether you’re shooting a rifle or a bow, prioritize getting an entrance and exit wound. With a rifle, shoot a bullet that maximizes penetration over expansion. When archery hunting, use a broadhead that maximizes penetration. I don’t suggest using expandable broadheads.
Other than bullets or broadheads, the most critical component to consider is shot placement and angle. The best opportunity to get a pass-through shot is when the bear is broadside. If he’s at a steep quartering angle, you won’t get a pass through and will be trailing a bear with a single entry wound. If you’re hunting out of a treestand, it will be a high wound and will bleed very little. The bear will die quickly, but without a blood trail he might be hard to find.
I almost didn’t recover the largest-skulled bear I’ve ever killed, even though he was less than 150 yards from where I shot him. A steep angled, quartering-away shot from a treestand left me with only an entry wound and no blood. Luckily, we stumbled on the bear the next morning. If I’d waited for a broadside shot, I would have likely recovered the bear within 30 minutes of the shot.
Middle of the Middle Many Canadian outfitters have had great results instructing their clients with the descriptive phrase “middle of the middle” for shot placement. I don’t disagree, but I would like to make a slight adjustment: “middle of the middle and then back towards the shoulder a few inches.”
If you take the original phrase literally, you’d be shooting towards the back edge of the lungs and directly at the liver. I like to aim closer to the shoulder without hugging it too tightly. The reason for the popularity of this phrase has to do with the greater margin of error—a bear shot towards the front section of the gut usually dies fairly quickly. I’m not suggesting a gut shot, but it is better than a shoulder shot with archery equipment. With a rifle, your margin for error is larger.
I’ve personally done a necropsy on a bear and found that the lungs extend back to the second-to-last rib. A bear’s elongated frame translates to lungs that are slightly (and I mean slightly) further back than a deer. Many bear hunters have been indoctrinated by whitetail shot placement, which doesn’t translate perfectly to bears.
Aiming towards the center-mass of the body cavity is important, I like to shoot about 4 to 5 inches back from the shoulder on a broadside bear. Bears have soft skins and the rib bones are fairly light. The biggest threat to penetration is the front shoulder—stay away from it.
Don’t Shoot Too Low “Low and tight” to the shoulder is a great shot on a deer. Bowhunters typically aim low on deer because they drop at the sound of the shot. A bear doesn’t have the same flight response as a deer, so aiming extremely low isn’t necessary and can even be bad.
Bears often have a thick layer of fat and long hair on their belly. Because of this, the bottom silhouette of a bear is deceptive. You’ll need to aim well above it to get into the chest cavity. I’ve witnessed multiple bears wounded because the hunter tried to heart-shoot them like a whitetail. A deer has short hair and little fat. A bear really isn’t as big as he looks because of hair and fat, which is why aiming at the middle mass, not towards the periphery of the animal, is so important.
A low-hit bear will often bleed very well for a period of time, then the blood will begin to turn watery and eventually disappear. It’s easy to go on “auto-pilot” when a bear walks up. I once heard the phrase, “You won’t rise to the occasion, but you’ll default to your training.” You’ve got to intentionally train yourself where to aim on a bear.
Don’t Get “Blacked” Out A few years ago, a Boone and Crockett-class black bear sashayed into my bait with confidence. He was only 11 yards away when I drew the bow and looked through the peep. I could see the glowing pin well, but my sight window was full of black fur! I had no idea where I was aiming. More than once while bowhunting bears at close range using riflescopes and archery sights I’ve had this harrowing experience. The black color absorbs shadows, making it difficult to distinguish lines and body parts. Through the sight window I couldn’t tell where I was aiming. The lighter fur of other game animals helps highlight the body with defining shadows—not so much on a bruin.
What should you do? Be patient. Pull your eye away from the scope or peep and look at the bear with your naked eye, then look back through the aiming apparatus. After doing this a few times, you’ll get your bearings. Every time this happens I’m tempted to pull the trigger before being 100% sure where I’m aiming. It’s so close it seems hard to miss. The only advice I have is to be patient and take an extra 10 seconds before shooting.
Bears are not hard animals to kill with a firearm or a bow. A well-hit bear won’t last long, but they are extremely unforgiving when hit marginally. In summary, only take broadside shots, prioritize getting a pass-through, aim about 4 to 5 inches back from the shoulder on a broadside bear, and don’t shoot too low. Finally, remember that bear isn’t as big as he looks. He’s got a nice layer of fat and fur coat that may be 3 to 4 inches long.
This article first appeared in Bear Hunting Magazine.
Feature image via Tony Bynum.