Bowhunting Brown Bear
March 16, 2011
"'¦I find it much more stressful to be the guide carrying the rifle than the hunter carrying the bow."
I'd been out in the bush so long I didn't know what day it was anymore, but I did know it was crunch time.
I was pleased to help Wisconsin bowhunter Bob Shultz place a happy exclamation point on his Alaska brown bear hunt.
The wind had risen out of the west overnight. Forty-knot gusts had made the run across the lake in a skiff wet and dicey, and if the storm kept building, we faced the possibility of being unable to make it back to camp on the other side. But the real problem -- a large brown bear that might or might not be dead -- lay in the thick tangle of alders in front of us.
The challenge began the evening before, when I spotted a large boar working his way down the beach with the wind at his back while diving for the late run red salmon migrating along the far side of the lake. Five of our six hunters had already tagged out on good bears -- one with his bow, four with rifles -- so Wisconsin bowhunter Bob Shultz had me and my fellow guides Bob May and Ernie Holland all to himself. Bob May has probably had as much brown bear experience as anyone in Alaska, but he had never backed up a bowhunter and was eager to do so. Consequently, I stayed behind to watch the bear and offer hand signals while Ernie ran the two Bobs across the lake and dropped them off in position for an ambush.
This looked like another ideal situation, similar to encounters we'd been experiencing all week. Both of the rifle hunters I'd guided had taken their bears from 20 yards or closer, and I'd been within bow range of another half-dozen brownies without even trying. But this particular bear hadn't grown old by being dumb. After Ernie dropped the others on the beach, the bear took a long, hard look at the boat and stepped into the alders, never to be seen again.
But I'd already spotted another bear approaching from the opposite direction and had begun to give hand signals to that effect. Matters really grew complicated when yet a third bear appeared and set off on an apparent collision course with the second bear and the hunters, who were by then hidden in the grass above the beach. Knowing they couldn't see either animal, I did my best to convey the situation to them but wasn't sure my hand signal vocabulary was extensive enough to describe the developing events. The last bear to appear reached the concealed hunters first. Although not as big as the first of the trio, he looked like a solid boar, and I hoped Bob would choose to take him.
When the bear suddenly whirled and disappeared up the bank and into the brush I knew Bob had shot, even though rain and distance kept me from evaluating the hit.
By this time the second bear, still out of sight from the hunters, was closing fast from the opposite direction. Ernie made a valiant effort to haze him away with the skiff, but to no avail. Ernie reached the hunters just ahead of the bear, but even a warning shot from his .375 had no effect on the animal. After a tense standoff, the bear finally continued up the beach, leaving everyone with a case of jangled nerves.
By the time I reached the scene in our second skiff, Bob May had made a cautious approach to the alders where the wounded bear had disappeared, only to be backed off by a series of menacing growls. I convinced everyone that the best immediate course of action would be a retreat to the beach to analyze the situation and consider our options.
Breaking camp at the end of the season is bittersweet for me.
Bob Shultz was certain that he'd seen his arrow pass all the way through the bear and was happy with its placement, with one caveat -- at the exact moment he had released, the bear had turned slightly toward him.
"Might be a little far back," he conceded. We all knew what that meant.
Several factors complicated our decision-making. Steady rain promised to eliminate any blood sign overnight. Furthermore, deteriorating weather meant that we might not make it back across the lake the next morning. Unaccustomed to bowhunters, Bob May was all for settling matters then, one way or another. Ernie was ambivalent. I argued strongly that the most likely result of going in immediately would be a bullet hole in what should have been a bow kill (with several even-less-pleasant outcomes possible as well). Bob Shultz later thanked me for holding sway.
And that's how we came face to face the following morning with one of the tensest situations a bowhunter will ever have to face.
I dislike any mention of firearms in bowhunting stories, where they occasionally appear when a bowhunter shares a camp with gun hunters or decides to finish up an awkward situation with a rifle. But they do have one legitimate place -- when the quarry truly qualifies as dangerous game.
Despite extensive African bowhunting experience, including face time with the Big Five, I've never even touched a backup rifle there. I've also had considerable experience with Asiatic water buffalo in Australia but have always relied on my wits and judgment rather than firearms to keep me out of trouble with them.
Which brings us to North America, where I think only one big game species (other than the seldom hunted polar bear) really qualifies as dangerous game. Sure, black bears, cougars, and wild hogs are all potentially dangerous, but none triggers screaming alarms in my brain, and armed with nothing but a bow I've hunted all three for decades.
Ursus arctos is another matter. Whether classified as coastal brown bears or interior grizzlies, these animals are large, aggressive, and unpredictable. I've carried backup rifles for bowhunting friends in Russia and Alaska, and I still guide seasonally for Master Guide Bob Cusack on the upper Alaska Peninsula. This experience has taught me plenty about bears, the outdoors, and myself, and a lot of that knowledge translates to personal bowhunting situations. (In Alaska, a guide cannot hunt while guiding hunters. Otherwise, I'd have a house full of brown bear hides!)
Here's one of my observations: A bear hit with a properly placed arrow is usually less trouble than one hit in the same place with a bullet. Charges after the shot are less likely, and recovery distances are often shorter. I attribute this apparent paradox to the bear's response triggered by the noise and impact of a rifle shot.
I can also tell you that having played both roles, I find it
much more stressful to be the guide carrying the rifle than the hunter carrying the bow. Given the vastly superior stopping power of a large-caliber rifle, that conclusion also seems paradoxical. But when push comes to shove, the guide with the rifle who will have to take the responsibility and make the hard decisions, sometimes instantly.
Responsibility and hard decisions? That sounds almost as bad as a real job.
So there we were. Bob May felt that he had an accurate fix on the growling he'd heard the night before, and we decided to start with a careful sweep through that area. After a long, anxious night, Bob Shultz was willing to help any way he could, but he didn't argue when we pointed out that the best place for him was out on the beach and out of the way.
Ernie and I agreed later that this was the nastiest piece of cover we'd ever entered in search of a bear. In addition to the usual alder jungle, ferns and grass tall enough to hide a crouching bear covered much of the ground. The search resembled a military operation more than a bowhunt, with just one of us moving at a time while the other two established fields of fire through the alders and provided cover. An hour of this left us with frayed nerves, soaked clothing, and no sign of the bear.
That failure provided me the opportunity to do what I should have done in the first place -- back off and think like a bowhunter. I asked Bob to replay the shot and mark where he'd seen the bear disappear into the brush as closely as possible. A search of that area soon produced his intact arrow lying in the grass. The rain overnight had almost washed it clean, but I could see enough traces of blood to convince me it had passed through the bear's chest.
And while the rain had eliminated any possibility of a blood trail, I could pick out enough broken fern stalks to follow the animal's track with confidence. With Ernie on one side of me and Bob May on the other, I kept my eyes glued to the ground while my friends provided cover. Ten minutes later we found the bear, stone dead from a pass-through at the base of both lungs. The boar had gone less than 100 yards.
Breaking camp the following day proved to be a bittersweet experience. A high-pressure system had pushed away the rain clouds, leaving the tundra's autumn colors sparkling in the sunlight. As usual, I told myself that I was just too old to keep doing this for another season. And, as usual, I knew that I was lying.