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Black Bears: When Close Becomes Too Close

Bowhunters want to hunt their way in as close as possible, but this is a little ridiculous!

Black Bears: When Close Becomes Too Close

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As I watched the small bear on the bait, my watch read 11:55. My pickup time was approaching, so I quietly grabbed my quiver and slipped my arrow into it. Then I noticed the bear look up. It quickly moved off into the bush. Looking in the opposite direction, I saw another bear headed to the bait, so I quickly put my arrow back on my bowstring and prepared for a possible shot opportunity.

As the bear slowly approached the bait, I immediately recognized it as the one I’d named “2½ Ring,” because his back was between the second and top rings of the bait barrel. The 12-yard shot was good, and the bear ran 20 yards to my right, stood and looked around, then slowly walked away from me. As the bear disappeared, I heard my guide’s truck on the nearby road. That was close — too close!

This story began in the summer of 2012, when my good friend Kirk Peters mentioned a bear hunt planned with a group of friends in the spring of 2014. They were booked with Ryan Derlago at his Stickflingers bear camp. It sounded like a great hunt, so I told Kirk that if anybody in the group cancelled, I would be interested in filling in. Kirk called a few weeks later to let me know that he had two hunters cancel, and so the long wait for the spring of 2014 began.

Time flies, and the next thing I knew I was in Ryan’s bear camp for a six-day hunt. Ryan uses barrels at all his bait sites, and he gave us a pre-hunt speech on how to use the barrels to judge a bear’s size. Ryan told us that if a bear’s back (when he’s standing on all fours) was as tall as the barrel, you should shoot him. If his back was even with the second ring on the barrel, he was an average bear. Ryan also noted that oftentimes the bears will knock over the barrel. Should that be the case, Ryan told us to imagine trying to stuff the bear inside the barrel. If you think the bear would easily fit, he’s not a big bear. But if you don’t think you could get the whole bear in the barrel… shoot him!

My first evening was spent close to camp at a bait called the “Sand Pit.” I enjoyed watching a couple nice bears that evening, but my first sit ended without seeing a bear worth shooting. The next three nights ended the same as the first, with me returning to camp with a full quiver of clean arrows.

Come Day Five, the only hunters in camp with unfilled tags were me and Kirk’s friend Jimmy. Time was growing short, but Jimmy and I now had a lot more flexibility in choosing stand locations.

This is the pointblank view of the bait barrel from my “chair blind.”

Ryan suggested that I sit a stand they called “Too Close,” because it had not been hunted for a few days and was a consistent producer. The name came from the fact that it was too close to the road, but that didn’t seem to matter to the bears.

Too Close was near an old overgrown road cut. The bait was in the bottom of the cut on the north side, with the “stand” along the top of the south bank. All the other baits we’d hunted that week were from treestands, but this one was a chair on the ground. In the past, some branches had been piled in front to provide concealment, but they had weathered to the point they no longer afforded much cover. The chair was placed in front of a small tree, which broke up my outline. I was anxious to see what it would be like to be at eye level with the bears.

It was a cool, cloudy afternoon, with occasional light rain. It wasn’t long before a small bear showed up at the bait. I assumed he was a year-old bear at best and weighed less than 100 pounds. But he was a bear, and fun to watch for a kid from Nebraska. After a while, he was joined by another small bear that looked like his twin. They chased each other around and took turns eating.

Then the newcomer chased the first bear up the old roadbed to the west. Moments later, they came back — and right at me! When the first bear got within about five yards of me, he saw something wasn’t right and cut around the brush in front of me while the chaser disappeared behind me. I was surrounded! The bear in front was clearly curious about the blob on the trail and stood about 10 feet away, staring at me. He was pretty close… Too close! Eventually, the little guy wandered back over to the bait, ate a bit, and then disappeared back into the bush.

A half-hour later, another bear showed up. This bear did me the favor of standing directly against the barrel, and I could plainly see it was 2½-rings tall. I looked it over and figured I could probably stuff it in the barrel without much effort. It was late in the hunt, but I decided to let the evening play out.

Suddenly, the 2½-ring bear looked up and then took off. I froze, scanning the bush, and soon spotted movement. It was a bigger bear, and he paced back and forth on the top of the cut across from me, popping his jaws. I did not move a muscle, as this was a bear I would definitely shoot if given a chance.


It’s hard to say how long he went back and forth, but I felt like I had not so much as twitched for 15 minutes. The big bear finally made it to the bait, 15 yards away, and it looked like my opportunity was going to happen. And then, still motionless as I imagined him settling in and hopefully giving me an opportunity to draw my bow, something seemed to bump my shoulder. A second push on my back pulled me out of my trance. I slowly turned my head to look, and there, not three feet away, stood a bear — slowly backing away as I made eye contact. That was all the commotion the big bear needed to decide it was time to split. He was gone in an instant.

Too close? Yeah, I suppose I should have been scared. Or maybe mad at him for messing up my chance at the big bear. But the truth is, I started laughing to myself. I couldn’t help but see the humor in what had just happened. The little bear got the drop on me when he finally decided to come figure out just what I was. And the goofy look on his face when our eyes met? The whole episode was hilarious!

That was pretty much the end of the hunt, as darkness was fast approaching. I gathered up my gear and headed out to the road to wait for my ride. Ryan and Mike were both amused as I told my story on the ride back to camp. They told me I was the first hunter they’d ever heard of who tried to play tag with bears! A new experience in their camp.

For the final day of my hunt, it was decided that I’d sit both morning and evening. I liked the setup at Too Close and thought there was a chance the bigger bear would come back. As we headed out that final morning, I told everybody if the 2½-ring bear showed up again, I would not hesitate to shoot.

It was a glorious spring morning that found me settling into my chair about 9 a.m. I had been sitting for almost two hours with no action, when I just happened to turn my head to look behind me, and there was my little buddy sneaking up behind me again. Not this time, my friend!

As our eyes met, he looked away and then quickly disappeared into the woods behind me. But never fear, because about 15 minutes later, he calmly wandered down the old roadbed to the bait and started to eat. At least now I knew where he was and had some entertainment that didn’t involve my direct participation!

This is the 2 1/2-Ring bear I arrowed the day after my close encounter.

And that brings us back to 11:55 a.m., and the scene at the beginning of this story.

The bear I shot had walked out of sight and away from the direction of my pickup vehicle, allowing me to quietly slip toward the road. Experienced guides are hard to fool, and Ryan and Mike immediately asked me about my missing arrow.

“I just shot a bear,” I told them.

“When?” they asked.

“11:57,” I replied.

They looked at the clock in the truck and gave me a confused look. This was because the truck clock was more than a few minutes behind my watch and hadn’t even reached 11:57.

When we returned to the site, I showed Ryan where the bear had briefly stood before walking off and immediately spotted blood. I was pleased that Ryan told me to go ahead and track the bear. He let me take the lead, and a short distance later we found the bear after it turned off the trail just enough to get to the edge of a swampy area. The double-lung shot was the perfect ending to a fun hunt. The bear had a good hide, and the meat was delicious.

Sometimes I wonder if that small bear is now an eight or nine-year-old bear, hanging out around the stand called Too Close, waiting for a rainy day to sneak up on some poor, unsuspecting hunter. He would be quite a bit larger at this point, so it probably would not be so amusing to his new victim, and there’s no doubt that hunter would think the bear was “too close!”

The author is a dyed-in-the-wool traditional archer who has been on the board of the National Bowhunter Education Foundation for over 22 years. He lives in Ainsworth, Nebraska.

Author’s Note: On this hunt I used my trusty Bear Takedown recurve, ash arrows I built myself, and Grizzly broadheads.

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