Feature Articles from BHM

Middle of the Middle

By Canadian bear guide, Rob Nye

No one likes to talk about wounding bears or, even worse, failing to recover a wounded bear after a poor shot. In my opinion the discussion must be brought up for the greater good of our sport.  I have been an archery-only black bear guide in the remotest regions of Saskatchewan for nearly three decades and have seen several hundred bears harvested with lethal hits by arrows. Unfortunately, I have also followed over 100 blood trails that ended in unrecovered animals. Yes, you’ve read that correctly, it is not a misprint. The wounding rate of bears by bowhunters can be high.

Sometimes the truth hurts.

The good news is that there is a foolproof (barring overt human error that defies logic and rationale) and simple way to absolutely ensure your arrow will kill a black bear in short order every single time.

Rob NyeMy specialty is guiding on northern lakes and river systems that have never been hunted. Every June I set up a comfortable tent camp and guide for bears that have never seen humans other than a few fishermen going by in a boat or flying overhead in a float plane. The bears in this region grow to a ripe old age so a high percentage of the hunters get shots at big, older age-class boars that are territorial, fearless and often downright grumpy.  In short order the bears discover my baits; the tastiest and easiest food source they have ever encountered and the action can be hot and heavy at times.

The same archery equipment you use to hunt deer will work on black bears, but if you are going to be a deadly-successful killer of bears, forget your deer-hunting expertise when you are seeking a trophy-class bruin. Your equipment can be the same but there are only a few similarities in the best way to kill a big bear. Deer do not have claws, teeth, superior strength and a lack of fear of humans. Deer aren’t predators, bears are. Buck fever and big-bad-bear fever are two totally different things. That’s why we’re bear hunters, right?

Deer encounters usually happen quickly. Shot opportunities are often rushed, resulting in poor shot placement. A bear coming to a bait is a more leisurely affair that gives the archer many advantages. The archery bear hunter usually knows the exact distance from the stand to the bait and most shots are in slam-dunk range. A variety of shot angles will be presented to a patient hunter as a bear moves around to feed. Sounds easy, right? It is, if you don’t shoot them like a deer, tight behind the shoulder. A bear’s vitals are located notably farther back in their body than a deer and you must shoot accordingly. One hundred percent of the wounded bears I have been unable to find were shot too far forward and either high or low. A front-end shot will result in a good-looking blood trail for a while but the spoor will gradually peter out. Bear hit like this will likely recover.

In spring 2013 a client shot a giant bear from a ground blind at 14 yards. It was his third time hunting with me but his first hunt on the ground. We knew a huge bear was hitting the bait so he and his guide built a natural blind and settled in to wait on a lovely June evening. It wasn’t’ long until the star of the show walked in and the guide’s video recorded the first shot hitting the bear low by the armpit. The bear walked a few feet into the brush and then licked its wound for several minutes. I’m certain that the arrow sliced the bottom of the bear’s brisket and never entered the chest. The hunter said he was relatively calm for the first shot but when the bear walked out broadside for the second time a few minutes later the result was worse. The second arrow was also tight to the foreleg but this time the high hit put the bear in high gear.

A sinking feeling overtook me when I saw the footage of the shots. Four of us spent several hours unraveling a long, winding, and sporadic blood trail. The bear finally quit bleeding, climbed a high ridge and disappeared.  My GPS indicated that the bear had traveled over 1,100 yards before we lost all sign. Several days later my trail camera revealed that the same bear returned to the bait but he was a lot wiser. He never showed himself when a hunter was in the blind.

My bowhunting mentor was one of the first modern bowhunters in Saskatchewan. Terry Graburn and a group of his friends were the first to hunt black bears with arrows in the early 1960s. At that time bears were considered vermin and there were no license requirements and no limits. He and his pals killed a lot of big bears and also wounded their fair share because they were shooting them like deer. 

On one occasion he was dismayed when he hit a very large bear over a foot back from where he was aiming and was convinced he had gut shot the bruin. To his surprise he watched the bear die before it got out of his sight. An autopsy revealed that his arrow had in fact penetrated the rear of both lungs and resulted in an ultra-quick kill. Terry and his pals revised their thinking and began to aim farther back on bears. Their wounding rate dropped to nearly zero. They coined the phrase “middle of the middle” to describe the proper place to put an arrow when hunting bruins.

Graburn taught me to shoot a bow and provided invaluable advice on hunting methods. Those lessons allowed me to experience quick success on my early bowhunting forays. My first few hunts for whitetails, mule deer and pronghorns produced good results with well-placed arrows tight behind the shoulder.

With meat in the freezer and horns on the wall, I felt I was ready to step up to the challenge of taking a black bear with a bow. When a big bear stood broadside I forgot about his advice to aim for “the middle of the middle.” I opted to shoot where I had experienced success on deer. I put my sight pin tight behind the shoulder and let fly. Unfortunately, my arrow hit the bear higher than I had planned. I searched for the bruin for several days but my efforts were fruitless. The following year, I shot a bear dead center in his middle and watched him go down in seconds.

An arrow placed tight behind the leg and 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of the chest will result in a killing shot on a bear, but if that arrow hits high or farther forward, chances for a clean kill and recovery are greatly reduced.

While a bear ribs are fairly light in stature, the shoulder blade is strong. The huge musculature of their front end can greatly impede penetration. Their rib cage extends much farther back than deer or other ungulates and protects their vitals, which also extend farther back. Most people are amazed when they see how far back the ribs of a bear actually extend. By aiming farther back and at the middle of the bear, from top to bottom, you will be assured of a killing shot that will miss the shoulder blade and hit the vitals.

In my opinion an arrow placed three inches forward of dead center is absolutely ideal and will penetrate both lungs on either a broadside or slightly quartering away shot. Most deer hunters experience a degree of anxiety when aiming at the middle of the bear for the first time because it seems foreign to them. However, it greatly reduces the chances of an errant shot. It basically gives you more room for error. If your arrow goes a few inches in any direction of this aiming point you will still kill the bear with either a double lung or liver shot.

It has been my experience that 99 percent of errant shots tend to land forward and not rearward of the aiming point, possibly because most bowhunters are used to shooting deer closer to the front and subconsciously compensate to shoot toward the front of the animal.

Bear Anatomy Rob Nye Woody SanfordVery few of my clients have ever gut-shot bears but the ones that have always recovered the animal. Bears are extremely unlikely to travel far after a paunch shot. On paunch-shot bears I insist on waiting six to eight hours before trailing. Paunch-shot bears will usually travel less than 300 yards. Most will be found dead in half that distance.

I know that aiming for the middle of an animal goes against the advice that most hunters have heard all their lives. One of my long-time clients has been bowhunting for 57 years and has hunted bears for over 30 of them. He had never heard of shooting for the middle and chose to ignore my advice when a huge brown-colored bear came to the bait barrel. Intending to shoot the bear in the heart, he put his sight pin low and tight to the front leg. Unfortunately the arrow impacted higher than planned and he watched the bear leave with most of his arrow still visible high in the shoulder region. He was sick and I was less than happy when we failed to find the bear in spite of a huge effort.

The following season he had a gorgeous Pope and Young-class, pure-blond bear come in to his bait. I had told him to wait for a broadside, standing-on-all-fours shot. To his credit, he waited a long time for that shot to be presented and it finally happened. He told me that at the moment of truth he drew his bow and settled the pin low behind the front leg and then a thought occurred to him: “My guide is gonna be ticked if I screw this up. If he wants me to gut-shoot him that’s what I’ll do.”

He readjusted his aiming point to the exact center of the bear and turned his arrow loose. The shaft flashed completely through the bear right where he held the pin and the bear took off on a dead run. To his complete amazement the bear fell down stone dead after travelling only 35 yards.

When I arrived to pick him up he said, “Robbie, I discovered today that an old dog can learn new tricks. From now on it’s the ‘middle of the middle’ for this old bear hunter!”