March 30, 2016
My heartbeat felt so hard I was sure everything in the timber could hear it. I felt like a tai chi instructor as I slowly inched my way closer and closer. Each step was so strategic and so methodical, with my toes just wiggling their way through each dry leaf.
My bow was at the ready for the draw because in only one more step I would have a shot at a world-class, color-phase, black bear at only 18 yards. There was no bait here, just a giant, sleeping bear curled up under the overhanging limbs of a fur tree. I had spotted him earlier while he was feeding along the field edge.
Now I was on the stalk! Every instinct I had learned as a bowhunter was put to the test as I readied for my shot on this beast. I drew in silence, settled the pin and eased on the trigger as I listened to my blood pump. Thump, thump, thump, WHACK! A truly magnificent chocolate bear was mine.
What a rush!
One of the "must do" adventures for any bowhunter is a spot-and-stalk bear hunt. This has undoubtedly become one of my favorite things to do each year.
It is such an adrenaline rush to test your skills, eyeball to eyeball, with one of the food chain's top predators. I did my first one nearly 15 years ago and now have dozens of great trophies under my belt. It has made me a better bowhunter on so many levels.
Spot-and-stalk tests your strategy, your stealth, your nerves and your ability to make a shot count when your adrenaline is at its peak. What I would like to do in this article is share the keys I have learned to be totally successful on your next spot-and stalk hunt.
Where To Go
There are lots of places that offer spot-and-stalk bear hunting. My favorite place is in British Columbia, where bear hunting is not legal over bait. I was introduced to this from one of my good friends who ran an archery shop in Texas.
I had mentioned to him that I had the offseason blues one day after turkey season had finished. He offered me a place at camp where he had done spot-and-stalk. I was up for that challenge since I had never really had much of a desire to hunt bears over bait. BC isn't the only place to stalk them.
I have since hunted them in New Mexico, Idaho and also in Alberta. Regardless of the area, the key is finding a place that offers an early-season natural food source for the bears. In the spring, they are typically just coming out of their dens and are looking for the first available green to get their digestive systems going again.
In many cases, the bears feed in short spurts since their stomach is still fairly small after the long winter in their dens. The fall is also a key time for spot-and-stalk because the bears are again hitting food sources like oats, clovers, wheat, honey and berries.
The key is doing a little research and finding a place that is set up correctly to spot the bears on the food in order to make a good game plan for your stalk.
For nearly 15 years I have gone to Lobo Peak Guides in Prince George, British Columbia, for my spring hunts. It offers lots of opportunity in some of the most beautiful country there is and also has the option for two tags.
Most of my bear hunting there has been along the field edges, in big timber slashes or along secluded logging roads.
What You Need
Spot-and-stalk hunting is a little different than what most whitetail bowhunters are used to. You need to be mobile, quiet and blend in nicely with your terrain. One of the things that I have found especially useful on a spot-and-stalk hunt is a pair of extra-thick wool socks.
These can make all the difference for adding to your stealth and being able to slip in quietly. For footwear, I choose something that is not bulky, has a minimal tread on the bottom and also is easy to slip off. You would be amazed at how much your footwear affects your ability to move quietly.
Being quiet means getting in for close shots. I have shot many bears at under 20 yards without them even knowing I was there because I could walk without a noise. Being able to slide your shoes off if you need to go in your socks comes in really handy.
Besides having the right things on your feet, I have found a huge use for a bow holder that mounts to my belt. There are many times where you are not moving at all and having something to rest your bow on is great.
It allows for a solid base for your bow so you can lay your optics on top of your bow limb. Another thing you need to know is that you always need to be ready to range and make your shot. I found a creative way to connect my rangefinder right to my binocular strap so I can ready either of them with my right hand on a moment's notice.
When it comes to movement, the two things that move most are your hands and head. You will want to make sure you are wearing gloves and have your face covered with either a mask or paint, because the flash of skin is something that can be seen from a long distance.
To make a good choice on your clothing, you need to be sure the fabric is quiet and doesn't sound like a plastic bag. Bears have amazing ears, and noisy clothing is going to get you busted. I really prefer a soft, lightweight fleece or wool that is also quiet against the sticks and briars you are likely to encounter.
You want to be able to slip through the underbrush without tearing and dragging noises. Also, try to match your pattern with the kind of terrain you will be in. A great way to test your pattern is to hang it up at a distance and try looking at it from 100 yards away.
There are a lot of patterns that look good up close, but how effective are they at a distance? One time at camp we nicknamed a guy "Stumpy" because his camo looked like a burnt stump once he was at a distance from the truck. Watching him on stalks, it looked like a walking tree from a forest fire.
He may have looked more like a bear than the environment around him, and he was constantly getting busted.
Making Your Move
I have learned over the years that there is an art to spot-and-stalk. It's something you get better at every time you do it. Each time, I think to myself, "Maybe I should have tried it this way." You need to be keen on when to move and when not to.
Before you even make a stalk though, you have to play the wind right. Bears have one of the best noses on the planet, so don't think for a second you are going to outsmart it. Your stalking strategy needs to be based around two things: the wind and the terrain! Get the wind in your favor first, then make a plan to use every object you can put between yourself and the bear. I call it blocking.
Sometimes just the smallest of trees or brush piles can allow you to cover a lot of ground quickly. Bears do not have the best eyesight, but they still pick up movement really well. Avoid being outlined by hugging tight to a treeline or ditch along a logging road. You will be surprised how much help a little cover offers.
Since most of the animals we hunt spot-and-stalk see in black and white, including bears, you are sure to get busted if you skyline or silhouette yourself. One of the most common mistakes hunters make is not keeping a visual on the animal's eyes. If you can see their eyes, they can see you. Try to move only when their head is down and their eyes are covered with grass or a tree, or when their head is looking away.
When I'm on the stalk, I try imagining myself as Wile E. Coyote. I think to myself, "I'm a rock. I'm a bush. I'm a tree." I try to mimic anything I possibly can that matches the terrain. Always stay low and try to keep your limbs close to your body.
Animals are really good at identifying a human, especially when we are on two legs or our arms are sticking out. By staying tight and compact, you will be amazed at how often a bear that spots you will just look at you a little while and then go about its business. Many times they may assume you are just another bear, since it is common for there to be multiple bears near the best food.
This past year I shot one of my biggest black bears to date in a giant hay field. The wind made it impossible to sneak along the edge, so I just stayed tucked tight like a clump of hay and inched my way in for the shot. I moved only when the bear was looking the other way and as soon as I could see his eyes I froze like a rock.
Earlier, I talked about the bears normally feeding for short periods of time. This is often true, and you need to be ready to cover ground quickly while you can. A normal paced bear walk is tough to keep up with, and when bears are walking in search of food they are covering ground fast.
If you are too timid, you are sure to lose the battle. Like I said before, use any object you can, move quickly and keep your eyes on the bear's eyes if you are in the open.
I used the same methods up on the Alaskan Peninsula on a costal brown bear hunt. I spotted a great bear moving quickly along a stream, looking for a lone salmon, and was able to use a sea wall to literally run for nearly a mile to catch up and slip in for a 40-yard shot.
Shooting a bear is much like shooting a whitetail. The equipment required is nearly the same. The main thing with a bear is the front legs and shoulders are built like a freight train. There isn't much that can penetrate the solid front leg of a decent-sized bear.
Stay behind the shoulder with a mid- to heavyweight arrow tipped with a reputable broadhead and you will be happy with the results.
Also, if you are able to extend your range it will greatly benefit you while on a spot-and-stalk hunt. It would be good for you to have pins out to 60 yards and be comfortable shooting that far.
There are many years I have needed nothing more than my top pin, but at other times the situation just wouldn't allow for a close shot. This past year, my setup was a 75-pound Hoyt Carbon Spyder armed with an Easton Axis arrow with a brass insert, tipped with a 100-grain Rage Hypodermic.
My total arrow weight was right at 500 grains. Penetration, even at longer ranges, was never an issue. It did an amazing job on about as big of a bear as you can ask for.
If you're an adventure seeker, there is simply nothing like a spot-and-stalk bear hunt. I can promise you that learning to get up close and personal on a giant bruin will get your blood pumping while sharpening your ability to do the same on an elk, hog, turkey or mule deer. It is the perfect cure for mid-year cabin fever and also the perfect test of skill for any bowhunter.
What more could you ask for than to broaden your skills while getting to see some of the most majestic country God has created up in bear country? It's something every bowhunter needs to do at least once in a lifetime.