Recovery 101: Shot Placement on Black Bear
By Clay Newcomb
In bowhunting, shot placement is a critical issue that demands hunters be knowledgeable about the placement of the vitals on their target animal. Ethical shot placement and a humane harvest should be the top priority of anyone wielding a weapon with an intent to shoot an any animal. Most hunter’s are very familiar with the ‘boiler room’ of North America’s ungulates, however all animals aren’t made from the same blueprint. The black bear (ursus americanus) is just such an animal whose vitals differs slightly from our beloved cloven hoofed whitetail deer. Lack of understanding of bear anatomy can led to poor shot placement and low recovery percentages. After all the hard work of baiting, scouting, or still hunting for an Arkansas bear, the worst possible scenario is an unrecovered animal after the shot.
Shot placement is not always a straight forward issue that can be answered in one sentence, especially when dealing with black bear. The biggest mistake that bear hunters make in shot placement is typically shooting too far back. As you can see from the diagram from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation the best shot opportunity for a bear is directly above the front leg. The large ‘V’ made by the humerous bone and the scapula make the perfect target area for black bear. Most hunters fear shooting into the scapula (large flat shoulder bone) so they aim behind the front leg which can be too far back on a bear. Many experts also say that bear vitals are positioned lower in the chest cavity than whitetails. Like on a whitetail, a broadside or quartering away shot is by far the most high percentage opportunity. Anything other than these two options will often result in an unrecovered animal - NOT GOOD.There are several other issues that make a bears vitals more difficult to identify in a hunting situation than a whitetail. First of all, bears are typically solid black with 3 to 4 inches of fur. The color and hair length combine to make the anatomical features of the bear’s body and bone structure more difficult to identify. Imagine a whitetail deer draped in a bear skin with 2 inches of fat and fur coat that was 4 inches long. The fat and hair would increase the appearance size of the deer by 6 inches in every direction. The extra area would be a ‘non-vital’ area. An arrow anywhere close the edge would prove non-fatal. A hunter must mentally take into account the larger appearance of bear because of its long fur. With a deer, what you see is what you get. With a bear things can be deceptive.
A second factor that plays into bear shot placement, in my opinion, has to do with a bears unique movement style and limberness. While baiting before season in 2009 in the Ozarks I slipped up on my bait early one afternoon and saw a bear feeding at the barrel. It had been some time since I had actually seen a bear up close. As I watched, I was amazed at how fluid his movements were and was disoriented by the differing potential shot angles. A bear is not an animal that hunter’s in Arkansas see everyday and we are often unaccustomed to their natural body movements and the corresponding shot angles. A bear has a much more limber body than a deer and there are numerous other shots situations that could arise. For instance, a bear has the ability to sit on its rump with its head up like a dog. Often bears on bait do this very thing. This doesn’t necessarily translate into a bad shot but it does mean the hunter must be very aware of vital region of the bear from any angle. A bear also has an uncanny ability to move around a lot, especially while at a bait site. A bear at a bait can sometimes be as bad as a wild hog - always moving. However, like in most hunting situations patience pays bigger dividends than taking a shot at a compromising angle.
Another issue that would typically affect only bait hunters has to do with treestand placement. From my observations, hunters put their stands too close to the bait site. In hopes of connecting on a ‘chip shot’ bowhunters often put their stands within 15 yards of their bait station - this can be a mistake. A close shot from an elevated position can produce a tricky shot angle, especially on a bear. Personally, I like being high in a tree just like I was deer hunting (above 20 feet). This obviously helps to conceal human scent and movement. I feel like the best tree stand placement would be no closer than 20 yards from the bait station. This will minimize the shot angle reducing the risk of hitting only one lung. Remember to aim in the top third of the bear body when shooting from a treestand.
Most unrecovered bears are either shot too far back or the shot was at too steep of an angle. These two situations can be avoided by hunter education and an increase in patience on part of the hunter. I once heard a bowhunting veteren say, “To often in bowhunting mistakes are made when the hunter tries to make things happen instead of letting them happen on their own.” Most mistakes in shot placement are made by hasty hunter decisions and can be avoided by an intentional development of patience.Take the the time to study the bear anatomy diagram and think about the issues of shot placement before the bear gets to your tree! Don’t let your big one get away this season.