Black Bear: Bow or Gun?

big old black bear

This week your blog writer spent a few hours looking at black bear trophy pics – with purely scientific interest. Black bear is one of the most popular quarries of the North American hunters, and May is perhaps the hottest time for black bear hunting. Last-minute deals and hunters’ reviews come in almost daily. There was one thing that struck me: at first glance it appeared that more black bears were taken with a bow than with a firearm.

Appearances are deceptive, and I set out to prove my hypothesis with math. I counted 410 black bear trophy pics uploaded by outfitters on 215 of them showed only the bear, with or without the lucky hunter, and offered no clues as to what weapon the bruin was killed with. On 116 pictures the hunter was pictured holding a gun (including two pistols), and on 79 with archery gear. Overall, of all trophy pics that show the weapon the hunter presumably used to harvest the bear, 40% feature a bow.

So much for my original hypothesis about more bow kills than rifle kills for black bears. That’s what “appearances are deceptive” means; here there could’ve been a lengthy paragraph on “cognitive bias”, but we’re on a hunting page, not in a liberal arts college. What is interesting about this percentage is that it’s still way higher than a prediction you could make based on hunting stats. Officially, only about 3 million of the roughly 12 million Americans who hunt, do it with archery gear. The ratio is somewhat lower in Canada, and there’s no data for hunters from abroad. So overall it should translate into about 25% bow kill photos, while the figure we have is almost twice as high!

A black bear taken with a bow

Of course, 40% of pics doesn’t mean that 40% of black bear kills are bow kills. The sample may not be representative: about 400 black bears are harvested annually in Nova Scotia alone. About 1,000 bruins are killed each year in Montana, 2,000 in Alberta, 3,000 in Maine. Then, there’s no way of knowing what weapons hunters used to take the other 215 bears – if they were all gun kills, then the share of bowhunting kills drops to 19%, in line with the overall bow to gun hunters proportion.

One reason why archery gear might get caught on pics more often could be that bowhunters are more proud of their success with their chosen equipment than rifle hunters, and make sure their trusty bow is proudly present on the photograph. In a similar vein, outfitters could prefer trophy pics with bows to other pics because they believe the former are a greater credit to their ability to organize the hunt than the latter.

However, I do think that the figures are correlated with actual hunters’ choices. It would be logical to suppose that in the East, where the woods are dense and bears are most often hunted over bait, more people would choose a bow over a gun than in the West, where distances are greater and spot-and-stalk is the preferred, and often the only legal, hunting method. And indeed, the lowest proportion of bow to gun trophy pics is in New Mexico and Montana – about 10%. The proportion increases from West to East: it is 24% in British Columbia, 32% in Alberta, 46% in Saskatchewan, 68% in Manitoba and Maine, 80% in Nova Scotia and 100% in New Brunswick!

The exceptions are Quebec, with 53%, and Newfoundland & Labrador, from which no pics of black bear with bows came. The former province is unique in most other respects as well, and the latter features mostly boreal tundra landscape, where an extra range of a firearm would come in handy. The same factor could come into play in Alaska, where bow and rifle trophy pics are distributed in 24 to 76 proportion.

black bear shot with a rifle

Perhaps the most interesting thing about choosing a bow to hunt a black bear with is that the choice is, in most cases, totally voluntary. Unlike deer or elk, where archery seasons offer considerably better opportunities to hunt, and sometimes come with over-the-counter tags when rifle season tags are draw only (while we’re at it, have you seen our blog post about OTC elk tags?), most black bear seasons are “any weapon”.  Therefore, it’s not the hunting regulations that make a hunter choose a bow over a gun for black bear hunting. What, then?

By far the most popular method of black bear hunting is over bait. With limited visibility, and knowing precisely where the bruin is going to be, the shots can be taken at a very short range. A gun’s ability to reach out farther is simply not needed. On the other hand, some hunters are concerned that hunting black bears over bait may be a bit “too easy”. Although it’s not quite true (check out our blog story about black bear baiting) if you do feel concerned about it, selecting a bow over a rifle will add just the challenge you are looking for. The motion needed to draw a bow is much more conspicuous than that of shouldering a rifle, and you may have to spend many minutes, even hours, waiting for the right moment to take the shot. This translates into a more intense and intimate hunting experience.

a bow shot at a bear

Can an arrow kill a bear? It can – and, surprisingly perhaps, archery gear may be even more efficient on bruins than on ungulates, because of their denser muscle structure. A lot of bowhunters report quicker kills and faster recovery times with bear than with deer. But while the same gear that will take a whitetail will take a black bear, the same shot may not. Bear vitals are positioned differently. To connect with a black bear’s vitals, you should aim a bit closer to the middle of the body. Broadside shots and quartering-away shots are best, quartering-to shots should be avoided, as in that position the vitals are protected by shoulder blades. Practice on 3-d targets, essential for bowhunting in any case, are absolutely vital before a bear hunt.

Other methods of black bear hunting may not be as conducive for hunting with a bow or require more expertise and ability. Hunting over packs of hounds, archery gear is often used but if the shot does not kill the bear immediately, it can engage in a melee with the dogs, maiming or killing some of them. It could even put a wounded bear in close proximity of the hunters, so much caution and experience must be used in this situation. (read more on hunting over hounds here and here). Spot-and-stalk in the wide open spaces of the West are the perfect environment  for a long-range flat-shooting rifle; a stalk within a bowhunting range is possible – and speaks volumes about the hunter’s ability – but this challenge may not be for everyone.

Whatever method and weapon of hunting this all-American creature you choose, you can always count on finding the best black bear hunting opportunities directly from trusted outfitters on!

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