By Johnathan Karch
I waited many years before going after my first black bear. I started applying for preference points in Wisconsin when I still lived in the state, but kept applying for years after I moved to Indiana. I believe I had nine (or 10, hard to remember) preference points, only getting one per year, by the time I applied for a license, so as you can imagine, this was a big hunting opportunity to me.
So where to start? I had been out of state for many years at this point so finding a place to hunt was a big priority; and a very daunting task. Fortunately, one of the best things about bowhunters, is you create great friendships and connections. My family has always been big supporters of the Wisconsin Traditional Archers (WTA), and active volunteers when we lived in Wisconsin. Reaching out to members of WTA connected me with a fellow trad archer that had a plot of land with a cabin and ability to run a bait line regularly. A pretty ‘dream’ set-up, which came from being in the traditional archery community. So, I highly encourage fellow archers to go to shoots, join their local, state level, and national archery organizations. The people you meet can be lifelong friends, and a great resource for enjoying our common interest of traditional archery.
For my hunt, we were able to bait two sites on a regular schedule with increased frequency towards the start of the hunt. On the hunt, my dad came with me to film and my uncle, who lived in Wisconsin, came for good comradery. My dad would be in a second tree stand on the bait sites with his camera, and my uncle managed the cabin and food prep, so we could spend more time hunting. It was a great system, and having an opportunity to hunt with family is always a blessing, one which I hope I can do with my kids and nieces in the future.
For my hunting set up I used a 50 pound 64″ DAS Dalaa recurve bow with a Traditional Only carbon arrow tipped with a Woodsman Original Series broadhead. I’ve used this set up for many hunts and loved the level of accuracy I could achieve with my DAS bow and Traditional Only arrow, and the Woodsman head offers great penetration and very deadly being a 3-blade. I add weight tubes to my arrows for an overall weight of 640 grains. A bit extreme, as I normally go for 10 grains per pound of bow, but even with the added weight my comfortable range for a shot is 20-25 yards. Being thicker brush woods of northern Wisconsin left our shooting options to less than 15 yards, which I prefer getting close when bowhunting. Our tree stands were classic hang-on tree stands and were no more than 25 feet in the air, with roughly 10 yards to bait sites. So, a great set-up for a traditional bowhunter (this is the great thing about having a fellow trad archer baiting for you, they know what you like).
For black bear hunting you normally only sit for evening hunts, as larger bears stay out of sight until the safety of darkness, but the drive for a free meal before other bears clean house forces them to come earlier and earlier. Our first night we sat the afternoon and within the first hour of being on stand an average sized bear came to the bait. Now I have read many places and been told many times that you will always miss judge the size of your first bear. That they suffer from ‘ground shrinkage’ once you have one on the ground. I did as much reading as I could prior to the hunt on how to judge a bear. Watching for how their ears are on their head, more to the side, the bigger the bear. Having a shorter snout, and lower hanging bellies are good signs of a mature bear also. With our first bear the biggest thing I noticed is how he was always looking around; checking for other bears. I took this as a good sign of bear activity. The other thing that kept me from letting loose an arrow was he was ‘gentle’ with the bait site. You see, you lay logs over the bait to cover it up, so the smell draws in bears and smaller animals, but they have to be big enough to move the logs to get to the goods. This bear looked like he was ‘stealing from the cookie jar.’ He didn’t throw any logs or even slide them around. Our bait hit reports from our land owner showed the logs would be scattered and the bait completely cleaned out. So, with the constant looking around and nimble paws of this very nice bear (that would of made any first-time black bear hunter very happy), I decided to let him pass. Other than seeing him come back to the bait an hour or so later, and a big sow with her cub (off limits both legally and ethically), I went the next four days without seeing another bear. We moved to hunting both mornings and afternoons as the baits were cleaned out by the afternoon. One bear hunting tip, bring a small bag of bait with you to the stand, so at least some bait is their while you are hunting. The four days without seeing activity is part of hunting. Enjoying being in the woods and a comfortable seat are my ways for passing the lull times. For those needing a bit more, try a weather radio. You can pick up talk radio stations, which are not as ‘noisy’ as music stations.
On our second to last hunting day is when my bear came in. It was the afternoon and beautiful weather. The first thing I remember about my bear is how quiet he was on his feet. I didn’t hear him till he was in the shooting lane, and only saw a brief bit of black fur about five yards before that. Let me note he walked in right where I had been starring for the past five minutes. The brush is that thick where I was hunting. It really gets the adrenaline pumping when the action comes on that fast.
I judge my black bear the best I could. Knowing he wasn’t as big as the first bear I saw, but knowing he wasn’t a wandering cub. After the past days of seeing zero bears I wasn’t going to let pass this legal bear. I do love backstraps on the grill, and cannot remember the last time I had eaten bear. The bear walked in quietly to the bait and started to ‘steal from the cookie jar.’ When he went for a second paw full I was already in the shot routine. As calm and instinctive as I could be I hit my anchor, burned a hole where I wanted to place my arrow, and released. The bear spun out of the bait, ran 20 yards in a semi-circle, and dropped. He let out three quiet death moans then nothing. The whole experience from entering sight to death was less than three minutes.
Upon field dressing I discovered I had shot perfectly through the heart and my Woodsman passed thru and buried itself to the base of the ferrule in the tree behind the bear. I am not sure you could have asked for a better result. I was very pleased with myself and my equipment.
At the cabin we field dressed, skinned, and deboned the bear before dark. One of the advantages of being a younger bear is how quickly those processes can take. Having help from my family made the process faster, and more enjoyable.
We did not have a scale to weigh the bear, and I have never had any of my game measured for trophy books. Everything I have ever been fortunate enough to take with a traditional bow has been a true trophy to me. I can say that my young bear is some of the sweetest, most tender meat I have had the pleasure of enjoying from my grill. I cherish the time with family, the time in the woods, and the opportunity to hunt far more than any measurement could ever provide. I call my first bear a great ‘starter bear,’ as it leaves me with something to challenge myself against if I ever get another chance to hunt black bear.
Any day in the woods is a good time. A day with my bow in my hand is an adventure. A week in a cabin with family, my bow, and a bear tag is a priceless memory. Being fortunate enough to fill my tag is a blessing that I do not take lightly. I look forward to the next time I can step back in the woods, whether that is across the world on an exotic hunt, or down the road on my family’s land chasing whitetail. Every opportunity is a blessing and an adventure.