With spring bear season just over the horizon, there are many hunters chomping at the bit to get back out in the woods after a long winter. Bears are different than other animals like deer and elk in many ways, especially after the shot. Although general good tracking and blood-trailing principles are still just as valid, there are some key differences. Taking to the field, you want to give yourself the best chance of recovering even poorly hit animals. Over the years, I’ve tracked and recovered a lot of bears, even poorly hit bears. There are 3 key things I take into consideration to find a bear, starting as soon as the arrow or bullet flies.
- Watch and Listen: This is basic, but it’s very important to remain still and observant after you shoot a bear. It’s tempting to start jabbering with your hunting partner, and easy to get caught up in the excitement, but you need to wait. Watch the bear and note the path it took, as well as the last place you saw it. Listen until you haven’t heard a sound for a few minutes, and take note of the last spot you heard the bear. Sometimes you will hear the classic death moan, which is a good indication of a dead bear, but just as often, all you’ll hear is brush crashing, thrashing, or labored breathing. With bears, you cannot count on a blood trail. Sometimes you get one, and sometimes you don’t. Most of the time, a well-hit bear will be dead right in the last place you heard them.
- When to start tracking: Always do your best to observe exactly where the bear was hit, and take into account things like the angle of the shot, and penetration in the case of an arrow. Most of the time, it’s best to give the bear 10 or 15 minutes before tracking. In my experience, it’s a good idea to start tracking quickly if it appeared to be a bad shot that was too far forward. Usually a bear won’t run hundreds of yards like a deer or elk, but often not knowing what happened, they will run back to an area they feel comfortable and hold tight. Often these hits aren’t lethal, and the bear will eventually gather itself and move on, but if you push them, you’re likely to get on them quickly and black bears will usually tree.If you think your hit is too far back, it’s best to wait a couple hours or overnight. I’ve seen a lot of bears hit “poorly” and far back that didn’t go more than 50 yards, but in the case of one that is gut shot, if you leave them alone for a while, they won’t want to move. One bear I remember took off running at the shot, and was hit really far back, late at night. We came back the next morning to find the bear still alive, right where we last heard it. It didn’t want to run, so we were able to quickly dispatch it. If we had pushed it too soon, before the bear felt sick, we probably would have lost him.
- Track slowly and deliberately: Wounded bears can be very dangerous, and when listening to them after the shot, they often sound much farther away than they actually are. Several times, I have gone after bears that I heard moan, or were sure they were dead, and spent hours grid-searching out 100 yards or more, only to find them less than 50 yards from where they were hit on my way back to start over. Follow the path the bear took off on, but take it slow. Don’t focus just on the trail for sign, but closely examine the surroundings, doing a visual grid search as you move forward. In thick stuff, a dead bear can disappear quickly, and I have literally walked within feet of them before seeing them. Take it slow, and keep your rifle at the ready.