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Long Bow Bear

By Chip Clark

The culmination of this hunt had actually been a lifetime in the making. I had been hunting with a compound for almost 30 years but in my golden years I’ve been finding it harder and harder to keep up with all the hype on these new-fangled bows and gadgets. Seems a fella needs to be a mechanical engineer these days just to tune the blessed things. It was time to simplify things. At the relentless persistence of my hunting partner Reggie to get rid of the training wheels and get a real bow, I succumbed. Actually, it wasn’t a hard decision, I had been drooling over Black Widow and Black Tail bows online and in the trade magazines for years. 

I’ve always had a soft spot for longbows so, after two years of saving pennies, and my wife contributing a substantial portion of the funds from her mother’s inheritance, I had finally made the call and ordered my Great Plains “Rio Bravo“ longbow! The wait was excruciating but I finally had it in my hands just before the 2013 bear season. She was a thing of beauty. Her tight little grip, long slender 62” bacote limbs, and bone tips were perfection, and with a draw weight of 48 lbs. at my short 26” draw length it was a dream to shoot, effortless. Most of all she was mine, all mine.

Time was now of the essence. Being unable to draw back my compound without considerable effort, I had basically committed myself to shooting traditional that season. It had been a conscious decision though. Oh sure I could have dropped the draw weight on the compound but I knew if I had it as a back-up I’d most likely end up using it. Not knowing whether my longbow would arrive in time I had done some practicing with my 60 lb. Martin Howatt Hunter recurve but it was just a bit too heavy to pull for my aging old body. Shooting form was being sacrificed.

Fortunate for me my Rio Bravo had arrived only a few weeks before the start of the season. I was in a race against time to get my shooting form down to where I felt comfortable at being able to cleanly harvest my first longbow bear. Reggie had even gone so far as to buy me a graduation gift (as it were) … a foam target, which I quickly began peppering with holes. But, things weren’t going well. I couldn’t seem to maintain any degree of consistency with my shooting. I was at the point of frustration that nothing I tried seemed to help. What am I doing wrong I thought. What could be simpler than Focus, Draw, Anchor, and Release? The fact that I was shooting 60 – 80 arrows at a time wasn’t helping my shooting form any.

On closer inspection of my arrows I noticed that the same feathers on my arrows were showing wear. I checked my nock point …bang on! “What is going on”? I thought. I was baffled and needed help. I sent off an email, including pictures, to my buddy Phil Nelson who owned the bow shop from where I had purchased my bow. It took but a moment for Phil to pinpoint the problem. A simple matter of shooting my arrows with the cock vane out instead of in was the culprit. With my confidence in tatters and time all but run out my shooting began to improve, but it was late and season was now upon us.

2013 would also be another first for me. This would be my first year guiding someone for a bow only bear hunt. My hunting partner Reggie had been a bear guide for years and had become my mentor. This year I’d be guiding Charlie from Rhode Island. Preseason baiting had been very successful with a variety of bears coming to the bait, so we knew it would only be a matter of time before Charlie would connect on his first Nova Scotia black bear, and connect he did! On his second night in stand Charlie harvested a beauty 230 lb. sow, which was later determined to be aged at between 18 – 19 years. It was rather unfortunate that we didn’t have more time to spend with Charlie, but a major storm making its way up the East coast had hastened his plans to return home.

With Charlie now safely on his way it was my turn to tend the tree stand. Nothing had changed at the bait. The bears were still coming around the clock and we still had some decent shooters making appearances during prime time. For several nights I watched as these bears frequented the barrels. This was great practice for me. I would rise from my perch; draw back and anchor with my finger to the corner of my mouth poised to make the shot. Visualization was everything but for some reason that doubting feeling lingered so much so that I was still skeptical of my accuracy and had even contemplated as to whether or not I would shoot should the opportunity arise.

Three nights later I would have my answer but, in hindsight, it was one I would have rather left to ponder. It was only 6:15 in the evening, darkness was well over an hour away. The sun peaked through the limbs warming anything it touched. A gentle breeze provided that perfect sway lulling me away to that blissful beyond. At scattered intervals I’d force myself to open my eyes and scan tree to tree for any signs of movement. A glint of black caught my eye. Yes there it was, a shooter bear guardedly making its way along the side of the hill. I watched and waited patiently for the moment of judgement. “Do I or Don’t I”? At this point I had still not convinced myself I should draw. With my three fingers under grip on the string I applied tension but not yet drew back. I tried to shake off the negative thoughts I had of imperfections in my accuracy. Besides it’s only a 13 yard shot … how could I possibly miss? It was “Go Time!

I focused on a small tuft of hair behind the right shoulder. I talked myself all the way through to the release then watched in horror as the arrow made a clean slice between the hide and hind quarters just above the tail. I was speechless! As I looked down my bow arm I quickly noticed that the arrow had gone exactly where my bow arm was pointed. I had committed the cardinal sin. I threw my bow arm to watch my arrow. I was overwhelmed at my stupidity and disgusted at what had just happened. Moreover, I loathed myself for inflicting injury on that beautiful specimen. It was then that I ended my 2013 season. It was an easy decision. I’d already had the meat from Charlie’s bear that he had graciously donated so necessity was not a factor, and by all accounts I had obviously just proven that from an accuracy standpoint I wasn’t ready.

Totally disheartened I exited the tree and made my way to the barrels. On close inspection of my arrow I confirmed that the wound would have only been superficial as there were no signs of blood, only a greasy slick shaft with fat soaked feathers. This would prove to be a rude awakening and the catalyst to ensure a successful season the following year. After spending the winter beating myself up over the bungled opportunity at my first traditional harvest, I was going to make sure there was no repeat performance in 2014. First in order was to buy myself a 3D bear target which proved to be a great investment. All spring and summer, every day I could, I’d be out and shoot a few arrows, take a break and shoot a few more. There was no doubt in my mind this year that I was going to be ready and there would be no lingering thoughts of my ability to get the job done. As the groups tightened my confidence soared.

Before long the 2014 bear season was here and once again the baits remained very active with one noticeable exception. The trailcams provided us with some recon on a monster bear that was frequenting my bait site during daytime hours. It was now opening day and I was stoked. There would be no denying me of my quest this season. Knowing that a bruiser was in the neighborhood; provided an additional incentive to hold out for that once in a lifetime moment. As the days past Reggie and I spent the hours on stand texting back and forth about the bears that were showing up and some of their antics. It wasn’t too long into the season before Reggie had harvested a nice male with his Black Widow recurve. It was now my time to step up to the plate, the pressure was on ! I had contemplated taking one of the few shooters that had been milling about but I kept holding out for a crack at the big boy. It didn’t take long to realize that the Big Boy was big for a reason. This guy was smart! Once again the trailcams told the tale; every night he would show up minutes after I had left the stand. I knew he was there. Occasionally I would hear the unmistakable crack of a branch but yet he would never show himself. As time passed on I soon had to revert to plan B and try to harvest another bear as I would soon have to return to work. That, thankfully, would not be a problem as I had company every night on stand.

With Plan B now in place it was time to make a play. Right on cue, 5 pm, in strolls a bear and does its customary circle around the bait and heads straight to the barrel. Again I question “Do I or Don’t I?” but this time for a totally different reason. It was not a matter of can I but rather “Do I want to end my season now?” In short order the decision was made. As before, I waited for the perfect moment. A momentary lapse, had me thinking back to last year, but I quickly cast it to the wind as I slowly and methodically drew back. All that practice on the 3D target was making it seem almost routine. This time there would be no dissection of the arrows flight; Focus, draw, anchor and release…. Simply put “beau ideal “. I watched in total disbelief as the bear raced over the hill, but we both knew it was too little, too late. The arrow was buried up to the fletching, a perfect double lung shot, the recovery would be a short one. In my exuberance I immediately grab my texter (as the wife calls it) and flashed a text to Reggie. “OMG I just made a perfect shot”! More than 30 years of hunting had come down to this once in a lifetime moment, my first traditional harvest.

With plenty of daylight remaining and what I knew was a short tracking job, I took a moment to reflect and absorb all that was around me. The warmth of the sun, the smell of the forest, and that gentle breeze, all seemed to embrace my inner soul. If there ever was a spiritual moment, this was it! I had arrived and could now proudly call myself a traditional bow hunter. I calmly released my grip from the tree as I touched terra firma and began to walk up a bear trail, now more reminiscent of a major boulevard. It wasn’t long before I found my arrow intact in the middle of the trail, as if meticulously laid there by one’s hand. As I crested the hill I found where the journey had ended. As if asleep, there lay my quarry, only yards from where we recovered Charlie’s bear the year before.

It was then that empathy set in. As much as I love the hunt and enjoy the bounty of wild game, the taking of a life is something I’ve always struggled with. This beautiful animal, the embodiment of everything wild, lies before me and I am humbled. As I knelt down beside him I gently brushed my hand over its thick plush coat paying homage to its life and death. It is a moment of reverence, respect, and personal accomplishment, to harvest this “Ghost of the Woods” with stick and string. It is a moment, most primal in instinct, that happens only once in one’s life. I have finally arrived. It may not have been the big boy that still haunts my dreams but in my books he was a true trophy in all sense of the word. It was my Longbow Bear.