I’m a hunter. Not because I hate animals or nature, but because I love them. Two weeks ago, I flew to Washington to shoot a bear with a bow, that was a couple weeks after the whole #CecilTheLion business. And hunting was different, but maybe not for the reasons you’re thinking.
Back in February, I did a story on Combat Flip Flops, a company run by some former Army Rangers who realized that their mission to defeat terrorism wasn’t going to be achieved through violence, it was going to happen by giving people in war-torn countries economic opportunity. Especially for women.
Neat guys, right? Well, in Griff’s words, “Weird knows weird.” We hit it off over drinks and, when you guys broke their servers with traffic, they wanted to find a way to say thank you. That was in the form of an invitation to come bear hunting.
Just one catch: archery only. Well, maybe not so much of a catch because I’d been itching for an excuse to learn the sport for years. I’d made a few abortive attempts in the past, but time and money never lined up right. This time, I had a deadline, the finances (just about) and, well, I get to call stupid stuff like this work now, so there you go.
Griff’s advice was to go visit a pro shop, shoot every bow they had and pick up the one that felt best. I’ll tell you more about learning the sport in other articles. For now, the abridged version is that our local gun club here in LA, Oak Tree, has an amazing archery facility staffed by friendly, knowledgeable dudes and that made things much easier, if not outright possible altogether.
Carlos, the head pro there, asked me how much money I wanted to spend, I told him that I was more concerned about doing it right, and he put me on 10 of the nicest bows in the shop. The one I ended up shooting best that first day was the PSE Full Throttle, coincidentally the fastest-shooting bow ever made. I think what clicked for me was a combination of its small-diameter grip (better control, as on that Vulture Cholera knife), flat shooting arc (as on a Weatherby Mark V in .257, my rifle of choice) and, well, just the sheer feeling of power. From the first time I pulled an arrow back on its string, I knew the bow could shoot straight through a bear, no problem.
With a 370 feet per second IBO speed, the PSE Full Throttle is the fastest bow ever made.
PSE put in an order for a 70lbs Full Throttle with a 28.5-inch draw and, six weeks later, just that showed up at my house. I took it to Oak Tree to get it fitted with a sight, arrow rest, stabilizer, quiver and all that fun stuff, spent way, way too much money buying the nicest parts available, then set about learning to shoot. Carlos and Jason were big helps, and I couldn’t have done it without their sarcasm and banter, but archery is largely a sport you just kinda have to figure out. So I did that four days a week for three months.
By the end of all that, I was able to hit a silver dollar-sized target up to 60 yards away, regardless of elevation. I did ok in my first 3D contest and I’m looking forward to entering more as I continue to progress. Shooting on a range, or even a 3D course, obviously isn’t shooting in the real world, at a moving target, in variable light and weather conditions, but I was satisfied that I could do a decent job of giving the bear a one-shot kill.
The bowhunting reality
That one-shot kill is the goal of any hunter, regardless of the reasons why they enjoy the sport. Minimizing animal suffering is a goal unto itself, but it brings further rewards in the form of better tasting meat, an easier-to-find body and an assured result for your scouting, tracking and stalking efforts. A shot that doesn’t kill an animal cleanly and quickly can cause the animal to flee, dumping bad-tasting hormones into their body and potentially filling it with it with feces and urine too. A wounded animal can cover a huge amount of distance in a very short period of time and instinctively seeks out cover to hide in, which can make it hard and sometimes impossible to find and recover. No hunter wants that.
This is where bowhunting becomes a little complicated. All things being equal, an arrow does not kill as quickly or decisively as a rifle bullet. Arrows kill by cutting, so even in a best-case heart or major artery hit, your prey still lives for a few seconds as its brain is depleted of oxygen. Bullets kill by massive concussion, blowing any bones and organs nearby into smithereens as they pass through. I once shot a pig in its heart with that .257 as it was running at full speed and it was dead before it hit the ground. An arrow can also be more easily turned by striking a bone at an oblique angle and won’t penetrate the large bones in a big animal at all.
...to this in two months. There was a lot of hard work in between, and I’m proud of putting that in and figuring the sport out.
Shoot an elk in the shoulder with a high-velocity bullet and you’ll still penetrate the heart behind. You have to be much, much more careful with shot placement using a bow and your effective range is really only about 100 yards, max, and is much more commonly employed at 50 yards or less. So you also have to be a lot better at stalking and a lot more comfortable operating very close to big, scary animals. A bow, even a hugely powerful and accurate modern compound bow like my PSE, stacks the odds as much in favor of the animal as possible. That’s why you choose to hunt with one — the challenge — but it does not provide as quick, clean or assured a kill.
In my mind, I’m satisfied that the tradeoff in killing power is justified by the vastly increased odds bowhunting gives my prey. A death that occurs even in a period measured in minutes is still vastly more humane than the way death occurs in nature. There is no such thing as a clean death for animals, naturally. They suffer for hours, days and months, starving to death when a minor injury reduces their effectiveness as a predator, or with an infection slowly eating them from the inside or with the rending of teeth and shredding of claws. These are the kind of things you have to learn to be comfortable with as a hunter; you have to learn to understand and value participating in nature on its own terms, not the comfortable, unchallenged ease of anthropomorphizing wild animals from the comfort of your convenient life.
So there I am, having learned everything there is to know about black bears — the way they move and what their motivations are, the location of their vital organs and how to hit them from various angles, how to tell males and females apart, the way they’ll react when shot, tracking them, stalking them and more — and having invested quite a large amount of time and money into figuring out archery, buying flights, an out-of-state hunting license and making plans to ship several hundred pounds of meat home to LA. And what happens? Some asshole dentist goes and poaches a famous lion in Africa. And not only does he illegally shoot an animal he only intends to use as a trophy, but he wounds it, so it suffers for 40+ hours before he strips its skin and leaves its carcass to rot in the bush. Jesus dude, way to ruin it for everyone.
My girlfriend informed me she was no longer comfortable with the idea of me killing a bear. I got worried about the impact a potentially negative reaction to a bear hunt might have on my job. For a short time, I considered canceling my flight and making some sort of excuse to Griff.
Ethical hunting in the age of the hashtag
But, I’m pretty committed to the idea that sport hunting is a positive thing for the world. That it benefits nature, the thing that I enjoy spending my life in most and that I’ve committed to with my career. So I went ahead with it.
It definitely fostered discussion. Pretty much every dinner party, beer with friends and conversation about the trip with colleagues turned into one about the ethics of hunting.
That was good for me, I was challenged to speak with comprehensive knowledge about something I’d always been into, but maybe wasn’t always fully informed about. So I had to do a bunch of research, learn a bunch of facts and, if anything, doing all that strengthened my resolve. I also had to make an effort to be nice and patient and consider other people’s opinions, no matter how misinformed or 100 percent based on the movie “Bambi” they might be.
It also turned out that, by and large, most people had positive views on hunting in general, even post hashtag outrage. Even if they didn’t, they could typically be convinced that, while it might not be something they’d want to participate in, the benefits of hunting as we do it here in America are overwhelmingly positive.
Probably the most intelligent and in-depth discussion about the whole thing was with Griff’s 9-year old daughter Jayne, had over Chinese food after he’d had to ditch his girls and I for a meeting. She really didn’t want me to kill a bear, for all the usual reasons, but listened patiently while I explained that hunting in America was part of an active wildlife management plan. For good and bad, nature doesn’t really exist without our intervention anymore and the populations of various species have to be managed to ensure their health. When a population produces too many animals to be supported by their environment, the various management agencies have to go in and reduce their numbers. They can (and do, in vast numbers) do that by using taxpayer money to trap, poison and shoot them, or they can actually raise money in support of conservation programs by charging hunters money to do so. Whether or not I was the one to kill that bear, he or one of his comrades was going to have to go.
This is one of the oldest tenants of American conservation, a movement actually founded by hunters like Teddy Roosevelt. His 5th cousin then signed into effect the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, which sees an additional 11 percent tax levied on sales of all hunting equipment — guns, bows, bullets, arrows, fishing line, etc — that goes directly to wildlife conservation. The habitat acquired for protection through this program and the conservation benefits it brings have seen the ranges of species like the black bear expand, while others like the white tailed deer have seen their outright numbers increase vastly. This isn’t something hunters choose to participate in so motivations aren’t a factor. Up to $324 million a year is raised directly for animal conservation in America, directly from American hunters. And none of that goes to pay the million dollar salary of a charity’s CEO.
To put that number in comparison, the World Wildlife Fund (a really good charity!), raised $224 million for conservation last year. That’s worldwide and is spent on stuff like deforestation and reducing carbon emissions and all sorts of programs like that. It’s incredibly worthwhile and impactful and important, but it doesn’t have anything like the scale of positive impact on wildlife conservation in the US that hunting does. Hunters like me are the people providing the largest economic contribution to wildlife conservation in America.
I brought about $2,500 in P-R-taxed equipment on this hunt alone. So, my personal contribution to wildlife conservation just through this hunt was $275, plus the $220 I spent for out out-of-state, Washington license. Not a huge amount, but pretty decent considering it took place without my knowledge, until I bothered learning about it. With all the rifle bullets, shotgun shells, broadheads, fishing lures, and whatnot I’ll uses this year alone, that contribution should be over $1,000. This is what pays for conservation in America. And those animals would need to be killed with or without my participation.
I could be a satan worshipping blood fetishist who needs to kill for fresh organs to use in a murder suicide pact, and that contribution to conservation wouldn’t change. But, I’m not. I’m just someone who would prefers the challenge and reward of participating in an animal’s life cycle, in its environment, on its terms, to bag clean, natural, tasty meat rather than just buying that meat in a little package in the grocery store, put there following the industrialized torture of a farm animal.
Griff’s daughter agreed to let me hunt the bear, but only if I swore that I wouldn’t shoot any babies and that the chosen critter would be “this big,” she said, standing on her tip toes and holding her hand as high as she could reach. Considering the guy we were going to go after weighed about 550lbs and probably stood seven feet tall, I had no problem agreeing.
Scouting for success
We knew how big he was, what his movements day-to-day were like, what he liked to eat and roughly where he slept because, a few months previously, I’d shipped a a few trail cameras to Griff’s place, outside Seattle, and he’d put in a bunch of mornings and evenings scouting.
Any successful hunt utterly relies on scouting. You have to learn what animals exist where and figure out where they’re going and what they’re doing throughout the day.
“My” bear, three weeks before the hunt. Look how big he is!
That’s done initially by identifying the presence of animals in an area through tracks, rubs and other sign, then identifying their sexes, numbers, size and health by direct observation. And that’s become an awful lot easier in recent years thanks to the advent of affordable, motion sensor, digital cameras. Trail cams come in rugged, waterproof housings and big, long straps so you can connect them to trees. Put a few on trees adjacent to the game trails you identify, move them around based on your success, and you’ll slowly gain literally a good picture of your target. We used ones from Primos to take these pictures.
And then, before your hunt, you can identify your specific target and go after him specifically.
A bear’s gonna smell you a long time before it sees you. So we both put in elaborate efforts to minimize our smell, washing our clothes in scent-eliminating detergent and showering before each morning and evening in no scent soap. I didn’t think camo would be necessary; it wasn’t.
And so, our first night on the mountain, we hiked up an old path to a blackberry patch, Griff raised his hand for us to stop, and there was our bear, 20 yards into the brambles, just out of sight, eating his fill of the ripe berries.
We sat there for a half hour or so, being quiet, and another bear approached from the other side.
The trouble, of course, was that both these bears were staying in the blackberry bushes, out of sight. They must have smelled our presence and weren’t bothered by it, but neither were they coming out to where we had a clear shooting lane.
It was about 7pm and we sat there for an hour until the bears slowly wandered off. When they did, we identified their exits from the patch and their direction of travel.
The next morning was similar, with the audible presence of bears way back in the brambles, but not actual sightings and no luck convincing one he should come out to play.
That evening, we walked up to the top of the mountain, which Griff had identified as where our bear started his rounds, before moving down to the patch where we’d found him the night before. And, sure enough, after just a couple minutes of listening, there he was creating a commotion just down in the bushes, below us. He we close, but he wasn’t coming out, so we began to make wounded rabbit calls.
Big ol’ female bobcat weighing probably 35-40lbs.
5 minutes in, a bobcat wandered out, walked to a point 20 yards away, and sat down to confidently observe the weird humans making tasty dinner sounds. 10 minutes in and Griff and I were both wide-eyed in alarm, as we listened to a cougar bound across the mountain ledge just over our heads. 15 minutes in, and there was our bear again. We could hear him moving closer through the bushes, about 50 yards away.
I stripped off my shoes and, in socked feet, began stalking closer. I was moving slightly uphill, along a shelf, as the bear was messing around, just downhill, in dense brush. 25 yards in and I got my first look at him as he tore a log apart, looking for grubs to eat. The wind was blowing towards me, so he had no idea I was there and I took the opportunity to edge a little closer, looking for a clean shot. To ensure that, I dropped the bow out of my right hand for a second and thumbed my rangefinder to calculate his relative distance, given the steep decline. He was about 30 yards away, but Leupold told me to aim for 20, so I shoved the rangefinder back into its belt pouch, drew the bow, arranged my site picture, and waited. The bear got bored of the log and turned to walk away, presenting me with a perfect quartering away shot that offered a clear path to his vitals, without his left shoulder in the way. I held my 20 pin on a point halfway up his torso, just behind that shoulder, let out my breath and triggered the release.
In the two-tenths of a second it took my arrow to reach him, I observed that it was dead on for longitude, but maybe a little low on latitude. It was too dark to see the arrow hit him, but I watched as the bear instantly froze, paused for a second, then stumbled downhill into the bushes.
Griff mimed a big “cha-ching” from his position and snuck up to me. To be safe and not inadvertently push the bear away or encounter an enraged predator, we waited half an hour, then walked down the hill to wear I’d shot him. And yep, right there below where he was standing was a big splash of blood. And there was another one, every 10 yards or so, along the game trail he’d stumbled down. We tracked that blood trail down into a steep draw on the side of the mountain, totally filled with blackberry brambles. By then it was full dark and we were having real trouble on the difficult terrain, to the point where injury was probable. We decided to be back there the next morning at first light.
We were, and spent the subsequent five or six hours on hands and knees, following the two-foot-tall bear tunnels through dense blackberry brambles. They were so thick — some vines were an inch in diameter — that Griff’s dog refused to come in to help us sniff out the dead bear and just spent the day sitting on the thicket’s perimeter, crying. With a body to recover before the meat spoiled, we had no such luxury. So, it was just dive on in, try not to get poked in the eye and suffer hundreds of cuts to our heads, necks, arms and backs.
At one point, I stepped through an underground bee’s nest and was stung about 60 times as I fled through the woods, crashing through branches and small trees with abandon until I’d swept all the bees off. I haven’t been stung by one in years and while I never had much of a reaction in the past, was still relieved that I didn’t feel my throat swelling closed or any digits going numb.
By the end of the day, we’d crawled probably half of the maze-like bear tunnels through those brambles, pushing all the way through the draw and back into the original berry patch from the night before. And no bear.
Both Griff and I were getting very worried at this point. Had my shot been true, we absolutely should have found the bear by now. But, we hadn’t found any new blood trail since the night before and we’d covered quite a large area. I’d even found and crawled down inside the guy’s den. Had we just crawled within yards of his body, unable to see it through the thicket? Or worse, had I wounded rather than killed him and was he laid up suffering somewhere? Both were unacceptable outcomes, meaning we couldn’t give up until we found him.
Circling back to the top, where I’d shot him, we put in more of an effort to find my arrow and eventually did, buried in the dirt behind where the bear had been standing. We probably should have done that first; it’d have saved us a ton of effort. Judging by the damage to its blades and the minimal amounts of blood on it, our conclusion — made with phone consultation from a professional bear hunting guide in Canada — was that the arrow had nicked the bear’s brisket, outside his ribs and hadn’t damaged either vitals or bone. I’d missed, basically, and the bear was A OK.
Back at home, I informed Griff’s wife that no, I didn’t need a nap, and immediately passed out on a chair in their living room. We returned to the mountain that night, but had evidently put so much pressure on it that morning with our efforts and our scent and our shouting that not a single creature stirred all evening. This time, the bear had won.
To hunt a thing is to love a thing
I wasn’t mad at that outcome. Like my buddy Justin texted me shortly after, “There’s a reason it’s called ‘hunting,’ and not ‘killing.’” Through the hunt I’d overcome the challenge of learning a new sport, had an awesome time sneaking around the woods with a buddy, and any time you’re able to stalk a big, dangerous, wary animal that close, you have to consider it some sort of success.
That the bear lived, free of major injury, was also a success. He’ll be there next time, either for me, Griff or somebody else. Or just living out his old age until a young upstart comes along and pushes him off his berry patch.
The last day, we exited the woods down onto a popular hiking path on the other side of the mountain. There, we passed a regular ol’ group of day hikers, stomping along the trail, shouting loudly and listening to music on a boombox. When they finally realized a couple guys were standing there, holding bows, they shut up and gave us some very dirty looks.
To them, we were the interlopers, there committing murder in the nature they use as a backdrop for their cardio and which they enjoy looking at pretty pictures of on Facebook. But out there on the mountain, I watched them miss the deer tracks they then stomped all over and their stereo meant they couldn’t hear the squirrel, sounding the alarm that there was a bear, just 100 yards uphill. Do you think they would have liked to know there were animals right there? Do you think they knew they could see them if they just shut up and held still for a little while? Do you think they’d have been scared?
To most people, nature is something to be observed. Something that fills a daily time waste quota for #cute or #WTF or serves as an epic background to sports. To me, nature is something I want to be a part of. I want to touch it and taste it and feel it and live it and, in order to realize that ambition, I’ve had to learn to appreciate nature on its own terms. It isn’t just something that’s pretty to look at, it’s a force, it’s alive and it’s something that kills and gives life in equal measure. And what’s my role in it? Well, I’m a man, the most successful apex predator ever created. Learning to fulfill that role is one of those lifelong process things and it involves an awful lot more than just the act of killing, as you’ve just read in this story.
When a predator like a wolf kills, it does so not just to feed itself and its family, but to maintain a balance in the natural world. Predators keep animal populations in check, keep the overall environment healthy and keep that whole circle of life thing Elton John sings about turning. Sport hunting, in its modern, American form does a good job of enabling us humans to fulfill that same role.
I guess my whole point here is that to truly love something isn’t just to observe something. It’s to understand, appreciate and participate with it on its own terms. And that’s what hunting gives me; the ability to participate in and fully experience the natural world while fulfilling my role in it.
Back in LA, the girlfriend picked me up at the airport and, as soon as I was in the car, said, “I’m glad you didn’t kill the bear.”
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.