Hunting > Big Game

Be Ready For Bear Trouble

With bear populations thick in many regions, frights like these are on the upswing. Make sure you know what to do.

A 300-pound black bear climbed up to Kevin Schulz's treestand, grabbed his leg, pulled his boot off and started biting. The Wisconsin bowhunter kicked and flailed. Luckily, his safety harness held. The sow finally found her lost cub, climbed down and left. Schultz suffered puncture and claw wounds, but he survived.

Another day last fall, a grizzly caught a whiff of a guy bowhunting for elk near Gardiner, Mont., and rolled him.

"The hunter remembered to play dead, so she bit on him and left," said a state wildlife official. The hunter was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

With bear populations thick in many regions, frights like these are on the upswing, especially in early fall when bruins prowl for food to pack on fat at the same time when hoards of archery deer and elk hunters swarm the woods. While your odds of getting mauled are still infinitely small, you'd be crazy not to be prepared.

Carry Pepper Spray

A new study confirms that spray like Counter Assault (counterassault.com) works. In a paper for the Journal of Wildlife Management, Alaska scientists analyzed 83 incidents from 1985 to 2006 where 61 grizzlies, 20 black bears and even two polar bears were pepper-sprayed at close range. They found 98 percent of the people were unhurt, and the injured people sustained only minor wounds.

Strangely, many people (count me guilty) pack a repellent into the mountains with no earthly idea of how to use it, or what to expect once they unleash the pepper torrent. Well, spend an extra $50 for a test can. Before the season, find an open spot on a windless day, put on safety goggles, arm the canister and fire. See how far the stream shoots (25 to 30 feet) and how long it lasts (about 10 seconds). You need to see that and know it.

Another big mistake bowhunters make is carrying their spray in their bow pack. What good will that do if you round a bend and bump into Mr. Fuzzy? Wear it in a belt holster.

Handguns for Bears

State laws for carrying handguns in archery-only areas and seasons are convoluted and vary widely. Check the regulations where you'll hunt. If it's legal to pack a gun for double bear insurance, why not? The .357 Magnum with a 158- to 180-grain bullet is a popular and practical choice. While some say it is too light for bears, the upside is that most guys can handle the recoil of a .357 and hence will shoot accurately. If you've no problem with the extra recoil and roar of the .44 Mag., fine. You might even look at the .454 Casull or the monster .500 Mag. in grizzly country.

Again, practice. Hit the range and fire lots of bullets before bow season. Get to know your handgun; the sight picture, trigger, recoil jump and how to realign the sights after the first shot. Odds are that nobody who reads this column will have to fire his .357 or .44 at a rogue bear this bow season, or five years from now, or ever. But wouldn't it feel good to have it on your hip just in case.

Build Your Skills

If you encounter a grizzly:

1.) Don't run, but move away quickly. Get your pepper spray or handgun ready and use it if you must.

2.) If a grizzly attacks, curl up in a ball face down and play dead. Use your arms, hands, backpack and other gear to protect your neck and face. Do not move until you are sure the bear is gone for good. However, if a grizzly stalks you or attacks you at night, fight back in any way you can, as the attack is likely predatory.

3.) More and more, hunters return to the carcass of an elk or deer they shot to find a bear on it! Wyoming officials say to approach a carcass from upwind, make noise and glass it with your binocular (you should have left it in an open area). If a bear is on it, leave the area and report it to the game department. Never risk injury or death by trying to chase a bear away.

With a black bear:

1.) If you surprise a bear that shows aggression, back away while talking calmly. Do not run or climb a tree. Move away from any cubs you see or hear.

2.) If a bear bluff charges, keep your wits, stand your ground, wave your arms and shout. Get your handgun or bear spray ready. Again, don't run.

3.) If a bruin attacks, fight back as you escape. Black bears have been driven away with rocks, sticks and loud noises.

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