Blackpowder Black Bear - Are You Ready for the Challenge?
By Gary Lewis
"There's a bear."
"There are two of them."
When we first spotted the bears we were close, less than 200 yards away. But we were in a skiff.
"Put me ashore beneath that rock," I whispered.
At the shore, I couldn't see the bears anymore, concealed by alders and willows. I clambered out of the boat and found myself beneath a huge boulder. The bears were above me on the rock slide.
Up through the mossy rocks, slick with rain and salt spray, I emerged to shoulder through the alders and devils club. Looking back at my companions in the skiff, I could tell they could see the bears and the concern in their body language was evident, even at 150 yards out in the water.
These bears weren’t running away.
‘Close now,’ I told myself. I led with the muzzle of my muzzleloader, pushing the brush aside, looking up the cliff. One shot. I’d better make it count.
Then I heard something that sounded like the chatter of a machine gun, only more menacing. Somewhere on the slope above, less than two leaps away, there was a bear, swinging his head side to side, popping his teeth. This wasn’t my first black bear hunt, but for a moment, I imagined the possibility that it could be my last.
I've had people tell me that black bears aren’t dangerous game, but I’d bet they wouldn’t have pushed their way up through those alders either.
I heeded that bear’s warning. He owned the high ground. There were plenty of bruins in Alaska’s Chugach National Forest. I went to look for another.
Some hunters wouldn’t consider using a gun that only gives them one shot when facing a black bear, but for others, it is this unique challenge that makes the old smokepole their first choice on a bear hunt.
The bear hunter that opts for a muzzleloader, whether a traditional sidelock or a modern in-line gun, chooses to base the success of the hunt on one shot – the first shot – because there probably won’t be an opportunity to take a second.
A muzzleloader is not only a single-shot, it is a single-shot that may take a minute or more to reload. If the first bullet didn’t find its mark there is a good chance that the animal won’t stay around.
In calm air, the nature of the weapon lends a drawback that hunters who use smokeless powder have never considered. Through the cloud of smoke, it can be hard to see the reaction of the animal.
There are times when a follow-up is necessary to dispatch a wounded animal. If you carry a pre-loaded speedloader and you practice, you can be ready to shoot again in 15 seconds. Carry between two and five speedloaders, charged and ready to go. And practice using them – loading and firing with speed and accuracy.
The weather presents another challenge. On my Alaskan hunt, we had rain more than half of the time. I kept the powder dry, I thought, with tape over the muzzle and tape over the breech. One soggy night when I discharged the weapon, the powder sputtered with a ‘poof’ and the ball popped from the muzzle like a cork.
Without optics, the muzzleloader is best used at distances of 100 yards or less. That means that the hunter must make a stalk or wait.
I spotted another bear at the shoreline, feeding on kelp and assorted goodies brought in on the tide. My rangefinder pegged him at 256 yards. Too far. He vanished into the woods.
The last opportunity was a younger boar on a lonely beach. I spotted him at over a mile and made the stalk to see him disappear into the alders, still over 400 yards away.
That is the chance the muzzleloading hunter takes. Not every bear presents an opportunity. Sometimes they are too far, or the wind changes while you close the last 40 yards. Sometimes they own the high ground and you back out without taking the shot. Are you ready for the challenge?