A guide’s job is about far more than just hunting. It’s about reading people and navigating real-life challenges, like fear and adrenaline. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
It happens more than you might think. I’m talking about clients who book a bear hunt but are deathly afraid of bears. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about a healthy respect for and awareness of the risks associated with bear hunting. Indeed, that’s rational and wise. I’m referring to an often-paralyzing fear so strong that it’s literally debilitating.
When professional outfitters book guests of this nature and guides are faced with handling them in the field, they’re confronted with a unique set of challenges. It doesn’t happen often, but from time to time we’ll entertain a hunter who refuses to sit alone in a blind or on stand, instead insisting that the guide accompany them. Others simply refuse to stay at the bait site until dark. Understanding this, I’m a firm believer that a skilled guide is a people-person and problem solver first, and a knowledgeable hunter second.
I once hosted a fellow from Texas. To protect his true identity, we’ll call him Dave. His party of four were like any of our groups that come to enjoy a baited spring black-bear hunt. Fun-loving, laid back, and generally experienced hunters, we got acquainted during the two-hour drive from the airport to our remote wall tent camp. It wasn’t until after dark as the guys settled in to socialize around the fire that I noticed Dave keeping to himself. He was quiet and also appeared to have difficulty breathing. I asked him if he was OK, and he said he was. I watched a while longer from a distance and then finally asked one of Dave’s friends if this was normal for him. I have to admit: I wasn’t prepared for the response. Without missing a beat his friend replied, “oh, he’s just afraid of bears. I’m pretty sure he’s having an anxiety attack.”
Thinking he was joking, I laughed it off but quickly realized he was serious. It was getting late and the guys were thinking about heading to bed. Long story short, I pulled Dave aside and, after asking a few pointed questions, recognized that I’d better get this under control – and fast. Contemplating my options, I asked him what he did for a living. Ironically, he was a guide on a hunting ranch in Texas. I then asked what a daily routine looked like for him. Learning that he spent most of his days in his truck, I offered that we sit in my truck and talk. That turned out to be a smart move. A familiar environment where we could converse allowed me to find out more and get to the root of the problem. Not long into the discussion, I learned he had an extreme fear of black bears, and he was really worked up about it.
A bear’s large teeth and long, sharp claws are designed for tearing at food. No one wants to be on the wrong end of either. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
One has to ask: What would motivate someone to book a bear hunt if they know they’re afraid of bears? As an outfitter, I’ve seen the whole spectrum – from the overtly apathetic, to the truly naive, all the way to the other extreme where the hunter can’t cope. Most visiting hunters fall somewhere in between.
My job as an outfitter and guide is to help hunters fulfill their dreams. For most hunters, a black bear is on their bucket list. Even still, I’ve come to understand that there are generally two types of people who book bear hunts: those who are passionate about getting close to and taking a bear, and those who are doing it because they have something to prove. Those who are enamoured with bears like everything about them: how they move, what motivates them and their secretive nature. And, of course, the limited but ever-present risk of aggressive encounters intrigues many hunters. On the other hand, for those with a fear of bears, the stories and extreme possibilities related to aggressive behaviour are all-consuming – and yet, they want to hunt a bear to either overcome their fear or for the bragging rights.
Most professional outfitters and guides who’ve been in the game for a few years will tell you that they interview potential clients just as much as the client interviews them. Part of my own discussion with prospective guests involves asking a series of questions and disclosing several key aspects of the hunt.
I usually ask them why they want to book a bear hunt. This often reveals a great deal about the person. I also ask about physical fitness and whether they’ve hunted bears in the past. One of the most telling discussions involves an explanation of when, where and how we hunt. If it’s over bait, I generally explain that if we’re tied up with another guest – retrieving a downed bear or picking up another hunter, for example – it’s not uncommon to arrive for pickup after dark, sometimes as much as a half-hour.
In my early years of guiding bear hunters, I was surprised with just how many hunters asked to be picked up before legal light was over. Many hunters simply will not remain on stand when they can’t see, and are willing to sacrifice the prime time of low light just before dark when the bigger bears are often on the move. It’s like anything; there’s a level of unfamiliarity for most. Let’s face it: Most people don’t get to interact with bears on a routine basis. Erring on the side of caution, whether motivated by fear or common sense, this simple request helps an outfitter and guide understand what kind of personality they’re dealing with.
In the end, a guide’s job is to facilitate adventure experiences for his or her guests. Understanding a bit about them beforehand goes a long way in helping them manage their expectations and concerns.
For hunters less comfortable around bears, well-limbed trees can help alleviate fear. Although bears can climb just about anything, they’re less likely to race up a tree with lots of limbs in the way. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
When hunters arrive in camp, I brief them about expectations, shot opportunities and bear behavior. This interaction gives my guides and I a chance to observe body language and get a sense of which hunters are more relaxed and which ones are more nervous about interacting with bears. As far as managing the unknown, I find it helps to explain a bit about bear ecology and behavior, especially with those who have a distinct fear of bears. Highlighting what motivates bears to do what they do and why goes a long way in calming these hunters’ nerves.
When we run baited hunts, I like to provide an overview of how bears typically act as they approach, linger and exit bait sites. I also highlight their tendency to run up nearby trees when a dominant bear or perceived threat is nearby. Periodically, this can be the same tree the client is sitting in. For those with an extreme fear of bears, this scenario prompts considerable discussion. I generally recommend putting these guests in treestands that are difficult for bears to access, i.e., at stands in large evergreens with plenty of branches that make it more difficult for the bears to climb. This invariably provides those hunters with an elevated sense of security.
Informing and educating visiting hunters as much as possible helps quell some of the fear factor. For many, the hunt they’re on will provide their first sighting or encounter with a bear. As such, we do our best to offset the menacing, media-driven reputation of bears and replace it with the fact that they’re predators motivated by their opportunity to eat. If bears become defensive, it’s usually because they’re protecting their food, young or territory. In late May and June, bears can become especially aggressive and even defensive around bait sites when sows are in the area. As far as non-defensive encounters are concerned, if a bear becomes complacent or overtly aggressive, that’s when guides and guests need to take things very seriously and respond accordingly.
In most instances, the best thing a client can do is follow his or her guide’s lead. I’ve often had hunters sitting at a bait site for up to a half-hour after dark, and as I walked in they yelled to let me know there was a sow with cubs at the bait that wouldn’t leave. Understandably, in these situations most hunters and guides are acutely aware of the risks and need to navigate these situations carefully. Usually, with a little noise the bears will eventually move off, allowing the hunter and guide to exit safely. But remember: For hunters with a distinct fear of bears, this can be an overwhelming experience.
Let me point out again that even though most bears don’t want anything to do with people, it’s important to respect them. A sensible measure of fear can be a healthy thing. In over 25 years of guiding, I’ve seen far too many hunters approach bears without any fear whatsoever. I’ve also watched several get themselves in trouble because they didn’t respect the bear’s space. In the end, though, when that trepidation is debilitating, it can detract from the hunter’s experience.
Most professional guides and outfitters are well-equipped to handle bear encounters and put clients at ease. If the client follows their lead and does what they’re told, they’ll have a safe and enjoyable experience. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
A guide’s job description is diverse. Certainly, they’re charged with doing all they can to legally put their client in front of a bear for a shot opportunity. But practically speaking, they have some responsibility for their safety, as well. It’s up to the guide and outfitter to take steps to alleviate that fear, if for no other reason than to improve the hunter’s odds of making an accurate kill shot when the opportunity is presented.
Most professional guides and outfitters are well-equipped to handle bear encounters and put clients at ease. Most have a degree of experience navigating good and bad encounters. If the client follows their lead and does what they’re told, for the most part they’ll have a safe and enjoyable experience.