Spatula? What has a kitchen spoon got to do with black bear hunting? Ask Brian Hoffart, one of Saskatchewan's top black bear outfitters and he will set the story straight (Brian has been represented by Cabela's Outdoor Adventures for many years). He is a strong believer in what he calls the "spatchoola-shot". He familiarizes all of his rifle and muzzleloader clients with the exact location to shoot for by placing an actual scapula on a huge bear that dominates the recreation area of his lodge. Brian reinforces that knowledge with a video that graphically shows where the best shot placement locations are. A couple of years ago one young fellow guides replaced the word 'scapula' with his own term - spatula - as he blurted out the story of his black bear hunt. Ever since, the fun-loving outfitter has adopted the term.
"I show my bear hunters a video on bullet placement that emphasizes hitting the shoulder blade or scapula. Hit the "spatchoola" and the bear doesn't go anywhere!" he explained. "Ever since my hunters started shooting the shoulders we don't have to track wounded bears. This is the only way to kill bears. I don't suggest this shot for archers, but my gun hunters are clearly shown how to break down a bear."
Brian Hoffart should know what works since clients at his Baitmaster's Hunting Camp in northeastern Saskatchewan regularly take big bruins. Brian works extremely hard and he does things right. With his equally dedicated wife, Sylvia, the Hoffarts have developed one of Canada's finest outfitting operations specializing in trophy black bears, huge Saskatchewan whitetails, moose, waterfowl and even fishing.
Brian starts preparing for the spring black bear hunts in late winter. He gathers large quantities of bait material, including beaver carcasses from local trappers. Some of his bait sites are very remote and may not be easily accessible because of spring flooding. Brian uses snow machines to haul bait barrels into the forest sites. This hard work ensures that his baits are out when the bears start moving, regardless of the spring weather and travel conditions. His personally marked 55-gallon drums are securely chained or wired to trees and plywood signs identify that he is baiting in an area.
Ask any outfitter about the best bait for black bears and you will get many answers. Brian recognizes that the bears change preference as spring progresses and he uses a variety of meat and grain-based baits. He also has a special liquid concoction called "Doc Hoffart's" that is used throughout the season. Brian will only say that it contains "rare herbs and spices" and he swears that bears can't resist the aroma and taste. Oats and molasses appear to be important components of the amber brew. Brian recently started using broken cookies that he obtains from a huge bakery. The cookies are very sweet and Brian claims that the bears "lap them up".
Getting back to the spatula shot, most hunters agree that the standard heart-lung shot is the optimum shot location for big game animals. This is fine when you have good tracking conditions, lots of light and the animals don't pose much of a threat. Heart/lung shot bears frequently run 50 yards or more. Usually there is a good blood trail allowing easy tracking, but not always.
Bears are not built like ungulates. They have much heavier bone structure and usually carry a thick layer of fat that can close off bullet holes. Bears are hunted in spring, when heavy new undergrowth can make tracking extremely difficult. Bears must be respected. They are potentially dangerous animals that should never be underestimated.
Let's look at how to kill a bear - or any animal for that matter. We have to destroy or incapacitate vital organs or body systems. Let's stay with the big picture - body systems. These include nervous, respiratory and circulatory for starters. Respiratory is a fairly big target - the lungs take up most of the chest area. Problem is bears don't die until the lungs are full of blood or not functioning, and that can take a few minutes. A bear can run some distance in a few minutes!
Circulatory is the heart and major blood vessels. Believe it or not heart shots can vary from instant death to death-runs that can go one hundred yards or even more. Much seems to depend on how "revved-up" the critter is when the bullet impacts. Cutting major blood vessels, veins and arteries, can be fatal but death is definitely not instantaneous.
The nervous system is the best target if we want to kill quickly, simple as that. Knock out the brain or spine and the lights are out or the limbs are paralyzed. Problem is that the brain and neck are relatively small targets, with an annoying tendency to be constantly moving. The spine along the backbone is also a relative small target, easily shot over or under. A hit on the spine results in paralysis back of the impact location - break a back and the rear legs are lost.
Another spine shot possibility occurs when an animal is running straightaway. A bullet that hits just above the root of the tail imparts a huge shock to the nervous system, should split the pelvis and causes paralysis of the back legs. Do not shoot low; the vital area is above the tail. Although many hunters refrain from taking this shot, it works. Heavy, stoutly constructed bullets work best for this shot, as they need to break bones and penetrate deeply.
There is a better way to smack the spine - break the shoulder blades since the spine is located between them. The scapula (shoulder bones) on bears is located much higher and more forward than most hunters would expect. The best way to learn the exact location is to examine a bear carcass. Determine the size and shape of the shoulder bone by feeling the outline with your fingers. Even better is to expose the scapula on a skinned carcass. The spine lies between the scapulas on each side of the animal and a huge shock travels up the spine to the brain when a bullet strikes properly.
As I mentioned, when the nervous system is hit hard the animal is paralyzed back of the impact site, so it loses its back legs. He might not be dead but he is not going anywhere quickly. This makes a finishing shot to the chest easy.
The spatula shot is appropriate for any bear, or dangerous animal. I shudder when I hear stories of hunters tracking wounded bears in heavy underbrush. There is a better way. Brian Hoffart has the right idea by insisting that his hunters shoot for the scapula. "The spatchoola shot never lets me down!"
I used the scapula shot to perfect advantage recently on a huge Alaskan brown bear. One shot from my .416 Rigby stopped him as he ran straight at our camp. I thought of Brian as I walked up to the monster - he would have been proud of the shot placement!