The Best That Ever Was: The Bowhunting Legacy of Fred Bear

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The word ‘legacy’ is thrown around a lot in the hunting world. In a sport so full of ritual and tradition we hunters are quick to take note and pay tribute to those who have gone before us. We honor those men and women who went before us, clearing a path and leaving behind footprints in the proverbial sands of time for us to follow. Sometimes this can be a respected elder who took us out on our first hunt, other times it can be a regional icon whose success in the fields and forests have made them a small-town hero around the diners and check-in stations of your local community. Occasionally though, a hunters legacy transcends all boundaries and the heritage they left behind helped to shape the entire hunting world. Out of all the great hunters in history, there is perhaps no other who better exemplifies this than Fred Bear.

The Man Who Built a Sport

The simple fact is that without Fred Bear, modern bow hunting probably wouldn’t exist. Through his conservation efforts, skills in the field, and simple tenacity, Fred Bear took archery hunting from an oddity or hobby in the hunting world, to one of the most popular and successful hunting methods in the world today. Bear was a pioneer in the archery world. Through his company Bear Archery, he invented bow patents, razor-bladed broadheads, and a myriad of other pieces of equipment – from shooting gloves and fiberglass arrows to hip and back bow quivers. Bear was also instrumental in approaching and convincing state legislators to introduce bow seasons by proving that it was a viable way to hunt, and proving his point by being the first hunter to ever take a whitetail on film. He won countless archery tournaments, holds a myriad of Pope and Young hunting records, wrote dozens of articles, shot hunting videos, and basically did everything that he could to shoulder his way into the public spotlight so he could reveal the wonders of bowhunting to the world.

Fred Bear did such a good job at revealing just what the pinnacle of archery hunting could be that a museum was built in his honor and bow-hunting enthusiast and rock star Ted Nugent wrote a song titled “Fred Bear,” paying tribute to the man and all that he did for the sport. Yet perhaps the most impressive thing about Fred Bear is that he did all of this and built such a legacy from incredibly humble beginnings.

Creating a Legacy

Fred Bear was born in a drafty farmhouse in Franklin County, Pennsylvania in 1902. The second of three children and the only son in the family, Bear grew up in a time when responsibility fell quickly and heavily on a male child’s shoulders. As soon as Bear could stand he was sent out into the fields and forests around his childhood home to hunt and fish and provide for his mother and sisters while his father was at work. It was here that Bear first developed a love for the outdoor world and, though he didn’t know it at the time, these hunts were the first steps towards destiny.

Fred Bear grew to manhood during the Great Depression, a time when men and woman had to scrounge and save for everything they had. In the late 1920’s as soon as he was able, Fred moved away from his family, got married and secured a job in an auto plant in Detroit, Michigan where he made glue. Bear had begun to dabble in archery at this point, being inspired by the famous bowhunter Art Young, who Fred met while hunting deer with a rifle in Northern Michigan. Young introduced Bear to bow-hunting and years later Fred Bear would say that it was the most important meeting of his life, as Young inspired him to pick up a bow for the first time. He was fascinated by the weapon and began to shoot and hunt with it enthusiastically. He felt it was an underutilized weapon in a modern world and, as his obsession grew, Bear began to make plans to begin sharing his newfound passion with the world.

While working at the auto plant, Bear began to work on an idea for a composite bow that he kept in his back pocket, waiting for an opportunity to create and possibly sell it. In 1933, an opportunity came when the auto plant burned down, leaving Fred Bear unemployed. Realizing that this was both a chance to put his bow making ambitions into practice and to make money for his family, Bear partnered up with a friend and put together $1200 to open a bow hunting shop in a garage in Grayling, Michigan. Bear Archery was born.  

Those first few years were tough for Bear who scratched a living from writing bow hunting articles and working on bows. At one point, Bear and his wife were forced to move into a tent along the Ausable River in a desperate bid to save as much money as possible while building the business. However, in 1954 Bear patented the design for his bow and as the sport began to grow in popularity, more and more bow hunters began to read his articles and buy his bows which sold extremely well. Eventually, Fred Bear became the premier bow hunting expert in the country and hunters from around the world would travel to his shop in Grayling to meet Fred and to learn from him. Bear welcomed this as he was always happy to teach and to expand the world of bow hunting.

Becoming a Legend

By the mid-1960’s Fred Bear and Bear Archery became synonymous with bow hunting. His fame grew to the point where he started traveling the world, giving shooting demonstrations, teaching classes, and of course bow hunting. Over the years Bear became a true big game hunting legend, taking all manner of trophies that few hunters had even considered hunting with a bow before – from a massive brown bear in Alaska, to lions, and even a bull elephant in Africa. Such was his prowess that in 1970 an entire hunting club, the Fred Bear Sports Club, was founded and made open to hunters everywhere. Three years later, Fred Bear was named among the inaugural members of the Archery Hall of Fame.

Fred Bear passed away in April of 1988, and the entire hunting world mourned, for Fred Bear changed the face of hunting. Through his articles and films he taught an entire generation to bow hunt and showed the world just how wonderful the sport could be. His creative philosophy about bow hunting and his innovative equipment designs transformed the sport from an obscure pastime into what it is today…a challenging and legitimate way to hunt. Fred Bear was the greatest bow hunter in history, and I don’t think anyone could ask for a better hunting legacy. He will forever be remembered by anyone who picks up a bow.

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