Learning to Hunt: Bear

Mike Skelly

Salem, New York

Anticipation alone was nearly worth the price of the hunt. It was my first guided hunt, my first try at game larger than white tail deer, and the first time I had traveled more than a few hours from home in the hope of bringing home a trophy. I was a relatively new hunter, having taken to the woods for the first time only ten years before. The past five years had been a pleasant experience of filling four out of five possible tags, so I felt I was ready to step up to bear hunting. Northeastern Maine was an eight-hour drive away and just barely within my budget, but what is time and money when the thought of a bearskin rug dominating your living room fills your mind?

I sold a few rifles, talked my brother-in-law, John, into riding along and headed for the camp on the edge of Canada for the last week of September. The signs were promising. Driving in we saw deer grazing by the roadside and endangered spruce grouse almost in our wheel tracks as we approached the lodge. It was a camp to be envied. A massive bull moose shoulder-mount overlooked equally impressive mounts of bobcat, white tail and, of course, a pair of black bear.

Sunday hunting is prohibited in Maine so after arrival we had little to do but listen to bear tales told by our guide Steve and his assistants. Over dinner of goulash seasoned with a portion of the bull moose who looked down on us, he promised us that we would see bear. The best chance was hunting with dogs. It cost a little more, but was almost a sure thing. We were all scheduled to hunt over bait, but Steve's enthusiasm for running his dogs infected us and all five hunters agreed to get up early and ride along while Steve trained his dogs. If a bear was treed we would have the opportunity to upgrade our hunt and take him. It sounded like a good proposition. My granddad had run bear with dogs for three decades and the fat, untrained hound I had at home was a brindled descendent of Mr. Plott's famous hounds. I was eager to see the dogs run.

We were up at first light for a breakfast of pancakes and bacon and then bundled into three trucks with a driver and three dogs each. Steve checked his baits (50 gallon drums with a daily dose of old donuts and pastries inside). A few miles on logging roads brought us to the third one. This one had been hit. The first dog was let out and immediately struck trail and sounded off. When he was sure it was a hot track, Steve released the other dogs and the chase was on.

Learning to Hunt: Bear

We tracked the chase by ear and by radio transmitters on the dogs' collars when necessary. When the bear crossed a logging road a fresh dog would be put on the track and, at just after 10 a.m., the bear had had enough. The dogs sounded their "got him treed" call. We drove in as close as we could and then began the mile or so trek to them. About this time I realized that no one had brought a rifle. I theorized that Steve had a revolver in a shoulder holster under his coat, but even if that was true I began to doubt the wisdom of walking up on a harassed bear with nothing more potent than a camera in my hands. There wouldn't be any bars between us if he decided he didn't want to stay in that tree.

Forty minutes after the dogs had treed him, we walked up on them bounding beneath an oak tree slightly smaller than the average telephone pole. Ten yards above them sat a coal black mature boar of about 250 pounds. He looked down on us still panting with his brown muzzle standing out in sharp contrast to the long black hair. His perfect winter coat was so black that it shimmered in the bright sunlight streaming between bright green leaves. I used half a roll of film on him before the dogs were called back and leashed. He was the first bear that I had seen in the wild and will always be a special memory. The beauty and latent power he represented is the essence of the north. We all declined to shoot him. It was early in the week. We were sure that we would all bag bear over bait, and I have to admit that to me it just didn't seem sporting. I'm not against hunting with dogs, I just hadn't done anything to earn this bear. I hadn't stalked or ambushed him, or even trained the dogs to run him. They were Steve's dogs. It was Steve's bear. No one else had earned the right to shoot him. But the guide declined the shot as well. He chose to save the bear for a paying customer and I can't blame him for that.

You have probably read that bear are faster than they look. I had too, but I was still surprised when, as soon as the dogs were leashed, the bear slid down the tree with a speed I didn't think possible. He hit the ground running about six feet from where my brother-in-law stood with legs as useful as cement ones might have been. Before he could take a step, the bear was 20 feet away and would have been out of sight in a heart beat had the dogs not been released again. The young ones were allowed to run him again for training.

Within ten yards they had climbed right onto his haunches and tried to find a way through that thick black hair. You needn't feel sorry for the bear, though. With one swirling motion he turned on the dogs and scattered them like down before a hurricane. They just melted away from his front end as if repelled by opposing magnets and before they recovered to renew the attack he had climbed the next sizeable tree and looked at us with such a look of disgust that it was laughable. He clearly thought that the game was over after he had been treed the first time and all but scolded us for the poor sportsmanship. I took another few photos and we left him there, king of his forest, and I hope that he has grown old and fat--and wise enough to avoid the dogs (but not my stand) next season.

The return to camp involved a long walk over wooded hills and calling on a G.P.S. to help us back to the truck. Before the evening meal we drew stand locations from a hat to determine who would get each bait. I drew the farthest bait out (15 miles off pavement). My brother-in-law drew the next one in (a mile and a half away). The ride out on the smooth paper company road was a pleasure. I eagerly scanned every stream and clearing along the way for signs of moose or bear. When we reached my stand, I was thrilled to see the saucer-sized tracks of a young moose. Before walking to the stand I looked across a distant lake and could see New Brunswick, Canada on the far side.

The stand was 50 yards off a graveled turn-around. It was as good a tree stand as I have ever seen. It was roomy, and rock solid. Despite never being in a tree stand before, I climbed in and settled down without hesitation. The bait (a gallon or two of crumbled donuts) was between a couple of large stones and a log only 10 yards away. As I sat I imagined a huge bear prowling the woods toward me. A shiver ran up my spine, but when he showed himself, I would be ready. I had purchased a rifle suitable for any bear (a Winchester model 70 in .375 H&H magnum), bought premium ammo, and practiced long and hard with it for months. Most people told me that it was more gun than I needed for black bear. I didn't mind though. Especially when Steve told me that the bait I had drawn was frequented by a huge bear. His tracks put him in the 500 pound class. If I took him he would doubtlessly be the largest bear taken in that camp to date. But because he was likely to be an old bear, he would be the hardest one to get a shot at. When he came out, I would be ready.

I waited 40 minutes, listening to all the small noises around me. A mouse crept up to steal donut crumbs and I watched him wind his way over the stones and logs. I heard a shot! John had a bear! It was unmistakably the sound of a single shot from his stand. I was glad for him. Wouldn't it be something if we both tagged out the first night? It wouldn't be long now.

I heard a small animal approach from behind me, circle wide to the right and finally approach the bait. It was a mid-sized martin, but so old that his head and neck from the shoulders forward were no longer black like the rest of his body. They were charcoal gray. He contentedly ate donuts, raising his head occasionally as another animal approached from behind a screen of foliage beyond the bait. It sounded huge compared to the sounds the martin had made. My bear was coming! A large stick broke loudly 10 yards behind the bait, and the martin scampered away like a dark streak of lightning. Silence reigned after he had gone, and then, into the dimly lit clearing, stepped a huge...fat...raccoon!

A second one followed the first and they tumbled about greedily, eating the bait as the last shooting light faded. I sat still until I could no longer see them 10 yards away. I finally shined my flashlight on them and they turned their glowing eyes on me, but did not retreat until I began to make my way down from the stand. By the time I reached the edge of the trees I could hear the truck coming to pick me up and minutes later I was admiring John's beautiful bear by moonlight and with the aid of flashlights. It was a solid black bear fully as big and as well-coated as the one that we had seen treed that morning. He was beaming with pride and I heartily congratulated him.

John's bear was the only bear taken the first night. I went back to the same stand the next morning and sat until lunch time without seeing anything more exciting than the red squirrels who would be my companions at the baits for the remainder of the week. Tuesday evening it began to rain. Hurricane Fran had flooded the east coast from the Carolina's north and the tail end was now crossing Maine. Wednesday morning I switched baits and climbed into an aged stand that had a platform that stood 12 feet above terra firma. I hesitated at the shakiness, then cursed my own foolishness and climbed into the stand. As I settled myself, the truck drove away.

Learning to Hunt: Bear

I lay my newly acquired and much prized rifle across my lap and reached for ammunition to load it. I hadn't quite gotten the cartridges clear of my pocket when the stand began to slip. By the time my hand was clear, the stand and I were in a full free fall. I grabbed the only solid thing within reach, the tree behind me. The stand thudded to the ground and there I hung with both arms raised above my head hugging the tree against my shoulders. I was not hurt and by gradually loosening my grip I was able to slide to the ground without incident. I recovered my rifle and tried to right the stand. Nothing doing. The lumber, though aged, was heavy. Although I could lift it, I could not wedge it in place with enough conviction to justify my climbing back up on it. I picked up my gear and spent the rest of the watch on the ground 30 yards from the bait waiting for a bear that would not show. I would discover later that my rifle had developed a hairline crack in the forestock after the fall. I count my blessings though, I could have easily been injured.

After returning to camp for a lunch of stew made with the tenderloin of John's bear, I resighted the rifle at a nearby gravel pit and went to another stand until dark. The rifle was still shooting accurately, so nothing was lost as far as the hunt was concerned. I could have the stock repaired during the off-season. I did lose my faith in wooden tree stands though, and now tie them securely to the tree with cord from my daypack before climbing into them.

It rained all day and all night Wednesday, but by now I was getting desperate for my bear so I sat out in it. The bear were smarter than I was. They stayed someplace dry. Even good rain gear gives up the fight after a cumulative 18 hours in the tail end of a hurricane. Thoroughly soaked, chilled, and worn out from worrying if my extra high tree stand was going to fall out from underneath me at any moment, I was very glad that the camp had a hot meal and hot shower waiting when I returned after dark.

Thursday I was dropped off at dawn at the same bait that John had taken his bear on. It was still active and although it was a high wooden stand it was well placed in open hardwoods, with a 30 yard line of sight to the bait. Unfortunately, when I was dropped off, the guide's helper neglected to place fresh bait so I sat for five hours with the forlorn hope that a bear would visit the site looking for crumbs from the night before. The only thing that passed through was a single grouse hen.

I went back to the same stand after lunch, refreshed the bait and waited without result. I began to suspect that I was not meant to take a bear that season. The next morning Steve brought me back to the same bait. There in the mud, on the very trail from road to stand was a mid-sized bear track. I climbed into the stand and sat like a stone statue for four hours. Then directly behind me, I very distinctly heard three footsteps coming down the trail from the road to the bait. My bear was coming. The tread was heavy, the pace bear-sized. It was my bear. He paused. In my mind's eye I could see him lifting his muzzle to the breeze, perhaps even looking at the bottom of the tree stand. The hair on my neck stood up, knowing that a bear was out of sight, just behind me. Then, from 100 yards in front of me (beyond the bait and a small ridge) there erupted a wet, bawling belch that could only come from the gullet of an extremely large animal. Behind me I heard a small stick break as a heavily padded foot sped away. Ahead of me a moose browsed just out of sight, pulling leaves off of brush and saplings for the next half an hour. The bear didn't return.

I spent that evening and the next day there as well, without seeing (or hearing) any game. Thursday night we saw a young bull moose by the roadside on the way back to camp. Friday evening I sat on another stand where a bear had been seen on two occasions when it was too dark to shoot. I made up my mind that if I knew there was a bear in front of me, I was going to shoot. But, although I heard a moose calf bawl to its mother and saw the cow and calf in the head lights on the way back to camp, I did not see a bear. Saturday I split between John's stand and my original stand, but did not see any game. It just was not meant to be.

Learning to Hunt: Bear

Early Sunday morning John and I loaded his bear meat into two overstuffed coolers, packed our gear and headed for home before the camp awoke. We both had to work on Monday and I felt guilty for keeping him in camp all week waiting for me to get a bear. It was a surprise to me that he did not resent being kept away from home on his vacation time. But he did not. In fact, he was willing to pay for another week's hunt for a shot at doing it again the next season. I had indeed seen game that I had not seen before. Three moose, the treed bear, and the spruce grouse were all new sights to me. Viewing the wild country that we drove through to get to the stands and the time spent quietly in the woods were all pleasures. The guys in camp (staff and hunters) also helped to make the trip worthwhile. Although I may never see some of them again, if our paths ever cross it will be as friends. Time around the dinner table or the pool table in the evenings made the time away from home bearable. I had never left my wife and son behind for an overnight trip before. It was good fortune that we were all so well-matched as there was little to do in the remote Maine setting.

I'll be going back to the camp again this year. John has already sent his deposit in to reserve our spots. This season I will use a cover scent (vanilla). I will use camouflage trousers as well as coat and gloves, and I will hunt opening week when the moon is in its darkest phase so the bear will be more likely to come out in daylight. ?y' bear will come out to be shot and brought home as a trophy to dominate my living room with his sprawling hide. Oh, and what of the bear that I never saw? After the end of bait season, Steve put his dogs on that big track and took a 429 pound bear. It was the biggest ever taken in that camp. Steve says there are more bear there this year, and you know, all the 300 pounders who got away last year have had another full season of donuts to fatten them. They may just have grown to like regular feedings so much that they get a little careless. If they do, my restocked .375 and I will be waiting.

Mike Skelly

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