A few years ago the Pennsylvania Game Commission changed the opening day of bear season to the Saturday before Thanksgiving, moving it up two days from its historical Monday start. The decision gave hunters and extra day to chase and cull from an expanding black bear population across the state.
We at Camp F-Troop in southern Warren County took advantage of the opportunity to establish a new annual trip. We would spend the day sitting high atop boulders in the nearby State Game Lands 86 and use that time as a scouting trip for the fast-approaching rifle deer season. That evening we would head to the check station in Tidioute to hang with the locals and see what successful hunters brought in.
The first year, 2010, four of us entered the woods. On a very quiet and warm day we each saw a few deer, including a couple of nice bucks. One had what seemed like a dozen sticker points along its wide main beams, though I didn’t get a great look at it. Another came within 30 yards of me and I could clearly see it was a very wide fork-horn – illegal in that area due to antler restrictions that require three points on a side.
In 2011, I was a mile in and walking along the fire trail that cuts through the Game Lands when a black bear came up the hill from my left and stopped no more than 40 yards in front of me. I stopped in disbelief as a cub popped onto the trail behind its mother. Then another cub followed. The three stood there for a few seconds and I raised my rifle, then lowered it. They crossed the trail and started up the mountainside. I raised my rifle again, then lowered it. Despite being in the woods for the exact reason that was in front of me I chose not to pull the trigger on any of them – specifically the sow. I watched them crest a bench 150 yards uphill from where I stood. They disappeared, safe until they crossed paths with another group of hunters. Part of me felt silly radioing the other two guys in my party to tell them what had happened. It didn’t seem real. And I’m not convinced they believed me.
Last year we had four hunters once again, though we had some new blood with us. Our friend Shawn was planning to hunt the deer opener out of F-Troop and wanted to find a place to post. Todd, Shawn, Brett and me got a somewhat late start, around 10:30, and encountered a few other hunters as we walked in. Todd and Shawn broke off first and started up the mountain to our right, en route to their boulders. Brett and I continued along the trail for another half a mile and then separated. We didn’t hear the shots let loose from behind us. Though we soon saw the result.
About 20 minutes into their hike up the slope, Shawn and Todd stopped to rest. Across a small indent to their left, about 150 yards away, a very large black bear was walking downhill. Ensuing events went something like this: Shawn crouches and finds the bear in his scope. Todd’s view is blocked by trees. Todd turns to Shawn and asks, “Can we skin it at your place?” Shawn replies, “Let’s get it first.” The bear stops. Shawn fires. The bear lurches and regains its footing. Todd has a shot and pulls the trigger. The bear heads downhill and both Shawn and Todd fire once more. The bear tumbles and then piles up against a fallen tree and doesn’t move.
Todd reached me on the radio just as I got to my planned location and said they had a bear down. I relayed the message to Brett and we walked across the face of the mountain in their direction. It took me about 20 minutes to get to where I could see the bear. Brett moved into view about 10 minutes later, coming up from the bottom. The bear hadn’t moved for 45 minutes, but we were taking no chances. Brett moved in slowly with his gun at the ready and checked it. The bear is dead. Despite being unsure of who fired the fatal shot, Shawn filled out his tag.
The next three hours involved dressing and dragging the boar, getting it loaded for transport and going back to camp for a quick change out of our sweat-soaked clothing. From there we headed into the check station in Tidioute, where word of our bear quickly spread and several onlookers gawked at what filled up the entire bed of Shawn’s full-sized pickup truck. Game Commission officials did their examination, pulled a tooth to age the bear, and then weighed it. The bruin registered at 412 pounds dressed, and estimated at 486 alive. We got about 200 pounds of meat out of it, and later found out the bear was nearly 10 years old.
I’m not sure any of us realized what had happened until after we returned from the check station. We stood around the truck, talked about the day’s events and drank a few celebratory beverages as the evening’s light waned to a complete, chilly darkness.
I have written a story about that hunt, and the feelings I had in letting the sow and cubs pass the previous year, but I’m not happy with it just yet. It needs a few minor tweaks, and I think I know what they are. Then I’ll try to place it somewhere next year.
This Saturday we’re going to try and do it again, this time with six guys entering the woods. The odds of us seeing a bear for the third year in a row seem to be pretty small. But based on what’s happened the past two seasons, and the state’s ever-growing bear population, we like our chances.