The black bear jitters
By V. Paul Reynolds
“If it ain’t scary, it ain’t fun.” This was a common refrain from an unforgettable character from Brownville – long departed – with whom I used to hunt, fish and race snowmobiles across the Ebeemee ponds. This fellow took a lot of chances, and he knew how to get a laugh. Surprisingly, he defied the odds and died from natural causes, not from living on the edge.
He had a point, don’t you think? Isn’t that why some folks ski the steepest slopes, hike across the Knife Edge, or canoe the spring freshet in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race?
Hunting Maine black bears over bait sites can be an adrenaline rush, too, especially for the novice bear hunters and those with the most vivid imaginations. Picture it. You do as the guide says and sit still in that treestand for three hours, 30 feet from the bait site. You know that the bear is coming to this site, for the guide has shown you trail cam photos of the rotund ravenous visitor. You stay until dark, as the guide instructs. No bear shows. Time to go. You unload your rifle and descend the ladder, remembering what the guide said, “Many times the bear knows you are there and will stand off away from the site until it’s almost dark.”
You listen intently and your head is on a swivel as you inch your way down the ladder. OK, so far. You flick on your headlamp and, with empty rifle in hand, you work your way through the shadowy stillness, following the ribbons or luminous cat-eye tree tacks back to the truck. Half way out something goes bump in the fir thicket off to your left. You step up the pace.
My wife Diane, who loved bear hunting over all other types of hunts, made this similar trek in the dark after a bear vigil and had the surprise of her life. Almost to her four wheeler, she had shut off her headlamp to relish the solitude. Suddenly, she sensed a presence. A large cow moose, not six feet away, stood on the road between her and her escape vehicle. Her heart was in her throat. She recalls that the big animal looked her over and then casually ambled off into the night.
During a bear vigil, a tree stand that gets you up off the ground can give a nervous hunter a certain sense of security, though bears have been known to climb up a tree stand ladder! Ground blinds near bait sites can present a different psychological challenge. One of my ground blinds was simply a metal fold-up cafeteria chair perched on a knoll looking down at the bait site. The chair was camouflaged with branches and other brush. Upon arriving at the site for the afternoon hunt, I found the chair knocked off the knoll and the ground where it had been was all torn up. It looked like the possible work of one of the baited bears! This can give you pause, especially when the sun sinks in the West and the shadows lengthen. This is what Maine bear guide Tom Kelly describes to his clients as “low light environment.”
Indeed! Some of his bear hunters encountered black bear jitters. Kelly writes:
As he sat there in the dark, he thought of every horror story and Cocaine Bear tale he had ever heard. As a result, he thought noise was his friend. He began to sing as loud as he could and also shine his 9 million candle power flashlight on the bait. We never saw another bear on that site the rest of the week.
In the meantime, our other first-time bear hunter, who had similar concerns, was also defending himself in a similar fashion. Ten to 15 minutes before the end of shooting time, he heard footsteps and breathing on the side of the blind. If he had waited, the bear would have walked by the blind and approached the bait. Unfortunately, our hunter was convinced the bear was there to do him harm. He took his flashlight out and ripped open the Velcro closure on the side window and shined his light on what he described as a very large and startled bear about 10 yards from the blind.
In an attempt to reassure and calm his nervous novice bear hunters, Kelly tells them that a Maine black bear poses no more physical threat than a large raccoon.
He may be right, that, when it comes to black bear jitters, it is simply a case of mind over matter, that “first time bear hunters from urban areas have some very distorted views of black bears. Further, because their views are distorted by headlines and legend, they can be very nervous.”
So probably a good idea for novice bear hunters to avoid exposure to Hollywood’s portrayal of bear-human encounters, most especially Leonardo DeCaprio’s heart-stopping dust-up in the detritus with a drooling, snotty-nosed grizzly bear in the movie The Revenant. Ouch.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide and host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. He has authored three books. Online purchase information is available at www.sportingjournal.com.