Saturday, Nov. 23 opens one of Pennsylvania's most exciting seasons - black bear. Based on recent bear harvests this should be another great year for bagging bears.
And the Game Commission sincerely hopes that it is another record harvest. They spend a disproportionate share of their working hours during the summer trapping and relocating black bears. And that is not the easiest task around.
Here's what the Game Commission is telling us about the prospects for this year. The 2012 harvest of 3,632 bears statewide represents the third-largest in state history. And last year's take follows an all-time record harvest of 4,350 bears set in 2011. A growing bear population, which now numbers 16,000 to 18,000, and expanded hunting opportunities in recent years have contributed to the large harvests.
Hunters probably have a greater chance to bag a bear this year than a deer. As always, food availability is the key to locating a bear. Wild grapes are as plentiful as I've seen for several years; acorns too are great attractions for bears but the crop is spotty this year so if I was hunting the woods and the acorn crop doesn't look so good, I'd hotfoot it through the woods until I found a place where the nuts are plentiful.
Problem is, bears, even more than deer, feed at night. Then they make their way to their daytime hideouts, which are usually the thickest, most impenetrable tangles in the area. No doubt the best hunting method is for a gang to drive out these thickets with the wind at their backs, knowing that bears will not leave the security of their cover unless forced to.
For the lone bear hunter, I think the advice my friend Len Coover gives is the best. He operates the very successful God's Country Guide Service in Maine and he is a stickler for scent eradication if you even hope to have a chance to get a bear.
"Bears have much better noses even than deer," Coover says, "and a lot of hunters have been closer to bears than they know simply because bears scented them from a distance and just slipped away."
Hunters at his camp are almost required to take a daily shower with baking soda or scentless soap and then donning clean clothes and wearing outer hunting clothes that have been secured in a plastic bag, kept outside, with pine needles etc. in it. Coover says that any whiff of human scent will send a bear running from a long way away.
It's quite possible there will be some tracking snow in the mountains to help you, so recruit a couple buddies and drive out the thickets. As you go, spend some time looking around for deer sign to help you decide where to spend your deer season.
If you are lucky to be part of a gang that can drive out the thick, hard stuff, you will have a much better chance for success than just still-hunting around on your own. Drives will get the bears up and running and a bear will run for miles when pushed. Often a lone hunter is lucky enough to have a bear pushed to him by other hunters.
Another hunter, one of the most successful I ever knew, who headed up a bear hunting crew near the Renovo area gave me a couple tips for solo hunting bear.
"Bears lie up in the thickest tangles they can find, stuff that a lone hunter can scarcely penetrate. Look for a bear trail that leads in/out of such a place and post there," Hevner told me. "Bear trails are larger than deer trails, they are smoother from having more weight tramping over them and they seldom have any deer sign on them. Deer and bears don't mix well.
"Bears prefer layups that are high on a ridge, usually just down over from the top," Hevner said. "When pushed or alarmed, they like to be able to scoot over the top and down the other side."
Mark Ternent, PGC bear biologist said that bears are also getting heavier. He said there are many bears out there that will top 800 pounds. Gary Alt always said that if you see a bear and his head looks too small for his body, that is a sign it's a huge bear. As many bears as I have seen and had various encounters with over the years, I don't think I ever saw one that would go 800 pounds.
When bears scuff up the leaves searching for acorns, they do it in more of a straight line than do deer or turkeys. And a bear's droppings are hard to miss. If I found an acorn patch that show signs of bears feeding there, I'd find a comfortable spot and post there until the last allowable minute.