By Nate Ross
“Please, don’t shoot a bear!” my wife says as I head out the door to meet up with a great friend of mine and a group of others to go bear hunting. We had just had a new well drilled for our house and she feared that a taxidermy bill would just compound our financial situation. I told her it was very doubtful I would even see a bear, let alone harvest a bear.
I have seen black bears in the wild a few times here in Northeast Pennsylvania, but I had never seen a bear while hunting. My father was in his 40s before he harvested his first PA black bear. I had just convinced myself that it would be a long time before I would have the opportunity to harvest a PA black bear. I have always held the notion of harvesting one on a pedestal of achievement as a PA hunter.
Up until 2005, PA only held a 3-day rifle bear season the Monday through Wednesday before Thanksgiving. In some wildlife management units (WMU), the bear season was extended into the first week of rifle season for deer (which was the week after Thanksgiving). In an effort to give more opportunities for hunters to harvest bears, the PA Game Commission created a 2-week muzzleloader bear season in the middle of October. Up until 1984, the average bear harvest in PA was less than 1,000 bears a year. The bear population has increased over the past several decades to the point the PA Game Commission is trying to prevent the overpopulation of bears. “Rather than permit a hunter to harvest more than one bear per year, eight bear seasons restricted to specific seasons and sporting arms now offer more opportunity to more hunters,” says John Hayes of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. This increased opportunity has allowed the hunters more opportunities than ever to harvest a bear. In 2019, PA hunters set an all-time record of 4,653 bears harvested.
Now remember, PA does not allow baiting or hunting with dogs. The most successful way to hunt PA Black Bears has traditionally been by conducting drives. There are two groups in these drives, the hunters doing the walking (or drivers) and the hunters in front of the drivers waiting for the bears to run towards them (or standers). Standers are the ones who have the greater chance of seeing bears and/or shooting at them. The terrain in PA varies from rolling farmlands in the southeastern part of the state to the Appalachian Mountains that run from the southwest end of the state to the northeast. These differing terrains pose different types of drives. In the mountains, hunters tend to thick timber or blow downs where bears can hide but are near a food source. Where we were hunting in the northeast, the valleys are full of farmland surrounded by mountains. In these areas, hunters have the best of both worlds. They have the thick timber of the surrounding mountains with the food-rich farmlands in the valleys. Bears love to come down from the mountains and feed in farmers’ corn fields to fatten themselves up before winter. These bears will do thousands of dollars in crop damage to these corn fields since they will flatten huge patches of corn as they eat it. Most farmers in our area want these bears out of their fields, so we have very little difficulty getting permission to hunt on their land.
Back to the fall of 2020, I had a prior commitment to a deer stand the first Saturday of the PA muzzleloader bear season. My buddy, Eric, and a couple other hunters had gotten into some bears in some standing corn at the base of the surrounding mountains, but their shots were unsuccessful. Eric called me up and convinced me to dust off the old inline muzzleloader—I hadn’t shot it in years—and join them the following weekend.
I told my wife I would try to do most of the driving for this hunt and out the door I went. The group I was hunting with met at my friend Eric’s family farm around 6:30 and headed out to some fields with standing corn that they had seen some bears in the previous week. I was a stander for this drive. It was unusually warm that morning, but the weather forecast called for some rain and a cold front to move in by the afternoon. I always get nervous as a stander, thinking of all the possible shooting lanes I have and where other hunters are standing to make sure I can shoot safely. I also make sure I know where the drivers are coming from and what exit points the bears will likely take. Despite my nerves, I was ready. The drivers were getting closer to the end of the corn rows (which is usually when the bears will break cover), but we had no luck.
After a couple more drives as a stander, it was my turn to be a driver. I remember thinking to myself that my wife could breathe easy since I would be a driver the rest of the day. The field we were going to drive was an L-shaped corn field with Golden Rod and some trees to the right of the corn field. We started out in the lower part of the “L” driving to the long part. As we entered the longer part, I heard, “Bear, coming in!” Immediately, I heard the bear running right at me and the corn started parting like the Red Sea. I could hear it snorting as it sprinted closer and closer. I knew if I didn’t move it would run me over. I took a few steps back, clicked my gun off safe, and as the bear entered the row of corn, I took the shot. The bear stopped a few rows of corn over, panting hard and snorting. I couldn’t reload that muzzleloader fast enough since the bear was wounded and only a few feet away from me. As I tried reloading, it took off again. This was a large corn field with a wounded bear; being color-blind makes tracking blood quite difficult for me, but luckily I had some help. We tracked the bear back out of the corn under some pine trees where I made my final shot. My first PA black bear—I was overcome with excitement. It took me back to that little boy who just harvested his first buck or gobbler. Eric made the phone call to my wife, telling her I had gotten a bear. She thought he was playing another joke on her. When I was handed the phone I heard, “You have got to be kidding me.” My wife laughed and said she was excited and not to take the bear anywhere before my son could see it. The next phone call was to my dad who, without hesitation, came and helped us with the bear. He also said the taxidermy bill was on him. Since my grandfather paid for his first bear, he would pay for mine as long as I did the same for my son.
I was never a dedicated bear hunter. I always thought that a bear would just wander by while I was out in the combined deer/bear season in the wildlife management unit I hunt in. The increase in hunting opportunities the PA Game Commission has implemented is helping hunters get out in the field more. It is necessary to help maintain the bear population as it continues to grow—we have more bears being harvested than ever before. The October muzzleloader season is a great time to be out in the woods or corn fields for big PA black bears. It is a hunt I look forward to every year now and I have chosen to dedicate more time to being a bear hunter. I am officially hooked; I cannot wait to get my son his first PA black bear.