For decades, the black bear population throughout Pennsylvania has been on a slow, but ever-increasing rise. The numbers today exceed 20,000, making our state a popular destination for bear hunters. Not only are the numbers of animals impressive, but the size of some have often exceeded 300 pounds, with animals every year being taken in the 400-to-500-pound category. Yes, Pennsylvania truly offers hunters great odds of taking one of these animals, especially when coupled with the numerous bear hunting seasons throughout the fall.
So, what does that mean for the average bear hunter? Well, for many reasons, it still means low odds for taking one of these animals in Pennsylvania. Truth be told, the majority of hunters will spend a lifetime of hunting for black bear and never achieve success.
I will be the first to admit that I have been very lucky over the years since I have had the good fortune to take 5 black bears in Pennsylvania, the last three being males — or boars — and all weighing in excess of 350 pounds. Still, today I maintain my passion for bear hunting. Not only are they elusive and a great prize when one is lucky enough to get one, but they are also extremely good eating!
It has been a number of years since I last shot a bear in Pennsylvania, and prior to this year’s seasons I vowed to spend the time necessary to achieve success. To that end, I eagerly accepted an invitation to hunt on the farm of a friend in northern Lycoming County. He has just over 100 acres of mixed fields and woodlands that he manages for deer, turkey and black bear. His fields included two one-acre plots of field corn that he normally leaves standing throughout the winter to help wild game have a food source through the winter months. But this year, the nearby black bears were continually raiding his corn fields at night and devastating the crop. The hope was to catch one of these critters at first or last light as they were entering or exiting the fields on their nightly feasts.
It was on the next to last night of the archery bear season that, with 7 minutes of legal shooting time left, I watched a large male black bear ease into the far end of the corn field where I was not sitting! The following night — the last night of the season — I was there patiently waiting for him, but he never showed before dark.
It was the same waiting game during the weeklong muzzleloader season, with the same lack of shooting opportunity during legal shooting hours, even though the bears were dining on corn in the wee hours of the morning. The three-day junior and senior season produced equal results. No bear sightings during legal shooting hours.
Finally, the statewide regular firearms season opened up, which included the first Sunday hunting opportunity for black bear. Saturday, Sunday and Monday all came and went, and then Tuesday, the final day opened at 6:37 a.m. and ran until 5:13 p.m. With high hopes, I climbed into the stand at 5:30 and watched the sun break the eastern skyline, while as the day brightened; there was no sign of any bear movement nearby. Throughout the day, I stayed alert, never certain just when a bear might appear and knowing that the chances of one showing up increased as the hours approached darkness.
It was 4:50 when a small buck, then two does and finally three yearlings entered the adjoining clover patch and began munching on the clover and various grasses. The time kept clicking away. 5 o’clock. 5:05.
Suddenly, as if by magic, at 5:10, with just 3 minutes of legal shooting time remaining, he appeared out of nowhere! The edge of the woodlot was lined with evergreens, yet even in the closing minutes of legal shooting light, the pitch-black color of the old black bear stood out vividly! He slowly ambled into the grass field and headed toward the standing corn.
I snapped the rifle to my shoulder as I took off the safety and centered the crosshairs of the scope behind his huge shoulder. The rifle cracked and I heard the “thwack” of a good hit, as the bear let out a bellow and sunk to the ground.
With the crack of the rifle, my chin slowly eased up from my chest, my eyes gently opened, and I realized that my daydream had not become a reality. I was not really disappointed. It had been a good season and I had a year ahead of me to lay out my plans for success next fall — I hope you had better luck than me!