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Reflections on 2020 bear season

As if by magic or just the batting of an eyelid, the much anticipated 2020 bear season is now behind us, having concluded at dark yesterday. Sad to see our friends go; we had such a fun time! The last of our bear hunting guests have left, cleanup has commenced, preparations are under way for Thanksgiving, and there are some reflections to be had on bear season.

First, where the hell were the bears? Serious question here. We hunt in a mountainous Northcentral area that is Pennsylvania’s “Bear Central.” And despite us daily scouring a lot of remote, very rugged territory that is usually home to lots of bears, we saw neither bears nor bear poop. None. It could be the warm weather has bears hunkered down under cool overhangs in even more remote places. It could be the low acorn crop has bears going in to hibernation early, because there is no more food for them to eat to put on the extra fat they need to hibernate successfully. The truth is, no bear tracks or poops have been seen around here for months, which is remarkable. I cannot think of any year prior like this.

Second, where were all the hunters? We heard only a few shots between Saturday and Sunday, and either none or one on Monday, and for sure none on Tuesday; and very few hunting parties were on the radio on any day. This means that few large scale hunting drives were going on. Without hunters moving across the landscape, the bears don’t have to move out of their way. They can just sit still and not run the risk of exposing their rib cage to a hunter’s bullet. That means that the bears can loaf about in some remote corner, escaping the unseasonable warmth or just waiting for the wafting human scent to drift away before making their usual rounds again. Which means the few hunters who are out don’t see much action.

Third, where were all the other critters, like turkeys and deer? Like with bears, we saw very little deer or turkey poop in the woods. And although I myself saw two whopper bucks and a five-point up close, no one else saw any deer. Nor did any of us see any turkeys. Once again, the absence of these otherwise ubiquitous animals could be due to the relative absence of acorns. Which would push the wildlife far afield to find food sources.

Fourth, despite all of our hunting setbacks, did any of us care a bit? No! We missed all of our friends who could not be with us for various reasons, like fear of the CCP virus, or family emergencies requiring them to stay at home. But those of us who gathered had a lot of fun nonetheless. And with or without a bear on the game pole, we would not have missed this time together for any reason at all. We caught up on our families, our work, our homes, cars, friendships, wives, and politics (yeah, there was a lot of pro-Trump  politics). Some people drank way too much alcohol, and we got some great pictures of it all, like the one guy asleep on the cold ground outside. No, we don’t post those here. We ate like kings, that is for sure, and no one lacked for food or drink.

Finally, it is possible that the new early bears seasons (archery, muzzleloader, and special junior+ senior rifle) are removing so many bears from the woods that come rifle season, very few huntable bears remain to be had. According to real-time hunting harvest data posted at the PA Game Commission website, more bears were killed in the early seasons than in the official rifle season this year. This means there are fewer bears available for the rifle hunters. It is possible that many hunters expected this, based on last year’s harvest patterns, and they stayed home or hunted alone, instead of joining the big crew at camp, like usual. As of late today, just 3,138 bears had been killed total this year. That is about a thousand fewer than expected.

Based on this raw data alone, the early bear seasons are actually backfiring. They are not removing the high surplus number of bears that are beyond Pennsylvania’s social carrying capacity. Rather, the early bear seasons are removing the easiest bears and leaving few to be hunted in the later rifle season.

And this new dynamic could be the real story in PA’s bear season: There are so many early season bear hunting opportunities for individuals that they collectively take the wind out of the sails for the regular season hunters, thereby having a boomerang effect on the entire thing and limiting it.

We won’t know what all this data really means for another few years, and by then either great or even fatal damage will have been done to Pennsylvania’s traditional bear camp culture, with its big gatherings and big drives and big camp camaraderie dying out, or we will simply all have to learn to adapt to new ways of hunting. I have to say, there is no substitute for men gathering at a camp to hunt together. The gathered hunting party is the most human of experiences; it is an institution as old as our species. Its purpose was not just making meat, but also social and sociological.

I sure hope these myriad new early bear seasons are not self-defeating, in that they do not kill that traditional bear camp culture by removing its whole purpose ahead of the game. Question for the PGC: What incentive is there to push your body hard through rugged and remote landscapes, destroying your boots, tearing your clothing, and often losing or breaking some of your gear, including damaging your gun, when the animal you are seeking has already been removed?

Below are some photos from one of our trail cameras two years ago. Just days after bear season ended, a bear was caught gloriously and most joyously rubbing its back against a young white pine tree. Almost like a pole dancer. Pretty hot hip shakes there. We haven’t seen a bear anywhere around here since May this year.

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When one of our guys is finally browbeaten into washing dishes after years, it is cause for “Notify the media” acts like taking his unhappy picture. This is back in 2015. He still has to be browbeaten into washing the damned dishes

Lycoming County is the boot-looking shape in the northcentral area. Its northwestern corner is where we hunt. The darkest township there demonstrates the importance of organized hunting drives. A bunch of large hunting clubs are located in this area, and their members put on highly coordinated, obviously successful drives.

Ode to bear camp

Not too long ago, just a few years, actually, a couple hundred thousand Pennsylvania hunters would gather together for the three days before Thanksgiving.

They’d meet under old tar paper shacks, new half-round log cabins, and “camps” both fancier and more rustic. Wherever they gathered was “bear camp,” the place from which they would sally forth in the state’s most rugged topography in search of a lifetime trophy, one of Pennsylvania’s big black bears.

This 100-year tradition that spawned many long Thanksgiving holidays and peaceful family gatherings among the quiet outer fringes of civilization was inadvertently destroyed by the introduction of a Saturday opener for bear hunting.

Now, pressed for time, bear hunters can get out on one day and say they tried. Lacking Sunday hunting for bears, these hunters might hang out, cut some firewood, and then return home to watch a football game Sunday evening. Fewer hunters make camp together for the remaining Monday through Wednesday season. Sure, hunters are out there, and some camps have tagged incredible numbers of bears in recent years, but the momentum of camp itself is gone, fragmented by the introduction of Saturday hunting and the absence of Sunday hunting.

To say that bear camp was a unique amalgamation of individuals is a gross understatement. Used to be that only the crazy die hard bear hunters would be so driven as to take off of work. Now, so many guys come and go on Saturday that the flavor and chemistry of bear camp is changed, and for the poorer.

I’m an advocate for Sunday hunting. Lots of reasons why, but the loss of that bear camp feeling is a good one by itself. If bear season opened Saturday and continued through Sunday, the old experience would be resurrected. I miss it, because I miss the guys who come up now to only hunt Saturday, and by the time I arrive Sunday, they’re packing up or already gone. Gone are the easy times catching up about our kids, families, and work.

Now, bear camp has evolved two “shifts,” the Saturday hunters, and the oddball crew made of guys who can think of no better way to spend time than out in steep, remote areas, hanging off cliffs, falling down steep ravines, and sitting around with buddies back at camp at night to laugh about it. Two shifts, same camp. Same roof, different people.

Sad. I want that old feeling back. Gimme Sunday hunting for bears, please, so I can reconnect with the old friends I hunted bears with for over a decade before the advent of a Saturday opener.

UPDATE: Well, plenty of people have weighed in on this essay. Seems that Saturday has opened up bear hunting to more kids than ever before, and more hunters in general. Concentrating most of the hunters on one day is a fact of lacking Sunday hunting. And no one disagreed that the momentum has now been lost on the week days.