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A Honey of a Bear
By Mike Lamade
Aug 6, 2007 – 9:15:57 AM
A “Honey-Burn” Leads To A Pope & Young Blackie
The choppers came in at treetop level beneath the wop, wop, wop of their thundering rotors. Machine guns bristled from their turrets and they were so low I could clearly see the young faces of the helmeted troops. Instinctively, I huddled closer to the protective cover of the tree. The sound of artillery fire
echoed to the east and the rancid smell of burning debris violated the crisp, spring air.
Vietnam revisited? No. It was the first afternoon of a spring bear hunt in New Brunswick. The helicopters and artillery shells came from the nearby Canadian Army base, Camp Gagetown, one of the largest military bases in North America. The burning smell came from the local dump, 300 yards upwind. This adventure began to take shape the previous September in Tony Altier’s archery shop in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. A young hunter named Frank had given me a bear camp brochure along with a success story to back it up. The outfitter’s name was Eugene O’Neill and his camp was in Tracy, New Brunswick.
I’ve been hooked on bear hunting for a long time and have hunted them in Maine, Quebec, and Ontario. Anyone who says hunting bruins over bait is duck soup just hasn’t been there. On four previous hunts I’d had one shot and scored a direct hit on a shoulder blade, which resulted in one angry, but otherwise undamaged, black bear.
As spring approached, I began to prepare. My main concern was choosing a broadhead that would do the job. I chose the three-bladed Rothhaar Snuffer. The Snuffer is extremely strong and has a wide cutting surface. I had a problem with arrow flight from my 60-pound bow because of the weight of the head. Roger Rothhaar, well-known Ohio bowhunter and inventor of the “Snuffer,” suggested using swedged shafts, thus eliminating close to 50 grains of insert weight. I ordered the tapered shafts from Mike’s Archery in Ironton, Ohio. When they arrived, I anxiously glued the Snuffers directly to the shaft. They flew perfectly!
I arrived in New Brunswick at noon on Sunday, May 5, after the long trip from home. I was pleased to see that there were only six hunters in camp, not the 25 I had experienced in the past. The cast included fellow Pennsylvanians Pete Wilkes and Dick Dougherty; and Ed, Harry, and Eddie, from Virginia. I met our host and guide Gene O’ Neill, for the first time. Quiet and unassuming, with a quick Irish grin behind metal framed glasses, he reminded me of a leprechaun in green rubber boots.
It soon became apparent that he was a real professional in the guiding business and knew bears and their habits as well or better than anyone I had ever met. I also discovered I was the only bowhunter in camp! Later that afternoon we visited our stands. Mine was across a dirt road from the local dump, about 60 yards off the road in heavy brush and spruce. The bait had been hit! The barrel had been upset and the meat scraps were gone. As Gene rebaited, I climbed into the stand, checked for obstructions that would deflect an arrow, and took a reading with my rangefinder. Twenty yards to the barrel. Perfect for the top peep and post of my Altier bowsight.
Back at camp we relaxed in the “Liar Den,” a comfortable shack behind Gene’s house. A wood stove kept it warm, an old fridge kept the beer cold and the stories kept everyone entertained. Pete soon became known as “Chibougamau Pete from his stories of moose and caribou hunts in northern Quebec. We turned in with the sound of rain on the roof, anticipating opening day.
The cowbell rang for breakfast at 8 a.m. Noreen, assisted by Gene’s mother, who is 90 years young, expertly prepared the meals. The food was excellent and plentiful.
After a second cup of coffee we headed out to check and rebait the stands. Like most bear camps, stands are hunted only in the afternoons. Pete’s, Eddie’s, and mine had been hit. I was beginning to get excited. Back for lunch and a brief nap and we were ready to go. I arrived at my stand around 4 p.m. I hadn’t been settled more than 10 minutes when the choppers I mentioned went over and the guns started firing from the base. I could smell the burning on the dump whenever the wind blew, and I wondered if the bears would head there instead of to my bait. At 7 p.m., I heard a noise behind me. I slowly turned my head and saw movement in the brush below. Into the clearing stepped…a rabbit! A big snowshoe, half-brown, half-white, as he was changing his coat to match the summer undergrowth. He was all I saw the entire evening except for the large ravens, which circled and perched in the nearby pines.
Tuesday-Day Two. Heavy rain was falling when we awoke. After breakfast I went out to check my stand and rebait, if necessary. I saw the overturned drum when I was still 20 yards from the baitsite.
It was damp and cold that evening with a raw wind blowing off the Atlantic, somewhere to the northeast. My rabbit came back, this time bringing a friend. The artillery echoed from the base and every now and then I heard a car or truck entering or leaving the dump. The provocative calls of the ravens provided an eerie accompaniment to the fading daylight. My bear never showed.
It was 10 p.m. by the time everyone returned to camp. Pete’s bear had come back, but again, no shot. The bear spooked when Pete began to make his move.
Wednesday-Day Three. Opening the door that morning, we were startled to see a half-inch of snow on the ground-and it was still coming down. After breakfast I grabbed a bait bucket and went to check my stand, getting soaked from snow-covered bushes and branches. Bingo! The barrel was upset and the meat completely gone. There were no tracks in the snow so it had to have been visited the night before, sometime before the snow started.
The hours dragged by that evening. The choppers didn’t show, the rabbits didn’t show, and the circulation began to leave my fingers and toes as it turned colder and colder. Boy, is this fun, I said to myself, as my feet turned into chunks of ice. The only sound to break the monotony was the occasional slamming of a door or tailgate at the dump.
On pulling into camp our headlights picked up a black form lying on the ground by the trapping shed. Dick had a bear come in early in the afternoon and dropped him on the spot with a rifle shot behind the ear. More headlights appeared in the drive. It was Harry, Ed, and Gene returning from the army base. They passed us and headed directly for the game pole. Sure enough, Harry had scored also. His bear weighed around 180 pounds with Dick’s being a little smaller. Gene estimated them to be two-year-olds. However, the ice had been broken. Pete reported that he sat so still that his self-winding watch stopped, but his bear didn’t come back.
Thursday-Day Four. Raining again and cold again-the weather wasn’t cooperating. Going out to check my bait that morning I knew it would be hit before I even go there, but I was frustrated. Maybe it wasn’t a bear. I couldn’t find any tracks or droppings in the area. Maybe coyotes were taking the bait. Should I move to another stand? No, stick with it at least for today, I told myself as I drove back to camp.
I climbed into my stand that evening, not nearly as confident as in the beginning of the week. It was a repeat performance. My bear refused to come in while I was in the stand. At dark I stiffly climbed down and returned to the road to await pickup. Returning to camp we found an elated Eddie, who after six bear hunts had nailed his first bear.
Friday-Day Five. The final day. It was a little warmer and looked like it was finally going to clear. The last stand should be a good one-weather-wise, at least. I was thinking of trying something. It had been in the back of my mind all week.
Would it really work? Would a “honey-burn” work? In his book Black Bears, Bob McGuire recommends several techniques for attracting quick bait hits. The best results are reportedly obtained by burning honey. I had tossed a quart jar of the stuff along with a small sterno stove in my duffel bag when packing for the hunt. These items went into my backpack as I prepared to leave for my last stand.
It was 4:30 when I reached my site. I set up the small stove on top of the bait drum, poured a generous amount of honey into the coffee can, lit the sterno and climbed quietly into my tree. Soon, I could see the heat waves coming from the sterno, and in a few minutes I caught the pungent aroma of the burning honey. It began to foam and bubble as it reached the boiling point and soon rose toward the top of the can. It boiled over the top, ran down the sides and made a sweet mess all over the top of the drum. Perfect! A little while later the sterno went out.
As the hours passed, I recalled my previous bear hunts. This was by far the best outfitter I had booked with; I was the only one in camp who hadn’t seen a bear.
Six, then 7 o’clock came and went. My rabbit friends appeared. All was quiet at the army base. At 8 the wind that had been blowing all week died and the sun came out, also for the first time in five days. It was a perfect Canadian spring evening. At 8:15 I stood up and pledged not to move for the next 50 minutes.
Thirty minutes later it happened. I was staring at the bait barrel when a black form started coming out of the bush. I couldn’t believe it-it was my bear! He was beautiful, his coat in prime condition and so shiny it looked like he just stepped out of a lake. Small ears, a wide muzzle, and a massive body told me he was a mature trophy bruin.
He came toward the barrel head-on and I noticed a pure white blaze on his chest. He reached the barrel, but instead of tipping it over, he rolled out a foot-long red tongue and began licking the honey where it had spilled! The light was fading, but I had no shot. Slowly, he moved around to my side of the barrel and stopped broadside only 18 yards away. I came to full draw, but I couldn’t shoot, as the leg was back, protecting the vitals. I remembered a shoulder blade shot in Maine four years previous and waited.
Suddenly, a car door slammed on the dump! His head came up and he started to move away from the barrel toward the woods. My God, he’s leaving, I almost said out loud. He took two steps and there it was. His right leg reached forward presenting the perfect quartering away shot. His head was just disappearing into the bush when I released the deadly Snuffertipped shaft. Even in the dim light I could see the bright fletchings enter low behind the shoulder. He crashed into the thick brush, breaking everything in his path. In 10 seconds there was complete silence in the woods.
I sat down, trying to control my pumped-up emotions. My heart was beating so fast I thought it might stop! Glancing at my watch I saw it was 8:55. The entire sequence had taken only five minutes. I waited a few minutes and climbed down. Flashlight in hand, I followed the path he had taken and within five yards I found bright red blood on the bushes on the right side. I shone the light to the left-more blood on the ground. The Snuffer had completely penetrated the chest cavity. I was sure I had anchored him.
I returned to the bait site, packed up my gear and headed for the road. Gene’s truck was parked 50 yards ahead and he got out as I approached in the near darkness.
“How’d ya do?” he asked in his Irish brogue.
“Oh, I lost one of my good arrows,” I said.
“Ya dropped it out of your stand?” he asked.
“Yup, right into the biggest bear in the woods,” I whispered, no longer able to contain my excitement.
Gene’s face broke into a big grin. “Do we go after him tonight?” I asked anxiously.
“No, there’s no rain forecast and if he’s hit as well as ya say, he won’t go too far. We’ll find ‘im in the morning,” Gene replied. “Don’t worry; I’m the best tracker in New Brunswick.”
We ate an early breakfast the next morning. Ed, Harry, and Eddie were ready to leave for Virginia, but they delayed their departure to help look for my bear.
“Bring that bow, just in case,” Gene said, as we left the truck 50 yards from the bait site. When we reached the barrel, a strange feeling came over me. It was as if this was the first time I had ever seen the bait drum standing upright in the morning, untouched. I showed Gene the blood and he took the lead. The blood trail was good, but Gene seemed to be ignoring it.
“Over here’s more blood,” I said.
“Don’t care about the blood,” he replied. “I’m looking for your bear.”
Amazed I stopped and watched him. He wasn’t looking for blood, just tracking the bear by prints, broken grass and some uncanny instinct from years of trapping and hunting in the Canadian wilds. He continued for another 50 yards, intently examining the ground before him in the dense underbrush.
“Ah, he’s slowin’ down, his steps are getting’ shorter,” he exclaimed. We went another 30 yards. “Look here where he slipped-I think we’re getting’ close,” he whispered excitedly.
I looked behind me. The others were 30 yards back, following the blood trail. Gene started walking faster, straightening from his crouched position.
“Not too much farther now, my friend, he’s gettin’ weaker.” Gene eased through some heavy brush and whispered, “pretty soon now, I can smell ‘im, I can smell ‘im. There he is! My, he is a dandy, ain’t he?”
I stumbled toward the sound of his voice and breaking through the brush, I saw my trophy lying at Gene’s feet. Gene’s eyes twinkled as he shook my hand. “I told ya I was the best tracker in New Brunswick,” he said.
“Baloney,” I replied. “You’re the best tracker on the continent!”
“Over 400 pounds, easy,” said Gene matter-of-factly. “We’ll have to skin ‘im here.”
After he completed the skinning process I opened the carcass. The lungs clearly showed the three-bladed imprint of the Snuffer, just as I suspected.
Did the honey make the difference? That’s something I’ll never know, but I like to think it did. Even though it was five hours after the “honey-burn” when he came in, he did come in, the first time during daylight the entire week. He also ignored tipping the drum, licking the honey from the barrel instead. Will I take “honey-burn” material on my next bear hunt?