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Tracks in the Snow
By Mike Lamade
Dec 27, 2007 – 7:27:58 AM
The head was all I could see when he crested the low outcropping not 40 yards above me. It swayed from side to side, as if on some invisible pendulum, checking the empty winter wood lot that separated him from the five acres of uncut corn 200 yards away. Suddenly, the head stopped swinging; it
tilted up and down, testing the wind. Finally satisfied, he stepped forward, and there, squarely silhouetted against the steel gray November sky, stood my bear.
I couldn’t believe it! I’ve hunted these great creatures in Maine, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Colorado, but here I was, only 200 yards from my home, and a trophy bruin was walking slowly into bow range on the first afternoon of our brief two-day season.
An instant flashback reminded me that this was my third encounter with him over the past four years. I had been bowhunting deer in October of 1981, not far from home. The small orchard had been abandoned years before, and was now engulfed by dense evergreens-a Christmas tree farm gone out of control. A groundhog had kept me entertained that afternoon by coming out of his hole under the pines, snatching an apple from the ground and scurrying back to safety beneath the ground level branches. After about his fourth trip I didn’t pay much attention to him, but when it was nearly time to climb down, movement in the thick conifers caught my eye. The groundhog again, I presumed. Well, I was wrong, for out from between those branches stepped the first bear I had ever seen in the wild, and he was no more than five yards away!
He came directly to the trunk of the tree where I was perched, rose on his hind legs, and plucked an apple from a branch not two feet from my foot! I felt an urgent need for toilet tissue. However, he dropped back on all fours, ate his apple, and slipped silently back into the evergreens. Over a year went by without me seeing him again, until one morning when I went spring turkey hunting and I caught a glimpse of a large, black form running through the woods ahead of me. It had to be him-we just don’t have that many bears in our vicinity.
The next fall, my neighbor, Ted Cain, was planning to bowhunt deer from the same apple tree where I had first encountered my bear. After scouting it before opening day, Ted dropped in to see me. I could tell immediately that he was unhappy. “Somebody beat me to it,” he said with disgust, “and whoever it is, he’s using golf spikes to climb the tree.” Interested, I walked down to the old orchard the next morning. The evenly spaced claw marks were still seeping, and fresh droppings confirmed the identity of Ted’s “golfer”. The bear was back.
The next summer the bear added a newly found delicacy to his menu-honey! The kind that bees make in pretty white boxes called hives. A neighbor, Harris Zinn from New York City, had set them out. Harris found great satisfaction in tending those bees during his summer vacation and occasional weekend retreats.
The bear destroyed them. I mean, he just didn’t break in, have a snack, say “thank ya ma’am,” and leave. He smashed them to pieces, then threw what was left over-a sizable chunk of real estate. He devoured not only the honey, but the residents of the hive as well.
Fall turned into winter and winter turned into spring with no sign of my black, furry friend. But, the following spring, he visited a turkey feeder not far from my place. One early April afternoon I was watching deer at the feeder, when their heads snapped to attention as they focused on the hill behind them. I anticipated the arrival of another deer, but instead, a very large black figure lumbered down the hillside toward the feeder. My bear was back. That was a year and a half ago. I hadn’t seen or heard of him again, as he started down the trail I described at the top of this story. In fact, I was planning to hunt in Pike County, 25 miles to the south, because of the much larger concentration of bear in that area. I wouldn’t have even known he was around, if it wasn’t for the fact that on the night of Nov. 16, just a week before opening day, it snowed!
Morning found two inches of the white stuff on the ground, our first snowfall of the year. A good time to follow some deer tracks back to bedding areas, I thought. Dressing warmly for the 20-degree weather, I ventured out and soon found some fresh deer tracks not a hundred yards behind my cabin. It was then that I spotted the larger, man-sized prints. “One of the neighbor kids,” I said to myself. But when I looked closer, I realized that if it was one of the neighbor kids, he hadn’t cut his toenails in a long time! My bear was back, and only a week before the season.
I followed the tracks for about a quarter mile. He came out of the woods, went across the township road, and entered a small cornfield that hadn’t been harvested because of the wet weather. It had to be his last food source before hibernation. The evidence was clearly there: ears of corn stripped from the stalk, bare ears on the ground, and corn-laden droppings everywhere. Midway through the week we had a warm spell and some rain, which melted the snow and turned everything to mud. Beautiful, sloppy mud-that showed fresh bear tracks on the same run to the standing corn. If he kept to this same pattern, I just might have a chance for a shot.
I picked out a tree for my portable stand. It was 15 yards off the run, and about 40 yards from the top of the hill he had to come over on his way to the cornfield.
As I placed my stand in the tree my thoughts went back to the Pope & Young bear I had taken in New Brunswick the spring before. Could it be that I might get another chance at a P&Y candidate right here at home?
I checked my gear. A bear is a formidable opponent for a bowhunter. Its long fur absorbs blood, and its heavy layers of fat plug wounds and internal organs smaller than a deer’s. Choosing a broadhead that would do the job was paramount. To stop a bear, the shot has to be perfect with a broadhead capable of opening a wound that can’t be closed. I had taken my New Brunswick bear with a Rothaar Snuffer and it had performed extremely well. A lung shot had produced a good blood trail within 15 yards and the bear had gone only 75 yards before going down. A PSE Laser Mach I bow, 2216 camo hunter shafts, and an Altier Bowhunter Rifle Sight completed the outfit. I had full confidence in this equipment, as I had used it for a number of years with excellent results each time in the field.
I was in my stand on opening morning of our two-day bear season well before dawn, as I thought I might have a chance of intercepting him coming back from a night in the corn. As dawn began to break, it was deathly still in the somber, winter woods. There’s something different about sitting a bear stand, at least for me. Although shy and extremely wary of humans, a bear still has the potential to present an element of danger not found with other game. They possess amazing speed, uncanny hearing and a superb sense of smell-all this topped off with a heavy dose of intelligence.
Mental discipline is a must on a bear stand. Keeping calm when he comes into view, waiting for him to get into range, and then promising yourself not to shoot until the perfect shot is presented, all require control and concentration. I stayed on my stand for three hours. I saw nothing, so, stiff and cold, I climbed down and returned to my cabin for a hot breakfast. One fourth of our two-day bear season was already over.
At 2 p.m. I headed back to my stand with a little over two hours of daylight left. That would be plenty, as it was starting to turn colder with snow predicted for that evening. That bothered me, for even a good hit would make recovery tough if the blood trail was covered with snow.
Time went by slowly. Maybe I’m expecting too much. Only a couple of bears have ever been taken with a bow in Pennsylvania. It was 4:20 when I saw the movement at the top of the hill. He had kept his appointment, but suddenly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep mine! It was something that had been troubling
me since first finding his tracks in the snow. Did I really want to kill this bear?
I knew it was the chance of a lifetime, but somehow I felt a reluctance I had never experienced before when hunting. Was it because of our occasional encounters over the past few years? This was my bear!
He’s heading down the hill. Only 30 yards separate us now, and the gap is closing rapidly. I have a decision to make-and soon!
He turned to his right presenting a broadside shot. I hit full draw, but before I could zero in on a spot, he turned 90 degrees and all I could see was the bear’s posterior. No good, don’t shoot! I let down, waiting him out. Finally, he turned again. I drew again, but this time the leg and shoulder were back, protecting the vital chest area. I let down for the second time. The distance closed to 15 yards-he started to move past me-he was quartering away with the right leg reaching forward, exposing the heart/lung area.
It was time.
I hit my anchor point, and a split second before the arrow left the string, I realized that I might want it back. But it was too late! The arrow was on its way at over 200 feet per second. It was over. The bear was mine. He’s a great trophy, but I must admit, I’m going to miss that bear. The woods around my Wayne County cabin seem a little emptier now. The deer now have the turkey feeder to themselves in the spring, and my neighbor, Harris, raises his bees without fear of molestation.
Yes, my chance encounters with my bear are finished. But maybe some spring, a sleepy sow will emerge from her cozy winter den, followed by two or three balls of tumbling black fur. Maybe I’ll find small, man-like prints once again by the hillside near my home. And the cycle of life will continue. For you and for me.
And perhaps some winter, there will be new “tracks in the snow.”