(Continued from the April/May 2011 issue of North American Hunter)
Taking It To The Woods
In 2010 my main objective during New Jersey’s big game hunting season was to bag my first black bear. I’ve hunted deer during New Jersey’s 6-day season for many years, spending many deer openers in northwestern Sussex County, specifically in Stokes State Forest. This year I was planning to deer hunt farther south in Hunterdon County where a lot of Boone and Crockett class deer are taken every year. But I was lucky enough to also draw a bear tag. So I told my hunting buddies I would be in Stokes State Forest on the opener, as well as the final day of the season—the only 2 days I could get out to hunt.
The opener was cold, but there was no wind. The temps were in the mid 20s and the clear sky was starting to lighten up. My friend, Nick, also had drawn a bear tag for the season. Nick and I had a plan to wait until light before we went into the woods so we could see any bear we might push out.
We know the area well, having done most of our youthful deer hunting there. For years, the number of hunters in these woods has been declining. Few deer get pushed around anymore. In the 60s and 70s we had trouble finding a place to park. But this morning we counted only 12 cars on the 2 miles of road we traveled to get to our hunting spot.
From our parking spot there is a thick, swampy area about 300 yards in, downhill from the road. It always attracted deer when the hunting started on deer openers. We took many mature deer from this area over the years, but without a lot of hunting pressure during the past decade, we hadn’t taken a deer since 2001. We did see a bear every now and then, though, and there seemed to be quite a few in this area judging from the abundant sign, so I started scouting this area while deer hunting to learn the habits and locations of the bears in the area. They had nothing to fear though, because New Jersey would not allow bear hunting.
We learned a bear had a den on the edge of a swamp. It would watch for hunters approaching from the road on the opener. It had learned over the years to sneak away through the swamp at dawn when hunters moved in, heading deep into the woods for the rest of the deer season. When New Jersey had a bear season in 2005, I had a bear tag as well. It was then I had first seen this bear, and it was only 25 yards from me that morning. But it was only a cub then about the size of a large raccoon. Our plan in 2010 was for me to swing wide and around the back of the swamp to head it off, if it tried that this morning. Nick would wait until I was in position, then still hunt toward the nest area in hopes of getting a shot, should it offer him one.
Five Years In The Making
At daybreak, I moved in. We would be still hunting and were fortunate that no other hunters were hunting near enough to spoil our plan. When I got into position, it was 7:30 a.m. There was enough light to see 200 yards and the wind was in my favor. Soon, to my left, about 150 yards away, at the far end of the swamp, I could see deer slowly moving into the forest, away from my friend, and looking back in his direction. I could see a decent rack on the head of the last big bodied deer, so I raised my slug gun and confirmed it in my scope. No shot was possible though as there were too many trees and the deer were moving.
After 30 minutes, I moved to my left to meet up with Nick. The bear did not appear that morning. We hunted the rest of that opening day, but without success.
All during that week, there were news reports that animal rights groups were hard at work trying to end this bear hunt early. I spent a restless week longing for Saturday to arrive sooner. I started to lose hope my first bear would be taken this week. Watching news reports on TV showing protestors at bear check stations was a little depressing as well. They were verbally attacking hunter’s themselves. It was vicious, cruel, vulgar and disgusting. Hunters are a minority in America. I guess we’re the only minority that is still legal to publicly threaten and hate. It made me more determined to hunt on, in spite of them.
We returned the following Saturday morning, the final day of the season, to try the same plan. Conditions at daybreak were the same. The results were also the same, except the deer we saw at daybreak were all does. I called Nick’s cell phone at 8 a.m. when he didn’t show at the meeting spot, and told him I was heading back up to the truck so we could try something else. He had decided to also push another area a little further north of my spot, in hopes of driving something my way.
When we got to the truck, it was sunny and getting warm. The ridge directly above the spot we parked the truck was very rocky and loaded with rhododendron. Not an easy place to hunt, but I thought it might be a perfect place for bear to hang out in the sun. I suggested we head uphill 200 yards and still hunt northward along the ridge, into the slight breeze, and see if we might get lucky before lunch. Nick wasn’t really impressed with the idea, but agreed with a “whatever.” I had him stop 100 yards up the hill telling him to wait until I was 100 yards further up and then start moving north very slowly. Once I was in position, we started moving.
At 9:30 a.m., I spotted a bear’s head in the bright sunlight, looking right at me, 75 yards away. It was directly in my path but some brush was obscuring the bear’s body and vitals. I cranked the scope up to 7X and dropped into a prone position. I could see the bear’s body now, and had a real steady rest, but the brush left me an opening only about 6 inches wide to shoot through. At that moment, the bear turned away from me and looked down hill. I knew it was about to run, so I put the cross hairs on its shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
My rest was so solid, I could see the slug strike the bear in the scope as the gun recoiled, exactly where I was aiming. The bear took a flying leap, as if diving into a lake, and landed behind a big boulder where I could no longer see it. I could see it didn’t run out from behind that boulder, though. Now I was starting to wonder if it was dead behind that rock, or lying there in wait to attack whatever it was that was going to approach it. I called to Nick, told him to come up to my position and back me up on this bear.
We approached it slowly and circled wide of the boulder on the uphill side. At first we couldn’t see the bear at all and were wondering where it went. Then I noticed a wide crack of an opening under the boulder with a black area I thought was a hole in the ground. As we got closer we could see the bear’s hind leg and then more of the body, but it had squeezed itself under this rock. I told Nick to be ready and back me up as I poked the bear a number of times with my muzzle. It never even twitched.
We took out two deer drags, tied them to the bear’s exposed hind leg, and pulled it out from under that rock. The more it started to show as we moved it out, the bigger it seemed to get. We were giddy with excitement when we had it fully in the open—t was much bigger than I had thought. Fortunately, we had a downhill drag from there and it only took a short while, with both of us working to slide it down to the truck on the dry leaves.
The bear had taken one shot to the heart from my slug gun and it only went 10 yards. It turned out to be a sow with a beautiful thick hide, jet black fur, no white fur on the chest, and no rubbed areas at all.
When we arrived at the Flatbrook-Roy bear check station, there wasn’t a single protestor. The rangers said the anti’s didn’t know how to locate this check station, as it was the most northern one in the state and a bit off the highway. The TV crews and animal rights people were at the other check station 15 miles south down the highway. I had to laugh about that. The rangers then examined my bear and found it didn’t have any tags or tattoos, meaning they had never captured this bear at anytime in is life. It weighed 260 pounds field dressed and approximately 300 pounds live weight.
After 10 years of on-and-off bear hunting, both in New Jersey as well as the Catskills and Adirondacks of New York, I had finally made it happen. I’m glad my patience, determination and persistence didn’t let me down during this ordeal. How often will I get a chance to take such a beautiful bear? I don’t know the answer, but I’m looking forward to my next bear even more.