On the Monday before Thanksgiving, well before the first rays of the sun kiss the sky, the lights at Rock Lodge in the rugged mountains of northeastern Lycoming County will turn off. Hunters will file out of their camps, as they do every year, and begin their trek up the steep hardwood ridge.
Even though the challenging hike takes more than an hour, it’s the easiest one they’ll make during an exhausting day that won’t end until long after dark. In fact, the group’s members will forge their way through the mountains from dawn till dusk for three days straight, clinging to sheer hillsides, working their way through scrub oaks and climbing over and around massive rock outcroppings. It’s the way they’ve always pursued black bears–animals many consider to be the state’s ultimate big-game trophies. It’s the way they always will.
“It’s rough terrain, which keeps a lot of people away. If it weren’t for the trees, we’d be rolling down the side of the mountain,” says Donald Fidler, the camp’s treasurer and one of its longest-tenured members.
In Pennsylvania, a state that’s home to 15,000 bruins, including some of the largest in North America, making drives is a way of life for many groups of sportsmen. From the Promised Land in Pike County to the Allegheny National Forest in Warren County, hunters push the forests and wetlands with the hopes that one or two lucky members will set their sights on a bruin by day’s end.
These aren’t farmland pursuits for whitetails. They’re three-hour marathons combing vertical mountain faces, or crawls through bone-chilling swamps. These drives are as unforgiving as the land you are hunting, punishing your body and testing your resolve. And the only things that are guaranteed at the end of the day are sore muscles, aching bones and a few more scratches on your favorite gun.
“We take a lot of new guys along with us,” says Fidler. “After one year of hunting bears they don’t come back.”
Drives may seem like a lot of work for little reward, but in Pennsylvania it’s the most productive and consistent method of hunting bruins. (Neither bait nor dogs can be used during bear season.) The men of Rock Lodge can attest to its success, having taken 63 bears over the years, averaging two to three per season, well above the state’s 2 to 3 percent success rate.
“The best year for the camp was 2002,” Fidler says. “We shot eight bears in three days.”
When conducting organized pushes, the key is to make sure the drivers get into the nasty places bruins love to hide, even if it means crawling on their hands and knees.
“You look for the thickest stuff you can find,” says Pennsylvania Game Commission bear biologist Mark Ternent. “If it looks like something you wouldn’t want to go walking through, that’s probably where the bears are.”
In addition to swamps and wetlands, this might mean working dense stands of rhododendrons, moving through uninviting thickets of mountain laurels or picking your way across regenerating clear-cuts.
“We know there are bears holed up in areas where some timber is down,” Fidler says.
It’s vital for those who are doing the walking to work in unison. No one should get too far ahead or fall too far behind, and everyone should follow through until the very end of the drive. Fidler says there’s good reason for this.
“The bigger bears we’ve shot have waited until the very end to break out into the open,” he explains. “You could see the drivers and the posted guys together before the bears even moved.”
By now it probably sounds like all bear drives need to be lengthy excursions involving several guys eager to skin their shins and bounce down mountains, but that isn’t the case. Fidler says his group has taken bruins on efforts that required only eight men and half an hour. And each year, even smaller groups have successful hunts.
Whether you’re hunting with four people or twenty-four, the bottom line is to persevere and keep working the woods and wetlands. You never know when that next drive will send a wary black bear bursting from its sanctuary and right past your stand. In Pennsylvania, it may very well be the largest bruin you’ll ever see in your life.
LAND OF THE GIANTS
Pennsylvania can’t claim the record for the heaviest black bear ever harvested, but the Keystone State is home to some of the whoppers of the bear world. In 2003, it yielded 70 bears that weighed more than 500 pounds, including 17 over 600 and three that topped the 800-pound mark.
According to PGC bear biologist Mark Ternent, bears were harvested in 52 of the state’s 67 counties. “Thirty-one, or sixty percent, of those counties gave up at least one bear that weighed five hundred pounds or more,” he says.
PIKE COUNTY This county, with its abundant wetlands, has always yielded good numbers of bruins. Last year two of the three 800-pounders were taken here. Public hunting includes the expansive Delaware State Forest, state game lands (SGL) 180 and 209, and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
LYCOMING COUNTY Lycoming’s bear hunting is legendary. Each year it either holds the honor of being Pennsylvania’s number-one bear-harvest county or plays runner-up to neighboring Clinton County. The crown jewel of the region is undoubtedly the scenic, rugged 215,000-acre Tiadaghton State Forest. Don’t overlook smaller chunks, though, such as SGLs 68 and 134.
HUNTINGDON COUNTY Since the mid-’90s, the average annual harvest has more than doubled in this county. Last season, the take included a 661-pound bruiser that fell in Tell Township. Anyone interested in Huntingdon’s bear hunting might try Rothrock State Forest in the northern part of the county, or some of the many state-owned tracts, such as SGLs 71, 99 and 112.
SCHUYLKILL COUNTY Looking for a sleeper? This may be it. The population’s doing so well much of the county is open during the state’s extended season. Consider SGL 227 near Hometown, SGL 308 near Lofty and the Reading Anthracite Forest Game Project for starters.
For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission (717-787-4250; www.pgc.state.pa.us). The season runs statewide November 22-24 and in select Wildlife Management Units, including 3D and 4C, November 29-December 4.