Big Woods Bear CampNov 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Tyler Frantz
If there’s anything 97 percent of Pennsylvania bear hunters understand, it’s that the chances of filling their tags are slim. Yet the mere possibility of falling into the roughly three percent of license holders annually who are fortunate to take a prized Keystone State bruin makes the low-ball odds of scoring big entirely worth it.
To put things into perspective, the Lycoming County hunting camp of which I’m a member has pursued black bears throughout the public lands of the northcentral counties surrounding our small-plot cabin during every open season since it was established in 1951.
Multiple generations from southeastern Pennsylvania have traveled to our cherished home away from home in the Big Woods for fall hunting excursions and summer family vacations, using camp as a launch point to soak in all the region has to offer from trout fishing to kayaking to sitting around the campfire beneath the stars. But nothing gets us more excited than the prime bear hunting opportunities offered within an hour’s drive from camp in any direction.
Despite braving early morning wakeups, a wide range of weather conditions, and mountains so steep they’ve blown soles off hunting boots, our dedicated group of twenty-eight hunters has hardly attained sixty bears in seven decades worth of trying.
Still, that’s far better than most, and we’re proud to contribute to the state’s conservation model of wildlife management, one we believe helps this elusive species thrive through regulated hunting seasons that are designed to remove a small percentage annually, keeping populations in balance with available food and habitat.
It’s About Tradition (and Luck)
Something our guild has come to know about bear hunting is that it requires grit, persistence, marksmanship, patience, stealth, composure, adaptability, knowledge of the woods, and a whole lot of luck. But, the chance of encountering the ultimate big game species in Penn’s Woods, as well as the camaraderie of sharing camp memories with family and friends, keeps our traditions strong.
Routinely, it means silencing an alarm at 3:30 a.m., with the earliest riser throwing slab bacon and eggs onto the kitchen griddle and brewing two steaming pots of coffee, while a dozen or more camp members crowd around the counter packing cold cuts sandwiches, apples, and candy bars into paper bags for the long day ahead. Most hit the mountain well before dawn and only quit after sundown, so this fuel is essential.
After a brisk visit to the two-seater outhouse, our lone shower cycles like a turnstile, as hunters take scent-free showers to remove the smells of breakfast, and then hustle outside in the dim porchlight to dress in clothing treated with special detergents designed to guard human odors from a bear’s best defense—its nose.
We then assemble our hunting gear and drive to locations carefully scouted in advance, hike a mile or more from the parked vehicle, and fan into small subgroups to stake out the most likely trails that bears could potentially wander on any given day. Staying quiet and motionless, we wait as long as it takes, hoping for something that may or may not ever materialize.
Even when you do just about everything right to tip the odds in your favor, there are still no guarantees it’ll all come together in the end.
Where Are They?
Take, for instance, last fall, when we discovered early on that bear signs and the hard mast such as acorns, hickory nuts, and beechnuts they might be eating were scarce near camp. We realized we’d need to adapt to the conditions and search elsewhere to find bears.
By mid-week of the October inline muzzleloader season, a few elder members had searched high and low for abundant mast at ground level, finally locating a bumper crop of nutrient-rich acorns on a remote tract of Tioga County public land. Making the property even more enticing was its mixed cover of dense laurel, towering hardwoods, and low evergreens situated among intersecting ridgelines. By all measures, it appeared to have the markings of excellent bear habitat.
Waiting until enough young blood arrived to enable hauling a bruin out of the steep ravines should anyone connect on a shot (a physically burdensome yet fulfilling task we’ve all experienced multiple times), our group hit the road and traveled to this new but promising location during the final day of the early bear season.
Having never been there before, we made the mistake of entering the tract from the wrong location. If the noise of trampling through a bed of dry, crunchy leaves wasn’t bad enough, we quickly found ourselves engulfed in a laurel thicket taller than our heads. By the time we finished bushwhacking to the ridge, which thankfully was much more open, we had alerted just about every living creature within earshot of our presence, including some form of unseen wildlife that made quite the racket as it fled for the distant hills.
The silver lining, however, was that, in the process, we found two big heaping piles of bear scat, which not only answered the age-old question, but also validated the hunch that this was indeed bruin territory.
Despite blowing our chances for this hunt, the area was loaded with acorns, game trails were clearly obvious, and we even identified a less obtrusive way to access the property. We hatched a hopeful plan to return during the following month’s firearms bear season.
A Lucky Fall
On opening day, a late November sunrise gave way to a forest cloaked in white with flurries dancing freely in the early morning glow. Seven of us had settled into our chosen posts along promising terrain features, strategically approaching from three different locations to increase our chances of seeing a bear should there happen to be any still fattening up on the remaining morsels of acorns before denning for the winter. Fresh tracks in the snow, as well as evidence of deep digging in the leaf litter observed during the walk in, gave us even more reason to be optimistic. We sat in silence, scanning the woods for glimmers of movement as a new season dawned.
Shortly after 7:30 a.m., the sharp crack of a rifle pierced the stillness of the morning air. “Was that one of our guys?” someone from the group inquired. Indeed, it was, but the full story became clear only later that evening, when the group recounted the tale while gathered around the flickering warmth of the fireplace after a hearty dinner.
Four hunters had walked in together and spread out along a ridge. Just after daybreak, the first hunter in line heard footsteps approaching, but only caught a momentary glimpse of a bear before it was past him. The second hunter also heard it coming and took aim with his rifle, but just as he was ready to fire, the bear disappeared in a low dip in the terrain. The third hunter, hearing the second hunter shout, “A bear is heading your way!”, tried desperately to get into shooting position by clambering atop a blowdown, but still couldn’t line things up before brush along the ridge obstructed the bruin. By this time, the fourth hunter was ready, but he flat out missed. All four hunters saw the bear, yet none could make it happen.
Our entire group hunted from daybreak to dusk. No one saw another bear despite hearing several additional shots in the vicinity. Not wanting to give up on a good area, we returned the following morning, but our hunt was cut short for a good, and somewhat ironic, reason.
A fellow member who had remained close to camp (where, again, there was very little sign) tripped and fell while walking into his intended hunting location. Dusting himself off from a forward tumble, he figured that this place would be as good as any to sit and rest a bit. Moments later, a bruin appeared from the laurel, and he was blessed to harvest it cleanly with a well-placed shot, proving anything can happen in the bear woods.
Heeding our friend’s call for assistance, we immediately abandoned our hunt to travel a county’s distance and help haul his bear through cold creek water, over rocky ledges, and across a high elevation thicket back to the truck. We know how rare it is to fall into that successful three percent of bear hunters, so it’s always a celebratory occasion when one of our own fills a tag.
Sure, we all hunt with the hopes of taking a bear each year, but odds are more likely we’ll enjoy the beauty of a mountain sunrise, eat well, tell stories, and share a few laughs with friends and family. Occasionally, our planning pays off exactly as we hoped, while other times, we are humbled by the unpredictability of these incredible animals we love to pursue.
But one truth remains—a bear for one is a hard-earned reward for all of us. That’s what this treasure we call bear camp is all about.