It seems hard to believe that it is already time to talk about the opening of bear season here in Pennsylvania. Last year, of course, the bear opener was moved to a Saturday rather than the longstanding Monday before Thanksgiving.
That is the case again this year, along with the statewide bear season being increased from three to four days - Nov. 19 and 21-23. Hunters in certain areas of northeast Pennsylvania will also be able to hunt bears during the first week of deer season, Nov. 28-Dec. 3, while hunters in WMUs 3D, 4C, 4D, 4E, 5B and 5C. Be sure to check your hunting digest for the specifics of these expanded bear seasons.
For the past decade or so, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists have estimated our black bear population at around 15,000 animals. Based on the annual bear harvests during this period, that total might be somewhat on the conservative side. Since 2000, hunters have bagged more than 3,000 bears most years, including the current record harvest of 4,164 animals back in 2005. Each year, several world-class trophy black bears with estimated live weights of 600 to 700 pounds or more are also taken.
Based on those stats alone, it's easy to make a case that the golden age of bear hunting in Pennsylvania is right now, and recent hunter participation reflects that as well. While general hunting license sales in all the demographic groups have declined dramatically over the past decade, sales of bear licenses have steadily increased during the same period. In 1999, hunters purchased just over 100,000 bear licenses in Pennsylvania; that number topped 161,000 last year.
Bagging a black bear represents a special accomplishment for many Pennsylvania hunters and one that I can relate to personally, having killed a bear myself back in 1998. And like many hunters I know, I was satisfied that one Pennsylvania bear on my hunting resume was enough, so I considered myself a retired bear hunter after that success. That is until 2005 when several friends decided to put together a gang to hunt bears in Huntingdon County and asked me to join them. I accepted that invitation mainly for the camaraderie and the chance to help some fellow hunters get a bear. I had no inkling how successful and eventful those hunts would become.
On our first outing, we killed three bears before noon on opening day. The first drive of the day produced a bear that ultimately made national news when it bit the hunter on the thigh as he approached the animal to finish it off. While our hunting companion was then taken to the emergency room to have the puncture wound attended to, he was back hunting with us later that afternoon. The Game Commission subsequently issued a press release stating this was the first case on record of a Pennsylvania hunter being injured while attempting to recover a wounded bear. Nothing like being a part of history.
In 2007, we had hunted hard all day with no luck. As we set up for the last drive of the day, I was bone tired, having made a long walk through some rugged terrain on the previous effort. Because I was doing my best not to shoot another bear, I opted to stand watch in a patch of open woods and allow some of the younger hunters to set up in spots where they were more likely to see a bear. That plan went awry shortly after the drive started as I saw movement in the woods directly in front of me. I peered through my binoculars, and sure enough, not one, but three bears were heading my way as if they were on rails.
Shouldering my rifle, I watched the three black forms as they approached to about 50 yards before stopping. At that point, the biggest bear must have seen me, and all of them turned and dashed back the way they had come. I sat there hoping those bears hadn't slipped through the drive unseen, or I would surely be the goat for letting them get away. After many agonizing moments, shots rang out, followed by happy chatter on the radios, and I knew our crew included yet another successful bear hunter.
Last year was our most successful yet, as we tagged a six bears, bringing our total to 12 bears over the past six opening days. It would have been difficult to script a more eventful and interesting day. The first drive of the day produced two bears, and one of our youngest hunters killed bear on the last drive just before dark. I have no idea what this bear season will bring for our gang, but whether we get several bears or none at all, I can't wait to go bear hunting next Saturday.