October 28, 2010
No bait. No dogs. Just you, your bow and some of North America's biggest bruins.
Terry Burkhardt didn't abandon his Carbon County, Pa. home to live in his treestand last fall.
Bowhunter Terry Burkhardt of Jim Thorpe, Pa., took this 654-pound black bear in November 2009 while hunting in Carbon County on the opening day of Pennsylvania's firearms bear season. It was one of the largest bruins killed last year in the Keystone State.
But he did spend an awful lot of time there. That paid off in deer season, when he arrowed an 11-point buck that scored 125€‰7„8 inches.
"That was after 76 hours in my stand," Burkhardt said.
Leaving his stand for lunch on another day almost cost him though.
Pennsylvania has held a firearms black bear season on the three days leading up to Thanksgiving for decades. And for the past four years, the state has also offered a special, archery-only bear season that for 2010 will expand to five days and be open statewide.
Burkhardt had seen plenty of bears on his trail cameras over the years. So, last fall he decided to try for one with his bow. He crawled into his stand on the opening morning of the firearms season and right away could tell hunters were finding bears. He heard 12 shots within a few hours.
Still, at lunchtime he decided to leave his stand and walk back to his truck for a sandwich. On his way there -- within 100 yards of his truck, in fact -- he saw what he guessed was a 250-pound bear. He started a stalk and had closed to within 40 yards when the bear winded him and disappeared into some thick laurel.
"I was thinking for sure that I was going to shoot that bear," Burkhardt said.
The disappointment of blowing his chance mixed with the excitement of seeing the bear and prompted Burkhardt to hustle back to his stand. That proved wise, because at 4 p.m., he heard and then saw another bear coming toward him.
It was a familiar -- and huge -- one.
"All of a sudden I heard a twig snap and looked left and there's this big buster. He was only 10 yards away already. I could tell that it was a bear we'd nicknamed Scar, because we'd noticed on my cameras that he had a 12-inch scar where no hair had grown back," Burkhardt said. "I'd been watching him for four years.
"When I got a chance, I shot him and he took off like a bulldozer. He gave one grunt and just took off. I couldn't do anything but stand there and shake for 10 minutes. It was like a Volkswagen had just come through. I'm telling you it was unreal."
It would get more unreal shortly.
Burkhardt found his bear, tagged it and, before dressing it, took it to one of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's mandatory check stations, where wildlife officials record things like the weight and age of hunter-killed bears. His tipped the scales at a behemoth 654 pounds, or nearly double the 355 pounds of the Pennsylvania bear he'd killed with a rifle in 2006.
It was a fantastic animal in what is -- in archery circles, at least -- the least well-known but potentially most rewarding fair-chase bear hunting location in the Lower 48.Everything's Bigger In -- Pennsylvania?
Bryon Whipkey (in gray sweatshirt) of Wexford, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, shows off the 571-pound black bear he killed with a bow during Pennsylvania's 2009 archery bear season.
Pennsylvania offers the opportunity to hunt some of the biggest black bears in the world. Thirteen bears killed last season topped 600 pounds and 38 weighed more than 500. Burkhardt's, massive though it was, wasn't even the biggest one. That honor went to a 668-pounder.
And there are even bigger ones out there. Seven-hundred-pound animals are not unheard of -- a 707-pounder was shot illegally last fall -- and the northeastern corner of the state, known as the Pocono region, has given up six black bears that topped 800 pounds over the years. Wildlife conservation officers have handled animals in the summer that, given the right conditions, could approach 900 pounds by the fall hunting season, said Mark Ternent, the Game Commission's bear biologist.
There are a couple of reasons why those animals reach such proportions, he said.
First, Pennsylvania just has a lot of bears, perhaps 16,000. Hunters kill about 20 percent of those each year, enough to annually rank the state in the top five for harvests in all of northeastern North America.
Indications are the population is still growing, too. Some Game Commission indices suggest that -- despite hunters recording four of the top five bear harvests in history in the last five years -- bear numbers have been increasing.
"Most of the available habitat has bears in it," Ternent said. "But we may be seeing increasing densities, especially in what might called the fringe of the traditional bear range."
That's what prompted the commission to expand the archery bear season, and what accounts in part for the existence of so many big bears. "It's a statistical question," Ternent said. "We harvest a lot of bears, so there's lots of opportunity. The more bears you harvest, the more likely it is you're going to see trophy bears."
Second, Pennsylvania offers bears a rich buffet of food choices. That allows them to really pack on the pounds before winter.
"Our bears aren't really tied to any one crop that can fail," Ternent said. "In Maine, for example, if the blueberry or beechnut crop fails, those bears are in trouble. That's not the case here.
"Our bears don't really have bad food years. If the berry crop is bad, the acorn crop is good, and if beechnuts are scarce there's autumn olive or something else. And of course there are always farm crops and bird feeders they raid."
The record books prove big bears are common in Pennsylvania. A look at the Boone and Crockett Club's list of the top 10 all-time records shows Pennsylvania bruins in the No. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 8 spots.
A Challenging Hunt
Pennsylvania's best bea
r hunting exists on literally millions of acres of public ground open to everyone free of charge. There's no cap on the number of bear licenses sold in a year. And -- beginning this fall -- the state will have not only a three-day statewide firearms bear season but a five-day, statewide archery-only season.
That's a pretty good opportunity right there. It just doesn't mean the hunting is easy, especially for archers.
Pennsylvania's total bear harvest in 2009 was 3,512 animals. Just 116 of those -- slightly more than 3 percent -- were taken during the two-day archery season.
Hunters, like Burkhardt, have always been able to use a bow during the firearms bear season, but the record books suggest relatively few have. The Pope and Young Club's record book shows just three Pennsylvania bears out of more than 7,000 entries. In fact, out of all the states and provinces with at least one Pope and Young bear, only one -- the Yukon Territory -- has produced fewer record-book animals than Pennsylvania.
That's almost certainly due, at least in part, to a state regulation that prohibits hunting bears over bait, said Pope and Young's executive secretary, Kevin Hisey. The top record-book bear states and provinces, namely Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba and Wisconsin, all allow baiting.
The fact Pennsylvania does not probably scares some hunters off, he said.
"I know from scanning the Boone and Crockett record books that Pennsylvania produces quite a few big bears, in terms of body weight. It's funny that bowhunters haven't stumbled onto a few of those," Hisey said. "I would guess it's simply a matter of people who are bowhunting for bears are not focusing on Pennsylvania."
Hunters cope in different ways. Some, like Burkhardt, hunt from stationary stands. Others, like Bryon Whipkey of Wexford, a suburb of Pittsburgh, hunt them like they do in the rifle bear season, by placing some hunters on stand and having others drive bears by pushing through the thickest, nastiest, most inhospitable tangles to be found anywhere in the woods.
"There are a lot of places we drive that when you fall, you don't hit the ground. The tangles hold you up," said Tim Ulery, one of Whipkey's cousins and a man who has shot several bears in Pennsylvania and once led a group of 13 hunters that killed eight bears in three days.
Whipkey was bowhunting with Ulery last fall in Indiana County in southwestern Pennsylvania when he shot a bear that weighed 571 founds. It emerged from one of those hellish thickets to step onto a gas line clearing, where Whipkey was able to get an arrow into it from just 20 yards away.
"It was the wildest part of my hunting career. To think that you're chasing an almost 600-pound animal on the ground with a bow, it was pretty amazing," said Whipkey, himself a still-hulking former college football lineman. "When you seen an animal that big that close, it's awesome."
Room to Roam
Such bears are available to anyone, too, given Pennsylvania's massive amount of public land. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has 2.1 million acres of State Forest, all of it open to hunting. State parks account for another 300,000 acres; most of them open to hunting. And the Game Commission owns more than 1.4 million acres of Game Lands open to public hunting.
Those lands are spread out. The northcentral region of the state -- commonly referred to as the "Big Woods" -- has more contiguous acres of public land than anywhere else. But the northeastern Pocono region has public land interspersed with private holdings, and the northwest and southwest corners of the state have plenty of public ground too. Most are bear rich. In the northcentral region, for example, the vast majority of bears killed each year spend most of their lives on public land, Ternent said.
It's just up to hunters to take advantage of the opportunities. Those who do might someday find themselves experiencing what Burkhardt and Whipkey did; the rush of taking a monster black bear with a bow.
"It's so exciting, because this is my life, hunting and fishing, you know?" Burkhardt said. "I always dreamed of shooting a big buck out in the Midwest or somewhere. But to turn around and have something like this happen? It was totally awesome, just totally unbelievable."