Last week, I spent seven days bear hunting out of Sharon and Randy Flannery’s Wilderness Escape Outfitters Lodge in Danforth, Maine, and to say I was impressed would be an understatement.
I’ve hunted in many states for many species of game throughout the country, and this was by far the most professional and enjoyable camp I’ve been in. Randy, one of the most noted deer trackers in the country, also offers guided whitetail, moose, snowshoe rabbits, grouse, woodcock and waterfowl hunts from his lodge. It did not take long for me to realize that this man and his guides have a wealth of knowledge of every animal that roams the northern woods of Maine.
I was one of the last to arrive at camp, and when I got there, I met several hunters who were returning for the ninth and 10th time. Of the 14 hunters in camp, John MacKey of Rexford and I were the only first-timers. This, in itself, told me that I had definitely chosen the right bear outfitter. After completing my paperwork and meeting all the hunters and guides, I sat down to my first all-you-can-eat meal. And for my remaining days there, none of us ever left the table hungry.
That evening after dinner, Randy got us all together for an orientation that included an explanation of the hunting rules and exactly what we should expect and what he expected from us. These instructions included: when and when not to load a gun, how to identify a shootable bear, keeping cell phones off in the woods — using them only in an emergency or after a bear has been shot — and not wearing hunting clothes at meals. Also, one I hadn’t heard on other bear hunts: “When you shoot a bear, shoot it again and do not go to it, wait for us to get there.” All of these are very sound, safety-conscious rules.
Also that evening, we met the guides that would be taking us to and from the stands/blinds. In addition to Randy, my guide, there were Jeff Leach and Ed Juszkiewicz. All are professional Maine guides. In the six days we hunted with them, their knowledge of the big woods and animals that live there became quite obvious. I’m not sure how much sleep the rest of the hunters got that night, but I was a bit restless and excited about the week ahead.
DAY 1: CLUMSY
After breakfast, I headed to the range to be sure that everything was good to go with my rifle, and John MacKey joined me. And after a few rounds, we both knew that should we miss, it wouldn’t be the gun’s fault.
About 2:45 p.m., I was comfortably settled into my tree stand overlooking the bait site about 50 yards away. Randy re-freshened the bait, outlined with his hands the size of an adult bear, pointed to the trails that they were using coming in and out of the site and gave me the thumbs up and left.
My stand was about 15 feet above ground, camouflaged with pine/spruce boughs and had a cleared shooting lane to the bait. Winds were mild with gusts of 5-10 mph and the temperature had to be close to 80 degrees. Having not hunted Maine before, I was very impressed with how dense a wilderness it really is. Unfortunately, I would really find out just how dense that evening.
For most of the afternoon, all that visited the site were two snowshoe rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, birds and a mouse that sat on my knee. But just a few minutes before dark, I saw a bear’s head standing in the heavy brush next to the site, looking at the bait. I had the head in my scope and then it disappeared and reappeared just a minute or so after. He did this jack-in-the-box about three or four more times, but never exposed his body. I waited until it was completely dark and then climbed down and headed out.
I was about halfway back to the logging road when I realized I’d left my seat cushion in the stand. I put down my pack and gun and headed back to get it. After retrieving the seat, I headed back to pick up my pack and gun and just about two steps from them, I stumbled and the flashlight went flying. I watched the light beam go through the air and also heard it hit something solid, and the light went out. It was dark, very dark and the knee-high ferns didn’t help with the search. I never found it.
Heading for where I thought the road was, I started to move slowly, trying to use the light of my cell phone. I probably went about 20 yards or so and realized I had no idea of the right direction and remembered what Randy said the night before: “If you’re not sure of your direction, sit down and wait.” And that’s exactly what I did. Now, it doesn’t bother me to sit in the dark in the woods, but I admit that when there are coyotes howling and yipping to each other on three sides, it’s a bit eerie. After 15 minutes of it, I loaded my rifle. Shortly after that, I used my scope to watch three dog-like silhouettes walk through an opening about 15 yards away.
About 45 minutes later, I heard the truck in the distance off to my left and then saw the headlights shining through the woods. When it stopped, I realized I was only about 25 yards from the road, but if I’d continued on the path I was following, I could have ended up a long way off. That evening, I loaded TWO flashlights into my pack.
Weather conditions were the same the next afternoon when I climbed into my stand. It was a beautiful afternoon, and at about 6 p.m., a small bear popped out of the underbrush a few yards from my stand and walked slowly toward the bait. I scoped him several times, but decided to pass. At about 6:30, I heard crashing in the woods off to my left and thought it might be a moose. The moose rut in northern Maine was just beginning, and perhaps it was a bull following a cow. The crashing stopped not far from the site, and I didn’t hear anything for about 10 minutes when a “keeper” bear came in and out on a dead run, never once looking at the bait. I never got a chance to shoulder my gun. And that was it for the evening.
When Randy picked me up, he said that 18-year-old Gabriel Dickenson of Michigan had downed a bear on his site and we were headed to help him get it out. He and his dad, Scott, were all smiles when we arrived, and it was obvious that dad was very proud of his son.
The bear was lying dead, right where he was hit with one shot, at 35 yards, from the young hunter’s Ruger 35 Whelan. The bear had come in around 7 p.m., just as Gabe was getting ready to leave. I found later, this was his first bear, and he was going to have the 100-pound boar fully mounted. Scott told me that he had offered his son the opportunity to choose a hunt for a graduation present, and he chose Wilderness Escape Outfitters.
At dinner that evening, there were several other bear tales. Jennifer Wines of Texas, who chose to hunt with a bow and arrow, had an interesting meeting with a very big bear that evening. She wasn’t in the stand long when out came a very big bear less than five yards away. However, when she came to full draw, the bear’s front leg was back, not giving her a clean shot at the heart/lungs area, so she didn’t shoot and never got a good opportunity again that evening. I wonder what I would have done in that position. Hunting with a bow is not the same as hunting with a rifle, especially when shooting a bear. Randy and all of us commended her for making the right decision. But this sportslady admitted to a few “shaky moments,” something we all would have had.
As for the rest of the hunters, there were several other bear sightings but no one was willing to pull the trigger. Matthew Yamber of Pennsylvania saw one in the 225-250 pound range, but was looking for one 300 pounds or better. He and his dad, Dennis, have been hunting with Randy for the past half-dozen years. And this evening on his way out of the woods, Matt had an encounter with a lovesick bull moose. The moose actually stopped right in front of him at five yards and stood there trying to make out what he was. Then he moved off.
Next week, in Part 2, I’ll tell you about the excitement of several successful first bear hunts, a treed hunter who talks to bears and a bear that “popped” his teeth at me while I was leaving the woods.
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