By Adam Heggenstaller, Editor in Chief, Shooting Illustrated
The season begins with 22 of us staring at a net of rhododendron that rises steeply to meet a lead-colored sky. Before long we will thrash our way through the tangled trunks and branches, metering our toilsome progress with boisterous shouts of triumph and profanity, but for now utter silence rings in our ears. The seemingly impossible task that lies before us weighs heavily on our minds. Our hope is to bust a bear or two on this slope, but we’ll settle for finishing the drive with unbroken bones and rifles. The odds of either happening are substantially less than 50/50.
We know there are easier ways to kill a black bear. We could go west in the spring when the bruins are stuffing their stomachs with new grass, find one in the open and shoot it. Or head north and spend a few days lounging in a treestand until a trophy poses over a pile of syrup-laced pastries. Even team up with a dog man and let his hounds do most of the work for us. All are sound tactics but none are legal in Pennsylvania, so we embrace earning our bear rugs through lots of sweat, some blood and the occasional tear when a whippy rhododendron branch connects just right with a sensitive body part.
More than any of us care to admit, our struggles are as necessary to the hunt as the bears. We’re two dozen men rapidly approaching middle age who sometimes need to prove—to ourselves and our buddies—we can hunt as hard as we did in college. We still own this mountainside, extra pounds, desk jobs and kids notwithstanding. Bears choose to live in this mess, and we choose to hunt them here. Because we can.
And so with cries that echo through the narrow valley, half of us push forward, carrying Winchester and Marlin lever-actions, Remington 870s and 7600s, knowing any shot we get at a bear will be fleeting and iron-sight close. On the other side of a half-mile stretch of rhododendron, the rest of our friends wait expectantly in an evenly spaced line that stretches across the height of the mountain. They’re the ones with the best chances. We’ll drive any bears holed up in the dense cover between us right into their laps. Gunfire is never a sure sign of success, but it quickens our steps. A blast that connects with a bruin brings collective glory. Individual accomplishment takes a back seat to that of the team. We don’t do this alone.
The longtime leader of our gang groups his acquaintances—and oftentimes society as a whole—into two categories: those who hunt bear with us, and those who do not. It is at once a simple and profound measurement that speaks to the types of bonds forged only when success is limited but efforts are tremendous. Those of us crawling through the dank rhododendron on this late-November morning hunt bear. We owe it to one another to make opening day.
Tips to Lay Out Ol' Tom
Fly-down time at dawn
is, quite naturally, assumed by many hunters to be the best time all day to bag a tom. Trouble is, the hen or hens that old fella is visiting at that time of day may not let him off the hook long enough to pay attention to your calls and come anywhere near your setup. But during the peak of the breeding season, those hens are apt to visit their nests by noon. Your best shot at calling him close may come then, when old tom is lonely for attention.
Many times a tom hangs up
not because of an obstacle, but because he's walked far enough toward your call and, having not seen a hen, walks away. Your mistake: setting up too far outside that all-important range and never seeing him. When you call, be sure of a good line of sight through terrain and vegetation, and depending on cover, try to get within 100 yards of him before plopping down.
If you hear a gobbler moving away from you,
don't waste more time and breath trying to call him back. Instead, get up and hustle in a wide circle around him. If you need to hear him for reference, use a locator call. When you feel you are ahead of him, quickly set up and give a series of aggressive yelps with a call you haven't used yet. Many times this "fresh hen" tactic will prove successful.
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Like the fossilized skeletons of its ancestors displayed in the Smithsonian, a 12-foot alligator can be scary even when it's dead—something that Shooting Illustrated's Adam Heggenstaller learned in person during a gator hunt in Florida. Read More »
Could 2011 be the year of the work truck? If so, the Ram Tradesman is ready to clock in. Equipped with a juiced-up HEMI® engine.... Read More »
The year that Sumner, Mo., erected a statue of "Maxie" to commemorate being the "Wild Goose Capital of the World."
Maxie sports a 65-foot wingspan while resting on a cinderblock building in a community park.
The number of cackling subspecies.
Researcher Laura Boester at the University of Toledo found that fox squirrels hear over a noise-frequency range roughly 2.5 times greater than humans, with more capability to detect higher-frequency sounds.