In the Kingdom of Bears and Friends

posted on September 17, 2020

It was all turning to crap. I had expected a huge success when I pitched this hunt to my friends. But call it what you want, fate, karma—it doesn’t matter because they are the same and they hate me—bad luck was conspiring against the plan and turning it to crap.

There are three things you can find in abundance in Vermont these days: high taxes, deep snow and black bears. All we wanted were the bears. Well, and maybe a trout or two. Bear hunting is an evening thing; we planned to fish for native brook trout in the mornings. We would camp in tents, and planned to eat like kings. The menu included butter-fried trout and fresh black bear backstrap grilled over an open fire. ... So far, we’d failed to provide the fixings.

Bear hunters hunting with hounds in Vermont
Friends with connections are sometimes just what's needed by hunters facing bad luck. The author and his party were striking out stand-hunting for Vermont bears when their guide's father offered to lead them with his hounds.

Misguided forestry management practices have caused a decline in Vermont’s whitetail deer and grouse populations. Ticks have all but killed off our moose, but somehow the bears are thriving. They are everywhere. In the roads, on people’s decks raiding their grills, emptying garbage cans and smashing bird feeders. The bears are so overpopulated that they have begun to stage home invasions, even if the people are home. We probably have more bears in Vermont today than at any time in recorded history. They are everywhere, except around our hunting stands.

Hunters in Vermont are not allowed to bait for bears, but they can hunt over “natural” or agricultural food sources. Cornfields attract bears and “hunting corn” is one of the most successful ways to hunt bears here. The bears often live for days inside the big fields in northern Vermont, causing a huge amount of damage. Hunters set up on the edges of the cornfields watching the travel paths to catch a bear traveling to or from a cornfield. Except this year, the bears were pretty much ignoring the corn.

We were hunting in the heart of the Northeast Kingdom (NEK). This section of Vermont includes three counties that make up the northeast corner of the state: Essex, Orleans and Caledonia. It’s bordered by the Connecticut River and New Hampshire on the east, the Green Mountains on the west and Quebec, Canada, on the north. The harsh winters keep the flatlanders at bay. The Kingdom may well be the last of the old Vermont.

Cory Curtis lives in the Kingdom. He is a logger by trade and a true Vermonter by nature. He drives an old, rusted wreck with every warning light on the dash lit up, except for the burned-out low gas light. He paid $75 for the car and it gets great gas mileage, which saves money on his long drives back and forth to his logging jobs. In the Kingdom, it’s the little things that make the difference between profit and loss.

Cory knows every back road and trail, partly because the car isn’t 100 percent legal and meeting a cop is tempting fate. Cory is big and burly, as you might expect of a logger. He is quick with a joke, good-natured and fun. He comes from a family of bear hunters and he knows Vermont bears. For a reasonable fee he would secure permission to hunt the property, scout the cornfields and set up the stands. His success rate has historically been high. Not all his hunters have been able to close the deal, but they all see bears.

This can be difficult hunting as the open strips of land between the thick woods and the cornfields are usually very narrow. That means the hunter has to stay alert and ready at all times and he has to act quickly as the bear may only be visible for a few seconds. It takes a committed and skilled hunter to pull this off.

My buddy Tony Kinton lives in Mississippi, and after a few bird hunting trips to the North Country he has grown to love the Kingdom. He wanted to bear hunt there, so we booked a hunt for the two of us and his friend Neal Brown.

I had made a scouting trip up to the NEK a month earlier and with Cory’s help located a wonderful private campsite on the banks of the Willoughby River.

What could go wrong?

Well, pretty much everything.

Vermont was experiencing a record year for mast crop. Even the old-timers had never seen this much food in the woods. Beechnuts, apples, choke cherries, wild cranberries, mountain ash—all the preferred foods for fall bears trying to put on weight were there in record numbers. A lot of bears were just hanging out on the hardwood ridges and eating beechnuts. Most didn’t move more than a few yards in a given day. They were just gorging, napping and eating again. Those that ventured out for a little variety were finding fruit and berries in abundance. As a result, the cornfields were experiencing a huge reduction in bear traffic. In most years every bear around will hit the corn. This year, it was a fraction of the population.

“Well,” you might be thinking, “you still had trout fishing, right?” But you would be wrong.

In the fall of 2019, Vermont was also experiencing an extended drought. All the rivers and streams were at record low levels. Let’s just say a spooked trout raised a dust cloud when it swam away.

But we had it booked, so we decided to hope for the best. In mid-September Tony and Neal drove up from Mississippi and met me at my house in southern Vermont. The next day we made the four-hour drive to our campsite. We were hoping for good weather, as there is nothing finer than a clear fall day in northern Vermont. The leaves are starting to turn colors, the air is crisp and the skies are a deep blue. It’s the kind of weather a hunter lives for. Instead we got high winds and the broken promise of rain for the first two days.

I love sleeping under the canvas, as they say. Sure it’s mostly nylon these days, but there is nothing like sleeping in a tent. It’s the best sleep I get and I wake up feeling like a hunter. Those first days, we ate like feudal lords and acted irresponsibly. We stayed up past our bedtimes, telling lies by the fire and sipping Kentucky’s ambrosia. The poor behavior of bears was the only thing that kept it from perfection.

Hunter with black bear
Taking two nice bears on the same day behind hounds is like winning the lottery. Neal Brown took a fine Vermont bear behind Benny Curtis' hounds.

We came close. Tony saw a huge bear the first night, but it was gone before he could raise his rifle. I had one moving through the woods behind me. He came from an unanticipated direction and before I could see him well enough for a shot, he walked into my scent stream and disappeared. I had seen his sign—tracks and droppings—and he was a big bear. The way he just evaporated quietly rather than running off, panicked and crashing through the brush when he caught my wind, told me that bear was experienced. I hunted him for a week and he never returned.

By day five the hunt was aging and we were still eating “store bought” meat. The jokes had dried up and nobody was spending much time by the fire in the evenings.

I was leaving camp one afternoon when a Mercedes pulled up and blocked my truck. A man about 60 years old stepped out and started walking toward me.

“Are you the guys up here bear hunting?” he asked.

“Here we go,” I thought: “Another flatlander jerk who can’t mind his own business here to give me a hard time.” Unfortunately that’s become all too common in today’s Vermont.

“... Yes,” I replied.

“Heard you are having a tough go of it,” the guy said. Before I could answer he continued. “I am Cory’s dad, Benny. I have some hounds. If you guys want to hunt with dogs, meet me at 5 tomorrow morning.

“Just let me be clear,” he continued sternly, “I have nothing to do with Cory’s business and I won’t take a dime from you or him. You can’t even buy me a coffee. It’s just that I heard some of you guys came all the way from Mississippi. I know the hunting has been tough and I want you to have a good experience here in Vermont. I thought maybe I could help with that, as a friend.”

The other “best” way to hunt bears in Vermont is with dogs. It’s one of my favorite ways to hunt. For many years I traveled to the NEK several times each fall to run dogs with friends who had hounds. But, the years piled up and those friends have drifted out of dog hunting or passed on, so I no longer had friends with dogs to call on and hiring somebody is not permitted. This is strictly enforced. In fact with all the social pressure on dog hunters, even in the NEK today, most of the dog guys are very careful about who hunts with them. This invite was a rare and valuable thing.

Benny turned out to be a remnant of the old Vermont. Generous, funny and tough as hell when chasing the dogs—a retired logger, he hunts almost every day of the season and lives for the chase. I later learned his dogs are legendary. By the time the day was over, we knew why.

Benny knew about a big boar and we struck his track early. At one point we got ahead of the chase. We stopped on a back road and stepped out of the trucks, hoping to get a look at the bear when he crossed the road.

It’s hard to describe the excitement and tension of such a moment. The dogs are in full cry and getting close. Something is going to happen in the next couple of moments. The howls are filling the world and shaking the earth. You know the bear is going to show any second. Your hair stands on end as you vibrate with excitement.

Then somehow, somebody (it wasn’t me) hit the alarm button on his truck key.

The bear’s track said it was a big old boar and he was no doubt fat from easy living, so he treed soon enough anyway. We walked down a logging road a mile from that debacle, this time being quiet and hugging the inside of the corner as we approached the tree. The dogs were wild, howling and barking and trying to climb the tree. But, it was empty.

That cagey old bear knew the game. He had tagged the tree, climbed up partway then jumped out and ran. The dogs assumed he kept climbing. Benny’s dogs would have figured it out quickly, but we arrived soon after the bear left. We decided that bear earned a reprieve so we leashed the dogs and went looking for another.

We found it pretty quickly and after a relatively short chase it crossed a brook and ran up a steep moraine hill left behind with the glaciers’ retreat. That climb winded the bear and he treed at the top.

It winded me too.

Neal hunts with a reproduction Sharps Rifle in .45-70. It’s a wonderful rifle, one I covet, but it weighs about 15 pounds and is not the best to carry when chasing hounds, so he had borrowed Benny’s .450 Marlin. The Marlin carbine with iron sights is a perfect hound-hunting rifle. The cartridge is a hard hitter, so when Neal shot the boar he crashed out of the tree, hit the ground hard and started to rise. Then the bear turned to me with a look that said, “This just ain’t worth it,” and flopped down at the base of the tree, stone dead.

Nobody in the history of the world who has dragged a bear through the New England woods ever said it was easy. I would rather drag two large deer, hooked in tandem, than one small bear. Jordan Poutre, a local taxidermist and friend of Benny’s, headed back to the truck and retrieved a Jet Sled, a plastic sled designed for ice fishermen to transport their gear onto a frozen lake. It turns out it also works well on bare ground to move a bear.

Once the bear was in the truck and everybody caught his wind, Benny said, “It’s still early enough, let’s go find another.”

So, we did.

The dogs struck in a cornfield that was on a flat, high up in the mountains, and cold-trailed for a long time before they caught up with the bear. Once it was jumped, the bear ran down into the valley, across a small river and deep into a swamp, where it finally treed on the far side.

It was a brutal, long, slogging hike to the tree. Halfway there I fell into a bog and was covered with black mud, head to toe. Not from the fall, but from trying to get out of that bottomless sludge. Everybody said they didn’t laugh at me, but they all lied.

It was so far from the road there was a lot of discussion about letting the bear go, rather than face that long drag out. In the end, Tony used his Ruger No. 1 in 9.3x62 (another rifle I covet) to smack the bear.

Hunter with black bear taken in Vermont with Ruger No. 1
Tony Kinton's bear crossed a river and a large swamp to evade the hounds before it finally treed. The hunter put it down with his Ruger No. 1 in 9.3x62mm.

Somebody went for the Jet Sled while Tony and Neal started dragging the bear. Benny showed his woods knowledge by pointing out this land was logged a generation ago. Rather than going through the swamp we'd crossed he insisted there should be a trail along the edge of the “hard woods” (pronounced by old Vermonters as two distinct words). He was right; just above the transition from softwood swamp to the hardwoods that fill the high ground there was an old logging road. By the time we hit it, the younger guys were there with the Jet Sled and the old, gray-haired Southerners were ready to turn over their dragging chores. These aging sons of the South wanted to immerse themselves in the whole experience and dragging a large Vermont bear for nearly a mile provided that, but I guessed from their expressions it was a “one-and-done” deal.

So, karma relented and our perfect hunt ended almost perfectly. I didn’t get a bear. Benny invited me back to hunt later in the fall, but by then I’d managed to fall through a rotted snowmobile bridge while grouse hunting and was walking with a cane when I should have been chasing bear hounds.

Still, when Tony’s truck pointed south it carried several coolers full of bear meat and two old hunters who believed in getting by with a little help from a friend. 

Bear Camp Must-Haves
One great addition to the camp was a Camp Chef Pro 90X three-burner propane stove with the optional Flattop 16x24 griddle. Cooking is what makes a good camp. This stove and griddle are the kind of things that make you ask, “Where have they been all my life?”

Camp Chef Pro 90X used in bear camp to cook breakfast

We also cooked in Dutch ovens because it’s fun; nothing produces better corn bread or peach cobbler.

I have always kept a lantern hanging on the center pole in the tent. Today, my old propane model has been updated with the Streamlight Super Siege rechargeable lantern. This compact lantern weighs less than 2 pounds. It emits 1,100 lumens of light on high. It includes a port to charge your other flashlights or cell phone. This is perfect to light up the tent, or for a trip to the outhouse.

Streamlight Super Siege and myCharge Power Bank Camping Lantern

Another very handy hunting tool is the myCharge Power Bank Camping Lantern. In addition to an auxiliary battery, this model has a bank of LED lights. On high it’s like having the sun in your hands. It has two USB ports to charge your phone or flashlight. It weighs just more than half a pound. I keep it in my backpack to charge my phone. Be honest, who doesn’t pass the time on stand playing on their phone? My battery always goes dead.

I sleep with a BiPAP machine so I need a bedside table to support the machine. I also keep a flashlight and often a handgun there for easy access. Over the years I have used everything from coolers, chairs or empty cardboard boxes. On this trip I tried the Helinox Table One Hard Top. This table weighs just a bit more than 2 pounds, it breaks down to fit in a small pouch and it fits easily in a backpack. When set up it makes a table that’s 23.5x15.5 inches and is 15 inches tall.

Helinox Table One Hard Top and Primos Double Bull Deluxe Go Ground Blind

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Lehigh Defense Controlled Chaos Ammo Lead
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