Tom's 2022 Maine Black Bear
This year two very different hunters with one thing in common took bear with Northeast Woodlands Guide Service. Tom and Matt are years apart in both age and hunting experience. Tom was raised in a hunting family on over 1,000 acres of family farmland in Massachusetts. He’s ranged through northern Maine, hunting the Allagash in days of old when deer were plentiful, and moose were rare. He owns a hunting camp in central Maine where he and long-time friends take a deer each November, yet in spite of the healthy bear population in the vicinity of his camp, he'd not hunted bear in Maine in 50 years. For Tom, bear hunting was a trip to Manitoba in the spring to a comfortable camp and a great guide with active baits. He’d taken a bear every year, and every year come home with excellent meat that he and his family relish, courtesy of the guide who skinned, butchered and packed his bear.
Canada closed its borders in 2021 so Tom had to look closer to home. Not experienced at setting his own bait and handling the animal after the kill, he sought an outfitter in Maine and that’s what brought him to Northeast Woodlands Guide Service. When Tom signed up to hunt with me we discussed baiting before the hunt and meat care after the harvest. Hunts are conducted out of a wall tent overlooking the Black Brook in T2R12, an unorganized territory beyond the paved roads in what is known as the North Maine Woods. I call it Trout Camp. At Trout Camp, hunters are required to spend a few days baiting before they hunt, and must assist with field dressing, skinning and butchering their bear. Tom allowed that nobody was every hurt by learning something new so the hunt was on.
My second hunter that week was new to hunting. He’d tried to hunt deer in his youth without success and now at middle age with two sons and a daughter he wanted to learn so he could hunt with his children. A guided Maine bear hunt was his choice to begin that journey.
Tom and Matt arrived two days prior to season’s opening. We went straight to camp and started baiting. Adding their scent to mine as we filled the bait barrels would help acclimate the bears to these strangers. The bears knew my scent as the source of good eats and now we were adding Tom’s and Matt’s to the mix. We checked cameras, reviewed past images, examined stands and enjoyed some beautiful weather while exploring the four-square miles behind my gate.
At 74 years of age, Tom is a seasoned hunter and marksman. Even so, we went to the range and checked zero at 50 yards. The stand he chose was just 30 yards from the bait barrel but bears are black and the woods get dark in those magical minutes of last legal light. Tracking wounded bears at night is difficult and perilous, so confirming accuracy and an understanding of bear anatomy is essential. Matt is an accomplished archer who practices on 3D targets almost daily. He demonstrated his skill as well.
Monday afternoon held true to the clear and mild late summer weather we’d enjoyed while baiting. Tom had chosen the South Road bait. We got his safety strap secured and I handed him his 30-06. Matt and I left for the Black Brook stand, where I’d be in the tree with him. After plenty of action but no bear (more on that hunt later) Matt and I drove the dark logging roads to pick up Tom. There he stood in the middle of the trace where the path to the stand left the woods. His smile said it all. We had a bear to attend to.
“Did you see him go down”, I asked? “No. He ran off toward the swamp, back of the bait barrel”, replied Tom. “Did you hear him moan”, I asked hopefully? “No”, he replied. “What did you think of the shot? Did you feel confident about it”, I asked now desperate for encouraging news. Tom just replied, “About as much as any other” and walked toward the bait. After a few steps he turned and smiled, “But I did follow the blood and mark the trail. He’s about 40 yards from the barrel”!
Tom had had his fun with me, making me wait for that. Now it was time to do some work. Tom had never field dressed a bear but tonight he was going elbows deep with me while we worked together. Matt held legs open for us as Tom learned out to open the gut without breaking the stomach, to slice the diaphragm round both sides, and to reach in and cut the esophagus. It was a boar which makes getting the anal and urinal tract free a little more challenging, so I talked him through it while my knife did the cutting. We pulled the heart from the guts and left the rest for the forest to consume. Matt, ever the workhorse, loaded the bear into the sled and dragged it to the truck.
Bear meat is fragile. You may have experience with venison, maybe have hung it for a day or 7, may have let it set overnight in mid temps with no loss of flavor, as have I, but you can’t do that with bear. Bear meat will spoil fast. It was a bit warm for my liking so we packed the bear with bags of ice, inside and all around and headed out of the forest back to Beaver Camp on the shore of Moosehead Lake so we could get an early start on processing the meat.
Up at dawn we enjoyed a breakfast of bear heart, eggs and bacon. Bear in Maine must be checked in, tagged and a tooth surrendered for the biologists to age. Maine’s bear biologists have done a remarkable job managing the bear population, growing it by 10% per year for some time now. The population currently stands at 33,000 bears statewide.
Returning to Beaver Camp we set about butchering Tom’s bear on the tailgate of the truck. Tom learned how to use a combination of knife work and prying with a blunt stick to work the hide off the bear as cleanly as possible. We broke down the primal cuts and got them into a cooler fast.
Converting game into food isn’t hard to do, but it is a skill that must be learned. With the meat on ice I had the time to show Tom where the cuts were and how to extract them from the quarters. As quickly as cuts were finished we moved them inside to the vacuum sealer. Each cut was prepared for transportation and storage then placed into the large freezer. A cut Tom had never considered, because his Manitoba guide hadn’t offered it, was the ribs. Now you can rave about your baby back pork ribs but I’ll stand bear ribs up to any and win the savory contest hands down! Nothing beats bear ribs because bear fat has no equal on the pallet.
When we were finished, with nothing but bones and hide remaining, the hide went into the freezer for transportation to Tom’s taxidermist, and the bones? You might imagine those bones laying in a pile somewhere in the forest, but you’d be mistaken. Those bones with scraps of meat and gristle attached went directly into a large pot. Easily one of my favorite bear recipes is bear stew. Bones and scrap meat make the finest stew of all.
Skinning, butchering, packaging, eating and having a whisky to celebrate used up all of Tuesday. Tom was anxious to head home Wednesday morning. He’s a cranberry farmer and the harvest was just around the corner. With plenty to do on the farm he passed up the fishing and relaxing available to him as part of the hunt and departed with a cooler full of well-prepared meat, and a few new skills as well.
Matt and I headed back to T2R12 and Trout Camp. He would be back in a tree early but this time with my 30-30 Marlin topped with a red dot sight. What’s this, you ask? Northeast Woodlands web site offers archery hunts, but first Tom, then Matt, are using rifles. What’s the story?
In Tom’s case it was simple. He’s at that stage where a bow is not practical and to be fair, allowances must be made. Matt’s reasons for changing over to a rifle were more nuanced. On Monday, while Tom was in a tree by himself over the South Road bait, I was in a tree with Matt where two stands hung at the Black Brook bait. We had plenty of action too! Early on bears started moving around the bait site, circling, testing wind, walking the area, noses searching for signs of trouble. That’s why I and anyone who hunts with me must wear Scent Lock and follow a strict scent control regimen. Bears in Maine know how baits work. They know there is food, and they know that sometimes there is a hunter too. The bears always approach and circle cautiously and if alerted will sit 50 to 100 yards away till after dark.
We had two great boars of nearly equal size prowling in and out of view through the thick evergreen undergrowth. There was some huffing and snapping so I knew we were in for a show if they hit the bait together, and they did! As one bear moved in from the right, the other advanced from the left. The bear on the right reached the bait first, just getting his paw into the barrel when the bear on the left charged in! The bear on the left was clearly the dominant of the two, cause when he charged in, the other skedaddled pronto!
As the dominant boar fed, Matt got ready to draw back. Allow me to digress for a moment and provide some background. Matt knows how to shoot his bow. We’d established that on the range. He could hit a quarter at 20 yards and a coffee lid at 35, which is more than sufficient to make a great shot on a bear. This afternoon we were at 15 yards, so I expected a killing shot; except for one thing. Matt, having never drawn down on a large animal before, just did not understand “buck fever”; the effect that preparing to kill a large mammal has on a hunter’s nerves. He’d made a number of cocky, confident statements and nothing I could say would dissuade him from dismissing buck fever as a problem for lesser men. He “had this”.
Every hunter with a few seasons under the belt understands the lunacy of that attitude. I, and most others I know have had such shakes that we worried about falling out of the tree! Sure, it lessens over time, but it never (I hope) goes away. Matt was learning that lesson right now, in real time. I put my hand on his shoulder to steady him and felt the tremors in his otherwise solid frame. As he reached full draw the bear turned toward him; no shot. He had to let down. When the bear reached into the barrel again Matt drew but before he settled and released, the bear turned once more. He let down.
The third time the bear turned into the barrel Matt drew and was visibly shaking. Again the bear turned before Matt was settled and I have to give him a lot of credit for not releasing before it was right. As he let down, the adrenalin and strain of three draw and hold sequences betrayed him. His arm failed to hold firm and he hit his release against his chest. The arrow leapt from the bow, smashing into the branches of trees above the barrel. The bear dashed away from the barrel and into the forest. Matt was heartbroken.
“Knock another arrow, NOW”, I whispered! That second bear was sure to come in after the dominant bear ran off, or the dominant bear would come back. When a tree falls in the woods the bears hear it, but they don’t leave the County. They will depart if they smell you, or see you moving in the tree, but falling sticks? That’s no reason to abandon a good meal.
Matt got his second arrow on and waited. Sure enough, not five minutes later, in came the second bear. This guy offered Matt a good broadside shot and Matt prepared to take it. I watched Matt as he drew and anchored. I’d know by his form how the shot went. As he got ready to release, I saw him take his face off the string, move around the peep sight and look at the bear. Oh-oh, not good. I quickly turned to look at the bear and caught sight of the arrow sailing over his back and two feet behind him.
Matt turned to me and said, “I got him! Perfect shot!” When I told him he missed and pointed out his arrow in the ground his face fell and I watched his confidence drain. Sad as that may be, it was all well and good. He’d learned about his own limitations and the reality of adrenaline without the nightmare of a long blood trail ending in disappointment. Some may say it was not a successful hunt, but not I. My motto is that the only thing you never want to leave the forest with is regrets. Matt may have been shaken by the experience, but there was nothing to regret. The bear and the hunt were preserved for another day. After the missed shot Matt was emotionally and physically done for the day, so we left the tree and went to wait out dusk and the results of Tom’s hunt.
While we sat in the truck listening to my favorite mellow Irish melodies and enjoying the gathering darkness I asked Matt about that “looky”, right before he released. His answer surprised me. “I had everything lined up and was getting ready to release, just concentrating on that perfect spot when the peep started getting smaller. The peep sight was closing and I couldn’t see the bear anymore so I thought I’d look around the sight and shoot him.”
I believe what Matt experienced was the black bear completely filling his peep sight. Its a problem when the game is close, and can happen with deer, bear, anything large enough. You might line up initially, but as you concentrate on a spot to shoot the whole sight picture becomes one solid color, and it becomes impossible to concentrate on a single spot. One has to learn how to shoot with both eyes open and keep the pin seen by the dominant eye in the peep ring. Its a skill you can learn, but no while you are in a tree with a large bear below and adrenaline coursing through your veins!
We talked about hunting, nerves and disappointment and Matt expressed concern that in fact he may not be ready to kill a large mammal with his bow despite being a great shot on targets. That’s when I offered him the opportunity to use my Marlin with the red dot sight and he accepted.
Wednesday afternoon found Matt back in the double stand tree overlooking the Black Brook bait. I’d offered to let him sit alone at the bait and he’d chosen to do that. As the shadows lengthened I sat about half a mile away listening to the forest when I heard a shot. Mat was beaming when we met up on the logging road. I asked him about the shot and he explained that the dominant boar came back to the barrel. He’d walked in after circling the bait a few times then presented the back of his head to Matt. I’d encouraged Matt to shoot for the base of the skull if he felt calm because its an instantly lethal shot, and it’s a shot easily made at 15 yards.
The boar was a beautiful example of Maine bear with rich black hair and a white crest on his chest; fat and sleek, at the prime of his life. Matt had calmly lined up and dropped him in his tracks. He’d done a great job holding himself together and putting the red dot right where I’d asked him to. The result was no blood trail at all, an easy drag back up the path to the logging road, and a successful harvest of 200lbs of Maine bear.
We had the bear field dressed and in the back of the truck before dark so decided to head down the Greenville Road to Kokadjo and the check station. On the way Matt explained that he’d love to have his family make the 5 hour drive and come up in the morning. He wanted his three children to see the bear before we cut it up and to participate in the skinning and butchering. He’d enjoyed the process of taking Tom’s bear from forest to table and wanted his children to learn to do the same with his bear. He wanted them to understand where the food had come from when they sat down to a meal of bear. Now that’s my kind of client! He made the call and his wife enthusiastically agreed to make the drive. I packed the bear with ice at the check station and we headed back to Beaver Camp.
Matt’s family arrived before noon the following day. There was celebration and congratulations, and awe. None of them had seen a bear up close before. We set up a butchering station, hung the bear and started skinning it. Matt proudly demonstrated his new skills to his family and allowed each an opportunity to skin, and then butcher the bear. As Matt and one of his boys removed the major cuts, I and the other boy made the final cuts into roasts, ribs, shanks, stew and bacon. Matt’s wife and daughter took the cuts from us and vacuum sealed and labeled them before loading the meat into the freezer.
In case you think ‘many hands make light work’, think again. Teaching people to skin and butcher takes three times as long as an experienced guide can do it on his own. Perhaps that’s why Tom had never participated in processing his bear in Manitoba. When several of the participants are children holding large sharp knives, time crawls. But make no mistake. Its time we as guides need to invest in our clients. I could put my clients in a tree then cut up their bear and send them home. It would take less time but all of us would be poorer for having done so. Inevitably, my clients will entertain me and teach me something about hunting, or myself, during those hours spent baiting, butchering and cooking. What skills I have I pass on to my clients as we work together before and after the hunt. Together we’ve done all we can do to pass on the heritage of hunting.
Intrigued with bones and broth, the children watched and helped cut vegetables as we created the bear bones stew; our dinner. They all ate heartily then helped me put the picked clean bones in the forest for whatever small creatures may find the last nourishment in their decay. The next morning each had a portion of heart with their bacon and eggs. Camp was crowded and loud and fun and when finally they departed with a cooler full of frozen bear meat I was sad to see them go.
Sitting on my porch overlooking Beaver Cove, I thought about Tom and Matt and the choices I’ve made as a guide. The camp I run is not for everyone. A few clients have turned away after I explained the requirement to participate in the baiting and the processing of their bear. Some folks just want an easy time of it, showing up for the kill and departing with some photos for social media. Fine for them, but its not for me. This past week I’d shepherded two hunters through the same new experience. One was a seasoned bear hunter, the other on his first adventure. Both had learned how to field dress, skin, butcher and care for bear meat. They’d learned how to cook and enjoy a meal of bone stew; a part of the bear that is almost never salvaged. They’d vacuum sealed meat, shanks, bacon and fat in packages that would last years in the freezer. Both had left with cooking instructions and recipes providing variety and the promise of savory meals. One had brought his entire family into what I consider the most important part of the hunt; respecting the life given by doing the utmost to utilize the nourishment of the animal’s meat.
Satisfaction is the reward a person gets for having values and acting in accordance with them. Sure, I have a guide business, but it means much more than a fee to pass along the lore of hunt and food, and I was satisfied.