Go North for Big Bruins - Northern Maine That is
IN THE BEGINNING
My trip up to Oxbow Lodge in Northern Maine started out pretty much the way it always has these past four years, eager anticipation for a bear hunt that no one could predict the outcome of, and if any body could predict, would you really want to know before it all had a chance to unfold. To me the pre-hunt preparations, the reading of hunting articles and magazines and the thoughts of opening day in the woods in pursuit of game with bow and arrow is just as much a part of my rituals as the hunt itself.
Go North for Big Bruins - Northern Maine That is
(a personal account of my 2003 big bear hunt)
By Jeff Mangold
IN THE BEGINNING
My trip up to Oxbow Lodge in Northern Maine started out pretty much the way it always has these past four years, eager anticipation for a bear hunt that no one could predict the outcome of, and if any body could predict, would you really want to know before it all had a chance to unfold. To me the pre-hunt preparations, the reading of hunting articles and magazines and the thoughts of opening day in the woods in pursuit of game with bow and arrow is just as much a part of my rituals as the hunt itself. This year I was planning on making my northerly migration alone. My bow hunting partner and best buddy of 9 years, Steve Napiorski (I refer to him as MARINE, he is a Semper Fi from some years back), was unable to join me due to recent conflicts at his work place. Late summer I received a call from my wife’s cousin and occasional hunting companion Dave Lowe and he inquired as to weather I was heading up to Maine this year. I replied “of course”. He went on to say that he was interested in going north and would be bringing along and older friend of his Victor for the hunt of a lifetime. Dave has hunted the Oxbow Lodge before, having harvested a nice 300lb boar his first year in camp. After all, I am always up for company on a hunting trip and the annual bear hunt at the Oxbow Lodge Outfitters can accommodate a variety of hunting ages and weapons of choice.
Our drive north seemed to pass quickly as we enjoyed the increase in beautiful scenery as time passed. I never seem to mind longer drives when I’m going hunting or vacationing. As we traveled north up through Maine, Mount Katadin appeared on the horizon. This beautiful mountain welcomes visitors to northern Maine and all that is beautiful in this rustic northern land. Viewing this mountain and the changing colors of the fall foliage as we head north has become a realization point for me, knowing that oxbow lodge is not too far off and the hunt is soon to begin. We arrived at the lodge on Sunday morning a bit earlier than what is the noontime scheduled arrival for hunters. As I walked into the kitchen I was greeted with a handshake a hug and a very fond “hello it’s great to see you again” welcome from both Tom Aasbo and his wife Tracey, owners of the lodge. I reintroduced Dave Lowe (this is his second trip in three years) and his hunting companion Victor, a 72 year old gentleman who was just beside himself with excitement at the thought of bear hunting. We chatted briefly and then proceeded through the ritual of getting our room assignment and a friendly reminder that the traditional prime rib ‘welcome hunters’ supper was promptly at 6pm this evening followed by our rules and information talks.
As we unpacked and settled in other hunters began to drift into the lodge eager with excitement. There was talk of the upcoming weeklong opportunity to witness the great black bear in his own northern Maine woodland surroundings and hopefully be one of the fortunate hunters to be successful this coming week.
Having been to the lodge to bear hunt three previous years, I was familiar with Tom and Tracey’s crew as well as the lodge so I began introducing myself and showing people around in more detail as Tom and Tracey welcomed in the continuing flow of guests. I had already made my rounds earlier to see what changes had been made to the lodge because I know Tom and Tracey are always upgrading the lodge to make things as professional and comfortable as possible for their guests. This is truly a top-notch place.
There is a game room with pool table, card table and plenty of photos to glance at. There is a new custom deck out back graced with a large hot tub for the guests and a bow range out back complete with stands like the ones you would hunt from, ready for use. The gun range is just a couple miles down the road and the Aroostic River just a short walk down the road or through the woods. This year I had taken what has become my traditional walk to the creek and I had a bald eagle fly over my head following the river as he fished just 50 feet above the water. It is quite common to see moose during your visit both bulls and cows. This is truly a relaxing hunt and vacation all in one, I guess it is that unique combination of quality relaxation, quality hunting and quality people that brings me and so many others back year after year.
Before you know it suppertime has arrived and everyone is given their first taste of the oxbow hospitality. After an enjoyable prime rib meal with homemade deserts, it is time to settle in and listen to Tom make his speech of what to expect at the lodge and how things will work for everyone during their weeklong hunting experience. The house staff is introduced as well as the very capable guide staff and there is even an officer from the Maine hunting and fisheries department (Tom Ward), on hand to field any questions you might have. The air is thick with excitement and majestic bear mounts surround us as well as other wildlife mounts, many of which Tom has taken himself with his bow and arrow. The atmosphere of the lodge, particularly the large dinning area is one of an old comfortable Adirondack lodge with huge hand made tables, comfortable lounging chairs and couches and even a large rocking chair surrounded by elk, caribou and trophy deer mounts. Even though I have been in this situation three previous years Sunday evening is still contagious with excitement and just full of smiling hunter faces as we all jest about large bears and what we all think is going to happen out there. By this time it is obvious to many hunters that I am a regular and I begin to field questions from new lodge hunters on their first bear hunt or on their first Maine bear hunt. “Have you ever been up to Canada for black bear?” “Have you ever gotten a bear before and what did you use as your weapon of choice?” Well each year these seem to be two typical and recurring questions and I am pleased to discuss them both. I tell them that “Yes I have been to Canada for black bear and while Canada has its merits you just can’t beat Maine USA for black bear action and you can’t top the accommodations you receive here at Oxbow both a field and at the lodge.” I go on to tell them of my two bad Canada experiences bear hunting and insist that I much prefer to spend my time and money in the USA. “Yes I am also fortunate enough to have harvested a black bear my second year up to Oxbow. I took a nice 175lb sow and she made for very exciting bow hunt and a beautiful rug.” As the night passes on we talk about many other things as though we all were hunting buddies for years now and this was just another one of our many trips together. To me the camaraderie and common goals of the hunt is something I also enjoy so much on my trips, it makes the whole trip experience worthwhile. As the clock turns toward midnight we all begin to slowly head to our rooms for a good nights rest knowing that so far everything is good and well in bear camp.
Morning brings a full bounty of breakfast items and the hunters now familiar with last evening’s ritual of forming a line. Helping themselves to the buffet style food provided the line becomes a place of jokes and tales as the week progresses. The feeding frenzy of the hunters is a great time to talk and meet new folks as Tom and guide staff join right in and eat with the hunter’s daily. Questions about the area, previous hunts, bear trivia, and just plain talk is a normal activity for all the hunters in the dining area. Finally the time to hunt was upon us all. After the noontime dinner, all the hunters went to their rooms to change for the hunt. As the hunters filtered outside and around the trucks that would eventually take them to their stands, Tom gave guiding assignments to the staff. As we all loaded up into our rides there were echoes of “good luck”, “shoot a big one”, “don’t fall asleep in your stand”. We were off. My guide was a gentleman named Don. Don was a native Mainerd and was a true veteran when it came to guiding in the Northern Maine Woods. I would be hunting in a well-established stand location about a 20 minute drive from the Lodge. After the first day Dave and I were allowed to drive in ourselves. We were hunting in the same general area about two miles or so apart. I was bow hunting and Dave chose a 44-magnum Smith and Wesson as his firearm for this hunt. The first day was uneventful for me, but Dave had a couple of neat sightings but choose not to harvest on the first day. As the evening drew to an end and the daylight faded my first hunt was over. A fantastic hunt even though I had not seem a bear. As we wound down the road toward the lodge we chuckled about many things that had happened that day and anticipation of seeing some bear hanging on the game pole was almost to much to wait on. As we pulled up to the lodge we could see the light out back by the game pole was on. This could only mean one thing; someone shot a bear this evening. As I recall there were two dandy bears taken that evening, both around the 200lb mark. One with a muzzleloader and one with a rifle. We had several bow hunters in camp this week, as a matter fact it was almost a 50/50 split. None of the bow hunters had a shot but there were several more bears seen this evening.
On the second day I had still not seen a bear. This was unusual for me, as I have come to almost expect to see the black bruin on my daily outings as in the past. This just goes to show you that nothing is automatic and that the black bear is indeed an elusive and cautious animal. I studied each and every twig, branch and shadow in front of me as the hours ticked by. My area was active with many signs of bear visitation, scat was visible as were a series of trees sporting the unmistakable marking of a bruins claws. Even though it is only my second day on stand, I have come to know this area very well. It is amazing just how well a hunter can familiarize himself with a hunting setup in such a short time. As I sit and listen to the wilderness around me I can’t help but let my mind wonder and ponder many thoughts of the wild north. The woods are full of activity and sounds but just as quickly as those sounds come, silence, I mean true and utter silence and solitude fill your every sense and surroundings. If you are fortunate enough you are paid visits from some of the local animal species from coyote to grouse, to hare and perhaps even a moose as well as many of the areas bird species. As the daylight fades on yet another day, once again I carry with me the feeling of satisfaction, I am at peace with myself and the beautiful surroundings. I make my way to the truck and pick up Dave. Yes Dave has been visited by bears again. He says the bears were different today than yesterday, a Sow and cubs. Dave goes on to explain how much he enjoyed his visitors and we talk of the video footage he took of the bears. We were both eager to get back to the lodge to view the tape and to see if the game pole had any action this evening.
As we pulled into camp, once again the light in the back by the game pole was on. This could mean only one thing; yes another bear or two must be hanging. One of the bow hunters in camp had arrowed a fine sow that weighed in at over 225lb. He had a smile on his face that literally went from ear to ear, he was surely proud of his shot and his trophy and he had every reason to be. This was his first bear and to take it with his bow was just that much more special. One of the other hunting parties were still out as the evening went on. This meant that either they were getting bears out of the thick north Maine woods, tracking one or the truck broke down. Well we were all glad to hear that the truck was just fine and that the radio dispatch came through saying that they were headed back to camp with two more bears. Upon arrival the hunters that had already arrived were eagerly gathered around the game pole waiting for the bears to arrive like a group of kids waiting for the ice cream truck to come down the street. Finally headlights broke the horizon of the roadway and shouts of “hear they come”, “make room” rang out from the group of giddy hunters. We were all excited for the group almost as if we had taken the bears ourselves. The truck backed in and what came into view were a couple of fine bruins. One sow weighing in at 185lb and a boar weighing in at close to 300lb. What a perfect end to a perfect evening in northern Maine.
The sun rose on the third day and it was a comfortable 50 degrees. Everyone made their way through the morning breakfast ritual and afterwards I went out back to shoot. There were a few other bow hunters shooting as I joined them. The arrows were flying true today and everything seemed effortless. Today I would shoot much longer than usual, time just whisked by as I created several different shot cinereous within the range area. After practice I got ready for the upcoming hunt, checking my gear and cloths. Dinner had come and passed and again we were in the truck heading toward our appointment with what we all hoped was Mr. Black Bear. I dropped off Dave and proceeded onto my stand as I did the previous two days. I pulled over to park sooner than normal. Today I would park just a little further away from my hunting setup, I would make a longer trek to the wooded logging road as I gathered my gear. Today my walk in was about a ½ mile, as I wanted a little more space between the truck and my wooded hunting area. The stand setup was 70 yards in off of a logging road, which had not been used for quite some time. They air was still, not a breeze to be found. The sun was out yet it was very comfortable. I eased into my stand even slower than my usual slow pace. Looking listening and being extra careful not to even step on a twig to alert what I hoped would be a big bear in my area. After all the spot was perfect, the sign was there and we were in northern Maine for black bear. As I ascended my stand I did not make a peep. I got set and the ritual of waiting and observing began. By 5PM or so I was visited by a very large sow and two cubs. I would guess this sow at about 225lb or better. Her coat was thick and shining and black as shoe polish as the sun danced through the canopy above. Her cubs were energetic and full of that playfulness that youngsters have. They too had a full and beautiful coat. I had plenty of time to watch and learn as they interacted with each other and the cubs wrestled with each other for the sow’s attention. I became quite comfortable with them not more than 17 yards away, and the best thing was they had absolutely no idea I was there watching them perched 12 foot up in my stand. The air was still and the occasional breeze was carrying their sent to me. I heard a snap to my rear, all at once the sow came to a still pose, ears up and forward in my direction. I immediately thought she winded me. A quick check of the air and I knew it was not me she was alerted by. She took two steps in my direction and stood straight up on her back legs. He nose, ears and eyes were busy scanning and searching the area behind me to my right. I could see nor hear a thing. My heart was racing and the adrenaline was rushing through my body. I thought “YES” this is what it is all about, that feeling, that anticipation of what is about to unfold. Then just as suddenly as she stood, she went back down on all fours, turned toward her cubs and made a sound. At that point the two cubs scattered but the sow remained. With bow in hand I was ready for what ever was about to happen. I waited on the edge of my stand seat, heart still pounding yet in full control of myself. It seemed like forever but it was only a minute or so, suddenly the cubs returned as quickly as they had left. All was calm now and the sow was back in control of her cubs. Time passed, it was now about 5:45PM and the bears were still about 17 yards away. I was getting fatigued at having to stay so still now. Just then as my mind was wondering another snap broke the relative silence of the moment. The sow once again stood tall on her hind legs. She was looking even more intently than the first time. She stood for about 15 seconds and them back to all fours. The sow moved to her cubs and they all froze and listened. Their heads turned off to my right as they looked and their ears were moving, searching for sounds, sounds of oncoming danger. All at once the sow turned, signaled and they all broke out in a dead run through the woods and thickets. I could hear them as they crashed through the woods and through what was apparently some body of water. Excitement grew to a climax as I could only think of what had made them leave in such a panic. It had to be a big boar, I thought to myself. I knew it was not another hunter or any other person for that matter, so it had to be a boar. A sow with cubs does not react that way unless it is a dominant bear in the area. I waited with bow in hand until my hand began to cramp up. An hour had passed and I had not moved an inch, but no sign or sound of anything. The woods were as quiet as any woods have ever been. You could hear every little scurry of red squirrels and dropping of twigs and nuts as they climbed and performed their ariel acrobatics off in the distance. I treated every sound as if it were my prey. Still nothing. I was tuned into my surroundings like I had been on many occasions while hunting. The evening was perfect, the air was still and I was ready with every part of my hunting body. It was now ten after seven and the light was fading fast. I could not stop thinking that perhaps this was an opportunity missed, did I do something wrong or was it simple fate that I would not view a bruin this evening. I raised my bow deliberately and quietly to check if I could still see my TruGlo sight pin. “Yes” I said to myself. I was not moving from this spot until I could not see to shoot. There were literally only a few minutes of shooting light left when I heard a slight brushing sound and then a single snap ahead to my left. I stared into the fading light searching for movement. There it was movement, black movement in front of me to my left. A head appeared behind some green leaves about 15 yards in front of me. The bruin was moving in slowly and very deliberately with an ere of cautiousness. “A bear” I thought. “A bears head”. As the head became more visible in the fleeting light I could tell it was a nice bear and definitely a shooter. I slowly began to raise my bow from my lap. Just as I started to move the black bruin glanced in my direction. I froze immediately, thinking not to worry, stay calm, stay still and wait. Wait, I can’t wait too much longer the light was fading fast. He took another step and I began to raise the bow again. As the front of his shoulder appeared he stopped once again and looked in my direction. Again I froze. My arms were in midstream of getting my bow into shooting position and I wasn’t about to give this bruin an inch of movement to catch me on. After what seemed an eternity, he looked forward again and began to move broadside in front of me. I will always remember this moment, as the bruin stepped into full view I was instantly amazed and in awe of the massive belly as it nearly dragged along the ground. As soon as he turned his head away from me I continued to raise my bow to final position and drew back all at once. Everything seemed perfect and almost in slow motion. I recall it vividly as I write this story; it was one continuous motion of raising and drawing back my Martin Altitude bow. I quickly and automatically found the pin and the target as I released the arrow. My Beman ICS Hunter shaft tipped with a Montec G5 broadhead left the string and quickly entered the bear’s lung area. It looked and sounded like a solid hit and even a pass through shot. The bear jetted off immediately upon impact and crashed through the now darkened thick poplar and pinewoods. I froze yet it was hard to contain my emotions as I listened to every sound that the forest would feed my ears. Just as quickly as the bear bolted off across the forest floor the sounds stopped. I listened even more intently but no death moan, no more charging through the woods, nothing but silence again.
After several minutes had passed it was now very dark. I pulled my flashlight from my pack and gathered my gear for the walk out to the truck. My walk back was one of mixed emotions. I had captured the entire hunting event on videotape and I had to look at it. I stopped and watched the tape and saw that it appeared to be a good hit but perhaps a little bit towards the back. It was difficult on the tape under the low light conditions to see if the bear was actually quartering away at all or not. I watched it several more times and was pretty positive that it was indeed a lethal hit. I could not clear my mind of the possibility that this bruin might go off a long distance and be very difficult to find in the thick north Maine woods. After all I was used to searching out my own shot game in woods that I knew very well and had hunted for years but this was not the case here. The shot looked solid and pretty well placed but I found it hard to believe that I had just shot at such an awesome creature. We as hunters dream of truly magnificent encounters with such trophy animals and when it happens it doesn’t seem real. Well this was certainly real and it was a good shot I thought. As I returned to the lodge to find my guide, he was still out gathering other hunters. Terry, one of the other guide staff had just rolled in and was in the kitchen talking with Tracey. I walked in and looked over at the two of them and could hardly speak. Terry asked what had happened, “did you get anything tonight”. I replied, “yes”, with a grin, but said I was unsure of just how lethal the hit was and that it was a big bear. Without hesitation Terry said, “Lets go get him”. At that, we were off. Myself, Terry and Dave climbed into the truck and headed back to the location where I had hunted. As we entered the woods Terry went first and Dave and I marked the way in with ribbon tape. About half way through the search my guide Don showed up and joined in. The blood trail was sparse as we carefully navigated the dark forest with our flashlights. About forty yards out from the shot sight the blood sign had not shown much improvement. Now as I tripped along through the woods, so many thoughts were racing through my head. Was it a good shot? Was this bear going to be one of those that never gets found? I can’t believe we are not seeing a much better blood trail. It was evident by the blood that we did find that the shot was a pass through. Just then Terry and Don hollered out “hear we go”. I shouted, “Did you find him”? “NO, but the blood sign is much better now”. Then another shout. “Here we go, he can’t be far now”. The sign was spread all over the forest floor; this is where he finally slowed down. I raced up through the forest knocking branches aside and pushing through thickets. Wow I thought to myself, this was more like it. The sign was everywhere and I was excited. Just then both guides hollered out “here he is, oh my gosh he’s huge”. I ran again toward the voices and pushed through some cedar thickets, oh my gosh, he was huge. I was so excited and so many emotions were running through my body. I quickly slid down beside him and laid his large head upon my lap and smiled. “Well I said, I told you he was a good one”. Terry exclaimed “I guess he’s a good one he has to be 400lb I’d guess, what do you think Don”. Don replied “oh yeah, I’d say even 450 of so, either way were not pulling him out with just the four of us”. Dave poked through the trees and couldn’t believe his eyes. At that, we all admired the huge bruin for a while then headed back to the trucks to get help. It was hard to leave him for a while but I knew soon he would be back at the lodge with us all. It took hours to retrieve the big bruin from the thick Maine forest but it was an experience I wish all dedicated hunters could experience. The shot turned out to be perfect. The arrow entered the bruin near the back of the lungs and quartered forward to exit about 6 inches behind the opposite shoulder. Ultimately it took nine of us to retrieve this bruin from the great north Maine woods. He weighed in at 502lb live weight and green scored the skull at just under 20 inches. This was truly a hunt I will never ever forget and will certainly cherish forever. For those interested in a Northern Maine hunt at the Oxbow Lodge you can call Tom & Tracey at (207)435-6140