A Bear for Barr

By Ed Turner

Barr and bear
Left to right: rifle maker Bob Hart, Barr Soltis and the author.

I left from just outside Nashville on Friday morning and Barr (Barr Soltis, contributing writer for Guns and Shooting Online) left from just outside Philadelphia on Saturday at noontime. We met in Connecticut on Saturday afternoon and then enjoyed a nice dinner and evening of shooting the bull at my friend Gary's house. Gary's 12-year-old son, Travis, was excited to hear our plans for our Maine bear hunt, which was set to start on Monday.

Sunday morning found us bidding adieu to Gary and Travis and setting our sights on points northward in Maine. A stop in Kittery got me my hunting license and some cartridges for Barr's new rifle and another stop snagged us a delicious lobster roll for lunch, plus four fresh lobsters and five dozen clams for our first camp dinner that evening. We listened to Tom Tom (GPS) give us splendid directions and when we saw the semi-hidden driveway in the tall pines, we pulled up into what was to be our new digs for the next week, a nice A-frame design cabin with cedar shake siding.

Parking my truck and walking to the screen door revealed that someone was there and a loud hello brought us a greeting in a great Maine accent. Our guide, Moe Hart, was heating up some dinner for himself when we arrived at about 4:30. Introductions all around and shortly there after all our stuff was piled into our compact bedroom. This sported two beds and little else, just like a hunting camp ought to be. Each of my trips in from the truck was delayed somewhat by staring at the mount of his '07 Maine buck Moe had just hung in the mudroom entryway. I will simply say here that it is nearly 170" of antler, but more on that later.

We found that our two camp mates were due shortly and during one of the calls, we told them not to stop for dinner; we would share our lobsters with them upon their arrival. Therefore, Barr, Ed and Moe had an enjoyable happy hour awaiting the other hunters' arrival. I could see that Moe was the right person for us to be utilizing on my first Maine hunt in 15 years. Personable, knowledgeable and enjoying both telling and listening to hunting and shooting stories. Maine was all I had remembered it to be.

Our hunting mates arrived at about the same time our lobsters finished heating and we had somehow managed to save a few clams for our new friends, as well. Full of fresh seafood and a couple rounds of cocktails, we now began talking about our favorite subjects, guns and hunting. One of our mates had brought a rifle I couldn't wait to get my hands on, a new .45-70 Marlin 1895SBL. What a neat gun! The owner said he figured it to be pretty much what you would get from a leading Marlin 1895 custom rifle maker, but at a savings of about a grand.

I can only say that it was a darn nice rifle, high dollar German scope with lighted reticle, not with standing. It looked like a perfect rifle for what all three of us hunters were wanting. A rifle capable of DIT performance and a reticle that can be seen on black fur 30 minutes after sunset, a very likely time for a bruin to arrive near our stands. I was going to use both a standard 1895 in 45-70 with Leupold scope and a BLR in .450 Marlin with a Leupold Euro model 1.25-4x20 30mm scope. Barr brought his newly appointed Marlin 338MX topped with a nice 1-4x Leupold and an older Marlin 336 in .35 Remington, also topped with a Leupold scope. Both were zeroed to put the smack down on any bear brave enough to try them.

Plans were set for Monday and Moe split for home, leaving us four (three hunters and a "relaxer") at the camp for the evening. A few more stories later and we were all ready for our first night's sleep, with visions of 500 pound bruins crowding our thoughts.

Some pertinent info here: Maine has by far the largest bear population in the eastern U.S., along with a liberal hunting season. Maine bears are not known for their large size, with most harvested running in the 200 pound range.

Maine's bear season was changed from both a spring and fall season to a fall only season many years ago. The bear population remains excellent and the overall population appears to be growing, if bear complaints are any indication. The methods allowed for hunting bear in Maine include baiting, hunting over dogs, stand hunting, still hunting and tracking. The earliest hunts are normally bait hunts with these hunters getting a two week head start on the dog hunters. Both methods are used/allowed from mid September to the beginning of October when it's dogs and no bait for a month. When deer season (gun) rolls around in November, it is stand, still hunting or tracking only. Most bears shot at this time are normally taken incidental to deer hunting. Years ago a bear tag was included with your big game or deer tag, but now an additional tag and fee are necessary.

Our guide, Moe Hart, has been hunting bears in this area of Maine for 20 years and guiding for 10 years and he has seen his share of big bears harvested, with his largest running 635 lbs. (live weight), several coming in at over 500 lbs. and a number of 400 plus pound bears as well. Reading between the lines it seemed, as I'd already learned, that there were big bears there, but many first time hunters (as we were) along with those having minimal experience hunting black bear, would see a 200 lb. specimen and, thinking it was twice that size, drop the hammer then and there.

Nothing wrong with that, but it was not unusual, from Moe's comments, to have bigger bears approach even after a smaller one was seen or even shot at the bait site. Perhaps the larger ones are figuring on an ethical hunter (only one bear allowed) and totally free lunch now available now for them. A story of a hunter who could not quite resist the temptation of a second larger bear was relayed to us. It ended with that hunter, at Moe's insistence, calling the DNA agent and reporting his "mistake" of shooting a second bear after thinking he'd missed the first one (his stated excuse). Therefore, a hefty fine for him and forfeiture of the second bear anyway!

Anyway, we already knew that the recorded average weights of harvested Maine black bear might not impress, but there was certainly a chance at a monster for those who might be patient or lucky. Thus, the never-ending dilemma of the hunter; the sure mediocre harvest vs. the opportunity of perhaps bigger, later. Sound familiar? For the record, I was determined not to shoot a bear that would turn out to be less than 250 lbs. if I could possibly manage it and Barr wanted a bear of decent size, but even more importantly, one with a very nice pelt.

We enjoyed a pleasant and relaxed morning around camp and true to his word, our guide arrived shortly before 2:30 PM to take us to our appointed spots. A bit of instruction and advice as we drove to our various stands and then I was the first to be dropped off. Per previous instructions, there was no talking while walking to the stand/bait site. Upon arriving, I went directly to the ladder stand while Moe, wearing gloves and rubber boots, freshened the bait pail, which in this case was attached to a tree some 35 yards or so from the stand.

I climbed into place and settled in for a four-hour sit on our first afternoon. Barr and our other hunter in camp were dropped off after me. Darkness fell without any sign of bear and I waited until I saw the approaching flashlight carried by Moe before descending from the elevated stand. I switched on my light and followed Moe in total darkness back to the truck. Not a word was spoken in the woods, as any bears in the area would be certain to hear and be spooked by voices.

Back at the truck, we discussed the afternoon's goings on and although nothing was seen by our third hunter, or me Barr had seen a bear on the first afternoon of our hunt. He relayed the story to us of how the bear had walked out of the thick cover and crossed back and forth in front of him, seeming undecided as to whether to approach the bait or not. As we listened, we looked about at each other and at the end of the story, we asked, "Why didn't you shoot him?" Barr seemed to think it had been too small a window of opportunity for a shot, but we encouraged him to be sure and shoot should something like that happen again!

Upon our return to the cabin, we found that our other camp mate, who was there to relax rather than hunt, had prepared a delicious dinner of southern fried bear loin. Along with the potatoes, gravy and veggies, it was all we could do to finish and we were now primed to collect some more bear meat after sampling this delicious dinner.

On day two, we all visited the same spots as the previous day, but this time all three of us drew a blank. Back to camp for another great meal. After dinner, we discussed the previous two hunts and drew-up a new plan for the next day. Barr would maintain his spot, preferring the ground blind there to a ladder stand. Ed would be switching spots and hunter #3 would try sitting the entire day, his last.

Our mate and our guide were up and gone by sunrise and I heard someone's phone ringing unanswered as I prepared coffee at around 7:30 AM. A short time later, a fellow pulled into the driveway and told me that our guide was trying to call us to ask if either of us wanted to try a bear/hound hunt, as they had hounds on the trail of a bear at that very moment. I went inside, woke Barr and asked if he was interested. He agreed to give it a go and we quickly got dressed and drove to meet the crew and begin the chase in earnest.

Well, it turns out there was good reason for two fifty-something fellas not to have planned to chase bear and dogs across the Maine landscape. It is hilly there, as both Barr and I figured out some two miles into our chase. I kept up a bit longer than Barr, before remembering I wasn't even armed, since I was not planning to be the shooter that day. A shot was ultimately fired less than 75 yards from me, as I tried to climb that last ledge to the dogs and the chase was on again!

Long story short; we headed back to get ready for our afternoon sit. The bear was wounded, but not dropped and the chase continued until about 4:00 the next morning. The dogs were finally rounded up by about 9:00 AM the next day, with the bear still enjoying his freedom. Luckily, only one dog was injured by what one experienced dog handler described as one of the biggest Maine bears he had ever seen, surely well over 400 pounds. Barr and I decided we liked the stand hunting a bit better as it had taken most of the drive back to camp to catch our breath. Afternoon number three ended as one and two had, with no bears harvested and no bear sightings, including the hunter who had sat from dawn to dusk.

A great meal of homemade chicken and sausage gumbo was consumed by five very hungry fellows that evening and we all had to compliment Barr for his delicious dinner choice. The camp chef had done a bit of fishing that day and had added a half trout for each of us. Simply delicious! The other two hunters readied their stuff for an early morning departure for home and we three, Moe, Barr and I, sat around stuffed to the gills.

Day four was ahead and after seeing a bull moose in full rut up close the afternoon before from my stand, I was hoping for something for which I actually held a tag. Back to my new spot for a second day and Barr back to his spot for his fourth. I was last to be picked up and back at the truck Barr showed me an empty cartridge case. Wondering why he was doing that, he finally blurted out that he had whacked a bear that evening! They located it and then left to get me. (To help drag it no doubt!). We were back at the spot in 10 minutes, well after full darkness had set in.

Barr and Moe located the downed bear in the pitch dark, as I carried some of the stuff from the ground blind back to the truck. On my way back I had to grin a bit, listening to the two of them struggling through the woods, bear in tow. I relieved Barr from his pull chain at about the halfway point and Moe and I finally got the nice sow to the truck, after only a few tumbles. We took a minute to get our collective breaths and then heave-hoed the bear up onto the tailgate, where we tied her down for our trip back to camp. No check station was open, but the Rite-Aid drugstore (also stocked as a liquor store) was still open (15 minutes to spare!) and we purchased our chosen libations for the evening's celebration.

Barr and I feasted on delicious BBQ chicken and put a darn good hurting on the rum we bought to celebrate Barr's first bear kill. Barr was off the hook and old Ed was on it now, with two hunts to go. We discussed the bear encounter several times and I assured Barr that he had made a stellar shot, which had entered just behind the right shoulder and exited just ahead of the left hip, leaving a gaping hole. Barr had hit that bear exactly where he needed to, as it quartered towards him and the fine 200 grain Hornady Flex Tip bullet from the .338 Marlin Express had taken over from there.

As with Barr's encounter on the first day, he had been sitting about three hours before the bear appeared, without so much as a sound. It simply was there walking through the brush (slinking might be a better description) and Barr was again amazed that animal so big could walk so quietly! He quickly readied his rifle and when the bear again seemed to show some indecision as to whether it should approach the bait, this time Barr had none. The gun came up to his shoulder, Barr envisioned where the bullet needed to be placed to reach the vitals and the shot was away.

The bear ran about 20 yards and then slid down a rise about 25 yards more before coming to rest. Barr was treated to not one, but two death bellows and for those experienced bear hunters out there, that is music to any bear hunters ears. The bullet, as already mentioned, entered just aft of the right shoulder, took off the top of the heart and left a hole big enough forward of the left hip, that "stuff" was hanging out. In fact, there was a trail some ten feet long of "stuff" when we noticed it while dragging. Simply a splendid shot and bullet performance that would be tough to beat with any caliber.

Barr and bear
Guide Moe Hart (right) congratulates Barr (with rifle).

The next morning Barr and Moe skinned Barr's bear and both men were impressed with the nice thick pelt, which in full sun light showed a very nice and unusual brownish tint under the outer black fur, which will make the tanned hide a very special one, indeed.

That fourth day turned out to be the highlight of our trip, as I did not see a bear on my last two afternoons. We were fortunate, however to have some new and interesting fellow hunters join us for our last two evenings. Bob Hart, renowned custom rifle builder and his friend (and pilot), Mike Homan landed just as we were passing near the Bethel Municipal airport on our way back to camp on Friday evening. We swung by and picked them up. We passed the 20 minute drive back to camp discussing their exciting approach into that airport, which has hills (mountains really) around it with tops at 5,500 feet and a runway elevation of 1,600 feet. The low clouds and high winds present at the time made for an interesting landing.

That evening was spent talking guns and I was happy to find out that Mike was a big fan (as I am) of the .35 Whelen. He figured he'd shot somewhere north of a hundred deer with it and his typical results mirrored mine; bang, flop. We also enjoyed listening to Bob Hart talk about his company, custom rifles and high performance calibers. Every bit of it was interesting for anyone schooled in guns or shooting. His custom rifle in .30 Hart drew admiring looks and was fondled by all.

Bob and Mike left early Saturday morning for a dog hunt and were back, without a bear, by about 10:00 AM. We were then treated to a short, but impressive shooting demonstration, with one of the dog handlers shooting Bob's personal .30 Hart rifle. He could not believe that a 180 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 3300 fps could have such low recoil! He was so impressed he immediately ordered one from Bob.

To say I was impressed with Bob's rifle would certainly be an understatement. What impressed me most about Mr. Hart was his easy demeanor discussing rifles of any type. He is not the type of fellow who insists you need this or that. Instead, he listened and explained his ideas when needed. His knowledge of rifles and making accurate arms goes without question, but he's not an overpowering type of guy. Again, I enjoyed every minute I spent with Mr. Hart and I am hoping to join him early next year on a Texas hog hunt.

A bit of info here. His company has a special method of accurizing your personal rifle (of whatever manufacture) and doing all the things the maker should have done, but cannot due to time and cost constraints. I was duly impressed and plan to send one of my Ruger Model 77's to Pennsylvania for that particular service at the end of this deer season.

Our trip to Maine was a resounding success! Being one for two is about as good as it gets when you are bear hunting in the eastern U.S. There are places with higher success ratios in Canada and the far western U.S., but hunting in the third week of the season, as we did, makes it tough. Bears are like any other hunted big game animal. They learn that when humans are about there is danger and will shy away from areas they normally visit.

One last note on the hunt itself. The plan was to move me to a new spot on Thursday, which was showing more sign than the ones I had been trying. Our plan was ruined when another guide, acting less than ethically, ran his dogs from our guide's bait site. This is a certain no-no, being an unwritten law among guides everywhere. They did pick up scent but left a bunch more at that site, leaving it unusable until heavy rains moved through or at least another week or two had passed. This was such a breech of ethics that a neighbor who lived on the logging road some two miles from the bait site called our guide and reported the intruder (by name) who had run his dogs through this area.

Our guide, Moe Hart, was simply great! Knowledgeable, personable and very easy to talk and deal with. His experience speaks for itself and I can only hope for better luck on my next trip. Barr and I have plans to revisit the area and hunt with Moe again next year. Moe also guides for whitetail during Maine's month-long season. There are not a lot of deer in Maine, but there are a good number of big deer among the total population. My largest bodied deer thus far, field dressing at 225 lbs. on certified scales, was taken in Maine.

The beautiful mount, scoring 168-5/8ths B&C, which overlooked our comings and goings at the cabin is a testament to what a persistent hunter might find in that area, should Lady Luck allow. Moe still had, at last discussion, openings for the November deer season and has areas he knows hold large Maine bucks. This hunting is not easy, and it is not for the hunter unwilling to work hard for a chance at a buck. However, it is as rewarding as any deer hunting I have ever done. It was simply wonderful to have been in the big woods of Maine!

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Copyright 2009, 2013 by Ed Turner. All rights reserved.