Bearing the wait for day in woods

OUTDOORS

Hunting: For those lucky enough to secure a permit for Maryland's first bear season in 51 years, the experience is about more than the killing.

October 26, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

MOUNT NEBO - It's not all about the killing, although that's sometimes the way it ends.

No one who suited up three hours before sunrise yesterday, scarfed down breakfast and carefully picked his way through the foggy woods to a tree stand or ridgeline knew what would happen once the sky grew light and the clock struck 7:06.

Luck was with the 200 hunters who won the lottery and their partners to be in the woods for Maryland's first black bear season in 51 years. But they'd need to extend that streak if they hoped to get a bear. Regionally, the success rate is 3 to 5 percent.

Their season could boil down to two minutes, one day or wait until next year. In the case of this hunt, the kill was sufficient by day's end to persuade state officials to close it for the year.

Non-sportsmen don't always understand why hunting isn't all about the killing or fishing isn't all about the catch. But when "the moment" is preceded by painstaking weeks of scouting and silent hours of waiting in the cold or rain or snow, there has to be more to it to make it worthwhile.

Getting ready

The afternoon before the hunt, six men gather at a lodge just over the state line in West Virginia, hoping for "the moment," but content that no matter what happens, they will have stories to last them through winter and into next year.

Guide Rick Perron began laying the groundwork for his clients - businessmen and a state lawmaker - four months ago. He didn't know for certain there would be a hunt, but a good guide has to be ready to grab the opportunities.

His clients are accomplished hunters, a mix of archers and riflemen. Some have shot bears in other states, but being a part of the Maryland hunt means a little more. All hope their luck holds and they'll claim bear tag No. 0000001. But if someone in the group gets it, that's OK, too.

Jerry Knoedler of Hampstead got a permit. Office politics dictated that he offer his boss, Walt Pohlhaus, the spot allowed for a sub-permit holder. Of course, it helped that they're good hunting buddies.

Then Pohlhaus, who was on the waiting list, got a call last Monday saying he had a permit, too. He threw open the window at Skip's Auto Collision and hollered the good news to Knoedler. With each holding a permit, they had doubled the odds of taking a bear. How lucky is that?

The men chose not to bring two others with them as sub-permit holders.

Other members of Perron's party are Bruce Elkins and Dan Rein. They work for the Clorox Products Manufacturing Co. in Aberdeen.

"This is special," says Rein, the permit holder who has shot a bear in Pennsylvania. "I don't know it I'm approaching it differently, but I appreciate it more. I don't expect to shoot a bear. If I see one, I'll be tickled to death."

For Elkins, half the fun is the planning, "the talking, the getting together, the camaraderie."

The fifth hunter is John Astle, the state senator from Annapolis, who seems to have trouble deciding if getting a bear tops the pleasure of seeing the hunt come to fruition.

Astle was a founder of the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus and will be sworn in December as the first president of the National Assembly of Sportsmen's Caucuses.

"This has been a long struggle, and we've finally accomplished what we set out to do," says Astle, a former Marine helicopter pilot who flew combat missions in Vietnam.

It's plain these men are proud to be hunters. But their reasons go beyond the hunt.

"There's a symphony of sound out there," says Elkins, 54, of Baltimore, the sub-permit holder. "It's like an orchestra. You can hear the whole woods coming alive. I'm just happy to be Dan's second."

Says Astle, "It's a chance to escape. It's just you, the world around you and your thoughts."

After a quick run into Oakland for provisions, the men eat, bunk down and power nap until their pre-dawn wake-up call.

Into the woods

To begin the hunt, Perron drives his clients deep into the woods, some on Meadow Mountain, some near the dam on Deep Creek Lake. Fog clings to the trees and a light breeze rustles the leaves like tissue paper.

No one naps.

"They're too wired up for that," says Perron.

Their hopes of getting tag No. 1 are dashed just two minutes into the season, when Dave Ciekot, the outdoors writer for the Salisbury Times, shoots a juvenile female bear near Friendsville.

Ciekot and the bear arrive at the Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area at 9:21 a.m. and are swarmed by reporters.

"It walked right up the logging trail and right up under my tree," says Ciekot, grinning ear to ear. "A two-minute hunt. Lucky? I guess so."

Off to the side is Ciekot's hunting partner and the permit holder, Art Meilhammer, who watches with a mixture of pride and amusement.

"As the permit holder, I guess he wouldn't be here without me being here, so I guess I get a little credit," he says. "But I'm just as happy as I can be for him."

Out by Meadow Mountain, Knoedler is swaddled in camouflage sitting with his bow 18 feet above the ground. He's had just one wildlife sighting - a beaver - by 2:30 p.m., but still feels lucky.

By the 8 p.m. deadline, 20 bears are accounted for at the check station at Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area and the station in Allegany County. Hunters have until 4:30 today to bring their kill into the stations.

None of them appears to be from Perron's crew.

For all the unsuccessful hunters in what turned out to be the only day of the season, they can hope to get lucky with next year's lottery.

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