Pennsylvania camp finds formula for bear-hunting success

LITITZ, Pa. — Thanksgiving eve four years ago, there were so many cars stopping at the Dennis E. Hess farm on Clay Road outside Lititz that a neighbor thought someone had died.

There was no wake. But there were 10 black bears hanging from a pole hoisted on a skid loader in the barnyard.

The same sight repeated itself this past Thanksgiving. The six Hess boys and 17 other hunters from the Muddy Creek Camp had had another banner year at their Lycoming County hunt camp in the Black Forest area.

There aren’t records on such things, but killing 10 bears from a single hunt camp with 23-25 hunters is highly unusual for the four-day gun season. Let alone twice in four years.

“The first time it happened, we said it would never happen again,” says Cory Hess, one of six Hess family members of the camp.

Roughly one in 50 bear hunters in Pennsylvania this past season took a bear. At the Muddy Creek Camp, it was nearly one in two and the ratio could have been even better if two bears that were shot and tracked hadn’t gotten away and another hunter hadn’t missed his shot.

In the snarky world of social media, the eyebrow-raising hauls from the hunt camp within four years of each other caused some to suspect the camp of baiting or other illegal hunting.

But the secret to the Muddy Creek Camp’s uncommon success is fairly simple. They know the Tiadaghton State Forest mountains where there are robust acorn crops, a main bear food source. They know the location of thick tangles of cover made up of mountain laurel and rhododendron.

And, perhaps most importantly, they use old-fashioned drives orchestrated with military precision.

“We work for them, that’s why we are so successful,” says Dennis Hess, 64, who has been part of the camp for 45 years. “We go into that thick stuff and kick them out. We learn from those before us, and when we see something work we incorporate it into the drives.”

The hunters have been disciples of the efficiency of drives from the very beginning when their forefathers won a 100-year lease for the camp with a coin flip in 1932.

For a long time, drives were the backbone of the camp hunters for deer. But when the deer population plummeted, drives for bears during the four-day gun season became the main focus of fall hunting.

When done right, thorough drives to flush a mountain’s bears is a lot of work and needs a commitment from two dozen hunters. And so it is with the Muddy Creek crew. Their drives always contain at least 20 hunters and ideally the 25 maximum allowed by law.

They divide into teams composed of drivers, standers and flankers, each with a purpose and responsibility.

At first light, they will begin driving the contours of a mountain, about half its width at a time. They are out all day and may pile up 7 miles of tough walking in a single day.

The cover may be so thick they can’t even see each other and have to holler to keep everyone moving more or less in a line.

They have never had an accident.

“We spend as much time setting up drives as we do driving,” says Dean Hess, 56, of Lititz.

The hunters focus on three mountains near their camp. “That’s why we are so successful, because the mountains that we deal with, we know them better,” adds Kevin Hess, 37, of Manheim.

Marvels Scott Rehm, 58, of East Lampeter Township, who has hunted with the group for 30 years: “They are 25 guys working together to achieve a common goal. There is no comparison between going on a paid hunt, whether it’s Wyoming or Canada, versus those four days of bear season in northern Pennsylvania.”

The Muddy Creek Camp drives bears in rain, snow or vagaries of the weather. One time, the hunters did not go out on the opening morning of deer season because the temperature was minus-18. Dennis Hess got so stir crazy after that lost day inside the cabin that he went outside the next morning and heated the thermometer with a candle until it showed zero to convince everyone to hunt.

What do they do with all that bear meat?

This year’s bounty was converted by Zimmerman’s Custom Butchering to 581 packs of 1-pound bear sticks and 60 pounds of roasts and tenderloin divided among all participating hunters.

The camp’s local success provides the most notoriety since John Zerbe shot a nearly 13-year-old bear with an estimated live weight of 632 pounds in 1997. The standing mount of the bear now greets visitors to the Hotel Manor in Slate Run.

Their camp is modest because they spend most of their time in the mountains. There is no running water. There is an outhouse.

The camp does not skimp on meals, however. For more than 25 years, two cooks from Zinn’s Diner were hired to prepare meals in camp, from potpie from scratch to smoked brisket. The cabin is now looking for new cooks.

The camp’s modest furnishings are testament to what is important at a hunt camp.

“You have beds to sleep in and chairs to sit around the fireplace,” Rehm said. “At the end of the day, you just need your health and good people to have fun with.”

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