Shooting bear cubs in their den, killing 100 trout in a day – these Old Tales of the Maine Woods will amaze and sometimes appall you

I had been fishing for about two hours. On counting the catch, we had one hundred and thirty-seven trout.

This might be my dream fishing experience but it is not my story. Its Heber Bishop’s story, written in the Guide Book to the Megantic, Spider, and Upper Dead River Regions in 1887, and reprinted in Steve Pinkham’s amazing (and sometimes appalling) Old Tales of the Maine Woods published by Merrimak Media in 2012.

Bishop’s story continued: My heart smote me for taking so many, but we had carried them up to camp before counting them and it was too late to put any of them back then. So we did the best we could to prevent willful waste, by gutting them, building a smoke house, and giving what we did not eat that day a smoking all that afternoon, night and until noon the next day.

Mr. Bishop’s heart might have smote him, but it wasn’t uncommon in those days to catch and keep 100 fish or more. And the next morning, he tell us, before the others were up, I slipped down to the spot where I had caught all the first lot, and the first cast gave me a stunner, tipping the scales at four and one-quarter pounds. I woke the others by flapping the cold tail in their faces.

Yes, he kept the trout. And was not, apparently, smote by his heart.

Old Tales of the Maine Woods coverI am reading Pinkham’s books in reverse order. Last spring I read, and wrote about, his latest book, More Old Tales of the Maine Woods. Up next will be Mountains of Maine – Intriguing Stories Behind Their Names, Steve’s first book.

But I’ve got to tell you, I can’t get enough of these stories from the past, written by Maine hunters, anglers, guides, and hikers. Pinkham is an historian, Maine native now living in Massachusetts, and collector of more than 25,000 articles and stories of the Maine woods. I enjoyed a very interesting conversation with Steve at the Orono Sportsman’s Show in April, while gathering up his books.

In these books, Steve gives us an array of stories that are always amusing and sometimes shocking. Old Tales of the Maine Woods is particularly relevant right now, because it includes lots of bear hunting stories. How about this one?

Old Tales of the Maine Woods painting of bearWe found their trail and followed it to another den, which they had found among a pile of huge boulders. It was a hard place, and we were not certain that they had stopped there till we had cut the ice away sufficiently to get down and look into a cave about twenty feet under the flat side of a large rock. I got a long pole and punched in till I saw their eyes glisten, then I knew they were there; but we couldn’t drive them out, so we cut the ice away and I got down flat on my belly and crept in about half my length so as to let the light shine in over my head, and with my pole I punched her till I could see her eyes shine, then I took as good aim as I could and fired.

I backed out pretty soon. I fired twice before I hit her. The second time I put a large bullet in just to the left of her right eye. Then the cub curled down behind his mother so snug that I could only just see his eyes and ears, and when I stopped punching him he would be entirely out of sight. I fired three times before I killed him.

Here’s another bear tale, from a trapper.

Four years ago, I made $120 in ten days’ time trapping bears. I got four old bears and two cubs. One of the cubs was alive. On this trip I got a bear every other time I looked my traps over.

This same trapper failed to kill a bear in a trap with his gun, ran out of bullets, and clubbed the bear to death with chunk of rock maple. He also kept some cubs, raised them for a while, then sold them.

Some of the tales are brutal in the reading, for sure. And they also help us understand how far our hunting ethic and commitment to conservation have come. Of course, not in time to save the caribou, of which there are several stories, including one in which the hunter canoed up to a caribou and shot it in the lake.

Caribou are stupid, wrote John Burnham in a story that was published in Forest and Stream in 1897, and their flesh is not highly regarded as food, and it is a noteworthy fact that they are despised by many of the native hunters, who sometimes shoot them down for pure wantonness, piling up their carcasses as long as the animals are in sight or until their ammunition is exhausted.

Soooo, that’s what happened to them!

There are tales of other animals long gone too, including wolves. It’s also interesting to read about some of the unusual animals that hunters harvested.

When I got back to camp almost 4 pm, I had six partridges, three squirrels, one rabbit and the black squirrel.

Near the islands, land-locked salmon are found in plenty, of good weight and game. Vose tried them with good success, while the Professor and the rest of us gave exhibition of skill in shooting kingfishers on the wing.

Thankfully, they didn’t shoot all the kingfishers!

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.