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McKean County camp sets standard for bear hunters

| Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010

There are two things you need to know about the guys who make up the R.C. Luce Bear Camp in McKean County.

First, they like to have a good time, even if it comes at each other's expense.

Just ask Jeff Puschnigg. He gets teased constantly about his annual taxidermy bill and, in a camp where everyone lives on eggs, sausage and baked beans, about his, well, smells. Scott "Scooter" Piper can tell you the first one to fall asleep or pass out often wakes up with a face covered in "war paint" delivered via a Sharpie. Roy Henry can say that taking on a decades-younger high school "wrassler" will leave you with a bloody nose.

Secondly — and most importantly — they know how to bag Pennsylvania black bears.

The campers, all of whom hail from the Stahlstown area, took four bears this fall.

That's impressive enough in a state where only about 2 percent of the nearly 150,000 bear hunters get an animal in any particular year, and many go years without so much as seeing a bear in season. But it only tells a small part of the story.

The camp has taken 102 bears — with rifles, slug guns, pistols and bows — in its 30-year existence.

And things are only getting better. It took 20 years — from the camp's founding in 1981 to 2000 — to hit the 51-bear plateau. It took the past 10 years to double that.

"That's a tribute to knowing what you're doing and the bear population just exploding," said Henry.

"What I always tell guys is that the good old days of bear hunting are right now," added Bill Hunter, who founded the camp and took its first bear. "There are a lot more bears now than there used to be. A lot more."

It's no accident the camp is so successful at taking them. Its hunters work at it.

They spend all three days of the season on public land timber cuts, posting and driving. This year, Piper — who got teased for looking as if he was under "house arrest" because of the ankle bracelet-style pedometer he was wearing — measured the distance the drivers walked at 32 miles.

"Sometimes, we have to walk two miles back in just to get to the cut because they're behind gates," said Puschnigg. "We push all day until dark, then we have to walk back out."

"There are no lunch breaks either," said Dan Pochciol, whose 14-year-old son, Daniel, was one of those to bag a bear this year. "We eat on the run or at best in the trucks moving from one cut to another."

The woods they walk are not easy either. They hunt only fresh cuts, those less than eight or 10 years old, because they have the hellaciously thick cover bears prefer.

"If you're not bleeding when you come out the other side, it's not thick enough," Hunter said.

It works for them, though. Just twice in the past 30 years has the camp gotten skunked. There were two years when the camp took eight bears and two when it took seven.

"When we pull into the check station, the game wardens recognize us and just ask, 'How many have you got?' We show them and tell them we'll see them again the next day," said Dan Hunter.

They've had so much success that their focus now is on helping junior hunters. Three of the four hunters who took bears this year were kids — boys and girls — as were three last year.

"A lot of the guys who started out at camp now have kids coming up," said Hank "Chief Ten Bears" Balles, who's killed that many. "It's all about helping them now."

And of course having fun.

"We work hard," Henry said. "But we have a good time."

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