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Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine

Hound hunting black bear in northern Maine, equipped with a Winchester Repeating Arms XPR Stealth SR in .350 Legend and a Leupold VX-5HD 3-15x44mm riflescope, turned out to be a test of skill, stamina and gear.

Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine

(Photo by Mark Fingar)

Since the summer at Boy Scout camp, when I learned to shoot a .22 bolt-action and achieve three-shot groups that could be covered with a quarter, I’ve considered myself a rifleman. Years later, as a U.S. Army Cavalry Scout, I honed my skills to “Expert” level using iron-sighted Colt­ and FN M4 carbines. I came to appreciate the advantages in speed and precision offered by magnified optics and illuminated reticles through the lenses of Aimpoint’s CompM2 and Trijicon’s ACOG. Now, with more than a decade afield as a firearms editor, I’ve had the opportunity to test my riflecraft on targets and game the world over.

Firearms, ammunition and optical sights continue to improve, but the fundamentals of marksmanship remain the same. They are no less essential to the African Professional Hunter than to the designated marksman or scout in search of a merit badge. Under ideal conditions, when mastered and applied, the fundamentals all but ensure ballistic success. In reality, the conditions are almost never ideal. If the target is a living one, its actions get a vote in the outcome. The rifleman has to contend with the environment and terrain, as well as his or her own skill, mental state and physical ability.

Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine
(Photo by Nathan Robinson)

The hardest part of setting up a shot is often just the getting there. I am an avid elk hunter who loves hoofing after bulls in big country. I’ve also got a few safaris under my belt; once you leave the bakkie, all bets are off. However, none of that experience prepared me for one of the most challenging hunts of my career: Hound hunting black bear in northern Maine.

Getting There

Bear has never been high on my to-do list, at least compared to western spot-and-stalk hunts or upland bird hunting. But, when our friends at Winchester, Winchester Repeating Arms and Leupold invited me to attempt a Maine trifecta — black bear, goose and muskie — I knew that it was the time to notch my first bear tag. The plan was to assemble in Presque Isle, Maine, and drive a couple hours to Eagle Lake, the base of operations for OMM Outfitters who would be our guides and hosts for the week.


Aided by rustic directions, we navigated the largely unmarked roads of Maine’s northern forest. “Take the first left past the broke-down black truck,” we were told. It was not just the lack of cell service that seemed to transport us back in time; greeting us were original cabins sited on the edge of Eagle Lake. In fact, the structures date back to the 1890s. At that time, the area was a waterfront camp, a sporting getaway for New York magnates such as Theodore Roosevelt. Today, members of the Cabela family are counted among the regulars, as well as sportsmen from around the world in pursuit of moose and black bear. The serenity is undeniable. Our side of Eagle Lake, opposite, or “across” as the guides would say, from a small hamlet by the same name, revealed no other inhabitants. There was just virgin water and gently rolling timberland that stretched out to the horizon. The appeal of Henry David Thoreau’s wilderness was obvious, “spruce and cedar on its shore … a solitary loon, like a more living wave — a vital spot on the lake’s surface.”


Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine
(Photo by Brad Fitzpatrick)

Tools of the Trade

Though our group could have passed a week without complaint by simply fishing from the camp’s pier and rocking in a shoreside hammock, we came with a goal. While the muskie and geese may not have cooperated, the bear hunting gave us more adventure than we could have hoped for.

For context, Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reports annual harvests of close to 4,000 black bears, which is necessary to maintain a healthy population. There are two primary methods for hunting bears in Maine: stands over bait or dogs. The former, relies a lot on luck. Bait hunting is greatly affected by how plentiful natural food sources are in the area. Using dogs depends a great deal on the skill and drive of the houndsman and his pack.

Our group of hunters came prepared for either method.

We were well equipped. I hunted with Winchester Repeating Arms’ XPR Stealth SR in .350 Legend. Winchester introduced the XPR in 2015 as a more affordable stablemate to the Model 70, and the Stealth SR was a new configuration introduced in 2021. It is the most compact rendition of the XPR to date. The synthetic stock and short, 161/2-inch barrel make it a perfect companion for tough hunting in dense country. Even for sportsmen working in more open environments, the suppressor-ready Stealth SR would be a capable and handy rifle, offering a relatively short overall length even with a can installed. The two-position safety with bolt-release lever, cocking indicator, and robust three-lug bolt all provide safety and surety when in use.




Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine
(Photo by Brad Fitzpatrick)

This trip was also my first opportunity to hunt with the still-new .350 Legend cartridge. Guns & Ammo has reported extensively on the .350 Legend cartridge, so I will simply mention that I was hunting with the 160-grain Power Max Bonded load, which uses a protected hollowpoint bullet. Knowing that shot distances were likely going to fall between 50 and ­100 yards, I was confident that the .350 would pack plenty of punch. I also liked the idea of having a bonded bullet with greater penetration potential than a traditional cup-and-core projectile. At the camp’s zeroing bench, the load produced three-shot groups around 1 inch at 100 yards. That’s more than enough accuracy given shot distances in the field would likely be shorter.

Completing the rifle was Leupold’s VX-5HD 3-15x44mm riflescope. Mine had a FireDot Duplex illuminated reticle ($1,100, leupold.com). Perhaps it was a tad too much glass given the cartridge’s capabilities, likely shot distance and thickly forested terrain, but the scope did offer excellent clarity and light transmission; this was invaluable during those last few minutes of the day. The FireDot Duplex reticle with adjustable brightness was also a must for me; plain black crosshairs would never stand out against the black bear’s dark coat of hair.

Of Hounds and Houndsmen

Although I prepared for a week in the stand, diligent and successful hunting by North Carolina native and visiting houndsman Rob Romm early in the week left a seat open for members of our group to do some hunting with dogs along with Ken Mayo, an OMM guide. My experience working gun dogs was limited to waterfowl blinds and upland fields, so I was eager, if also anxious, for a taste of the action.

Recommended


Bear hunting is a pastime that must date back to the earliest days of man. It can be a dangerous venture, but it was necessary for both sustenance and protection. Equally as ancient is the dog’s role in a man’s life. Since the first wolves were domesticated, the role of the dog was as a fellow hunter and companion. Today, there exists a community of houndsmen that live a life intimately connected to their dogs, but who also understand the innate survival instinct that predicates all hunting.

Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine
The handling qualities and performance capabilities of the Winchester XPR Stealth SR rifle in .350 Legend with a Leupold VX-5HD 3-15X scope and FireDot reticle proved suited for black bear hunting in dense forest. (Photos by Mark Fingar)

Speaking with Romm, it was clear that he is a modern and well-educated man who is pursuing an archaic trade. His thick beard belies his youth, while his clothes and heavy accent disguise his professionalism and worldliness. Romm’s eyes revealed a focus rivaled only by the hounds in his pack, and there was no end to his knowledge on breeds, bloodlines and desirable traits for individual animals. I had no idea there was such a library dedicated to bear dogs, but it seemed he could cite chapter and verse from a dozen books on the subject.

What Romm took most pride in, though, was the makeup of his kennel. He had cold-nose dogs that could run on just the shadow of scent trail. His hot-nose dogs could follow recent tracks, and had the stamina to chase and hold their quarry at bay. The most important characteristic, and the trait he wanted in every dog, was grit. In Romm’s estimation, grit was measured by a dog’s ability and willingness to do their job, especially when it means tangling with the bears. Bears are tough and smart; they have the ability to kill a dog with a single swipe. Each of Romm’s dogs wore scars from previous close encounters. To earn their master’s esteem, the dogs would enter the fray of fur and claw to fulfill their responsibility, whether tracking or treeing, in order to make the hunt a success.

Prior to this experience, I’d really only known dogs as companions and have only seen their gentler hunting and retrieving capabilities. Hunting bears with Romm and his hounds gave me an understanding of their primal and noble heritage, more visceral though it may be. I now have a better appreciation for the depth of the dog’s instincts, drive and trust in man. Hunters such as Romm can articulate the bond, its history and meaning far better than I. The best I can offer is that I was moved by the combination of excitement, fear, pride, frustration and love that characterized the experience. Also, joy. Pure joy radiated from every dog loosed into the chase.

Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine
(Photo by Mark Fingar)

The Meaning of “Tough”

The hunt began with checking game cameras at bait sites. Finding a good-size bear had visited one of the sites several hours prior, the decision was made to drop a couple of cold-nose tracking dogs in hopes that they would pick up a scent. One dog named “Goodnight” had a nose that Romm was particularly proud of and the stamina to track for hours on end. Sure enough, Goodnight was on the trail immediately. In less than a half-hour’s time, Goodnight had found a bear and jumped it up and out of its resting place. Our chase was on.

With the bear located and dogs on its heels, the next phase of the hunt was to intercept the chase, or at least get close, in order to release more dogs in hopes of getting the bear to tree or bay up. The looping path that the bear chose in its attempt to shake its pursuers made our job as hunters more difficult.We tracked the dogs on a map that plotted their movement, thanks to GPS collars. Eventually, we found a likely ambush spot and sent in the cavalry. Adding four dogs to the scrum, we had reached our limit of six dogs in the field, per Maine’s regulations. Unfortunately, and to everyone’s surprise, the dogs did not pack up. Instead, we’d unknowingly released the dogs nearly on top of a second bear. One chase had just become two.

With more than a little excitement, and some consternation, Romm and Mayo called over to another houndsman and guide-hunter team that OMM Outfitters had nearby to handoff the original bear that was still being trailed by Goodnight. He didn’t like leaving dogs in the wind, but he was also excited that his dogs were responsible for sniffing out multiple bears for the camp. Ultimately, though, we were closer to the second bear and more dogs were engaged. This provided us with a greater chance of getting it treed — and tree it did. Unfortunately, the bear chose an absolutely massive red oak in the middle of some of the thickest woods I have ever seen.

Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine
(Photo by Mark Fingar)

With the first few hundred yards being a tough scramble over debris from earlier timber operations, the GPS showed that we plowed through more than a mile-and-a-half of woods to reach the bear. We were a mile from the nearest road as the crow flies. On the trek, I was joined by Mayo, our guide and navigator, as well as G&A’s Brad Fitzpatrick and my editorial colleague from Game & Fish magazine, John Taranto. Romm stayed at the command center in the truck to track and quarterback the simultaneous chases.

The challenge of hiking through the northeastern forest, as I learned, is that the trees grow very close together. Every branch below the canopy reaches out to poke an eye or snag a coat. Meanwhile, the ground is spongey and covered by moss and decaying logs. The floor gives way underfoot and allows the soft earth to grab a leg or trap a boot. Most unexpected, though, was the eerie silence. Moss, lichen and damp wood absorb sound. In most places on Earth, four hounds barking could be heard for miles, but GPS was necessary to navigate. The dogs’ throaty howls only became audible within about 100 yards.

Some 20 yards from the tree, Mayo pointed through a small break in the dense foliage to show me the black-bodied boar at least 40-feet up. Among the din of the pack, he and Fitzpatrick began pulling the dogs back from the tree in case the bear chose fight over flight. Meanwhile, I urgently sought a better vantage point or a sturdy trunk to rest against. I was desperate to improve my shooting position, but had no luck. I quickly realized that this opportunity would be taken through a narrow window at a steep upward angle, unsupported.

Ideally, a head shot would kill the bear instantly and prevent a dangerous chase through thick cover to confront a wounded boar. However, no head was visible and as the last dog was tied back I could see the bear tensing and shifting, as if it was considering a rush to escape. The time to shoot was now. I set my stance and, with fur in the scope, I followed the visible shoulder with the illuminated red reticle and moved it up towards its concealed head. I paused at the bottom of my breath and began to squeeze the rifle’s trigger.

The first shot to the neck was fatal, but not instantly so. Well hit, the bear began slipping down the trunk. I fired twice more and hit center mass. Three killing shots were fired, each one necessary to ensure the safety of the dogs below and hunters alike. The boar laid dead.

Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine
(Photo by Mark Fingar)

At 230 pounds, my first black bear was about 100 pounds heavier than the average Maine harvest. It was no mean feat to get him out, either. The grueling slog in and out from the road had to be repeated; once to get the dogs out and watered, and again to cut and carry out the bear. The total mileage trekked was nowhere near my longest, nor was the shot distance, which was no more than 25 or 30 yards. Yet, both stand out as among the toughest of my career.

We returned with heavy packs and tired legs. As Romm inspected the dogs for scratches or wounds — there were none — he lauded them with praise and affection. I couldn’t help but feel the swell of pride. I’m still not sure that bear hunting is for me, but as I learned from this experience in Maine’s woods, it can challenge you. It tests skill, stamina, gear, and your companions. This time, though, from the hounds to the houndsman, and the outfitter to the rifleman, we’d all played a role and earned the faith placed in each other. This time, we had all shown enough grit.

Winchester XPR Stealth SR Specifications

  • Type: bolt action
  • Cartridge: .350 Legend (tested)
  • Capacity: 3 rds.
  • Barrel: 16.5 in., 1:16 twist, 5⁄8-24 thread
  • Overall Length: 36.5 in.
  • Weight: 6 lbs., 8 oz.
  • Stock: Composite, green
  • Trigger: 3 lbs., 12 oz.; adjustable
  • Sights: None; drilled and tapped
  • MSRP: $690
  • Importer: Winchester repeating Arms, 800-333-3288, WinchesterGuns.com
Hunting Black Bear with Winchester and Leupold in Northern Maine
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