During the 11 years he has owned #9 Lake Outfitters in Bridgewater, Don Burnett has captured plenty of trail camera photos of monster black bears.
“I’ve seen pictures of what I thought were huge bears, 500-pound bears, but they always come in at night, midnight or 3 in the morning,” said Burnett, who owns the sporting lodge with his girlfriend and business partner, Louise Merrill. “That’s the old story. That’s how they got big: They’re smart [and avoided coming to bait sites during daylight hours, when humans might be there].”
Every now and then, he’d hear of other outfitters bagging a 500-pounder, but the largest bear one of his hunters ever shot weighed about 350 pounds, he said.
That all changed on the opening night of this year’s bear season, as two of his hunters took 500-pounders within 15 minutes of each other, while hunting in stands about 6 miles apart.
One of those hunters, Dick Harwood of Peru, New York, shot a 516-pounder, live weight, with a crossbow. Burnett thinks that’s a state crossbow record. At nearly the same time, Mike Czesnowski of Monroe, Connecticut, shot a 545-pounder with a firearm.
Harwood was assisted by guide Rick Wotton, while Czesnowski was guided by Bob Lento.
Maine’s state record bear is a 699-pounder taken by Matt Knox in 2012.
Years ago, bear guides waited until the end of legal shooting time to pick up their hunters and find out if they’d had any luck. Nowadays, things are different, and on that opening day, Burnett’s cell phone was ringing off the hook.
First, Harwood called to report that he’d shot a bear. Then, as Burnett, Wotton and Lento looked for a blood trail to track that bear, Czesnowski called.
“[Czesnowski] said he shot a bear. He didn’t elaborate or anything,” Burnett said. “He just ‘shot a bear.'”
Burnett dispatched Lento to help, and he called back a bit later, as the first group was returning to the lodge, having decided to search for that bear the next morning.
“He said, ‘Don, you’ve got to come down and look at this bear, because I don’t know how we’re gonna get it out of here,'” Burnett said.
Lento was right. This bear was a monster that couldn’t simply be dragged back to the truck.
“We went up to that bear, and I’m telling you, it was huge. It was the biggest bear I’d ever seen dead,” Burnett said. “I think I’ve seen ’em that size on camera before, but not like this.”
While Burnett had never extricated a bear of that size, he did have some experience with even bigger animals. A call to Merrill, back at the lodge, was in order.
“I told her, ‘We need all of my moose-retrieval equipment,” Burnett said.
Once they got that gear, which included a 500-foot spool of stout rope, they were able to get the bear back to the truck. A slaughterhouse in Littleton agreed to open late so that the hunters could cool the bear down and weigh it.
When the scale read 545, Burnett was in for his second surprise of the night.
“[Harwood] told us, as he’s looking at this bear, ‘Don, I hate to blow smoke, but I think my bear was equally large.'” Burnett said. “My two guides and I, we look at each other and are like, ‘Yeah, right.’ Because not many people see bears in the woods, andi it’s hard to judge the size.”
The next morning, all of the hunters in camp headed to the site of Harwood’s shot and found the bear. It turned out his judgment was correct. That bear was a monster, too.
Burnett called Merrill, and asked her to bring the moose retrieval gear. Again.
Burnett said he’d be surprised to learn of any other Maine outfitter having the good fortune of taking two 500-pound bears in one day, and said he doubts it’ll ever happen again.
Randy Cross, who helped lead the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s bear research efforts for more than 30 years before retiring in 2019, agreed.
“A small percentage of harvested bears exceed 500 pounds, so it does seem unlikely to me that this has happened much if ever,” Cross said. “I haven’t heard of it before but I haven’t heard of every odd occurrence.”
Burnett said he was happy to have two clients bag such large bears.
“You hear outfitters taking a 500-pound bear, or a 480-pounder, and you think, ‘I wish we could get one of those,'” he said.
And on one special night, #9 Lake Outfitters got two.