Bethlehem, Pa. — Never say never.
Just ask Lehigh County hunter, Jack Lewis, who, at 96, harvested his first-ever black bear during the special firearms season last fall.
It only took 82 years, and not for lack of trying.
Lewis, of Bethlehem, has been an avid outdoorsman since he turned 12 and hasn’t missed a season for deer, turkeys or waterfowl since then, except for two years when he served as a Navy seaman in World War II.
Bears had always been elusive, but on Oct. 21, fate put a 250-pound bruin in his path, and Lewis rose to the challenge. He has relived the experience many times since.
“We’d gone out the day before to look for does, and saw this bear cross one of the logging roads,” recalled Lewis, who was with his eldest son Jack Jr., and close friends Tom and Don Knoblach. “That got me kind of excited, but I didn’t see it again.”
Lewis decided to return to the same spot the next day, while the others went to a swampy area about half a mile away. He set his tripod chair against a massive white oak tree and settled in.
Soon enough he heard a slight sound. “It was so soft, I figured it must be a squirrel, and then 10 minutes later I heard it again,” he said. “I turned a little to the right and then a little to the left. Being 96, I have some deterioration in my neck, so I can turn my head only so far.”
At the same time, his right leg felt numb, so he stood up to stretch. “I remember saying out loud, ‘Ah, that feels good,’ but I still didn’t know a bear was there,” he said.
It was only when he turned fully around that he spotted the bruin, at most 20 yards behind him, foraging at a blown-down white oak, and pretty much hidden by foliage.
“He was walking and feeding slowly, but the brush was making it hard to see him,” Lewis recalled. “I saw a black patch here and there and a little bit of his nose. But I couldn’t get a killing shot.”
Lewis’ pulse was racing and his gun began to feel “as heavy as a refrigerator” in his hands, he recalled. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack, so I tried to calm myself down.”
The bear looked at him, and when he moved into a slight clearing, Lewis finally was able to squeeze off a shot.
“The bear flinched a little, almost like he was shrugging his shoulders,” Lewis said. “And then he took off about 75 yards and appeared to lie down. All I could see was a little black hump like the top of a pie.”
He fired again and the bear ran.
“I had no idea if I’d hit it,” he said. ”In fact, when everyone came back – they’d heard the shots – I told them I didn’t think I had, but they went down over a drop-off to look around and see if they could find it.”
Don returned and tried to console Lewis that at least he’d gotten a shot, but Jack Jr. continued to search the area.
“Within about 10 minutes, he called me on the walkie-talkie and when I asked him if he found blood he said, “No, I found your bear.”
“I dropped to my knees and said a prayer. I cried a little.”
Lewis has divvied up the meat for his large family and is having a rug made from the hide. He’s expecting information from the Pennsylvania Game Commission about the bear’s age but figures it was no older than 3 years.
Lewis harvested the bear on an 1,800-acre wooded property belonging to Russell Scott in Monroe County where he has hunted for 27 years.
“We met out West and got along and have a friendship,” said Lewis. “I had an electrical trade and did a lot of carpentry, and he always wanted to pay me.
“But I don’t take money from friends, so I said, ‘If I come on your property, can I hunt?’ And he said, ‘You’re more than welcome.’ And I’ve been hunting there ever since.”
A retired telephone company worker, Lewis credits his vibrancy as a near-centenarian with having stayed active all his life. He’s at Mass every morning at 6:30, a practice he started when he returned from war a veteran who had watched the Marines plant the flag on Iwo Jima.
Just three years ago, he took on a project of tidying the graves of hundreds of fellow veterans at four cemeteries.
“It bothered the daylights of out me to see flags and plaques knocked over, so I started fixing them,” he said. “I did more than 887 graves before I had to stop because my legs were bothering me pretty bad.”
Although people tell Lewis he’s in great shape, he said he’s not as stable as he once was and isn’t sure how many more hunting trips he can take.
“I had my knees replaced more than 20 years ago and was told at the time they’d last me about 15 years, so I’ve already exceeded the warranty,” he said. “I do a lot of duck and goose hunting now because I can sit.”
And he still has goals.
“I want to complete the big three,” he said. “I’ve taken quite a few nice bucks and turkeys but never a buck, turkey and bear in one year. I have 19 beards and I’m hoping to get another.”
As for bear, the current score, he said is “81 to 1, bears.”