On Saturday, December 10, at five in the morning, Dean Goldberg and Ken Vander May were trekking though the woods of Rockaway Township, searching for a bear to kill. They were among the 4,434 hunters issued permits for a rare six-day bear hunt—the second in 35 years—designed to “cull the herd.” Black bears had become so common in New Jersey that they had started to meander into suburbia, ransacking garbage and frightening young A.J. on an episode of The Sopranos that seemed ripped from the wildlife-control headlines. Today was the final day. “Maybe I’ll kill one, maybe I won’t,” said Goldberg. “No big deal. I mean, I’d like to kill one, sure, and I’m feeling pretty good. But you never know.”
So far, luck hadn’t been on Goldberg’s side. Although a total of 280 bears would be killed, he himself hadn’t fired a single bullet.
“Oooh, look at those tracks,” Goldberg, 39, said 40 minutes later, walking along a snow-covered path. “Those weren’t here yesterday,” Goldberg went on. “That’s a good sign—don’t you think, Ken?”
Vander May, 36, is Dean’s good friend and hunting buddy. Both are barrel-chested guys with hearty, echoing laughs. Goldberg is a real-estate developer, Vander May builds custom kitchens. The two met through their wives, women very active in a local junior league.
“I don’t know,” said Vander May. “Those tracks look a little small to me.”It was not an innocuous comment. On Monday, at the start of the hunt, Vander May shot and killed a bear that, once gutted, weighed in at 362 pounds, meaning it was about 420 pounds when alive. The kill was impressive. It made Vander May a local media sensation: photographed in the Times, interviewed on 1010 WINS, his back patted by total strangers. Vander May, suddenly, was known as the Guy Who Got the Big One. Goldberg, increasingly, felt like the Guy Who Hadn’t Got One.
And it didn’t help that Vander May, though meaning no real harm, wasn’t being exactly considerate of his buddy’s feelings. This morning, for instance, he’d boasted about the delicious “bear bolognese” he ate for dinner last night. He had a way of steering conversations back to the topic of his having so much bear meat—about 150 pounds—that his wife, Laura, had to store some at her mother’s house. Then there was the bearskin rug, the mounted bear head being prepared for him by the taxidermist, bear this, bear that. “Am I jealous of Kenny?” Goldberg asked later on in the hunt—no bears yet sighted—when Vander May was out of earshot. He was sitting on a rock bluff, shivering, snacking on an apple, reaching for his shotgun from time to time when a woodpecker or blue jay made some noise. He had been sitting in the same spot for nearly seven hours. “Well, yeah, sure. It’s competitive, you know? It’s not like I haven’t shot a bear. I have. Two years ago we had a hunt …”
But it was complicated. That bear, some of which is still in his freezer two years later, was a mere 180 pounds. “A puppy,” in hunter parlance. Killing puppies, though effective in culling herds, and not as frowned upon as a cub killing, doesn’t carry with it the same cachet among hunters as bringing down a full-size bear. “Look, how was I supposed to know how big a bear is suppose to be?” Goldberg said. “This is Jersey, you know?” The kill had made him self-conscious, and he was determined this season to go after only a substantial bear—a bear like Vander May’s. Frustratingly, however, he’d seen only three bears so far, all on Monday, two of them just puppies. They would have been easy kills, and Goldberg was still trying to convince himself that he’d done the right thing by passing them up. “Next year,” he said many times. “I’m saving it for next year.”
Hours passed. No bears. No nothing. “Damn, it’s quiet today,” Goldberg said. “Haven’t even seen a squirrel.” He’d taken several days off work and spent most of the week going out, including Friday, during which he sat alone on this very rock bluff for seven hours during a snowstorm, one of a handful of hunters out that day.
“Oh, man, was that awful,” he said, shaking his head. “My misery index was at 110, easy.” Today was more forgiving, but at five, when the sky started to darken, the reality began to sink in: No bear would be killed.
Vander May stood up and started walking back to his house. “Wait,” said Goldberg. “It’s still light out.”
“I’m cold,” said Vander May. “There’s always next year.”
“Right,” said Goldberg. “Next year.”