Tom Long, a hunting guide here in the Blue Ridge foothills, knows there are three things a hunter must master before he can stalk a bear.
That's right, dung. To find a bear in these lonely woods, a hunter must be able to "read" a bear's droppings and determine what it's eating. Long can do it without even leaving the seat of his all-terrain vehicle.
"That's berries," he said, passing an informative pile one morning recently.
It's not a pretty thing. But it's an essential part of bear hunting, an old and difficult backwoods pastime that's resurging on the East Coast.
These skills, which include tracking a bear's habits through subtle signs in the forest, will be in demand tomorrow in Maryland, when the state opens its first bear hunting season in 51 years.
To first-timers in Maryland, bear hunting experts such as Long offered a warning: It could be a long and frustrating hunt. And if you don't know dung, good luck.
"The more time spent in the woods, the more chances you're going to have," Long said.
The Maryland hunt will begin about 6:30 a.m. tomorrow in the state's two westernmost counties, Garrett and Allegany. State officials have said the aim is to slow the growth of the bear population by killing 30 of Maryland's estimated 500 bears.
To some in western Maryland, it seems likely that the 30 bears will be killed quickly. There will be 450 to 500 hunters in the woods, and the bears won't be expecting them; they're so unbothered by humans now that they raid bird feeders and garbage cans.
"The local people know . . . already where the most bears are," said Mark Andrew, an employee at Bill's Outdoor Center in Oakland, Md.
But many bear experts are not so sure. They believe that Maryland's bear hunters will not be nearly as successful as duck hunters, who almost always score a kill, or deer hunters, who succeed more than half the time.
Instead, only 3 percent to 5 percent of the bear hunters will kill one of their quarry, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources predicts.
The reason is that a bear is rarer than a deer and more clever than a duck. Experts say catching one requires knowing the forest almost like the animal does.
"Really, woodsmanship is what it comes down to: understanding how the whole ecosystem really works," said Harry Spiker, the department's chief bear biologist.
To start with: The bear won't come to you. Other animals can be "called" by hunters, such as a curious buck drawn by the sound of a hunter banging antlers.
It is possible to call a bear, but it requires a hunter to grunt in a way that mimics a male bear looking for a rival or to squeal like a dying rabbit. And that means attracting a 400-pound beast ready to rumble.
"These bears are going to attack" when they arrive, Long said. "So it's not a real good idea."
Other states allow hunters to set out bait, like stale cupcakes, honey or bacon grease. Maryland does not.
So hunters will need to find bears on their home turf. Experts say that requires a respect for a bear's incredible sense of smell.
Richard Deslauriers, a bear guide from McLennan, Alberta, said he has seen a bear several hundred yards away stand up, sniff the air, then take off running when it gets a whiff of a human.
"If they smell you, that's it. They know exactly what it is, and they're gone," Deslauriers said.
To combat this, hunters must try to stay downwind of a bear and do anything they can to smell like the forest.
And that does mean anything: Hunters stuff their shoes with pine branches, splash on store-bought fox urine, even buy clothes made with charcoal liners to absorb their smells.
Even then, most experts advise, stay in a hunting blind and don't move.
"If you're on the ground, you're licked," said Wayne Bosowicz, a bear guide from Sebec, Maine.
Before the hunt, bear hunting experts said, it's necessary to spend time scouting the woods. They look for claw marks on trees, dug-up ground and trampled leaves that might mark a trail used by bears.
In Maryland, hunters have been doing this for several weeks, said Steve Huettner of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association. Huettner, the association's past president, said he has heard of hunters going out several times a week to look for trails and feeding spots.
One of these hunters is Tom Kuzsma, a mental-health worker from Bel Air, Md., north of Baltimore. Kuzsma said that one day last week, he drove the 4 1/2 hours each way to Garrett County and spent eight hours in the woods.
He found evidence of a bear trail through thick brush, where he hoped to shoot a bear when it returned in early morning from a night of feeding.
"I think the chances are good to get an opportunity to see a bear during the week," Kuzsma said. "I'm hopeful, anyway."
Kuzsma said one of his best clues was the dung he found near trails, which indicated that the bears might be eating in nearby berry patches.
Good strategy, "if you're not too squeamish," said Michael Mroczynski, a guide from Girdwood, Alaska.
Depending on what they find, hunters might seek out a nearby oak grove or berry patch and wait for the bear to return and eat.
"It's just like people. Setting up at McDonald's would be a pretty good place to catch them, wouldn't it?" said Calvin Schrock, a Garrett County resident whom the state calls on to chase down problem bears with a pack of dogs.
Still, even experienced woodsmen have their limits. Long said he usually will not go so far as to actually touch the stuff.
"I just stand there and look at it," he said.
"Too much information sometimes is a bad thing."