TOWNSEND -- "It's fun, isn't it?"

Heads nodded and sounds of agreement were heard as Leigh Blakely described his close encounters with bears during a hunting trip in Maine.

Four days spent in a tree blind with bears milling around under him, mere feet away, and he never had a clear shot. The last day of the hunt, now in a ground blind, he waited for a clear shot on one of the smaller bears in front of him.

Only a few minutes remained in the hunting day as he took aim at one of the lightweight bruins. It took a moment for the hunter to realize the heavy breathing he was hearing was not his own. A much larger bear was at his side, inches away, visible through a small space in the branches covering the blind.

Too close to shoot, Blakely waited until the bear moved about 10 yards off, stood, and killed it. There was maybe two minutes left to legally shoot on this, the last day of his hunt. He got his shot.

"It's not about killing," the instructor said during a Basic Hunter Education class at the Townsend Rod and Gun Club during the week of April 15. The course is required to purchase a hunting license if the hunter has not taken the class or held a license in another state, Canadian province or Mexican state.

During the three-day course, a team of instructors reviewed safety, legal, ethical and practical information for hunters.

The most important rule to remember? Treat every firearm as though it is loaded.

Laws govern how to transport guns and carry them when not in use and common sense plays a big role. When looking at objects in the distance, use binoculars, not the scope on a rifle. You could be pointing a loaded gun at something or someone.

One of the course's take-aways was that the laws and ethics of hunting help preserve land and species for the future. Some of the funds raised through selling the licenses and permits are used to purchase and conserve open land.

Careful management of wildlife and its habitat, with hunting as part of that management, keeps animal populations healthy and in balance with the environment. For example, in one area of the state, the deer population has skyrocketed. It is very easy to get permits to hunt there, said Scott Amati, Massachusetts Environmental Police Officer.

There are "tons" of rules and regulations governing what can and cannot be done, and there is a good chance a scofflaw might not be caught, Amati said. But, if "we catch you, it's not a pretty sight," he said, "It's called hunting, not killing."

The majority of people who take the course are men, but the number of women taking the course has risen steadily over the last five years or so, Blakely said. Also, quite a few parents and children take the course.

Two of the younger members of the class received a perfect score on the test. Michaela Trieloff, 12, of Littleton, plans on hunting with her father, Carl, who also already has a hunting license.

Eamon Doheny, 12, of Lunenburg, also received one of the four perfect scores. He plans on turkey hunting later this spring with his father, Brian, who took his first hunter safety course in 1980.

The older Doheny was proud of his son's perfect score but also a little chagrined. Because he was sitting there anyway, he decided to take the test. Dad only got a 98.