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  Today is the opening day of Maine’s 2019 black bear hunting season. Most of the attention on bears is focused on baiting, which also opens today, but there are plenty of other ways to bring home some tasty bear meat and a nice, silky hide for the den or living room.
    Truth be told, most of the bears I’ve killed (since taking my first Maine bruin in 1961) were over bait, but not the kind that comes in buckets, barrels and bottles. Starting around 1961 “bear hunting” in Maine meant either chasing them with hounds (an experience well worth the price) or staking out natural foods such as apples, cherries, corn, blueberries, blackberries, wheat fields, apiaries or other farm-based sites where calves, pigs and other livestock (meaning bear prey) might be found. Bears also fill up on beech nuts, acorns, mountain ash and other common natural foods, which only add to the mystery of where the bears are and where they will be a week or two down the road. 
    There is something to be said about the pleasures of hunting bears under natural conditions. You have to do a great deal of scouting to find where the bears have been congregating to feed, knowing that most of the activity takes place at night and that sooner or later when one source of food runs out and another kicks in. Bears may work a cornfield or orchard for several days and then move miles away to a new spot, leaving the hunter a very short window of opportunity.
    Finding a place where bears are active is one thing. Getting into and out of that place (usually in mid-afternoon till dark) undetected is another. Hunters must be constantly cognizant of wind direction, moving as often as necessary to keep their scent from spoiling their hotspot. Hungry bears are tolerant of all sorts of annoyances (heat, rain, bees, etc.) but they do not enjoy the sight, sound or odor of hunters. One glimpse or one whiff and they are gone, simple as that, and in most cases you’ll never know there was a bear within a mile.
    When all goes as planned you should be able to observe bears coming and going to preferred food sources throughout the late afternoon hours and, at times during the early morning period. Apples, corn and other foods that are generally abundant and easy to reach top the list of bear forage in August and September. Find a secluded stand of black cherry trees and you will not be able to count the number of bears that come and go over the course of an afternoon. Of course, the majority of bears you see in any situation will likely be sows, cubs and yearlings, but if you sit tight and wait long enough you’ll see a big, mature boar in the mix.
    One might think that adding a bit of extra bait (those donuts, pastries and meat scraps we hear so much about), but in my experience when bears are focused on, let’s say, apples, they’ll walk right past a bucket full of baked goods to get to it.
    In fact, when baiting began to catch on during the 1980s and 1990s I noticed that most of my prepared sites would be ignored if there were corn, bee hives, apples or wild fruits available. Guides today tell me that they have the same problem during the baiting season when natural foods lure the animals away from their bait buckets and barrels. If I knew of a secluded apple orchard or cornfield existed I’d forget about the bucket brigade and spend my time where the bears want to be. There are no guarantees, of course (it’s a big world out there) but when you are in the right place at the right time some amazing things can happen.
    For a unique outdoor experience I’d recommend that novice hunters try bear hunting with hounds. There are plenty of guides in Maine who know how to find and run bears in early fall and some of them are quite proud of their “100-percent success” rates. Hound hunting is a wild and crazy sport from start to finish but if you have the urge to tag a bear the way Teddy Roosevelt did it, hound hunting is the way to go.
    Expect long days, long hours of inaction and brief periods of outright craziness, all punctuated by elusive bears, frantic hounds and enthusiastic guides, all bellowing at once in cover so thick you can’t see your hands in front of your face. At this point you (the shooter) must go in and down the bear with one shot, avoiding the guides, the dogs and other hunters in the meantime. Talk about exciting!
    Those who are concerned about the size of the bear they shoot will love hound hunting because in most cases a hunt will end with the bear backed into some trees or even up among their branches (hence the term, “treed”). The guides will pull the dogs away and leash them, then discuss whether or not the bear is big enough to shoot. If not, everyone simply walks away and the bear is free to go. Perhaps tomorrow’s hunt will produce a bigger, more desirable specimen.
    Hound hunting is certainly the more active, exciting, interesting and amusing method of bear hunting compared to sitting in a tree all afternoon hoping to see a bear coming in to the bait, but keep in mind that bait hunters account for 70 percent of Maine’s total annual kill. 
    Sizing a bear in low light at 25 yards when everything seems black and round (the trees, the bait barrel and the bear) can be a challenge. If the bear can walk into the barrel without touching he’s a cub and not worth shooting, but if the bear’s head won’t fit into the opening he’s a shooter!

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