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Today is the opening day of Maine’s 2010 black bear hunting season, a unique event on a variety of fronts. Our healthy, growing bear population allows us to have not only one of the earliest opening dates in the U.S. (in Pennsylvania, for example, bear hunting doesn’t begin until Thanksgiving week!), but we also allow bear hunting with hounds and over bait, practices that are long lost traditions in most other states. In spite of all this “pressure,” Maine’s bear numbers are stable if not growing, and hunters take around 2,500 bruins annually (in a season that doesn’t end till late November). Compare that to Pennsylvania’s 3,000-bear harvest – in just a three-day season!
The reason we can get away with longer seasons and more variety in methods (including trapping), is that Maine’s bears are smaller (so hunters often pass up several bears in hopes of crossing paths with a trophy-sized animal, especially true of hound and bait hunters) and our typical bear habitat is so thick and forbidding that bears come and go without being seen. I have been close enough to bears to hear them breathing and yet I could not see enough of them for a killing shot.
Because hunting over bait has become so popular over the last 30 years (and productive – some 70 percent of the annual bear kill is attributed to bait hunting), many hunters have forgotten that there are other ways to get that bear rug for the den floor.
For example, back in the ‘70s, when spring bear hunting was still legal, it was an easy task to go out and spear a dozen big, fat suckers out of a remote brook and feed the bears that way. Spring bruins are hungry and aggressive, and once you get them used to stopping by for a snack of fresh fish each morning, you can all but start measuring the wall for that trophy mount.
Yet another forgotten method for hunting black bears is hunting over natural foods, such as apples, black cherries, corn, oats and other farm crops. Ask any beekeeper what it’s like to have a black bear raiding his hives! The bear will eat the beeswax, honey and even the bees themselves – it’s all good! I’ve watched bears (too small to shoot) raid a wild bee tree. They actually do get stung during the process, and they’ll whine and complain the entire time, but that doesn’t stop them. One yearling bear I saw dove right into the tree and was upside down in the hive for some time. When he came out he was covered with combs and honey, plus about 1,000 bees that were doing their best to get even. The bear’s eye was swollen shut from so many stings but he kept right on gorging.
Anyone who’s hunted in or near apple orchards in early fall will attest to seeing bears, bear tracks, bear claw marks in the trees or the “apple pie” droppings of bears that have been taking advantage of nature’s bounty. Look closer and you’ll see a bird’s nest of broken limbs and branches where bears have spent the night groping for the last of the apples. A single bear can eat all the apples on a tree in one night, and he’ll come back night after night until the orchard is wiped clean. They love the smaller, sweeter varieties and, for some reason, ignore the larger, blander fruits. It could be that there’s less nutritional value in the bigger apples, or maybe the bears just don’t like the flavor. I have tried those leftover apples and don’t care for them. They seem to have little flavor with a very punky texture. Not even the birds will eat them, and over the winter they just shrivel up and rot off the tree. You’d think in a world of few choices the animals would eventually give in and eat the things, but that’s not the case.
For a truly hair-raising experience, situate yourself at the far edge of a large, uncut corn field and wait it out till dark. Bears love field corn and will knock over acres of stalks in their quest for the best ears. Walking through a cornfield after the bears have been through it is an education in itself. It looks as if a 4-wheeler had been through it, with rows of stalks pushed right to the ground. The bears will straddle a row and just walk and eat as they go, stripping every ear off every stalk. Multiply this by several bears over several nights and you can imagine why farmers apply for crop damage permits. Bears can denude several acres of corn in a few days’ work, and if the farmer isn’t able to get the crop into the silo soon enough, the bears will eat every bit of it!
But, that’s not the fun part. If you pick a good stand near an active corner of a cornfield, consider that you are going to be out there at dusk, far from the road, with hungry bears coming in and no way out but right through them! It is one of life’s more interesting conundrums: the hunter rules in daylight, but the night belongs to the bears. It takes quite a bit of fortitude to come down out of a tree stand or exit a blind knowing that several large black bears are tearing the corn to pieces just a few yards away – and you can’t see them. Not only that, but they don’t know you are there, which can create some interesting images in the back of your mind as you walk along the edge of the corn.
It’s best to go quietly and quickly under such circumstances, but I have had two bears stop eating and “huff” at me as I passed – not a sound one is likely to forget very quickly. Just thinking about it sends a fresh chill up my spine. If you’ve ever wondered what’s so exciting about bear hunting, spend an evening guarding an apple orchard or corn field. It’s guaranteed to change your perspective!
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