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Today is the official opening day of Maine’s 2011 black bear hunting season. I’m sure you’ve noticed more than the usual number of muddy pickup trucks, camo-clad sportsmen and last-minute raiders of the local donut shop in recent weeks. All of this ties into the baiting season for bears, which also opens today. Hunters have been busily tending secret bait sites where a wide variety of sweets, breads and bakery leftovers have been placed to entice a bear close enough to a tree stand or blind to offer a clean shot for archers, gun and crossbow hunters.
It’s my guess that those who are against baiting for bears have never tried it. The fact that 70 percent of the annual bear kill is taken by bait hunters suggests that the method is easy, fool-proof and guaranteed to produce a bear. If only! Last year, for example, I hunted a total of three weeks over bait and saw one cub bear the entire time. I was actually laughing about it because those who are against baiting seem to think that bears come running in to dive into a pile of donuts, giving the hunter an easy shot. Not sporting? Sit in a tree stand for three weeks feeding hordes of hungry mosquitoes and you may come away with a different viewpoint.
I hunted in Canada (over bait) earlier this spring and saw one gigantic bruin in 10 days of hunting. The bad news is that he came in head-on (not a good shot) and went directly away when he left (also not a good shot) so my “bag” after 10 days was empty. Same thing happened last fall in Newfoundland. Bait hunting is not a guaranteed method of producing a bear hide for the den!
Starting today, more hunters will find that baiting bears is neither perfect nor guaranteed. Even if pre-season bait sites have been hit by roaming bruins, the change in procedures (from mere baiting to the presence of a hunter in a stand) could cause the bears to visit the sites during the hours of darkness or, worse, to avoid them.
Most hunters, of course, yearn for the perfect bait site that has big bears coming in every day, but such sites are probably less than 10 percent of all the baits that are out there right now. Even active sites can be disappointing if they are being visited only by sows with cubs, yearlings or “ordinary” bears that don’t qualify as trophy-sized.
Adding to the challenge is that hunters must be prepared to sit in a stand or blind near the bait for six hours or more. They must not move or make any noise or the bears will be alerted, and they must put up with all sorts of aggravating insects – mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, moose flies, etc.
There are all kinds of insect remedies out there, from plain old fly dope to propane-based repellents, but nothing repels all the flies all of the time. The real challenge comes near dusk, prime time for the arrival of a hungry black bear. The hunter has been on stand for hours, the bugs are driving him crazy and darkness is setting in. A bear could be just yards away, waiting and watching, and the hunter has no choice but to remain quiet and endure whatever the bugs dish out.
Of course, when darkness comes and the hunt must end, the hunter has to exit the stand or blind knowing that there could be a big, aggressive bear nearby – and the hunter is between him and the bait!
Sitting still is part of the game, but hunters must also decide if the bear that comes in to the bait site is the one they want to shoot. The bag limit is one bear, period, and most hunters prefer to shoot the biggest bear they can find. When a sow with cubs or a yearling bear comes into the bait and sticks around for an hour or two, the hunter can’t do much but enjoy the show while he waits for “the big one” to show up.
The good thing about having a small bear at the bait site is that he will let the hunter know if a more dominant bruin is nearby. Smaller bears (and females with cubs) are constantly on the alert for bigger intruders. If a lesser bear is feeding contentedly but then suddenly looks up and runs, it’s almost guaranteed that a larger bear is nearby. “Almost” leaves some room for variation, however. I’ve seen the same reaction in small bears when a moose, coyote or porcupine happened to wander by. In most cases a spooked bear will not come back to a bait site for some time, possibly not till after dark, and once again the hunter loses out.
The bears truly hold all the cards when it comes to hunting over bait. Most bears will come to a bait site after dark, but some will show up just after dawn, at noon or well before sunset. This gives the hunter a window of 12 hours or more. Mathematically, the odds for success are best if the hunter gets into his stand before daylight and sits there till dark. This may be the best way to kill a bear if it’s obvious that the animals are coming to the bait some time during the day. Sitting in a cramped tree stand from dawn till dark is not easy, but if the desire to tag a bear is strong enough it can be done. Add a little rain, some wind and even more bugs and you can easily imagine how much fun hunting over bait can be.
By now I’m sure only the truly dedicated bear hunters are still with me, and that’s good. I’ll be out there, too, rain or shine, and if the bait is right, the bears are cooperative and I can stand the bugs and boredom, I will be rewarded for my efforts.
If not, well, isn’t that why they call it “hunting?”
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