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Hot and humid as it may be, it’s already time to start thinking about the upcoming bear hunting season, which opens Sept. 25 this year. Why it matters now is because hunters can begin establishing bait sites 30 days prior, which means consumption of donuts, bread, pastries, candy, caramel, maple syrup, honey and anything else that’s sweet and sticky will skyrocket for the next two months.
There is great debate this year about baiting for bears and bear hunting in general, with most of the questions and concerns coming from people who have never tried it. I urge everyone who plans to vote on the bear referendum in November to find a bear hunter who uses bait and follow him (every day) for the next 60 days. I am sure you’ll come away enlightened, surprised and with a new appreciation for those who hunt bears “the easy way.”
For starters, you need to find suitable sites where bears will be inclined to come into and sample the bait. There are no baits on front lawns, in back yards or anywhere else that’s simple and convenient. Bears are not fond of attention or intrusions, so a good bait site must be remote, generally close to water or swampy cover and far enough from roads and trails to allow them the privacy they demand. Wild Maine black bears are neither toys nor pets and they do not tolerate humans well.
You may have to drive 20 miles to find a suitable bait site, and here’s more news: You many need 10, 20 or even 100 sites (if you are a guide) to keep enough bears coming in often enough to provide a productive hunt. Not every site will be visited by bears; in fact some will never attract a bear and many will bring bears in after dark, when they may not be hunted. So, now you’re down to a select few sites that will be productive, but because no one but the bears know which sites they prefer all of your sites must be visited daily, replenished with bait and rebuilt because hungry bears have a habit of tearing things apart to get what they want (ask any beekeeper what his hives look like after a bear has stopped in for a meal).
Each site must have a bait container large enough contain a day’s supply of bait along with 5-gallon buckets of “teaser” scents that may include cake frosting, honey, maple syrup, melted candy (Charleston Chews are popular with Maine bears) and other attractants such as Liquid Smoke, barbecue sauce and other “loud” (meaning odiferous) condiments that might catch a passing bear’s attention. None of these items are free. Everything must be purchased, hauled in, mixed and set up to a bear’s satisfaction – and you must maintain your sites every day! Are we having fun so far?
This 30 days of the pre-baiting period is designed to give hunters time to decide which baits are being hit by bears most often, how large the bears are (using trail cameras that, alas, are not free, either!), plus tracks, scat and other sign the hungry bears leave behind. With luck and a good local bear population each hunter should end up with about 20 percent of his sites being hit regularly. In areas where bears are not as abundant (Maine is not covered up with bears but there are bears in every county) the pre-hunt success rate may be 10 percent or less. Still, one must establish as many sites as possible and keep them well stocked with bait in order to determine, prior to opening day, which of them has the greatest potential. Remember, hunters do not want to attract cubs, sows, sows with cubs or even yearling bears, yet those are the bears that are most likely to find and take possession of a given bait site. Somewhere in all this the hunter must decide which site has the largest bears coming in during legal hunting hours (one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset) . . . and THEN we are almost ready to hunt!
The majority of today’s bear hunters who use bait must also build or buy a tree stand that is 15 feet or more above the bait and close enough for an archer (25 yards) or firearms hunter (100 yards) to see, observe, evaluate and hopefully shoot the bear. When many bears are using a bait the hunter can sit in his stand all day and not see “the one” he wants to shoot. Most often the biggest bears come to the bait at the very end of the day, but the hunter still must be in his stand well before the bears begin to show up or he risks spooking them all. One suspicious bear is all it takes to clear a site for the day, and I again urge anyone who’s never done it to sit in a tiny tree stand for 8 hours with nothing to keep you company but mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies and the occasional red squirrel. If you can’t sit still and shut up for that long you probably are not suited to be a bear hunter!
Even with all the work, expense and manipulation that’s required to establish a bait site for bears there is no guarantee that a bear will come to the bait when you want him to. Alas, “bait” can include acorns, apples, blueberries, mountain ash and a wide variety of natural foods that happen to be at the peak of abundance in September! When wild forage is available most bears opt for the “organic” stuff, which means they will ignore your carefully-established bait site for a week, or more, till they clean up what nature has provided them. I have hunted in bear camps in northern Maine where 15 or more hunters saw no bears in a week even though the same baits had been torn to shreds the week before.
It is true that hunters using bait tag more bears than their counterparts using dogs, still-hunters or random deer hunters may encounter, but it should be known that not every bait produces a bear and, despite all the work, expense and effort involved many, many bait hunters go home empty-handed.
But, it’s always worth a try, and that’s why we call it “hunting,” not getting. Try it this season and you’re bound to come away with an entirely different point of view!
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