This final day of August signals the start of the 2015 bear hunting season. There has been a great deal of attention given to baiting of bears, which was approved for the second time in 10 years by voters in a referendum vote last fall that, we hope, won’t need to be repeated. So much attention was focused on baits for bears that most folks forgot that there are other, old-fashioned ways to hunt bruins in Maine that are still legal, effective and enjoyable from a hunter’s point of view, at least.
Among hunting techniques baiting is actually a relatively recent development, catching on in the 1980s and all but taking over the sport of bear hunting in the U.S. and Canada. Before donuts, cooking grease and burned honey became all the rage hunters would still-hunt or stalk their quarry or, as was most often the case, stake out an apple orchard, corn field, stand of mountain ash or choke cherries and hope to intercept a bear coming in to gorge itself in the waning hours of daylight. The bigger the food source the more bears that would come, and at times a ripening cornfield would look as if it had been hit by a raging herd of bull-dozers.
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s I spent many a fall evening sitting near such natural food sources and nearly always observed some sort of bear activity. Listening to a group of hungry bears laying waste to a corn field or apple orchard can be a thrilling experience, especially when the animals are just a few yards away but, in the dwindling light, all but invisible through the cornstalks and brushy saplings. On many occasions I could hear the heavy, huffing sound of bears breathing just yards away, and the ripping and tearing of stalks as the animals lay waste to the ears of corn that had just begun to ripen. The noise of several bears working a cornfield can be deafening, but even worse is the sound of all those bears suddenly stopping their gluttony to listen for danger. Knowing there are bears in the corn on high alert can be hair-raising to say the least, and then when legal shooting time ends and one has to exit a field he knows is full of bears . . . well, talk about looking over your shoulder!
I spent a lot of time in those days hunting near small apple orchards and lone apple trees that were long-forgotten remnants of old central-Maine homesteads. Thick brush bordered these secluded sites which meant the bears would simply show up like ghosts, unseen and unheard despite the twigs and leaves that littered the forest floor. A bear’s foot is wide, flat and soft, and they have four of them, making it easy for these animals to move through the woods without making a sound. “Plantigrade” is the scientific term for it, and most people who encounter bears in the woods remark on how quietly the animal came and went.
After standing silently beneath the tree for a few moments (or as long as an hour) the bear will climb to the top and begin feeding on the just-ripened fruit. There’s nothing delicate or refined about their technique; a bear in an apple tree is about as tentative as a potato harvester. He’ll reach as far out as he can and rake as many apples into his mouth as will fit, and he’ll continue foraging like this until every apple on the tree is gone. Branches will be broken, limbs will be snapped and many apples will fall to the ground in the process, but before he leaves the animal will have found and eaten every one. An apple tree that has been visited by bears will look like a gigantic bird’s nest, tangled and broken limbs dangling everywhere.
A bear “processes” his apples almost as fast as he eats them, so in short order the ground below is littered with apple “pies” that provide mute evidence that a bear has been there. The bigger the “pie,” of course, the bigger the bear, so hunters will examine the sign and try to find where the biggest bears have been feeding and proceed accordingly. One may only tag one bear in Maine per year and no one wants to shoot a cub, so a careful examination of the existing sign is crucial to a good hunt.
Also, bears that climb trees (apple, ash, cherry and beech) will leave obvious claw marks in the bark. When those scratches are three or more inches apart it’s a sure bet that the bear that left them is a big one and well worth waiting for. When those big claw marks appear five or six feet off the ground you can be sure you’re onto one big bear!
The challenge in “free-range” bear hunting is in finding current food sources (which change almost weekly during the season), evaluating the size of bears that are coming in to feed and then deciding where to sit and wait for them to show up, taking wind and weather conditions into account as well. Bears are furtive, suspicious and cautious animals and don’t forgive mistakes well. If they see, smell or hear anything unusual they simply disappear, often for days at a time. It takes plenty of patience, determination and skill to fool a wild bear over wild foods but it can be done.
By the way, “natural foods” can include just about anything a bear will eat, which means . . . just about anything! Bee hives are a favorite September target for hungry bears, and it’s a sure thing that anyone who raises pigs is going to have a bruin visit the pen before long. Beech nuts, acorns, wheat and rye crops, corn . . . if it’s edible and growing naturally (i.e., unfenced) bears are likely to pay a visit this month.
To hunt black bears in September and October Maine resident hunters must possess a bear hunting permit ($27) in addition to a hunting license that allows hunting of big game or an archery license for hunters 16 years of age or older. No permit is required to hunt black bears once the regular firearms deer season opens (Oct. 31 for residents only, Nov. 2 for all hunters).
Maine’s 2015 black bear hunting season is officially open. There’s no better time to go than right now!