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It may be hard to imagine but another Maine hunting season is fast approaching. In fact, the hard-won bear-baiting season opens Aug. 29, and that means you can begin setting up bait stations in less than two weeks (30 days before the season opens)!
You may think, “Well, there's plenty of time for that,” but things get a little more complicated when you factor in the latest rules and regulations governing baiting. Long gone are the days when you could (legally) leave a pile of meat scraps, fish or apples in a secluded corner of the woods and call it good. These days, baits must be placed at least 50 yards from any travel way that is accessible by a conventional 2-wheel or 4-wheel drive vehicle. The stand, blind, or bait area must be plainly labeled with a 2-inch by 4-inch tag with the name and address of the baiter. The person hunting from any stand or blind set up by another person must have permission of the owner of that stand or blind.
Also, baits must be placed more than 500 yards from an occupied dwelling, unless written the owner or lessee grants permission. The bait must be placed more than 500 yards from any solid waste disposal site or campground. And, baits may not be placed more than 30 days before the opening day of the season and not after October 31. In addition, baited areas must be cleaned up by Nov. 10 as defined by the state litter laws.
A permit is required from the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, at (207) 287-3821, to place bait on Public Reserved Land for the purpose of hunting bears. Baiting of any animals is prohibited on state parks and historic sites.
A permit is also required by the White Mountain National Forest for the purpose of placing bear baits on national forest lands. Contact the Evans Notch Visitor Center in Bethel, Maine at (207) 824-2134 for information.
If you plan to hunt bears on paper company lands there are additional rules (and fees) that apply. Obviously, this whole business of bear baiting can be complicated. Of course, the reason for all this regulation is that baiting for bears has become the most popular and productive (as well as profitable) method for taking bears in Maine. Some 70 percent of the annual bear kill is attributed to baiting, which essentially takes advantage of the animal's need to pile on body fat for the long winter ahead. A starving bear that enters its den in mid-October in poor condition probably won't survive till spring, which is why bears start showing up all over the state near apple orchards, bee hives, dump sites, backyard bird feeders and . . . hunters' bait stations. They need to pack on the fat in a hurry or else!
Now, most folks imagine that you can just throw a box of stale donuts on the ground, sit back and shoot a bear, and it may happen just that way once in a while, but the truth is that the baiting process is a little more unpredictable than that. I have seen hunters put out two-dozen similar baits at various sites, yet only one or two sites have bears visiting them on a regular basis. Some sites are “hot,” others are stone cold - same bait, same area, same setup. This is why most outfitters place several baits over a wide area: if even half of the baits are being hit the season is considered to be a success.
Also, bait ingredients do matter (to the bears, at least). I hunted recently with a guide, new to the business, who thought, as most folks do, that bears will be attracted to meat scraps, bones and similar items. Well, that's true as far as it goes, but bears do not like rotten meats. Sure, they'll eat offal and garbage if there's nothing else around, but it's not their first choice. This guy had gone as far as nailing beaver carcasses to nearby trees, and after several weeks of hanging the stench was overwhelming! My first thought was, “No bear is going to come into this trash.” The bait was untouched for the five days I was there, and only after I insisted that we clean up the site, re-bait with fresh foods and fire up a honey burn (which I'll explain shortly) did the bears start to come in.
Baiting is not a cheap enterprise, not if you do it properly. Good, fresh baits aren't free, and you must replenish them daily, especially if the bears are coming in regularly. A good starter bait is a 5-gallon bucket filled with a mix of oats, dog food, donuts or similar bready sweets, molasses and/or honey. Place the bait in a log “pen” or secured metal or plastic barrel that forces the bear to enter the site broadside to the stand, which should be placed 25 yards or so downwind of the bait.
To help attract bears from a distance, most guides use liquid smoke, molasses or a “honey burn.” Simply place an inch or so of raw honey in an empty tin can. Light a few charcoals inside a larger can and, when the coals are glowing, place the honey can inside. The charcoal will bring the honey to a boil, the sweet smoke will permeate the air and any bear in the area will be sure to find it.
Obviously, if you are setting out three, five or a dozen such baits (within the regulations noted above and with baits a few miles apart so you're not feeding the same bear at every station), the process can become a major chore! You'll be driving, baiting, re-baiting and, hopefully, repairing torn-up bait stations as the bruins home in on your offerings. None of this guarantees you a bear (there could be sows with cubs, small yearlings or cagey old males that don't show up till after dark), but, as the annual success rates show, the majority of Maine's 2,000-plus black bears are taken using baits.
Give baiting a try this year (the fun starts in just a few days!), or accompany a bear hunter on his baiting rounds. I guarantee that you'll come away with a whole new understanding of the sport . . . a good thing to have should the issue ever come up for a vote again!
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