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Maine's 2006 bear-hunting season is only two weeks away now, and serious hunters and guides have been setting out fresh baits for nearly that long. The heat and humidity has not been favorable, however, and most of the hunters I'm hearing from have reported few, if any, visits by hungry bears. Natural foods are, of course, abundant at this time of year, but the animals will begin gorging in earnest next month as they work to build up a good layer of fat before they enter their winter dens.
It's interesting to hear what's going on in the woods in various places, bears or not. One hunter told me he thought he had “a big one” coming in right from the start of the pre-baiting season. He'd put out a 5-gallon bucket of fresh oats and pastries mixed with honey and molasses (sounds like a breakfast bar!), and every day the food was gone! The key to a good bait is to keep the bear coming back, so the hunter dutifully returned each day to replenish the supply of goodies.
After about 10 days of this the hunter decided to set up a trail-cam, a remote-control unit that works night and day and would record any visitors to the site. Well, there were four pictures on the camera the second day out, and the hunter was excited to see how big his bear was. To his surprise, the “bear” turned out to be two stray (perhaps feral) dogs - big, scary, ugly dogs, but dogs nonetheless! In most cases dogs will not intimidate a mature bear, especially when it comes to free food, but a cub or yearling may find the canine competition daunting.
Another hunter told me that his bait of choice was “donut holes,” and he, too, was finding his baits scattered all around the site. One afternoon he decided to sit in the nearby tree stand and wait for the bear to come in, but once again the assumption was awry - instead of a big, fat black bear, the donut burglar turned out to be a family of raccoons.
One hunter set up an old brine barrel (used to make pickles) and reported that it had been chewed through and drained - obviously the work of a large, determined bear. Well, the truth can be prickly sometimes - the culprit turned out to be a giant porcupine, which managed to gnaw through half of a plastic pickle drum between sunset and sunrise the next day!
Those who think bear baiting is too easy, guaranteed or unsporting, may want to accompany some of these guys on their baiting rounds. I think after carrying two 5-gallon pails of bait into a site every day for two weeks only to find you've been feeding vermin, birds and varmints the entire time would be enough to change at least some of your perceptions about bear baiting.
It's rarely discussed anymore between baiting and dog hunting, but when the bear season opens Aug. 28 it will also be legal to hunt bruins over “natural” foods. Back in the '70s, before the great baiting craze began, it was common for hunters to stake out a wild apple orchard, a cornfield or a cherry stand and wait for bears to come in. I have had some hair-raising (and amusing) moments while sitting in a quiet orchard hoping a bear might come by. One year I heard a bear come in to a loaded yellow transparent tree and begin feeding on apples that were already on the ground. The bear was burping and slurping the entire time, but the apple saplings beneath the tree were so thick I could not see the animal. Around dark the bear started working his way up the tree, and though I could see branches moving and apples falling all around, I could not get a shot at him.
Meanwhile, the bear fed like a starving woodsman, shoveling in apples by the pawful and making some truly hideous noises all the while. Put it this way - the apples were going out of the bear as fast as they were going in! He really reminded me of a kid I used to know - always ate with gusto and most of it ended up on his face! What's funny is that I watched that bear eat for about two hours but could not get a shot at him - I never saw enough of him to justify taking aim, and so I sat in one tree, listening, while he sat in the other, gorging on the sweet, yellow apples.
Perhaps even more exciting is hunting over an uncut cornfield. As a rule, cornfields are not particularly intimidating, but imagine the same field just at dusk, with a light wind blowing (just enough to make the leaves rustle and clatter at every gust) and then realize that, somewhere in that tangle is two, three or maybe five bears, all noisily tearing down stalks and devouring whole ears of corn as fast as they can shuck them. Remember, hunting must end one-half hour after sunset, and that's about the time you realize that you're in the middle of a cornfield, you're far from the road, and you're surrounded by hungry bears that, at that moment at least, don't know you're there!
It's normal for hunters to be stealthy, silent and secretive, but when it's time to leave a bear stand, I make all the noise I can, including talking to myself! The rule in bear encounters is to let the animal know you are there and allow it to make a dignified exit. The rule doesn't suggest catering to the dignity of the hunter, and decorum is not the bigger issue, anyway. Most days I bring a tin cup for making tea, and when it's time to go I make sure that cup is clanking loudly as I walk out of the woods. I have never been attacked by a bear or know anyone who has (well, except that one time, but that was a wounded bear!) so the odds of confrontation are minimal at best. Still, it's always a good policy to respect your quarry.
As cooler temperatures move in, consider a bear hunt this fall. No matter what happens, you'll be talking about it for years to come - and it's far more exciting than watching another episode of Jeopardy!
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