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Taking hint from my own enthusiastic chatter about the joys of bear hunting, I had a chance to get out there and do it just a few days ago. The stage was set for a great hunt: The hot weather had passed, the rains had subsided and cooler weather pushed in, finally making it seem like hunting season and not a day at the beach!
I hunted with a local fellow who prefers to remain anonymous just because he doesn’t want any undue attention to his operation, his baits or his bears. Bear hunting has become a secretive business since the popularity (and productivity) of bait hunting went through the roof about 25 years ago. Back in the mid-1970s bait hunting was a novelty, but now it’s a business that generates many hundreds of thousands of dollars for guides, outfitters, small businesses (motels and restaurants) and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (through permit and license sales). Some 70 percent of the bears taken in Maine these days fall to bait hunters, and if recent bear population numbers are even close, it’s likely that there will be a call for longer seasons, increased limits or even (could it be?) a return to spring bear hunting!
I pondered all this as I sat in my climbing stand 20 feet in the air and 17 yards from a heady mix of maple syrup, donuts, molasses, bacon grease and a dollop of brown sugar. Every baiter with more than two bait buckets to his name has his own secret recipe for luring bears into range, and the options range from rotting meat (not so hot) to dog food, donuts, candy and even raw sugar. I’ve seen some strange concoctions offered to bears over the years, and every hunter I know considers his baits to be the best of all. Sometimes, they are right!
The common trend is for the hunter to slip into his stand or blind around 3 p.m. while the guide dishes up his mix of sweets, meats and other treats for the bears. The stuff may be hung from a limb, dumped into a 55-gallon drum with a small (bear head-sized) hole cut into it, or sealed in a 5-gallon bucket with a small hole cut into it to make the bear spend more time licking and digging at the mess, at some point offering the patiently waiting hunter a shot.
Now, the average person might think, “Well, that’s not very challenging. The bear comes in, eats the donuts and is shot. Where’s the sport in that?” Hah! Well spoken by, as usual, one who has never been there.
The variables are infinite and most favor the bears. A bear could ignore the bait or come into the bait after dark, leaving the hunter no opportunity for a shot. Raccoons, porcupines, squirrels or crows could get into the bait and make it look like a bear’s been there. A bear could come to the bait during daylight hours when the hunters are lounging around camp (which often happens when guides mistakenly replenish the baits in the morning rather than just as the hunter enters his blind for the afternoon hunt). Or, a sow with cubs could be coming to the bait (we don’t shoot them) or a cub or yearling bear could be eating the bait (we don’t normally shoot them, either). Coyotes, dogs and other non-target animals can also come in and take over a bait site. So, it’s easy to imagine the odds of a big, old boar showing up at any given bait in shooting light while the hunter is there. It happens just often enough so that guides, hunters and taxidermists are kept interesting, enthused and in business, but, 100-percent success is a rare thing indeed.
Bears don’t just walk into a bait site and bury their faces in a pile of donuts. Instead, they float in like nervous ghosts, looking and listening and running at the least sign of danger. Many a hunter has lost his chance at a bear because something clicked, clacked, swished, clanged or thumped just as he was about to shoot. I had a bear run away once just because I had rubbed the sleeve of my mosquito-proof vest against my rifle stock! Somehow the bear heard the soft brush of fabric on wood and disappeared before I could get my scope on him. Big, wild bears don’t miss a trick and they take no chances. One mistake (a movement, a sound, an errant breeze carrying your scent to them) and it’s over for the night.
The only excitement on my three-day hunt took place on the afternoon of the second day. I’d spent the better part of two hours in my climbing stand just staring at the bait and watching chickadees and squirrels enjoy the immense donut pile the guide had left for them. There was a lot of movement around the barrel but suddenly I noticed two big, black, furry feet in the darkening firs behind the barrel. I quickly raised my crossbow and got ready to shoot, but when the “big” furry critter came out of the woods I had to laugh. It was a cub bear no bigger than a poodle. Legal game no doubt, but not on my bucket list. The little bear walked boldly over to the barrel, climbed in and began rocking back and forth till the barrel tipped over. For a moment the cub looked like a bobsled driver, both paws on the lip of the hole and his chin down on the opening.
For 30 minutes I watched him roll the barrel around, eat donuts, lick blue frosting off the trees and otherwise enjoy the free meal. I had no intention of shooting him, so I just sat back and enjoyed the show.
That, it turned out, was my hunt, for no other bears came in during my stay. Am I going bear hunting again? Of course! The pleasure in hunting never was in the killing – it’s in having hunted in the first place. That little cub gave me something I’ll long remember, and I’d never have seen it had I stayed at home watching TV. I can’t wait to see what happens next time!
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