The baits are out, the hunters are in the woods and just like that Maine’s 2016 black bear hunting season is underway. Bait hunters were allowed to establish their sites a month ago and by now have figured out, with the help of trail cameras, which sites are being visited by the biggest bears. It becomes a game of wait and see from now on because as the days get shorter (and cooler) the bears become increasingly nocturnal, which means the older, preferred bears will not show up at the bait till after sunset, leaving hunters a mere 30 minutes to observe, decide and take the shot.
Much of the talk about bear hunting revolves around baiting which, truthfully, results in about 70 percent of the annual bear kill, but there was a time when baiting was not allowed and hunters had no other choice but to develop a strategy of still-hunting (wandering the woods in slow motion hoping to spot a bear – an iffy exercise at best) or using natural foods (cornfields, apple orchards, wheat fields, blueberry barrens and assorted other crops) as ambush sites – also not very effective, hence the immense popularity of the dog food and donut technique.
I have hunted bears using all of these methods and have to say that staking out an apple orchard or cornfield is by far the most exciting method. Certainly sitting over artificial baits produces bears and I’ve shot many a bruin doing so, but the “artificial” aspect loses its luster for me very quickly. Buckets, barrels, donuts and beaver carcasses are among the last things one would ever see in the woods were it not for bear hunting, and while I am happy to let other hunters try their luck that way I would rather in a place surrounded by natural foods or farm crops and not really know from which direction or where the bear is going to show.
You have not lived until you have sat on a rock or stump near a ripe cornfield and, just at dark, hear the ominous crunch and crash of bears approaching from somewhere within the field. At dusk such noises carry far and wide and it’s only when the bear is 20 yards away do you realize it’s actually “right there.” Yowza! Consider that now it’s near dark, the corn is thick and noisy, all those leaves and stalks rasping against each other and then the bear decides to stop, look and listen – for 20 minutes or so.
It’s dense, it’s dark and you have to make a decision. There’s nothing to measure the bear by, there’s no telling where he went after the noise stopped and you have 10 minutes of legal shooting time left. As they say in Texas, this is a real “Boy howdy!” moment.
Truth be told, it’s quite difficult to sort the bears from the corn after the sun goes down and too often the hunt ends with a stalemate – no bear is seen and the hunter has to leave the cornfield without being attacked by an imaginary herd of bears. Extremely large cornfields may attract two or three sows with cubs, plus a few yearlings and maybe a beast of a boar or two, but in most small fields there’s one family group or one old male lurking nearby. Either way it’s a hair-raising experience to walk out of the woods in the dark knowing there are hungry bears just a few yards away.
My preference is to hunt near an apple orchard where there are at least a few early-ripening Golden Transparents included in the mix. Visibility among the apple trees is generally much better than in a cornfield, although many old, overgrown orchards are as thick, if not thicker because anything resembling rows has long since grown into briars, goldenrod and saplings. Generally, a bear will come in and eat all the apples that have fallen to the ground before he climbs the tree and starts to work on the more difficult fruit. Once he gets up there he is sure to make a fine mess of the tree by creating a “nest” of broken branches, from which he can gobble up all of the ripe apples within reach.
This makes it a bit easier to judge the size of the bear because he’s up off the ground and slightly more exposed, but remember that all of this excitement occurs just as the sun is going down and there’s often only a few minutes of legal shooting time remaining when the bear finally pokes his head out of the leafy tree top.
If I were able to write my own successful bear-hunting scenario I would start with a hillside filled with mature black cherry trees, all about 18 inches thick with top limbs peppered with ripe cherries. With minimal undergrowth to obscure the bear and tall, straight trunks reaching 30 feet or more in the air it’s an easy task to see the animal, judge and decide whether or not to take the shot. If cubs are in the company of a sow they will stick out like bumps on a log (literally!) and can provide some great entertainment while I wait for a shooter bear to appear.
I’ve actually hunted a cherry “orchard” like that but only once in the last 50 years. It was on an old, overgrown homestead in Orneville which has long since been logged and the cherry trees turned into someone’s kitchen cabinets or dining room furniture. The hillside is in regrowth now but it will be long into the future before the trees are tall, productive and sturdy enough to attract bears.
The point is that it’s not necessary to lug tons of sweet pastries into the woods along with barrels, buckets and tree stands in order to shoot a Maine black bear. Scout for natural foods (mountain ash will be a favorite soon), watch for bear activity and be on hand when a big bruin shows up to feed.
With luck and woodsmanship anyone can harvest a bear the old-fashioned way. Imagine that!