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There is plenty of controversy over the upcoming black bear referendum scheduled for November, and it may well be that, next year, there will be no need to discuss bears, the bear season or tactics that will work during the first few days of the annual hunt.
For now, however, it’s “bear season as usual” in Maine. In most camps the plan is to hunt over bait because, since the method caught on here a decade or so ago, the technique has produced about 70 percent of the annual bear harvest. The logic is simple enough: The bears will be entering their dens in late October or November, and they will spend every possible moment between now and then stuffing themselves with whatever foods, natural or otherwise, they can find.
Omnivores of the highest order, bears will eat everything from plants to caribou (ever wonder why the last great caribou experiment didn’t work? Bears ate them!). They feast on whatever foods are most plentiful and available, and at this time of year it’s almost a race between one food group and the next as the animals roam to take advantage of fruit, nut, crop and honey stocks as they occur. Things start to become interesting (from a hunter’s point of view) when the year’s first berry crops (raspberries) give way to blueberries, apples, beech nuts and acorns. You can practically follow the local bear population from food source to food source by simply noting which foods ripen first. If agricultural crops are available (notably corn), you’ll begin to find fields with many rows mangled and torn as the bears move in to feast on the endless supply of ripening ears.
I have been between cornfields when the bears were in, and have often had the eerie experience of knowing there were bears actively feeding all around the dark! It’s unnerving to say the least to be walking along a grassy path after dark with snapping stalks and the rattle and crash of feasting bears filling your ears. Even worse is when you break a twig or stumble into some dry cornstalks and all the noise STOPS! Sometimes, the bears will be so frightened of the intrusion that they begin running away through the corn, which sounds amazingly like a bunch of bears running toward you! The game is not as much fun as it sounds when you’re trying to get out of the woods and leave the corn to the bears. Man has the upper hand in most situations, especially with a gun or bow in hand, but in the dark, in the corn, with bears all around, the odds are slightly skewed in the bears’ favor.
I have not been attacked by bears, nor have I truthfully thought I was being attacked – but knowing that black bears have killed more humans than grizzly bears, and having seen what a fairly small black bear can do to a large, healthy, capable man, I can say that it’s a definite relief to finally get back to the car or camp at the end of the day.
Even back before artificial baiting was the rule, I took advantage of the opportunities that natural foods had to offer. I found one of my favorite bear-hunting areas by mistake one day when I was out scouting for deer prior to the September bow season. I had just finished looking over a hilltop apple orchard in Atkinson that was always good for bird and deer hunting in the fall, and decided to take a shortcut back to the truck that led me down an unfamiliar side of the hill along an ancient stone wall that, prior to that day, I didn’t even know existed.
Even more surprising was the discovery of a long, uneven row of black cherry trees that grew in and among the stones. Some of those trees were nearly 18 inches through, a big cherry tree for that part of Maine in those days. These were tall, thin trees laden with fruit, but what caught my attention was a sudden movement in the top of one of the taller trees. I thought it was a raccoon at first because the animal was small and quite high in the tree, but on closer examination I realized that it was a bear – a small cub of about 30 pounds or so.
I had no interest in killing such a small bruin, but I was intrigued with its presence there at that particular time. It was only mid-afternoon, quite early for bears to be out, but this was a protected hillside with little exposure to hunters. I actually lived in that area and even I hadn’t found the time or need to go there. I started to look around a little more closely and noticed broken branches on the ground, scratches on the limbs and deep gouges in the trunks of the trees; all sign that bears were (and had been) coming in to feed on the cherries.
Of course, cherry season is short, just as the apple, blueberry and beechnut seasons are fleeting, so I knew I had to act quickly. I started hunting that row of trees every day for the next week or so and finally killed a nice bear there late one afternoon as it came in to feed on the last of the cherries.
I have also killed bears (or come close) in apple orchards, cornfields, berry patches and apiaries (the college word for bee hives). The trick is to keep an eye on bear activity in the area, know when the “bait” is at its ripest and plan to be there every evening until the opportunity passes. You may not kill a bear every season, but you will have some interesting encounters to tell about!
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