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It's a pleasant surprise to be reminding hunters that the 2005 bear-hunting season will open Aug. 29 and run through the end of the regular deer season. Many had expected to see the end of bear hunting in Maine last year following the November referendum vote that (narrowly) kept the season, particularly baiting, in force. That's over and done and there's no need to rehash that little culture clash. Vigilance, of course, is a virtue in this case.
This year, a bear hunting permit is required (resident $28; non-resident, $68; plus agent fee in addition to a big game hunting license) when bear hunting between Aug. 29 through Oct. 28 (when the hound-hunting season - which opens Sept. 12 - comes to an end). The 2005 bear-hunting season ends Nov. 26 this year. The baiting season lasts through Sept. 24, while the bear-trapping season opens Sept. 1 and closes Oct. 31.
The term “baiting” applies to so-called set-bait hunting from a stand, blind, etc., overlooking baits or foods put out specifically to attract bears. Baiting does not include hunting over standing crops, natural or agricultural foods left from normal agricultural operations, or from natural occurrence, which may be done at any time during the bear-hunting season. Check this year's hunting regulations booklet for the nitpicky stuff you'll need to know in order to be “legal” on bears this season. There's no doubt that curious eyes of all sorts will be on the alert!
Bear baits may be set out 30 days before the opening day of the bear hunting season, which happens to mean . . . this week! Now is the time to start gathering your supplies for baiting, which is neither easy, foolproof nor guaranteed. The bears always decide how things are going to go and any experienced bear hunter will tell you that it's the things you didn't think about that come back to haunt you.
In most of the bear camps I've visited, the procedure is pretty much the same. The baits of choice are invariably breads (donuts, muffins, and other bakery items scrounged from local food stores or, in some cases, baked fresh daily in the “bakery tent” specifically for bears). Most hunters use 5-gallon plastic buckets to transport their baits, which may also include birdseed, dog food and other processed foods. This can become and expensive proposition if you have a dozen or more bait sites to tend (and most well-established guides have over 100 sites at their command). The bears won't care what you put out as long as it's plentiful and readily available. You don't want to put out a bait and then ignore the site for two weeks - the bears will seek food elsewhere and you'll lose what might have been a productive spot.
Some hunters turn the process into an obsession, using secret ingredients known only to them (well, if you want to call liquid smoke, molasses, burned honey or chocolate syrup “secret” ingredients!). They'll mix and add and sniff just like a TV chef, and they all seem to have that little hip pocket bottle of “special” stuff that's guaranteed to bring the bears in by the dozen.
The fun in setting up a bait station is deciding where to put it, where to place the stand nearby and guessing where the bear will appear. Bears do like to approach a bait into the wind with plenty of escape cover nearby (mostly so they can avoid bigger, grumpier bears), but they'll come in to any food source if they're hungry enough. The risk is that if your site is too open or too exposed they won't show up till after dark - not a good time to be shooting bears in Maine!
Also, it's not good to make the bait too easy to find and eat. Most guides use 55-gallon metal or plastic drums and put only enough bait to cover the bottom few inches of the barrel. Remember, we're not feeding bears, just trying to make them show up during daylight long enough to assess their trophy potential and make a clean shot with a gun or bow. If you put out a full drum of food the bears will just lounge around till dark, saunter in and eat till they're full - they're as lazy as any teenager with an appetite to match!
It would be easier to put out full drums of meat scraps, breads and whatnot and just check the baits every week, but if hunting bears is your goal you need to be a bit more aggressive than that. Use small amounts of bait and check them daily. Once a bear finds your bait he'll come back every day to look for more food, and that's exactly what you want. Half a 5-gallon pail of food is plenty. Then, deliver the bait at the same time each day, ideally in mid-afternoon. (Otherwise you give the bear all day to eat your offering - and he will!). When you place your bait, make noise: bang on the drum, clatter your buckets, break some branches. This lets the nearby bear know that there is activity at the bait and, being hungry, territorial and curious animals, they'll come in shortly to see what goodies might have been left behind.
To illustrate how effective this process may be, I hunted recently in an area that had never been baited before. I arrived on Saturday evening, placed baits all day Sunday, picked one of the active sites for the next day's hunt and killed my first bear (one of four I saw at that sight) at 5 p.m. on Monday! The odor of the bait set on Sunday carried far into the woods, the bears found it and they came right in. On Monday I baited the site at 3 p.m., made some noise around the bait site (no talking, just clattering and banging, just as a real bear would do when it finds and wrestles with a bait) and settled in to hunt around 4 p.m. Within the hour a nice, big boar had appeared, circled the stand, made his move on the bait and was tearing the lid off a 5-gallon bucket of molasses-soaked oats when the hunt came to an end.
By the way, the first bears into the site were a sow and two small cubs. I ignored them (sows with cubs are illegal in most states anyway), but when the big bear came along he walked right in, smacked one of the cubs about 20 feet in the air and sent the female and cubs packing. He obviously didn't intend to share any food with the likes of them!
You can start setting bait sites July 29 (does this mean summer is over?), but study the 2005 hunting regulations before proceeding. Each year things get more complicated (legally and otherwise) and it's the hunter's responsibility to know what he can, can't or shouldn't do. Contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at (207) 287-2871; or access the department's Website at http://www.state.me.us/ifw.
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