|Today is the first day of Maine's new-era bear baiting season. For the record, a bear-hunting permit is required (resident $28; non-resident, $68; plus agent fee) in addition to a hunting license when hunting bears from Aug. 29 through Oct. 28. See the 2005 hunting regulations booklet for other recent changes.
Baiting is the term applied to so-called "set bait" hunting from stands, blinds, etc. overlooking bait or food purposely placed to attract bears. The definition does not apply to hunting over standing crops, food left from normal agricultural operations, or from natural occurrence, which may be done at any time during the bear hunting season.
Bear baits may be set out 30 days before the opening day of bear hunting season, so first-day hunters have actually been preparing their sites for weeks now. The general strategy is to place several baits, monitor their use by bears and be on stand at the most active site on opening day.
Some 75 to 80 percent of Maine's black bear harvest is taken by bait hunters, proof enough that the technique works. The remainder falls to hound hunters, trappers (who take a very few bears each year) and deer hunters who happen to bump into a bruin later in the fall. Also for the record, Maine biologists have kept a close eye on the state's bear population for 30 years and think the bear population is growing even as the annual harvest creeps up well past the 2,000 mark each season. Maine is great bear country and it just keeps getting better all the time!
It happens that we live in one of the better areas for bears in the state. Our combination of forests, active and reverting farmlands is the ideal recipe for bear productivity. In fact, more and bigger bears are taken from central Maine each year than in any other part of the state. (Which also holds true for deer hunting.)
Establishing artificial bait sites is the trend in any state where baiting is legal, but the law also provides for hunting over corn, apples and other natural foods. I much prefer the latter because it adds an element of “surprise” to a bear hunt. I like the process of scouting the woods for signs of bears, finding crops or natural foods that are being hit by bears and then figuring out how best to hunt the site without disturbing the animals or the woods. It's not easy to pin down the comings and goings of hungry bears when they decide to start eating field corn. A small field of corn can have 100 entrance or exit trails around it, and all you have to do is pick one! Considering that bears don't enter or leave a field the same way twice, and often show up at the oddest times, there's plenty of room for error. Most times the bears win the game of hide-and-seek, as well they should - getting one every time would be too easy!
Even tougher is choosing which tree to sit in if you're hunting an apple orchard where bears are feeding. In good season every tree in the orchard will be full of fruit, and because bears will eat any and all apples over time (but always the ripest ones first!), it's anyone's guess where they may end up when it's time to put on the feedbag. Yellow transparents and crabapples are favorites of bears, and most of the old-time orchards produce plenty of each variety. Easy strategy there - you pick a tree on the north end of the orchard and, naturally, the bears will come to a lesser tree on the south end! I have picked trees that I knew had bears in them the night before only to have the bruins walk right by out of range and go to another, smaller tree that contained less fruit. There's no rhyme or reason to it. You just roll the dice and take your chances!
Getting a bear is one thing, but there is more to it than just finding a nice apple tree and making a clean shot. If you've never been faced with the prospect of dragging 300 pounds of dead bear through the woods, over logs and across clear-cuts (in the dark), you may want to think through that aspect of the hunt as well. Bears slide well on wet grass or snow, but they are floppy, unwieldy creatures at best, and all through the process you want to protect the head and hide from unnecessary damage. A deer cart, 4-wheeler or other conveyance can help, so plan ahead.
Also, visit a few taxidermists to see how bears should be handled for full mounts, head mounts or rugs. What you do after the bear hits the ground is as important as what you did prior - you're going to be looking at your mounted trophy for years to come, so take pains to have it turn out as nice as possible.
Too, the flesh of a bear is very tasty, not unlike roast beef, and well worth the trouble. I am not kidding you, a 300-pound bear I shot recently lasted barely a week in camp. The cook was a genius and found ways to prepare bear steaks, burgers and roasts at every meal. We devoured that whole bruin by week's end and even the slickest of the city boys was clamoring for more.
In general, Maine's bear season is open from today through the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That's plenty of time for you to stock your freezer and fill that empty space on the wall in your den. Bear hunting in Maine is not easy nor is it guaranteed, but you can't shoot a bear while sitting in front of the TV. Get out there and see what's been digging around in the nearest orchard, berry patch or cornfield. You just might be surprised!