The bear essentials

When the Northern Maine Fair gets underway and the farmers are harvesting broccoli and grain, it means local hunters are able to start preparing for bear season. The earliest big game season actually begins on Aug. 28, with a youth bear day held two days earlier, so bait sites can now be started.

Bear are very plentiful throughout Aroostook. One visitor has a lunch while the other one checks out the game camera. (Contributed photo/Bill Graves)

Black bear sightings by fishermen, campers and woods workers have been plentiful all spring and summer, and nuisance complaints registered by urban homeowners lead to the conclusion that the regional population continues to grow.

While certain national and state organizations have attempted to paint bear baiting in a bad light, forcing sportsmen to spend too much time and money winning two referendums in a 10-year period, baiting is the only sure method to control population. Maine’s thick forest environment negates most stalk and shoot options, and even using bait, hunters average a less than 25 percent annual success rate. Truth be told, reinstitution of the spring bear hunting season would be very advantageous to controlling bear numbers and aid regional economy.

While there are numerous Aroostook outfitters and guides to hire for a local package hunt, setting up and maintaining your own bait site to put meat in the freezer or just for game watching or photography can be very rewarding. There’s a fair amount of work involved setting out and regularly servicing a bait container and putting up a tree stand or ground blind, but when that first big bruin is spotted, it’s personally gratifying and satisfying.

The first step is selecting a bait site, preferably a wooded rural location not too far from home since food will have to be transported every two or three days. There are regulations regarding where and how a bait site is located and maintained. Obviously for safety considerations as well as being able to attract and keep bear returning, remoteness from any roads, ATV trails or busy farming areas is essential. If you don’t own a piece of acceptable land, getting landowner permission to set up a site is necessary and most farmers, lumber landowners and even private woodlot owners will be agreeable. Written permission is required if you plan to set up and maintain a trail camera.

The bait container may be as small as a five-gallon pail or as large as a 55-gallon barrel. It must be wired, cabled or chained to a tree, otherwise the bear will haul it off. I suspend a 35-gallon plastic barrel with one end removed at least 4 feet high from a cable between two solid trees about 15 feet apart. Visiting bear have to stand up to get food and I’m able to better judge their size. Hanging containers keeps raccoons and other pests from stealing food. Bait buckets left lying on the ground or wired to tree trunks need a removable cover or heavy logs or rocks over the mouth that only a bear has the strength to pry or knock off to reach food.

Getting one or more bears to visit the bait site during legal shooting hours constitutes the biggest hurdle. Big, old bruins don’t get that way by being stupid, and coaxing one to visit regularly until hunting season begins can be a chore. While the aroma of the bait might work, I’ve found a stronger smelling attractant emanating from near the bait barrel greatly increases drawing power. With the right wind a bear’s amazingly sensitive nose will pick up the cloying scent for a mile through the woods.

Decades ago, the hunters used anise, honey buns, shellfish bodies or even fish heads in a mesh onion bag hung high in a tree. Modern options include pastes, sprays, aerosols, powders and dissolving bait blocks and balls in dozens of flavors and aromas. The old attractants still work and are less expensive but the new options work better, longer, are simpler to activate and don’t develop a repugnant smell for the hunter to endure after a couple of weeks.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve experimented with several brands and styles of attractants and Bear Scents LLC products of Lake Mills, Wisconsin, have proven to be more concentrated, longer lasting and reasonably priced. I hang a bacon-scented bait ball from a high tree limb near my barrel and pump spray bacon scented mixture on nearby tree limbs and bushes each time I resupply the food barrel.

The ball slowly disintegrates, emitting an attractive aroma for 45 to 60 days and brings bear from far and wide to investigate. Then they find the food supply. Although hunters always use a scent eliminating spray to mask their human odor during each outing, the Bear Scent bacon spray liberally applied around the bait site also helps mask their scent while on stand. Anise, strawberry, raspberry, shellfish, apple and honey are just a few of the many pungent bruin attractant flavors. Check your local sporting goods stores for Bear Scent products. L.L. Bean and Cabela’s also stock them, or visit online and order by phone or email.

To save money on gas, bait and attractant, many hunters are waiting a couple of weeks to begin baiting rather than investing a full month before the season. If there aren’t any other bait sites within three to five miles of yours that may attract area bears first, delaying start up may work out.

With this season’s prospects of plentiful bear, it’s likely that starting to bait only a few days before opening day will still offer success. September is prime time for bruin throughout Aroostook and even novice bear hunters can enjoy the thrill of looking through a camera lens or a scope at one of Maine’s black ghosts. There’s still plenty of time to prepare.

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