It’s time to get ready for bear season

As July fades away, two facts are certain — it’s time for the annual state agricultural fair and also time for outfitters, guides and individual hunters to set up their bear baiting sites. The sad truth is, in about a month, some of the leaves will begin to change color. The century old Aroostook adage, “When the fair is over, it’s time to bank the house,” still holds true. Fall is near and winter is just around the corner.

There’s still some fishing and a good deal of hunting to be enjoyed and black bears are first on the agenda. While spot and stalk, using hounds, and trapping are options, setting up a bear bait offers the best chance to put meat in the freezer. Even with Maine’s growing bear population, annual success rates for bait hunters is under 25 percent. There are plenty of regional outfitters and guides who create, maintain and sell time on baits to outdoorsmen who don’t have the time or inclination to build a bait site, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in baiting and bagging a bruin on your own.

One of the most common receptacles to hold bear bait is a common 5-gallon plastic bucket with a lid. It should be wired a few feet off the ground so it can’t be carried off or reached by scavengers. This big bruin is about to have a lunch.
(Courtesy of Bill Graves)

Step one to setting up a personal bait site is selecting a location. If you own a piece of wooded land, it’s a simple chore. If not, it’s a matter of obtaining land owner permission. With the growing number of bears throughout the Crown of Maine, there are few, if any, locations where a hunter can’t find a promising bait site within a 20-minute drive or less from home. I live just over a mile from Main Street in Presque Isle and just as an experiment a few years ago, set up a bait site in the wooded plot less than a 10-minute walk behind my house. In less than a week, I had photos on my game camera of three different bears visiting.

There are a handful of regulations to heed regarding bait site locations, but common sense plays a big role. Stay away from roads, ATV trails, hiking paths and farm lands that get regular visits from machinery. Vehicle noise, people and canines aren’t conducive to attracting bear. Select a spot with a sturdy tree to support a tree stand or enough open space for a portable ground blind, then pick another to secure a bait receptacle. The distance between the two trees will be determined by your weapon of choice. Archers and handgunners will need to be closer than a rifleman. Fairly thick brush around the bait will make bear more comfortable as they approach but a clear shooting lane must be open between the tree stand or blind and the bait bucket.

The most popular bait container is a 5-gallon bucket, with 35- and 50-gallon barrels (metal or plastic) a close second choice. It’s important to use wire, cable or chain to attach the bait barrel to a sturdy tree so the bear can’t haul it away to feast in a more secluded spot — out of sight and shooting range. Just dumping the bait on the ground, suspending it in a plastic bag, or placing it in the middle of an old car tire exposes it to rain and other scavengers, and also makes a mess. A closed container with a removable cover, suspended at least 3 to 4 feet off the ground, keeps bait fresher and away from smaller animals, and helps it last longer.

Fall bears want to fatten up for hibernation, so using sweets for bait is the way to go. Pastries; old bread splashed with honey, molasses or used cooking oil; popcorn laced with caramel sauce; and trail mix with molasses are all good options. A month of pre-season baiting and up to a month of hunting adds up to a fair amount of money for bait and gas for travel. Some folks postpone baiting until just a week or so prior to opening day to save some money, but if other baits are active nearby, most bears may be already committed. It’s an iffy decision.

In my experience, regardless of when you begin baiting or what food is in the bucket, a strong attractant scent is crucial to luring bear to your bait site, When I first started baiting, I used to hang a mesh onion bag full of lobster shells, outdated fish from the grocery store or the viscera from any trout, salmon, bass or other game fish caught by myself or friends. The bear could sure smell it and once they came to investigate they found the bait as well. I turned to other sources of aroma after a couple of seasons because I couldn’t stand the stink when the wind was wrong. Anise oil or a honey burn are proven options, and there are literally hundreds of commercially-produced oils, sprays, jellies, sprinkles, aerosols and solid, dissolvable blocks and balls.

After experimenting for over a dozen years I’ve found that the Bear Scents LLC products really work. I hang a bait ball at each bait site and it lasts for the entire season sending a strong aroma over long distances on every breeze. I also use a matching spray on trees and brush each time I bait, and especially when I hunt since it works well as a cover scent for human odor as well as an attractant. Bear Scents are created in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, and are available in almost two dozen flavors. Bacon, strawberry, honey, apple and anise are my favorites. Check them out on line or call 888-215-BEAR for more info.

Whether you’re a rookie or experienced hunter, anyone can set up a personal bear bait. It’s  a very challenging, rewarding, and exciting endeavor. There are many tasty recipes for bear meat, but some folks prefer to shoot photos rather than bullets. Whatever your preference, baiting is the best method to see black bears and now is the time.

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