St. John Valley

The ‘bear’ essentials for a successful big-game season

Aroostook endured a long winter that broke snowfall records followed by a wet, windy spring; now the Northern Maine Fair has come and gone earlier than usual and we’re halfway through July. For sportsmen that means that July 27 heralds the state’s first big-game season, when it’s legal to start baiting for black bear. In late August that actual hunting begins.

Despite the fact the most Crown of Maine outdoorsmen could establish an effective bear bait within 30 minutes or less from their homes, many prefer to save time, money and effort and hook up with a guide or outfitter. If you’re a gunner, archer or photographer seeking self-satisfaction and personal accomplishment, a do-it-yourself bait can be very rewarding. Regardless of what anti-baiting zealots espouse, most are actually anti-hunting. The success rate remains less than 25 percent even when using professional help. Regardless of final results, setting up and running a bait site is a rewarding outdoor endeavor and a learning experience, and here’s a short outline of how to get started.

Hanging a bait barrel from a suspended cable keeps food-stealing small game out of the bait and helps the hunter judge the size of a visiting bruin. On this particular day, a trio of bear had to take turns feeding.
(Courtesy of Bill Graves)

Black bear population in Maine is growing every year; therefore their range is expanding as well, so chances are you have a likely spot to set up a bear bait nearby. Urban edge bear are common and with so much agri-land and adjacent small woodlots in Aroostook it’s just a matter of picking a fairly secluded spot. It’s not necessary to drive an hour or two for a location in the deep North Woods. If you own a few acres of brushy or lightly forested land, there’s probably a spot that will work; if not, then it’ a matter of requesting permission from a nearby farmer or friend.

Select a location away from any roads, even dirt roads, farm roads, ATV trails and hiking trails, and be sure there are no buildings anywhere nearby. Also steer clear of spots near crop fields where farm workers and machinery may appear. If there’s a lake, pond, stream or marsh within a mile, this will be a plus. Once a general location is settled on, pinpoint a spot with a sturdy tree for a stand and another in direct sight 15 to 40 yards away to attach a bait receptacle. It’s better if a minimal amount of brush and tree cutting and trimming are needed to assure a clear line of sight and open shooting lane.

Some hunters are using camouflaged portable ground blinds rather than tree stands, feeling they hide movement, contain human scent better and offer protection from the elements and insects. Falling is always a hazard of using an elevated stand, but I still prefer the far more open vision they offer and the fact that most bear don’t expect danger from above. Whatever method you select, make sure it’s comfortable, sturdy, quiet and safe. Sitting five hours or so per outing, perhaps for several days, isn’t uncommon. 

Setting up a bait receptacle comes next; decades ago, hunters just poured food on the ground or stacked a couple of old tires and put bait in the center hole, then covered either setup with brush, tree limbs and logs. Currently a container that can be covered and wired to a tree is favored. Sizes vary from a 5-gallon bucket up to a 55-gallon barrel. Such a setup keeps varmints from eating the bait and a bruin from hauling the canister into the woods.

Bear hunters choosing to use a portable ground blind will be up close and personal with furry visitors. This hefty bruin is mere yards away, sneaking through the brush on his way to the food source.
(Courtesy of Bill Graves)

Finding an affordable, readily available and flavorful type of food to use is the next hurdle. Pastry products and donuts are favorite options, but often difficult to obtain in bulk at reasonable prices. Outdated bread splashed with used fryolator grease, popcorn with honey or caramel sauce, oats drenched in molasses and trail mix are other popular baits. Many local guides and even a few individual hunters drive downstate to large pastry and baking outlets to buy outdated goods by the pallet or barrel at discount prices.

For  years experienced bear hunters have used strong aromatic attractants that disperse on the wind to entice bear to bait sites where they will then find the food source. Honey burns, anise drips and mesh bags of lobster shells are old school but still effective, but now there are dozens of companies producing high tech gels, sprays, pastes and dissolving balls of strong smelling attractive flavors. Bear Scents LLC of Lake Mills, Wisconsin, remains my proven favorite and bacon, blueberry, honey and anise are my “go to” flavors. Check them out on line at bearscents.com and make an order, you won’t be disappointed.

Attractant scents also help cover your human scent while hunting, but don’t forget to use plenty of spray-on cover scent on your clothing. A bear’s exceptional sense of smell is its greatest defense. I also suggest every bait site have a trail camera set up to record visits. It’s crucial to know what time and what day bear are visiting and also their size. A well camouflaged camera also records other game animals and even unsuspecting human visitors.

Once all these steps are completed it’s just a matter of sit, watch and wait once the actual hunting season begins. It’s a lot of work setting up and maintaining a bear bait, but success is a great reward and accomplishment. I’ve not shot a bear in three years with gun or bow, although I’ve watched and photographed over 25 while waiting for a trophy bruin. 

The full satisfaction of bear baiting isn’t about pulling a trigger; I can’t wait to see what this season brings forth. 

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