Natural Bear Baits
By John H. Sewell
Hunting black bear in the early September season is one of my favorite hunting past times. The conditions of no bugs or bitter cold provide highly enjoyable hunts. As I cruise the fields I often come back full in the belly from sampling the many apple trees and berry bushes. I also come back full in the soul from the splendor of waning light on an early September evening.
When most people think of black bear hunting, they think of an elevated stand over a barrel or log cubby filled with sweets, used cooking grease or any other locally available bait such as old french fries. While this is a highly effective way to take a black bear in Maine, there are many other ways that may provide a hunter with a more fulfilling hunt.
My preferred method for hunting northern Maine black bears is over natural food sources. On opening evening of this year's hunt with my girlfriend by my side (who was running our video camera), I connected with my 4th bruin using this strategy. Taking bears in this manner may not always be the most efficient way, but with some good preseason scouting and knowledge of bear activity you, too, can have first evening success without the extra calories!
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Natural Food Sources
There are almost too many food sources that a hunter has to consider when scouting for bear activity in early September. With such a bounty of produce (not counting Twinkies and Ding-Dongs) it is often hard to concentrate one's effort. The ultimate early season food source (in my opinion) is ripe oat fields. Techniques for hunting this bear magnet are described later in "Oats Are The Ultimate".
Another bear hot spot are apple orchards. If bear are hitting the orchards, sign is very evident and marauding bruins can destroy entire orchards. A key to hunting orchards can often depend on other food sources that may be available. Bears know that the apples aren't going to go anywhere and they may hit them later in the season.
Many types of berries are available during the early bear season. One of my favorites is choke cherries. Bears love these bittersweet morsels when a favorable year produces a large crop. Chokecherries are found along many fields. Keep a good distance down wind and look for shaking bushes and an occasional paw reaching for the clusters of fruit. Raspberries can also be a good source but often they have gone by when the season starts. Another berry that is often overlooked is the white berry of the dogwood. During years of poor fruit and mast production they can be real a hot spot.
Clover fields are a magnet for all sorts of wildlife and bears are no exception. While finding isolated areas of all food sources is the best idea, with clover it is especially important. There is no cover in a clover field and bears have to feel secure to enter them during shooting light. If this type of area is found, bears can often be seen laying on their stomachs and gorging on the sweet plant.
Other sources that can be effective places to find bears all season are beech ridges, oak groves and cornfields. During years of good beechnut production, bears are taken through out November and sign may even be seen into December. Cornfields that are left for harvesting in the spring can be a prime spot all hunting season.
Most landowners and farmers will be happy to provide access if bears are lying down and consuming their oats and corn, or if they are tearing down their orchards. As we all know bears can become a nuisance when they find a meal in a garbage can or a beehive. In these instances land owners or hive keepers may come to you. In any case, good relations must be kept with landowners, so ask permission!
Scouting is a key to being successful in any hunting adventure. A great place to start your scouting is at the above mentioned food sources or areas where you have seen bears throughout the summer. Always examine any fresh scat that is located. Bears do not digest their meals very well and it is very easy to determine what they have been feeding on. Three years ago during a very bad mast year I was having trouble locating natural food sources. I was finding little scat in my usual areas but the scat that I was finding had small seeds from an unknown source. After a little detective work I keyed the seeds out to the dogwood berry. That fall I came face to face with a sow and cubs in a patch of these white berries and then with a boar that I made a 20-yard shot on.
If you feel confident in the food source that bear are concentrating on then you have won half the battle. Scout for these food sources in many areas, but keep your time in the area brief. If bears are there, sign should be obvious. Only go back and hunt the areas that have produced the most sign or bear sightings before the opening evening. Stick with these spots and they will be back!
Oats Are The Ultimate
Not only do bears love ripe oats (they should be golden ripe when hunted), oat fields are easy to hunt. Most of the time, bears stand out in an oat field. When scanning an oat field, look for movement or dark color, it may only be the tips of his ears.
Open country is another bonus of the oats. A bears worst sense is his eyesight, so getting close comes down to wind direction and noise. Wind direction should govern your entire hunt. If the wind isn't right for the field you want to hunt, find another because a bears' nose will bust you every time. The peak hour for bear activity in the oats is the last hour of shooting light and many times the wind may die down so an approach will be possible. Look in the farthest most hidden corner of the oat field always adjacent to a good patch of woods, but don't be surprised when you see him out in the middle of the field either.
Shooting sticks are also a good idea while hunting the oats. This is something that I have learned the hard way! One evening I was stalking one of the largest bear I have ever seen and ended up coming home empty handed because I didn't have a good rest. When I sat down to rest on my knees, I could no longer see him (because the oats were too tall) and I did not dare to stand and take an offhand shot. Needless to say, I wasn't holding the rifle very steady while I was trying to settle in on this monster's boiler room. As the light was fading and he was feeding away from me, I took an off hand shot while on my knees, a clean miss and a hunter's broken heart. A good pair of shooting sticks probably would have made the difference.
If rotten meat and stale doughnuts aren't your bag then try the naturals and you can get the same result, a beautiful rug and a freezer full of the best meat (bear meat is wonderful but that is another topic all together).
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