Bear baiting. It’s probably the most controversial topic out there regarding hunting in Maine. I hated it passionately. How can anyone sit over a bait bucket and shoot an animal? How unfair. It made me furious. I wasn’t a hunter at the time. I had no personal knowledge, only hearsay, but that was good enough for me.
During a heated discussion, as many discussions on the topic get, someone asked me to listen to everything he had to say before I spoke again. Wow. That was hard. It was all I could do to shut my mouth. That was the day I stopped protesting and started learning. I wasn’t convinced. Not by a long shot. But I agreed to learn.
My thoughts have changed drastically. My husband and a very dear friend helped me try hunting over bait. I didn’t have shoot if I didn’t want to. They thought I should at least experience what I had been vehemently against so that I personally knew what I was talking about. Having great respect for both men, I agreed to at least sit in the stand. It meant working on my intense fear of heights. I didn’t climb a six foot ladder. They helped me to climb a narrow 15’ ladder and sit down in a little seat on the side of a tree.
I’ve come to think of baiting as a useful tool.
I didn’t see any bear the first year but spent only two afternoons/evenings in the stand. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see one. I was nervous. Adding a bear to the scenario might have been too much. I heard one coming down the trail, tearing up stumps or logs, I’m not sure which, on its way. It stopped before stepping into the clearing. Busted. It somehow knew I was there.
Last year I saw four bear. A bear weighing around 200 pounds came to the bait barrel. I watched it closely for a few minutes while trying to remember all I’d been told. Was its head blocky or did it have a sharper snout? If it’s blocky there’s a better chance of it being a boar so I’m told. Did I want to shoot a boar or a sow? At the time it didn’t make that much difference to me as long as the sow didn’t have cubs. The logs blocking the hole in the barrel are there to give me time to assess the bear. It takes time to pull the logs out. The bear moves around giving me a good look.
The bear looked over its shoulder into the woods several times. I was fascinated. I hadn’t watched a bear intently since the days of going to the dump in Springfield to see them when I was a child. The stand I was sitting in is in an open area. It’s easy to see through the trees. The bear pulled a log out of the barrel and made a noise. Two cubs tumbled out of the brush into the clearing. I watched them for 30 minutes until the sow made me nervous. I felt it was time to leave and texted my husband. “Nervous. Come get me. Make a lot of noise.”
I almost pulled the trigger that evening. I don’t want to intentionally shoot a sow with cubs. I know people do it. I’m not saying it’s wrong; cubs can survive winter without their mothers. Personally, I choose not to do so.
The trees at the barrel I most often sit over are dense. I can see five or six feet beyond the barrel, five feet to the left and two feet to the right. I was listening to a bear to my right as it ripped apart a log in search of grubs and cracked dead branches as it walked down the trail. I listened and waited patiently for 20 minutes as it got closer. A huge bear appeared from behind the barrel. It stepped out into the clearing, walked to a higher spot and stood 15’ from the base of my tree stand.
I wasn’t prepared. I was waiting for the bear on my right to get closer before I raised my rifle and clicked the safety off. I made a new hunter mistake. I was so focused on the bear to my right that I didn’t consider other bears that might be coming in. I could have given myself a clear, safe shot but didn’t. I won’t make that mistake again.
The bear on the right startled the bear in the clearing and it was over. I watched the bear disappear in a black blur. As silently as it walked in, it ran out. I didn’t hear it coming or going. Gone. Both of them, gone.
Hunting over bait doesn’t mean the bears are going to come out to eat while the hunter is there. I wish it were that easy. A bear doesn’t seal its fate by coming to a bait. I chose to let the sow with cubs go as do a lot of hunters. Had I seen her walking down the path alone and didn’t have the advantage of buying time over the bait, I’d have chosen to shoot her. I don’t plan to shoot just any bear that shows up; I’ll know the right one when I have time to look it over. It’s not as easy as I’d been lead to believe.
When I started questioning my decision to hunt over bait my husband asked me a simple question. “How is hunting over oats and molasses different than hunting beside an apple or oak tree?” We can’t bait deer in Maine but we can hunt them over food. We can plant food plots and hunt them.
I fed the bears last year. They stored extra fat because they ate at the barrels I helped tend. I’m feeding the bears again this year. After 25 hours in a tree stand since the season opened, I still have not seen a bear.
I’m comfortable with my choice to bait bears. They stand a better chance of not being killed to put food on my table than the 25 two week old meat chickens I’m raising out back. Their fate was sealed the day I placed the order with the hatchery. They’re going into the freezer the last Sunday of October. I wish I were as certain that I’m going to have bear roasts in the freezer this winter.