Guide Jim Webber knows he’s got a bunch of big black bears visiting his bait sites. In fact, he figures that of the 22 sites he’s maintaining this bear season, about 15 of them are being visited by bruins that weigh from 300 to 400 pounds.
Two other sites, Webber said, are frequented by even bigger bears.
How big? “Almost as big as that one,” he said, referring to bear that one of his hunters, Pennsylvanian Matt Knox, took on Friday.
Or, as they’ll begin calling it as soon as the paperwork is completed, almost as big as Matt Knox’s state-record black bear.
Records are maintained by The Maine Sportsman newspaper.
Webber said Knox, an Army veteran who has served in Iraq and lives in Waynesboro, Pa., booked a trip through the business he and guide Steve Monroe own: Grand Slam Guide Service.
“He’d never been on a bear hunt before,” Webber said.
After spending the first part of the week sitting in the stand, which Webber will only say is located near Greenville Junction, Knox was ready for a change of scenery.
“He really wanted to come off that site because he hadn’t seen anything [in five days],” Webber said. “But I showed him [trail camera] photos.”
Knox opted to sit tight for Friday night’s hunt.
“He told me to be patient,” Knox said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “[He said] once the bear got used to my scent in that area he’d more than likely come in early [during legal shooting hours].”
The decision paid off when Knox spotted a monstrous black bear.
“When he came in [to the bait] he filled up the whole clearing, almost,” Knox said.
After shooting it, his guide, Monroe, along with Webber, took it back to camp and packed it in ice before field-dressing it, so that an accurate live-weight could be established.
“It was 11 o’clock by that point, and [no tagging station] was open,” Webber said.
Knox said that back in camp, guesses were made on how big the bear was. Nobody came close.
“The guesses in camp were that it might be the biggest all year,” Knox said. “Maybe 550 to 580 pounds. I had no idea at the time what the state record was, or even that there was one.”
Then the group read Thursday’s “Out There” blog post about the 600-pounder shot by an Indiana man, and discovered that the state record was 680.
The next morning, they were waiting at Indian Hill Trading Post in Greenville when the store and tagging station opened. There, they got the good news … albeit unofficial good news: The bear weighed 705 pounds.
“Three-quarters of the bear was off the tailgate of the truck and the scale already said 500,” Knox said. “Then I said, ‘Well, maybe [this one is close to a record].”
Recognizing that they need to have a more official reading for a record to be established, Webber, Monroe and Knox headed to the nearest state-certified scale they could find, at Herring Brothers Meats in Guilford.
Officially, on that certified scale, the bear weighed in at 699 pounds, breaking the 1993 record by 19 pounds. Information previously provided by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife stated the year of the previous record incorrectly as 1995.
The previous record bear was shot over hounds, as most of the largest bears typically are, according to Maine wildlife biologists.
Contrary to Webber’s initial report, the bear was not the first Knox had seen in his life: He ran across a mother bear with cubs while hiking in North Carolina.
Knox said he’s having a full mount of the bear made, but before he is able to display it in his home, he’ll have to do some redecorating.
“I’ll have to throw my couch away [to make space],” he said, laughing.
Turning serious, Knox said he hopes that outdoor-related retailers in Maine might want to display his bear for the general public.
“I want a lot of people to appreciate it,” Knox said.
Over the past week, reports of a 600-pound bear, a 522-pounder and the 699-pounder have begun to surface. All three bears were taken over bait.
Randy Cross, a biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who manages the field crews for state’s long-running bear study, said the recent run of big bears being shot over bait is due to a fairly rare situation in the Maine woods.
“This year most closely mimics 1995 far as poor natural food conditions and resultant high nuisance activity, and ultimately [a] very successful bait season,” Cross said via email. “It appears as if the bears are going to den extremely early as they did in ’95 as well.”
Cross admitted that the theory of bears growing bigger during years when natural food is limited might not make much sense to many. He explained that in actuality, what’s happening is the bears are simply packing on their pounds earlier in the year — which happens to coincide with the four-week bait season — because they are eating at a feverish pitch to pack on fat that they will live off while in their dens.
In years when there is a better supply of natural foods — like last year — bears won’t begin this nonstop binge eating, which biologists call “hyperphagia,” until much later in the season.
Another key factor during those years when natural food is plentiful: Older, larger, more experienced bears will be less apt to visit bait sites during daylight hours.
“In a poorer food year like this, the prime-age males (who are generally much less vulnerable to harvest than younger bears in the first place) are much more vulnerable than they are on the strong food years,” when they might avoid baits entirely, Cross said.
A final factor: More bears in the Maine woods after years of wise management has led to a bigger population pool for hunters to target.
“We have a growing population and more bears does also mean more large bears,” Cross wrote. “In general, the natural food supply has been relatively strong over the last eight years or so. This helps the bears grow faster and get into the trophy weight class quicker.”