Back in 2005, as many of the bear hunters at Tylor Kelly’s Camps in Allagash opted to stay dry, a lone truckload of men — including me — dutifully headed to their stands, hoping for the weather to break.
There was a method to our madness (or, at least, we rationalized our decision that way): The rain was due to stop some time that evening, and if it did, the bears that had been reluctant to move during the storm might amble right into the baits we were watching.
Unfortunately for us, that storm — the remnants of Hurricane Katrina — had other ideas, and it didn’t let up until a couple hours after we’d returned to camp, soggy, cold, miserable … and bearless.
Out on Route 9, about 50 miles from Bangor, hunters at Eagle Mountain Guide Service haven’t had to withstand the elements like my group did more than a decade ago. But owner Matt Whitegiver said earlier this week that the hunting had been a bit slower than he’d hoped.
But he was confident that change was imminent.
“Everybody [I’ve talked to] is having a slow start,” Whitegiver said earlier this week. “What blackberries there are, the bears want, and they’re focused on that right now. [Those berries] won’t be around long, so I expect we’re going to get better and better and better as the blackberries disappear.”
That will be good news for hunters, many of whom travel from outside of Maine and hire outfitters for six-day hunts. The season for hunting bears over bait started on Aug. 29, and runs through Sept. 24.
According to wildlife biologist Randy Cross of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the success rate of hunters should increase during that span.
Cross has been studying bears for more than 30 years, and in my time writing about the outdoors, he’s taught me plenty about the behavior patterns of these ghosts of the woods.
“The relative abundance of natural food is what dictates the level of success for hunters who are hunting over bait,” Cross said in an email. “[And] bait hunters are the group of hunters that influence the harvest level the most. The rain that we got in the last few weeks has been sufficient to save the blackberry crop in many areas where they occur, and they are abundant right now in those areas.”
But like Whitegiver, Cross expects the supply of berries to dwindle quickly. The beneficiaries: Hunters waiting for bears to throw caution to the wind and approach their bait sites during daylight hours.
Northern Maine hunters may already be seeing better-than-average success, Cross said.
“I would say the blackberry has less influence over much of the range of bears in Maine,” he wrote, explaining that north of Millinocket and the Golden Road, the berries are pretty scarce, save for around farms in Aroostook County.
But down Route 9, where Whitegiver’s hunters are spending their time, there are still some dietary options for foraging bears.
“The abundant blackberries and bristly sarsparilla berries … especially in Down East Maine, is slowing the activity on many of the bear baits right now but it won’t last long,” Cross wrote. “Both of these fruits are ripening a little later this year than normal. The end result when all is taken into account will be a very successful bait hunting season compared with most years.”
The catch: Those who are hoping to encounter a bear during the traditional firearms season on deer in November probably won’t have that opportunity.
Again, it all comes down to food. When the bears decide it’s costing them more energy to find food than they’ll gain if they eat it, they’ll decide to take a long winter nap.
“Most of the bears in Maine will be entering their dens earlier this year, which will hamper late-season hunters, especially deer hunters,” Cross wrote. But that will vary across the state.
“A decent acorn and apple crop will keep some bears out of the den longer in many of the same areas where blackberries are abundant,” he wrote.
Here’s hoping hunters start seeing more bears.
And if you end up with a great bear tale, send it along and I’ll try to fit it into a future blog or column.
Any-deer lottery Friday
If you’re among the hopeful hunters who applied for an any-deer permit this year, your wait is nearly over.
The state will announce the 45,625 winners of this year’s any-deer permit lottery on Friday.
Those who do earn the permits will be allowed to target does or fawns; the rest of us will be hunting for bucks.
You can find the results of this year’s lottery at bangordailynews.com after 5 p.m. on Friday.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke