With 10 days of Maine’s bait season for bear behind him and 14 days remaining, longtime guide Wayne Bosowicz laughed aloud when asked how the hunting has been.
“It’s the easiest year to hunt bear I’ve ever seen,” said Bosowicz, the owner of Foggy Mountain Guide Service in Sebec, who has been guiding bear hunters since 1964.
“[It’s like] they’re attacking the truck with the bait, for crying out loud,” he said.
Around the state, reports are similar: Bear hunters are seeing bears. Lots of bears. Their success rate is high. And some of the bears those hunters are tagging are bruisers.
Wildlife biologist Randy Cross, who for 27 years has crawled in and out of bear dens and supervises bear field research for the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, predicted the busy season during an interview a few weeks ago.
On Thursday, he said the good hunting weather and a lack of natural food crops have combined to make for a banner start to the season, and he has heard reports that plenty of hunters are enjoying success.
“I’m hearing mostly from guides and they are scoring at a higher rate, and also getting some bigger bears this year, on average, than over the last four or five years,” Cross said.
Cross said that success may translate to a much higher bear kill than in some recent years.
“[The bear kill] could be as much as 30 percent higher [than it has been over the past four or five years],” Cross said. “I think last year was around 2,700 [killed]. I think this year I would be surprised to see it go over 3,500, but I think it may be up there, pushing that a little bit. Just a wild guess, based on a lot of good reports.”
Even with that increase, however, he said the state’s bear herd should remain large and healthy.
“A single-year event is pretty acceptable,” he said. “Our harvest has been below [our] objective for a few years now.”
So, if bears aren’t finding as much natural food as they may in other years, how come they’re so heavy this season?
Cross said the weight of the bears has to do with the animals preparing for an early den year, which they do when their natural food supplies aren’t abundant, Cross said.
In addition, when those natural food sources aren’t abundant, the bears are more apt to visit bait sites to feed.
Cross said instead of using their nourishment for skeletal growth, in those early den years — like this one — the bears instead unconsciously “flip a switch” and turn that food into fat they can use during their hibernation period.
Thus, the bears are heavier earlier in the year, during a period the hunters are targeting them.Cross has heard reports of big bears being taken, including one that weighed 445 pounds, field-dressed.
From Sebec to Allagash, New Sweden to Grand Lake Stream, the reports are the same. A quick view of some telling tales from the Maine woods:
ä At Pine Tree Store in Grand Lake Stream, proprietor Kurt Cressey and his crew have tagged 18 bears through the season’s first 10 days. A year ago, they tagged only 11 all season long.
Among those bears are some whoppers: four weighed more than 300 pounds. A year ago, only three topped 200 pounds.
“Everybody’s seeing bear, which is terrific,” Cressey said.
ä In New Sweden, Sara Anderson, who owns Northstar Variety with her husband, Dave, says bear hunters are keeping her busy.
“We’re tied right now for the second-highest [total of tagged bears since we bought the store in 1998] and this is only the fifth day of the second week,” Anderson said.
As of Friday afternoon, Anderson said she’d tagged 57 bears. The high-water mark of 63 bears was set in 2004. That year, a referendum seeking the abolition of hunting over bait played a role in increasing hunter numbers, as many headed into the woods in a show of solidarity, or fearing that they’d never get a chance to hunt over bait again.
Anderson said a store in nearby Caribou has stopped tagging bears, and that could have contributed to higher-than-normal numbers at her establishment. Still, hunters and guides are reporting plenty of activity around their bait.
“A lot of guys are passing up two or three bears before they decide to take one,” Anderson said. “Most of the sports I’ve spoken with have seen multiple bears at their sites.”
ä In Allagash, guide Wade Kelly of Tylor Kelly’s Camps said the beginning of the season was phenomenal.
“The first week, you could have fell over and killed a bear,” Kelly said.
“We always have a lot of bear. But our first week was perfect weather. It was cold, no full moon, combined with a lack of natural feed.”
A full moon can contribute to bears feeding much later in the night, and makes it less likely that they’ll arrive at the bait during legal hunting hours, Kelly explained.
The first week, 11 of Kelly’s 14 hunters killed bears, and all 14 hunters had bears visit their baits. This week, with warmer weather, hunting was slow until Thursday night. Kelly said when the temperature dropped, it paid dividends for his hunters, who shot four bears on Thursday evening.
Among the bears tagged by Kelly’s hunters thus far: Bruins that weighed 390, 364 and 346 pounds.
ä And in Sebec, Bosowicz said many of his hunters have been successful.
“I average [hosting a number of hunters] in the teens [per week],” he said. “And most of them are getting bear.”
“It’s a simple year,” Bosowicz said. “Even a dope can get a bear to come in on bait this year. You don’t need the technology, the experience.”
Bosowicz said the explanation is just as simple.
“There’s no feed in the woods,” Bosowicz said. “There’s a terrible blueberry crop, and why that is, I don’t know because our domestic [blueberry] people say it’s a good year. And we’ve got no raspberries to speak of.”
Both Kelly and Bosowicz said they’d seen a decrease in business this year that they attributed to the nation’s economic woes. Both, however, say they expect more reservations in coming years.
Many of the state’s bear guides rely on out-of-state hunters to fill their camps and make the expensive baiting process worthwhile.
The DIF&W’s Cross said he has heard from commercial guides who indicated they were having a hard time booking clients due to the poor economy, and said many guides said they were at around 50 percent capacity.
“We’re down below 50 percent of the average year,” Kelly said. “We’ve had four new guys come from Missouri. They all tagged out [and have indicated they might] want to book the whole camp [in a subsequent year]. They have enough people [back home] that want to go.”
Bosowicz said his business began to decrease a year ago, and some longtime clients have indicated that they’re having economic concerns they never have before.
“[Business] is significantly down,” Bosowicz said. “It’s a lot of old-timers [coming], I know them well. It’s guys with 25 years on their jobs and they’re sweating them.”
Bosowicz saw a silver lining, however, in the limited numbers of hunters taking part in what may end up being a banner season.
“The hunters are down the last two years on account of our country,” Bosowicz said. “That’s our salvation. If not for that, the kill statewide would be astronomical. I’ve talked with outfitters across the state and their numbers have been down.”
In Grand Lake Stream, however, storekeeper Cressey said the economy has had less of an effect on visiting sportsmen.
“In Grand Lake Stream I don’t think the economy is that much of a big deal,” Cressey said. “I’d only heard of one cancellation. The biggest hit we had was last year when gas was $4 a gallon and they didn’t want to travel.”
Salmon count at 1,945
After a brisk start to the Atlantic salmon spawning season — aided by a string of cool days and frequent rainfall — returns of adult fish to the Penobscot River have dwindled in recent weeks.
According to Oliver Cox, a fisheries biologist for the Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Sea-run Fisheries and Habitat, a total of 1,945 salmon had returned to the Penobscot as of Thursday.
When Cox last updated us, on Aug. 5, a total of 1,928 fish had been captured at the Veazie Dam fish trap. In more than five weeks since then, just 17 fish have made it to the trap.
Cox said in August that water temperatures had risen to a level that was inhospitable for returning fish, and expected the run to slow dramatically from that point on.
He was right.
“Since my last update, the Penobscot salmon run has slowed to a crawl,” Cox wrote in a Friday e-mail. “For 19 days, from Aug. 12-30, no salmon were trapped. During that time, water temperatures averaged 75.4 [degrees] and topped out near 80.”
Typical water temperature for that time of year would be 72.3 degrees, he wrote.
“Over the last 10 days, water temperatures have been seasonal for this time of year (67.5 degrees),” he wrote.
As of Sept. 10 a year ago, 2,085 fish had returned. The total 2008 run was 2,115 salmon.
This year’s total is still well above the 10-year and 31-year averages (1,031 and 1,601 salmon, respectively).