In the middle of last week, I stopped by a local tagging station to find out how the area’s bear hunters had been faring during the first week of the bait-hunting season.

Not so well, I heard.

This week, I headed back for an update.

The report was the same: Not so well.

Armed with those reports, I headed over to one of the smartest bear guys I know, descended into his basement lab — picture an indoor bear den, with fluorescent lighting — and started asking questions.

As it turns out, that biologist, Randy Cross, said there’s probably nothing to worry about.

The report I shared with him was, after all, anecdotal. And he had been hearing reports from other parts of the state that indicated a typical bear season.

“I am hearing of some good bears being taken,” said Cross, who supervises the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s field research on bears. “But I haven’t heard of any bears over 400 [pounds] yet.”

When it comes to Maine black bears, hunters often say that a 200-pounder is a good bear. Those more than 300 pounds are big.

And the few that end up weighing 400 or 500 pounds? Well, they’re just plain huge.

And while Cross didn’t have many specific bear tales to share, he did have plenty of interesting information.

Cross, you’ve got to understand, has spent years studying the state’s bears and knows plenty about them. He has trapped them and tagged them for research and can recognize many of those bruins — by name, believe it or not — when he looks at photos taken by his colleagues.

And when Cross tells you that he has a pretty good idea why this year’s bears are looking like they’ve been attending Weight Watchers classes, it makes sense to listen closely.

Cross said the bears are following a pattern: This is a good beechnut year. Therefore, their behavior is different than what it might be in other years.

“We used to have beechnuts every other year — we had them every even[-numbered] fall for nearly 20 years — but it’s less reliable now,” Cross said. “The beech trees are not as healthy as they used to be, for one thing. We can’t really count on every even fall having abundant amounts of beech-nuts.”

But when we do get such a fall … like we will this year … the bears notice.

Cross said this year’s hunting season is different from recent ones in a couple of big ways.

First, it appears that this is the first season in five or six years when bears will head to their dens late.

And second, this is the earliest possible season, according to DIF&W parameters: Labor Day — the first Monday in September — fell on Sept. 1 this year, and the state’s bear season always begins on the last Monday of August.

“When you have beechnuts, the bears are going to go to den late in the year, rather than early,” Cross said. “They tend not to fatten up until later. They continue to put on skeletal growth and muscle mass [in the meantime].”

Therefore, Cross points out, the bears that have been shot during the first two weeks of the season haven’t begun their hardcore, put-on-some-weight foraging, knowing … somehow … that they’ve got plenty of time to spare.

“Those years [when there’s an ample beechnut crop], especially the young males are being shot very lean,” Cross said. “The weights are actually less than they would be during an early den year, when they’re really putting the fat on [earlier].”

Cross said when there are no beechnuts, and bears begin trying to put on fat earlier, they’ll typically begin heading to their dens as early as mid-October.

In years when the beechnuts are plentiful, that might not happen until late November.

The decision isn’t a conscious one, Cross doesn’t think. It’s just a bear’s way of listening to what its body is saying.

“It all depends on how well the food holds up,” Cross said. “If the food is there, they’ll stay out and stay active, continue to forage, because they’re making progress. They’re gaining weight. Once they start losing progress, when it costs them more energy to forage than they’re taking in from those efforts, then they’re losing ground and the body somehow flips a switch and says, ‘Give it up, pack it in, because you’re wasting time.’”

With all that said, Cross expects the four-week season to be similar to other recent seasons in an important respect: When it’s done, he expects the state’s harvest total to be close to past years.

“[The last few years] it’s been close to 2,800 to 3,000 [bears],” Cross said.

What do you think?

On Thursday I told you about the federal plan to establish Endangered Species Act protection for the Atlantic salmon in the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers.

Over the past several years I’ve spoken with many anglers and conservationists about that possibility, and every time the topic came up, I was sure to get an earful.

Now that the federal listing proposal has moved forward, I’m eager to share some of your thoughts with your fellow readers.

Unfortunately, response to my Thursday solicitation for feedback has been … um … slow.

OK. Make it nonexistent.

If you’ve got an opinion on the possible ESA listing,

particular on the Penobscot, please consider sharing a few thoughts.

If the response level picks up, I’ll share a few representative comments in a future column.

Thanks in advance for your participation.

Gun show under way

If you’re a firearms enthusiast, a military memorabilia buff or a hunter looking to add another gun to the case, this weekend is for you.

The Penobscot County Conservation Association will hold its 31st annual Bangor Gun Show at the Bangor Auditorium today and Sunday.

The show will run from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Admission is $6, while current members of law enforcement agencies, military personnel and NRA members pay just $5. Children under 12 get in free with an adult, as do those who join the NRA at the show.

Proceeds will be used to help the PCCA provide college scholarships for wildlife conservation students.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their...