A Successful Bear Season

This was originally published in the December 2018 issue of Boot Life Magazine. To see full photos, you can subscribe to Boot Life Magazine for only $24.95 a year!

As I listened to the radio, I heard Olympic champion, Scott Hamilton describe how incredibly hard it was for him to realize that in all the times he failed, he was learning and taking in information eventually to be successful. “Everything that I’ve ever been able to accomplish in skating and in life has come out of adversity and perseverance.”

And this pretty much is how I feel about bear hunting. Bear hunting isn’t as simple as it’s made out to be by the anti-hunting establishment. My husband John, and I love to bear hunt, and we do it all ourselves. Bear hunting on your own requires a lot of preparation and perseverance, and just as with any kind of hunting, it takes a little luck. We’ve been at this bear hunting for some time now, but I only started bear hunting four years ago. It’s quickly become my favorite season. The anticipation that builds with a month of baiting prior to the actual hunt, followed by hours upon hours sitting and waiting for a bear to show up makes for exciting adventures. Every year that we hunt, we encounter new obstacles, and each year we learn more and more on how to be successful, but no year is a guarantee.

Every year, the different weather patterns and natural food conditions directly affect how bears behave. Beechnuts were abundant in 2017, and literally the day the wind blew and the nuts fell, the bears stopped coming to the bait…well, except for the sow and cubs, which I wouldn’t shoot. They continued to visit the bait and I’d watch them for a bit in hopes someone else would show up.

This year, there were few natural berries or beechnuts, and the land that we hunt on has almost no oaks or apple trees, so come July, the bears were hungry to put on some extra fat before they den up for the winter. This makes for a prime baiting season, but these type of conditions can also be a problem for bear hunters since bears will den early if there isn’t enough food, i.e., the right kind of food.

We started off our season by securing three barrels of bait, which would give us enough bait for three sites. Given a few choices, we opted for the donuts over the trail mix and granola. We also has some really yummy frosting, but we didn’t get as many flavor choices as the previous year and had only one peanut butter bucket.

Once the baiting season began, we baited the two established sites we had, plus we baited two new sites further and deeper up the mountain where they would be less chance of any human interference that might keep bears away during daylight hours. These two new sites proved to be key in our consistently having daylight bears on our sites for the first time in several years. More importantly, we had several new bear that we had never seen.

Scrapper was an old bear that had been on my lower bait site for three straight years, but this year he never showed up. Along with one sow and a cub, we had several bruins, young and mature as well as a well-known sow that had no cubs this year. Last year, she had three cubs, but none were with her this season.

After testing out our sites, John opted for the “tunnel bait”, and I took the “top bait”. We continued to bait the established bait that was mine, but discontinued the other one since it had no bear on it.IMG_20180908_173425728

The first day of bear hunting was a well anticipated day. The sun was shining, but it wasn’t hot and humid as it had been the last two years. Bears move more in cooler weather, so I was optimistic that I’d have a bear this year. I even had a different gun than I had planned to use originally. My son, Tyler scored a moose permit so he bought a new .45-70 rifle. I was so impressed with how easy it was to shoot that I asked him if I could use it. This gun felt like a cannon with a short barrel, so it was easy for me to handle. The only obstacle was that it didn’t have a scope so I had to get used to shooting with an open sited rifle. I’m used to shooting rifles with scopes, so this was new to me.

NewtripodstandI strategically drove my four-wheeler most of the way to my stand, but left it about 100 yards away at the bottom of the mountain. I hiked up to my tower stand and took my seat. The sun was hot on my back. I had my new Ozonics running above my head, and I also had a jelly donut scent stick burning. Behind me I could see far off mountains, and the light breeze kept the mosquitoes and bugs at bay. I watched several gray and red squirrels duke it out over who could steal the most bait. As the afternoon closed to an end, and with only about thirty minutes left, I reached in my bag for my prescription glasses. As soon as I looked up, I watched the biggest bear from nowhere, come out of the woods from behind the barrel and step out in front of it. At this second, I had a “Holy Crap” moment. Seeing a bear that size, with his black face and back as tall as my barrel, that close, was not something I had ever seen. I pulled my gun up. The bear looked right up at me as I sat in my tower stand. I took aim making sure the front sight was seated at the top of the back peep site. I let out an exhale and shot. The bear acted as though I had hit it and it bolted into the woods.

IMG_20180819_172750541I sat there in shock. This bear was huge. I think I heard him go down, but I don’t know. I texted John a few expletives that I had shot a bear. I began to shake, which I never do. I had so much adrenaline running through my body, I didn’t think I’d ever stop shaking.

John came and met me at my stand. By then it was dark. Using flashlights, we went to see where I had shot the bear and to go over the whole scenario again so that we could find it. There was a tiny bit of red blood right where he stood. I knew which direction he ran, and we went that way. There was only a tiny drop now and then. I was afraid he was so fat that he wouldn’t bleed, but that’s why I had used the gun I chose…to make sure it made a big hole. We followed into the thickest woods I had ever gone. I heard the bear huff at one point. He was mad, and obviously not dead. It was just too hard and too unsafe to be tracking a wounded bear at night in those kinds of woods, so we backed out and decided to go back in the morning at daylight.

IMG_20180912_083630910Morning finally came after a toss and turn night. We spent the night in our camper and I awoke to rain drops coming in the roof vent. How are we going to track a bear in the rain?! I was devastated at the thought we might not find my bear. We searched for four hours following just tiny spots of blood, and we never found him. Later I went back to where I had shot at him in front of the barrel. There in the root of the tree was my bullet and some bear hair. I had only grazed him, just enough to make him mad and guarantee that he wouldn’t return this season. I was sick to my stomach that I had lost best chance yet at getting a bear, and a big bear at that.

When I told my son that I couldn’t believe I shot low, and explained how I lined up everything, it was only then that I learned I wasn’t supposed to put the front site at the top of the peep, but center it in the middle. A hard lesson learned for not using a gun I wasn’t totally familiar with, and this failure will haunt me for a very long time. John also lost a bear the same night; a bear that came in but was just out of bow range. He figured it would be back, but it never came back during daylight.

I didn’t feel totally defeated since I am a licensed Maine trapper and I still had a chance to get a bear. This is the second year I have tried to trap bear with a snare. Last year, with sow and cubs nearby, I ended up not being able to trap because I didn’t want to catch a cub in my bucket snare. This year, there was an emergency law passed that banned bucket traps. This left me with either not trapping or having to learn how to trap on a trail, which is what we did.

The very first time we trapped, we tried setting the snare in front of the barrel, but with so many squirrels running all around the barrel, the chances of them tripping the snare before a bear did was inevitable. Opting for a bear trail setup wasn’t hard because the bear had been using so many of them to come to the bait that deciding which trail to use was the hardest.

WGI_0015We moved cameras so that we could monitor bear activity in case the trail we chose wasn’t working. I had a small bear trip my trap, but with the cable stop, it prevented it from being caught. I moved my snare as to not educate the bear. The second tripping was simply the bear didn’t step perfect. I moved my snare again. This time, I put branches in the way so that the bear wouldn’t have any option but to go where I wanted it to go. I set the trap on a downhill walk right where it had put its paw time and time again. Two days went by and I had not hits. Then it rained, which washed away any of our remaining scent from being there. I think this was key to the bear being caught. Yes, I caught a bear. I caught a bear for over 8 hours! And he was mad! He fought and clawed, and chewed at trees to get free. He eventually got himself tangled around a small maple sapling that I had thought wouldn’t be a problem. And he got free. Bears two. Staci zero. So close but no bear for this girl.image

We continued to trap with different bait because we ran out of donuts and although we had several other close calls, we never caught another bear for any length of time. Eventually we had to call it quits because the bear never really liked our bait and instead, went to den.

It took me a long time to be able to talk about missing the first bear, especially when seeing posts on social media with picture after picture of “successful” bear hunts. I was embarrassed that I missed. Then I saw a guide post the number of his clients who missed a bear, and I didn’t feel so bad.

Time will heal the failure, and I’ve learned to look at the positive side. We had a successful bear season. We had the most bear ever come during daylight. I know where I’ll hunt next year, and what to use for bait, and I’ll trap a bear next year making sure my catch circle is clear of anything that could help my bear escape.

Next year, I’ll do it all over again because I absolutely love the challenge, the anticipation, the thrill and the rush of bear hunting. But the one thing I have to keep telling myself is that it’s not bear shopping, it’s bear hunting, where nothing is a guarantee. Wish us luck!

I’m Not a Turkey Hog, Honest.

We roosted the turkeys the night before and knew exactly where they would be in the morning.

I know it’s a little late since turkey season started in late April, but I had a lot of fun this year. I was lucky enough to bag two turkeys on two different hunts, and with two completely set of events. So while I watch and wait for bear on my cameras, I’ll recap the turkey season.

Turkey hunting is sort of odd. You watch turkeys right up until opening day fanning, strutting and gobbling in the fields only to often times find they just disappear as soon as you start hunting them. The signs always stick around: the dusting spots, the scat, the scratched up leaves where they’ve been feeding which begin to torment you since turkeys can be finicky and just not gobble no matter how hard you try to get them to answer….in fact they’re a lot like moose. They either gobble instinctively and uncontrollable, and do just as they’re supposed to, or not at all.

This was the case behind the house. Our first morning was a bust. We roosted the turkeys the night before and knew exactly where they would be in the morning. We set up and made our calls. Turkeys were coming out of the trees everywhere, but no toms in sight. The hens never spooked, but they didn’t stick around either. They simply left to join the turkeys gobbling on the other side of the field, and the toms never came our way.

We caught this guy on our game camera that same evening…and we hadn’t gone back for the evening hunt.Digital Camera

So off we went to make our truck run, hoping to spot a few turkeys in the fields where we have permission to hunt.

Sure enough, we spotted one lone strutting turkey making its way across the lush green field. We drove by, parked in the adjoining field and snuck along the tree line making our way closer to the edge of the adjoining field.

IMG_20180430_081242081John did a call. The turkey answered. We strategically kept trees between us and the bird, and made our way to the big hairy pine standing on the edge of the field. There was about 50 yards to the gully where a line of trees grew and separated the fields. The turkey was on one side, and us on the other. I was afraid the turkey wouldn’t cross the line of trees as they don’t usually like to do that. But luck was in our favor. That turkey was on a dead run after a couple more calls. I readied myself under the bottom tree branch, and waited until the turkey was in range. It crossed the tree line. It strutted. I could hear its feathers ruffling. It dropped his feather and let out its last gobble. I fired and dropped him on the spot. Textbook hunt right there, and I bagged a big fully-mature turkey. We went and tagged the turkey, but the store couldn’t weigh it. I think he was a good 20 pounds but we could only get 19.1 pounds on the deer scale.

So the second hunt was much different. In fact, this hunt wasn’t for me. It was for my friend Erin to get a turkey. I brought my shotgun because I could still shoot a bird, but I had no intentions on shooting a bird before Erin did.

John drove us around hoping to get a bird. We didn’t have any luck first thing in the morning, so we headed on our ride. Erin spotted a turkey and group of hens in a field. After some successful calling and her and I waiting for the turkeys to come our way, we gave up. The turkeys either spotted us or got bored because they simply moved away from us. So back in the truck we went. In our travels we spotted a litter of fox pups. It was really awesome to see. I didn’t have my camera, but Erin has some nice shots of them on her Instagram page.

So we headed to the spot that is known to have turkeys “later in the morning”. We headed up through the field…a long field, with a treeline in the middle. Just as we got to the treeline, John spotted a whole flock of turkeys coming our way. We dove for the ground. Erin and I scooted up to the treeline and John with decoys in hand started calling and dancing the decoys. The turkeys responded immediately. Erin and I had no idea how many turkeys were there, but they were coming fast and furious. One very vocal bird was making his way fast and was on the other side of us in a matter of 30 seconds.

I sat behind Erin telling her to get ready. Instead of the turkey busting through the opening in the treeline, it turned and headed to our right making its way down the treeline. I couldn’t see him, but it felt like I was ducking a Velociraptor that was hunting us. I was afraid to move a muscle because turkeys have incredible eyesight. But he was moving to my right. I didn’t even have my gun in my hand. I whisper to Erin that the turkey is coming to my right. She answers back to have me put my back to her. She is ready for a bird to just step through that opening and doesn’t dare move. I slowly put my back to her. I pull my knees up and pull my gun to my side.

In a split second, that tom turkey decided to fly through the trees and landed about 15 yards in front of me. He gobbled. I slowly raised my gun and POW! I dropped the turkey.

John jumped up and yelled, “What to heck did you just do?! Erin’s supposed to shoot the turkey!” Erin high fives me.

In all the commotion, we didn’t realize that there were about twenty more turkeys that HADN’T come over the treeline yet…and then we watched them all run away. Erin’s chance at a bird that day ended as quick as it began. And John now calls me the Turkey Hog.

My turkey never moved a muscle until we went to picked it up. It managed to spur John and then a bunch of  its tail feathers fell out even though I never touched them…weirdest thing ever!

I felt bad I had shot, but Erin was such a sport and congratulated me on my bird. She’s a lot of fun to hunt with, but unless I can actually help her get some game, she may not want to hunt with me again…and John says my success rate as a guide is dwindling…so Erin, I owe you! I promise the next bird is yours.

And you’re welcome to join me bear hunting over bait…but I get to shoot first…lol.

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The opening in the treeline directly behind me.

 

Take A Slow Wild Ride

I know that sounds confusing, but let’s face it; we miss a whole lot of stuff driving too fast. I can’t tell you how many people drive right by or into wildlife because they’re so intent on getting where they’re going that they don’t take the time to slow down and really see what’s around them.

When my children were younger, many of our Friday or Saturday nights were spent cruising the back roads hoping to see some wildlife. “Moose rides” we called them, but we often saw way more than moose. To this day, my kids can recount a certain ride where they saw a bull moose fight, a baby bunny, or where we stopped and caught fish in our travels.

The secret to seeing wildlife is: Number one: knowing where to go. Number two: going at the right time of the year, and number three: going at the right time of day. But really if you want to see wildlife, just take a ride into rural Maine. A slow ride. Grab a friend, lover or family, and get your eyes off your phone and into the fields, the woods, and the roads. I’m not saying you have to go 30 miles per hour the whole time…but 60 won’t do you any good and you might even hit one of the animals you’re trying to spot…so slow down. Be aware of your surroundings, including cars behind you who aren’t out for a wild ride, and be ready to slow to a stop, take a picture, and share the experience and make memories.

In the beginning of the spring, April, we start our rides to go fishing. This time of year, we see a lot of yearling moose who have just been cast off from their mothers who are getting ready to calve. These moose are extremely scared, tend to stay in the road, run up the road, and may even come up to your vehicle as one did for us this spring. The moose always look pretty scraggly, but it’s just the shedding of their winter coats.

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We also see a lot of rabbits. One of the games we play with the kids is that everyone gets to guess how many moose and rabbits we’ll see. The winner only gets bragging rights, but it gets the kids involved with looking to spot animals. We’ve seen woodcock with chicks, fox with kits, grouse alone, and with chicks, deer with fawn, moose with calves, bucks, coyotes, snakes, bear, turtles, turkey, rabbits, and sometimes we even spot mushrooms..all from the seat of our truck.

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Where to go: For moose, we go north/northwest of Norridgewock…areas include Bingham, Athens, road to Greenville, Rangeley and US Route 16, Oquossoc, Kingfield, and north of Lexington on the Long Falls Dam Road. For deer, just take a drive. They’re literally everywhere from the interstate, to farm fields, to within the city limits. Some of the biggest deer in velvet that I’ve ever seen have been in Augusta.

When to go: early spring to see turkeys gobbling in farm fields, deer getting their first taste of grass, pregnant cow moose, yearling moose, laying turtles in the gravel roadside, and if you’re lucky enough, a bear with cubs. Mid-spring  delivers for moose with calves, moose and deer in general, rabbits with babies, grouse with chicks, birds of all sorts including hawks and owls and even sand hill cranes. Fall is great to see moose in the rut, and partridge to shoot in October. Most of the time when we hunt for partridge, we’re riding roads looking on berms to spot roosting birds…use this time to start early and get to know where you see them for the fall bird season.

We always plan our rides so that we arrive at our destination around dusk. You should plan to drive slower than normal and keep an eye out. This is the time many animals come out to eat, hunt, or travel. We bring a spotlight to help spot animals. We never have any kind of hunting equipment in the car either, because it would look bad to a game warden or police officer. You can use lights except from September 1 to December 15, when “it is unlawful to use artificial lights from 1/2 hour after sunset until 1/2 hour before sunrise to illuminate, jack, locate, attempt to locate or show up wild animals or wild birds except raccoons which may be hunted at night with electric flashlights during the open season (IFW).”

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So no matter when you head out, you’re apt to see something. Just slow down and watch the sides of the roads, the trees, the skies, and take it all in. There’s always something out there to enjoy, to share, and to learn about. You won’t forget it, and neither will the kids.

Happy Riding!

PS Don’t forget your camera. Many of these are taken with my phone camera so the resolution isn’t as good as it could be.

A Walk in the Woods

I usually walk in the woods out back of my house, but when it comes to being in the woods “up North” we usually are riding in the truck. This year, we headed into East Carry to check on the pond and see if any trout were rising. The road was exceptionally soft so we decided to park the truck and walk in. The frost was coming out of the ground and we were afraid we’d get stuck and with no cell phone reception, it’s the last thing we needed to happen…and we have a new truck that John doesn’t like to get dirty.

What an amazing day it turned out to be!

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This rabbit was one of many that let me take an extra close picture.

We decided to “be quiet” and whisper because we were hoping we’d see a bear. As we walked the road, I spent as much time looking at where I was walking as looking around. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied something brown moving near a blown down spruce. My immediate thought was it’s a rabbit, since we had only seen about 20 of them along the roadside the night before. As I watched, the animal quickly made its get away. I watched it bound away. It’s feet were fat and perfect, and it had a black tail…In my mind, I’m looking at this animal and thinking that’s the biggest freaking rabbit I’ve ever seen! I yell to John, “Did you see that? It was a Goliath rabbit. That thing was huge!” And then it hits me. OMG! That was NO rabbit. It was a bobcat! We got a good laugh and we now call this section of the road Bobcat Alley.  Of course, no picture. It happened so suddenly I didn’t get a shot.

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This coyote is much smaller and shorter than the one we saw at East Carry. It’s also more orange in color.

We headed down the road. Good thing we didn’t bring the truck. There was a tree across the road, and the road was partially flooded. As we inched ourselves around the tree while trying not to get our feet wet, I looked up just in time to see a huge, and I mean HUGE–coyote, which we now feel must have some wolf in it, come running down the road. It stood there staring at us. It didn’t fear us. It stood as tall as a German Shepard or maybe even taller with a Husky look. He was a big dog–bigger than any coyote I’ve ever seen and was completely white/yellow. He just stood there. I don’t think it had ever seen a human. I tap John on the arm, “Hey! Coyote! in a whisper yell. I didn’t dare move afraid I’d scare him off. John had is handgun on his hip, and slowly took it out of his holster. Using the tree as cover, he took aim. POW! and the dog turned and ran. John had missed the 80 plus yard shot. We followed the tracks. He was a big one. He went up another trail, and then proceeded to scratch and pee all along the road. We followed his tracks until the trail ended. We then turned around and finished walking into the pond. Never before had we ever seen such a large dog. Again, no picture because I didn’t want to move.

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Coy-wolf track…IMO 😉

I went back to looking for more wildlife. I was able to notice on several occasions the places where birds like to dust. They find mounds of dirt and create bowls in the sand. This process keeps bugs off their feathers.

 

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We also noticed other wildlife and plants: If only they had smell-a-vision…May Flowers are the absolute prettiest smelling flower.

We finally made it into the East Carry. The fish weren’t jumping, but the loons were calling. It was so soothing to see the water. The main picture is East Carry.

 

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If you get a chance to take a walk in the woods, be ready for surprises. You just never know what you’ll run into in the woods.

 

Spring Pussy Willows

There’s always a sure way of knowing that spring is really coming, and that’s when I start spotting pussy willows as I drive to work. I often hear friends say they can never find any.

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In the city of Waterville, but Augusta has some good ones too.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you really can’t miss them once you know where to look. The hardest part about spotting pussy willows is not being able to pick them off someone’s lawn…nope can’t do that. Since I haven’t got up the courage to ask and know that I can find them elsewhere, I just respect their land and move on…but I still sigh every time I drive by!

I’ve spent a good amount of time looking and some of the best and biggest pussy willows I’ve ever found have been in the city. You read right…the city. The The key is to pick them before they turn green, and you want willow trees…not poplar tree blossoms which look somewhat like a pussy willow.

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Some really tall ones!

Every year, John and I pick an enormous bunch of them to keep in the house. One year, we found the mother load of gigantic pussy willows and picked a bunch. The following year, we went back only to find that the owner of the property had wiped it clean of the willow trees, and put up a big old warehouse. Knowing that there had to be more somewhere in the city, I went to work scanning the for-sale lots in my travels.

 

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Score! At an industrial park, where land is for sale, I managed to spot some pussy willows. They didn’t appear too big from the road, but once we were up close, they were huge! They literally looked like cat paws…or rabbit paws…just a really awesome find. It’s amazing how much land right next to the highway is accessible and I’ve seen several people picking pussy willows in the same spot each year. Just know that the bigger ones are where no one’s picked yet.

So with the cold that’s been sticking around, the pussy willows haven’t bloomed out as quick as I expected they would…but the season is coming to a close. In fact, since these rains, the willows are getting too far gone as the leaves are trying to come out.

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These green buds are much more easy to spot…take note for next year.  You’ll want to remember where you saw them come spring. Don’t forget to take the kids along for some outdoor time and a great time to learn about the woods.

Happy Spring! Now go fishing!