On the Ridge: Bears, oh my

Published: 9/9/2020 4:39:09 PM
Modified: 9/9/2020 4:38:58 PM

I watched as Canadian geese moved high overhead, winging toward a destination that I could only imagine. They were so high that I could barely make out their mournful “honks,” yet I wondered how far this flight would take them before the rest would finally come.

“We’re on the back side of summer now,” I whispered to myself as the geese continued moving further away from my beloved Shelburne. Soon after this flock disappeared, another group passed overhead following in the same path. Then another, and still another. It set my mind on a direct course with the fall hunting season, and that very soon I would begin preparing for my own seasons as the “magic time” was again close at hand. I felt for its arrival, but still found myself thinking that I’m not quite ready to give up on summer just yet.

September marks the beginning of the 2020 fall hunting season in Massachusetts, and as you read, this bear season is in full swing and will continue until almost the end of the month. As the days continue to signal the return of cooler weather, many Massachusetts sportsmen and women will start preparing in the same way for the hunting season(s) of their choice.

Archery season for deer and turkey begins Oct. 5 in eastern Massachusetts and Oct. 19 in the rest of the state, while pheasant season opens statewide on Oct. 1. For now, bear season is on everyone’s mind as hunters have been putting boots to the ground since early August searching for obvious trails, good food sources, tracks, scat and other signs that will tell them that bears are in the area.

Some of the best bear hunting occurs in September and October when you can stalk bears by finding concentrated food sources near prime bear habitat. Early in the season, preferred foods include wild berries, cherries, and standing corn. As the season progresses, wild apples, beechnuts and acorns become even more important. Stalking bears in a stand of nut-rich beech trees halfway up a mountain on a crisp October morning is one of hunting’s most exciting challenges. The reward is a great-tasting, nutritious meat that, when properly prepared, compares favorably to pork.

Farmers are also a great resource for locating bear as they often experience crop damage and will want you to hunt their property as much as possible. Many farmers west of the Connecticut River allow multiple bear hunters on their land, especially if bear damage has been severe. But always ask permission prior to walking into or around someone’s property or cornfield. Maybe even consider offering to share the harvest if you get something, help out with a chore or two on their land, or even bring a thank-you gift to show your appreciation which can go a long way toward building good relationships.

Hunting in these areas will often find bears coming into, and out of, cornfields right at dawn or dusk offering shot opportunities if you’re located in the right place. If you are hunting a field edge, get out there early if you can, or in the evening, sit until legal hunting ends (30 minutes after sunset) or until the last moments of good visibility. It can also be productive to find a stand or blind located in the woods adjacent to a cornfield where you have a good view of entry and exit trails. But pay attention to the direction of the wind as black bears have a keen sense of smell and will quickly pick up your presence. Place yourself downwind when possible and approach your stand from a direction different from where you’d expect a bear to appear.

In the early morning hours, stalk quietly into your stand and consider waiting until there is just enough light so you can see. This may mean losing a few moments in your stand, but your chances of success will increase if you aren’t spooking critters away as you approach. Also, try to reduce your human scent. Wash clothes and shower with a scent-free wash. Store clothes outside on a clothesline or in a bag with natural vegetation like dry leaves and pine boughs, but find those items from the areas where you’re hunting, not from your backyard where even things like dry leaves and sticks carry a different scent.

It looks like 2020 has the potential to be a phenomenal year for black bear in Massachusetts, as populations have increased to an estimated 5,000-7,500 bears statewide. As a result, the entire state is now open to bear hunting and has been since 2015. Since that statewide opening, which added numerous opportunities, the tally has never been less than 200. In 2016 hunters took 283, a new record harvest. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see that record fall mightily in 2020.

Joe Judd is a lifelong hunter and sportsman. He is an outdoor writer, seminar speaker, and a 2019 inductee into the N.E. Turkey Hunting Hall of Fame. Joe is also on the Quaker Boy Game Calls and Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s Pro-Staff.

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