New England's Top Black Bear Hunts

Some of the best bear hunting in the U.S. takes place in the Northeast, where long, varied seasons and growing bear populations means plenty of opportunities for hunters. Our expert has the story.(September 2007)

Photo by Noppadol Paothong.

New England's black bears may be found and hunted from Maine's north woods to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Bears are elusive prey that appear and disappear like ghosts. Most bears are shot at close range in thick cover, with average rifle opportunities under 75 yards and bow shots under 20 yards.

In the Northeast, black bear hunting seasons open as early as August and run into November. While still-hunting and baiting are popular methods where they are allowed, many hunters prefer the fast action and excitement that comes with hunting with hounds. In any case, hunters should keep in mind that a black bear's eyesight is only fair, but his hearing is better and his nose is keen.

Here's where to go to get nose-to-nose with a trophy bruin in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

MASSACHUSETTS

It may be surprising to learn that Massachusetts, one of the country's most densely populated states, holds a healthy and growing black bear population.

Jim Cardoza, a MassWildlife bear biologist, said hunters recorded 148 bruins in 2006. In fact, last year was the second-highest black bear harvest ever recorded in the state. In 2003, hunters shot 153 bears.

According to Cardoza, the rule of thumb for locating bears in Massachusetts is to hunt west of the Connecticut River.

"The central part of the state is good," he said, "but the western part is better."

Bear hotspots last year were Berkshire and Franklin counties with 76 and 32 bears taken, respectively. Bear statistics for other counties included Hampden at 17, Hampshire at 18 and 5 for Worcester -- the most central of all the counties cited.

Cardoza specifically recommended Berkshire and Hampden counties. Berkshire is tucked up in the state's northwesternmost corner, bordered on the north by Vermont and to the west by New York. This part of the Berkshires includes wildlife management zones 1, 2 and 3. There is a lot of land in these counties with many public hunting opportunities, including wildlife management areas and state parks.

Cardoza recommends getting off the beaten path and looking for woodland bears by finding stands of oak and beech. Look for signs of bears including tracks, scat piles and claw marks on trees.

Mount Greylock State Reservation in Berkshire County, near the state's northwest corner, offers 12,500 acres. There is, however, a three-quarter-mile restricted zone around the War Memorial Tower.

Mount Greylock is wild and rugged, but very accessible. The Appalachian Trail runs up the spine of Greylock and south toward Connecticut. The low-lying areas contain red oak, beech, birch, ash and maple, while the higher levels are dominated by fir and spruce.

To get there from the south, east or West, take Interstate Route 90 to Route 20 west to Route 7 north.

On Berkshire County's eastern edge is Franklin County.

To the north is the Vermont state border, and to the south is Hampshire County.

In Franklin County, biologist Cardoza recommend asking permission to hunt from one of many dairy farmers in the county. Bears can damage farmers' ripening corn in September, and many farmers are more than happy to allow hunters a chance at a bear.

For woodland bears in Franklin County, try the Kenneth Dubuque Memorial State Forest in the towns of Hawley, Plainfield and Savoy. This 7,882-acre parcel features hardwood and spruce-fir forest. The terrain is steep in some spots but flat in others, with many brooks running through the area.

From the east, take Route 2 to Route 8A south. Parking is available at King Corner Road and on Hallockville Road.

In Hampshire County, try Fox Den WMA. Fox Den is composed of a patchwork of 3,623 acres that is part of the larger Peru State Forest and Middlefield State Forest.

At Fox Den, expect hardwoods -- including beech, maple, birch and white ash -- scattered among the pines and hemlocks that make up most of the forest. Throughout are stream corridors and shaded ravines.

To get there from the east, take Route 143 west. Or from the south, take Route 112 north to Route 143.

Many secondary roads access Fox Den.

Massachusetts' bear season runs from Sept. 4 through 22, and then starts up again from Nov. 5 through 24 during the last part of archery deer season and prior to the firearms deer season.

Because the deer and bear seasons overlap, archery hunters have the unique opportunity to bag both a buck and a bear. Hunters may use a rifle, muzzleloader, bow or handgun during the September and November seasons. Only still-hunting and stand-hunting are allowed.

The bag limit is one bear per season. Bear permit applications are available at MassWildlife district offices or online. For more information, contact the MassWildlife office at (508) 792-7270, or you can log onto www.mass.gov/wildlife.com.

VERMONT

Vermont has one of the densest black bear populations in the country: about one bruin for every three square miles.

Some 323 bears were harvested in 2006, according to Scott Darling, a Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist, down from the 2005 harvest of 447.

The reduction in hunter success last year can be attributed to the robust beechnut and acorn crops of 2006. With more food on the forest floor, bears did not roam as far and had less contact with hunters. Bears are reclusive creatures, and if food is plentiful, they will stay put.

The key to finding bears in large tracts of land is to find concentrated food sources in or near prime cover. Early in the fall, bears prefer berries, black cherries and standing corn. Later in the season, they'll feed on wild apples, beechnuts and acorns.

To stalk bears in a stand of beechnut trees halfway up the side of a mountain is certainly a challenge, but it's also worth the effort.

Darling noted that Vermont's average harvested bear weighs 150 to 160 pounds. Last year, a brute of 413 pounds was taken, and 56 bears weighed over 200 pounds.

Bear hunters are advised to concentrate on two public hunting areas: Green Mountain National Forest, along the spine of the Green Mountains; and the Northeast Kingdom bordering New Hampshire and Quebec. These areas are large and, as Darling notes, offer rich opportunities for bear hunters.

Darling said that the area of the state with the largest average annual bear harvest is generally the Northeast Kingdom, specifically Essex and Orleans counties.

In Essex County in the Northeast Kingdom, try the Victory Basin Wildlife Management Area, which covers 4,970 acres. The WMA is part of the larger 16,000-acre Victory Basin State Forest.

Expect diverse, tough conditions in this remote area, which features mountains, deep valleys and swampy cover. From the city of St. Johnsbury, take Route 2 east to the southern tip of the Victory Basin area. Many secondary roads offer access.

Orleans County shares its eastern edge with Essex County. A good hunt to try is the Bill Sladyk WMA on the border of the two counties. This 10,175-acre parcel ranges from the border of Canada on the north to Norton Pond in the southeastern edge.

Sladyk WMA offers varying terrain, from flat cedar swamps to rolling hardwood hills. The area is primarily forested with hardwoods and softwoods.

To get there, take Route 114 north, which follows the parcel's eastern edge. There are many secondary roads that access the area.

Vermont's bear season runs from Sept. 1 through Nov. 14. Hunters may use a rifle, muzzleloader, handgun, bow or crossbow (with special permit). Only still-hunting, stand-hunting and hound hunting are allowed. A special dog permit is required. No baiting is permitted.

The bag limit is one black bear per season.

For more information, contact the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department at (802) 241-3700, or go to www.vtfishandwildlife.com

MAINE

The area north of Moosehead Lake in Piscataquis County is good bear country, but Aroostook County on the border of Canada is even better for bear, according to Jen Vashon, a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife black bear biologist.

This huge chunk of land is known as the North Maine Woods, a region of over 3.5 million acres of forested land. The land is privately owned, but is open for public use.

The area is not a true wilderness because it's crisscrossed throughout by about 3,000 miles of permanent roads. Even so, this is big, thick country, and a compass or reliable GPS unit is mandatory.

Maine has the highest bear harvest in New England. The population is estimated at 23,000 animals, or about 10 bears per 100 square miles. In 2006, 2,659 bruins were killed. Over 73 percent were harvested over bait.

Early-season hunters take note: Most Maine bears are taken before the end of September. Last year, that number was 2,220 bears, or 84 percent of the total harvest.

Over the past five years, the state's annual bear harvest averaged 3,622 animals. Last year's harvest rate dipped, as it did across New England, due to an abundant beechnut crop. (When more natural food is available, the bears are less likely to respond to bait.)

The bear harvest was greatest in Wildlife Management District 28, with 26 bears harvested per 100 square miles. Next were WMDs 3, 6, 10, and 11, with 20 to 15 bears per 100 square miles. In all other WMDs, the bear harvest density was less than 15 bears per 100 square miles.

The county with the most bears harvested is typically Aroostook County. Last year, hunters there accounted for 31 percent of the state's total harvest, or 819 bears.

Aroostook County, on the northern tip of the state that juts into Canada, includes WMDs 3, 6, 10 and 11.

WMD 3, with its numerous lakes and streams, features flat, swampy cover. The westernmost edge of WMD 6 borders Route 11.

A good starting point for scouting these WMDs is the city of Caribou. Travel north on Route 1 to access the northeast section, or try Route 164 for the northwest section of the area.

If the North Maine Woods area seems too daunting, try the western mountain foothills southeast of Moosehead Lake, which is in WMD 14 in Somerset County.

Last year, Somerset County accounted for 329 bears and ranked No. 4 on the list of bears harvested by county. This area of the state is steeper in spots, but there are still plenty of boggy areas with many streams and brooks. Route 16 runs east to west, so hunt the northern side of Route 16.

In Maine, the general hunting season starts Aug. 27 and runs through Nov. 24. Hunting with dogs begins Sept. 10 and runs through Oct. 26. Hunting over bait is legal from Aug. 27 through Sept. 22. A bait-hunting permit is required.

Hunting over standing crops, food left from normal agricultural operations or from natural occurrence does not constitute set-bait hunting. Bear may be taken with a rifle, handgun or shotgun, bow, or muzzleloader. For crossbow hunting, a special permit is required.

During the firearms deer season (Oct. 29 through Nov. 24), it is legal to harvest bear. The annual bag limit is one bear of either sex.

Early-season hunters take note: Most Maine bears are taken

before the end of September.

Last year, that number was 2,220 bears, or 84 percent of the total bear harvest.

For more details, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at (207) 287-8000, or go to www.mefishwildlife.com.

For bait permits on public land, contact the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands at (207) 287-3821, or the White Mountain National Forest office at (207) 824-2134.

For a list of guides and outfitters, contact www.maineguides.org, the Web site of the Maine Professional Guides Association.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

The 2006 bear-hunting season was New Hampshire's first season under the state's new Big Game Population Management Plan. The plan is in effect from 2006 through 2015 and strives to maintain consistent bear populations across the state's management regions.

The Department of Fish and Game's long-term goals are to stabilize the popul

ation in the northern part of the state, reduce the bear population in the White Mountains region and allow for population growth in the central and southern portions of the state.

Andrew Timmins, the department's Bear Project leader, said that the total harvest declined 20 percent in 2006, and only 351 bears were killed. The cause for the downward spike was attributed to the season's large crop of beechnuts.

"More beechnuts are good for bears, not so good for hunters," Timmins noted. "Bears do not need to move around when natural food is available in abundance."

Even though bait-hunters had the best success rate (with 152 bears out of the total 351), the beechnut crop kept bears from seeking artificial baits.

Even so, hunters killed 149 bears, and hound hunters took 49 bruins. On average, bait hunters tag about 72 percent of bears taken each year.

The largest bear in 2006 weighed 390 pounds.

Timmins suggested the White Mountains region for some prime black bear hunting. Last year, this area accounted for 108 bears out of the total harvest.

The central region of the state produced 99 bears.

Hunter success was highest in WMUs D2 and F in the White Mountain region and WMUs G and I1 in the central region. WMUs D2, F, G, and I1 are in a cluster on New Hampshire's western border.

Timmins recommended a bear hunt along the slopes of the White Mountain where there are mature stands of beechnut trees and climax forest. These areas hold larger bears and are not hunted hard.

Maybe there is a new state record out there that will surpass the record set in 2005 -- a 532-pound bruin.

In New Hampshire, land that is not specifically posted against trespassing is considered open to hunting. There is also plenty of public land in the state. Try the slopes of the White Mountains in WMUs D2 and F.

The border between WMUs D2 and F is Route 118. This is steep, rough country in most places.

If the thought of battling high ground gives your knees a fright, try the 2,203-acre Mascoma River Wildlife Management Area. Compared to areas off Route 118, Mascoma is pancake-flat and should provide easier hunting.

To get to the Mascoma River WMA, travel Route 10 to Grafton Turnpike and Dorchester Road.

WMUs G and I1 share a border that runs roughly east to west from Route 104 to Route 4 and Route 11.

This area is well suited to flatlanders. Try the 1,080-acre Kearsarge WMA at the northern base of Mount Kearsarge, which reaches 2,937 feet. At lower elevations, the parcel consists of mixed hardwoods and evergreens. The WMA is adjacent to the 4,965-acre Mount Kearsarge State Forest. To get there, take Route 11 west from the town of Andover. Various secondary roads lead to Kearsarge WMA.

Bear season opens Sept. 1. The actual close date in November varies, depending on hunting methods and the WMU.

Hunters are allowed to hunt bears with bait and hounds. Bows, rifles, shotguns and muzzleloaders are all legal methods for bear hunting.

Crossbows may be used with restrictions. Bait and hound hunting requires additional permits.

For more information, contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department at (603) 271-3421, or go to www.wildlife.state.nh.us.

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