October 02, 2019
By Al Raychard
Successful bearhunting depends on several factors. Topping the list is the availability of natural forage that keeps bears active and out of the dens longer into the fall. Equally important is the weather.
Several eastern states experienced reduced harvests in 2018 due to heavy rain that kept hunters indoors or early snows that forced bears to den early. But rest assured, for 2019, there are plenty of bears out there for those willing to put in the time and effort.
With an estimated population of 35,000, Maine is home to one of the largest bear populations in the Lower 48 and the largest in the East. Bears are apt to be found throughout Maine these days, and hunting is allowed statewide, but Aroostook, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties have been producing the most bears with Somerset, Washington, Franklin and Oxford counties following behind, although not always in this particular order.
Maine allows both baiting and hounding opportunities with hunting over bait producing the most bears each year. The baiting season ran Aug. 26 through Sept. 21, the dog season began Sept. 9 and ends Oct. 26, with the general bear season continuing to the end of November. A big-game hunting license and bear permit is required to hunt here.
Like Maine, New Hampshire allows both baiting and hounding. The baiting season began Sept. 21 in WMUs H1, H2, I2, K, L and M. This season continued until Sept. 28 in units A, B, C2, D1, G, I1, J1 and J2, and until Oct. 5 in units C1, D2, E and F. Units where hounding is permitted open Sept. 23 and close Nov. 12. The general bear season dates vary by unit, closing Oct. 12, Nov. 12 or Nov. 30.
Bear hunters should scout and hunt the White Mountain and Central Regions of the state. The White Mountain Units include around 800,000 acres of the White Mountain National Forest, while the Central Region to the south is more heavily populated but still offers plenty of large public lands and some prime bear hunting opportunities. The northern region of the state has its share of bears and offers a big woods hunting experience and plenty of public land.
This year the early bear season runs (Sept. 1) through Nov. 15, and the late season Nov. 16-24. Hunters are reminded that a special bear tag, which costs $15 for residents and $35 for nonresidents, is required to hunt the early season. However, a bear tag is included at noextra cost with a big-game license for the late season.
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While bear hunting is generally good over much of Vermont, the top bear hunting counties in recent years have been in the lower elevations down along the spine of the Green Mountains including WMUs H and J1. Units along the east edge of the Greens offering agricultural lands abutting the national forest have also been very productive, in particular WMUs H, J1 and J2. In the Northeast Kingdom Region WMU D1 has been a leader in producing bears and should be again this fall. In the southern part of the state, WMUs N and P, both in the southwest corner have less public land but offer excellent potential.
Massachusetts is now home to between 4,500 to 5,000 bears, an increase of nine fold since the 1980s, and it’s increasing by about 8 percent annually. The top bear counties in Massachusetts have always been in the western region.
Typically, the rolling hills in Berkshire County tops the list with Franklin County second if not first some years. Hampden, Hampshire, Worcester and Middlesex counties generally follow in that order. Berkshire County west of the Connecticut River is home to some of the largest state forests and wildlife management areas as well as some of the largest agricultural lands in the commonwealth. Franklin County also offers some large public properties, especially close to the border with Vermont where bear numbers and harvest figures have been on the rise.
This year the three-part bear season in Massachusetts began Sept. 3-21 and continues Nov. 4-23 and Dec. 2-14.
The Empire State is currently home to an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 black bears in areas open to hunting, and that number is growing. In recent years, hunting opportunities have been increased, and some areas previously closed have been opened to bear hunting.
Since introduced a few years ago, the early hunting season in the northern zone has become increasingly popular and has contributed to the largest percentage of annual harvest, undoubtedly due to more favorable weather conditions and better odds of bears being active. Top bear-producing units included 5H, 6C, 6F and 6J.
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In the southern zone, more bears have been taken during the regular season that overlaps part of deer season, which draws more hunters afield. The bow season and early season typically come in second and third, respectively. Top units include 3A, 3C, 3K and 3M, all in the Catskill region. Each of these units in the north and south regions should do well again this fall.
Click here for New York bear season dates.
With a statewide bear population estimated at 20,000, the Keystone State has more bear hunting opportunities now than at any other time in modern history. Still, hunters are not taking enough bears to meet management goals, a total of just 6,500 in the past two years.
What Pennsylvania may lack in lengthy hunting seasons, it clearly makes up for in big bears. The state is known for producing some of the largest bears in the East each year. In 2018, 70 bears tipped the scales at more than 500 pounds (dressed weight), including 20 animals that weighed more than 600 pounds. The largest weighed in at 780 pounds and was harvested in Forest County. A 708-pounder was harvested in Luzerne County, and one weighing 704 pounds was taken in Clearfield County. Big bears are scattered throughout the northern half of the state.
Bears are generally taken across the state, but the north-central and northeast counties produce the most bears. Tioga County in the north-central region and Pike County in the northeast generally top their respective regions. Elsewhere, Venango County in the northwest, Somerset County in the southwest and Huntingdon County in the south-central region also produce their fair share. Fortunately, each of these counties offers plenty of State Game Lands and state forests open to public hunting.
Click here for Pennsylvania bear season dates.
The first modern bear hunt in Maryland took place back in 2004 in Allegany and Garrett counties. The current population is estimated at 2,000-2,500 adult bears. Bears have continued to expand their range, and hunting has been allowed in Frederick and Washington counties since 2016.
Bear hunting is highly controlled in The Old Line State, with bear permits issued through an annual lottery. The application period generally opens the third Monday in July and ends Aug. 31. In 2017, 750 permits were issued, but the number was increased to 800 in 2018 and should remain the same this year. The season runs Oct. 21-25.
The Mountain State might not cover many square miles, but it has lots of bears, in the neighborhood of 10,000-12,000. Hunting seasons have gradually been increased in recent years, including several early opportunities.
Hunting with or without dogs is allowed during these early seasons, and each of these counties are also open during the traditional statewide season the entire month of December. Firearm opportunities are also available without dogs in a host of counties in October and November. There is also a statewide archery and crossbow season that runs from late September straight through to the end of December.
The annual limit is two bears in West Virginia during the combined archery/crossbow and firearms season. But considering one bear of the two-animal limit must be taken from Boone, Fayette, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Nickolas, Preston, Raleigh or Wyoming counties, these counties should offer the best chances at overall success.
Click here for West Virginia bear season dates.
No matter where you hunt in Virginia, chances are you are in bear country. An estimated 18,000-20,000 bears call the Old Dominion home.
Hunting seasons this fall should see little change, except for exact opening and closing dates. The 10-day statewide archery season commences on Oct. 6, and the statewide muzzleloader bear season should open on Nov. 10 and run for seven days.
Click here for Virginia bear season dates.