The 2011 bear hunting season, which begins September 1, looks very promising for New Hampshire hunters. The population is strong throughout the state, with an estimated total of 4,800 animals. Bear densities are relatively consistent with population management objectives in all of the state’s six bear management regions. Bear densities are highest in the northernmost three management regions, but the southern part of the state also offers good bear hunting opportunity. Over the course of the season, hunters have the ability to hunt bear using three different methods, including stalking, baiting and hounding. Season lengths and dates vary by region and method. See the 2011-2012 NH Hunting and Trapping Digest (click here and on publication cover).
The success rate of bear hunters each fall is strongly dictated by the abundance and distribution of natural foods. Regardless of which method of bear hunting is used, overall harvest tallies and success rates tend to fluctuate, often dramatically, from one year to the next as a result of variation in mast crop production. When their favorite fall foods are scarce, bears spend more time searching for food, cover a greater area and become more vulnerable to hunter harvest. Conversely, during food-rich years, bears do not need to travel far to find adequate food and do not encounter hunters as frequently.
Bears target many food items during the fall. During September, they focus their feeding activity on blackberries, choke cherries, apples, black cherries and oak. While it is difficult to predict fall mast (nut and berry) production, early indications suggest that there will be good crops of many of these species throughout the state. Bears tend to focus on fruits and berries during early fall and nuts during later fall; however, usage is strongly dictated by abundance. To date, plentiful flowers and good fruit production has been observed on blackberry, apple and choke cherry. Early nut production has been observed on oak again this year in some areas. Bears also will target beechnuts in late September and October. Beechnuts have been observed in many areas, but only time will tell if the hulls contain viable nuts. Corn crops often serve as bear magnets, especially if natural fall foods are limited.
Because of the influence of food distribution and abundance on bear activity, the wide variety of foods bears will consume, and the tremendous differences in mast production from year to year, bear hunters are advised to spend time scouting before the season. Time spent looking for productive mast stands and monitoring bear activity will greatly increase the chance of having a successful bear hunt. Although bears will not be targeting these areas until the nuts are ready and berries are ripe, it will give hunters a good idea on where to focus their hunting effort once the season starts. When checking acorn and beech crops, bring binoculars to canvass the crown of the tree, and break open fallen nuts to determine if they contain viable “meat.” Hunters should also take the opportunity to explore new areas, as bears will concentrate their feeding activity on the most productive areas within their home range. If bears are actively feeding in an area, abundant sign (tracks, scats, busted branches) will be evident.
A final word of advice: Daytime temperatures often remain warm during September and October, so proper planning and care is essential to keep meat cool during this early season. Bear hunters need to plan accordingly.