By Bernie Barringer
I have been doing at least one spring bear hunt in Canada every year for many years, and I look forward to it all year. I love spring bear hunting. I was very disappointed when my 2020 spring bear hunt was cancelled, and when 2021 rolled around and left me with no Canadian options, I decided to do something about it. I was going to do two hunts to make up for the loss of the two Canadian opportunities.
There are a few places in the US where you can do a spring hunt. One is Idaho, and I detailed my spring Idaho bear hunt in an earlier issue of this magazine. There are also a small handful of other spring bear hunting opportunities on tribal lands. That’s right, if you hunt on lands owned my Native Americans and hunt with a native guide, you have a spring bear hunt. I came across guide George Sabattus of Indian Island, Maine who offered spring bear hunts in central Maine.
A couple phone calls and messages with George convinced me that this would be a fun opportunity. He started texting pictures of bears on his bait and that got me fired up. He answered my questions in a way that I felt I would be in good hands. I had hunted Maine in the past, and I love the state and its hunting opportunities. I much prefer to drive to hunting destinations, but this one would require a series of flights.
In early May I landed in Bangor and took a cab for and hour and a half ride north to the Millinocket area where George is based out of. Habitat-wise, Maine is much like northern Minnesota where I live, other than the fact that they have a lot of beech trees.
Because the native-owned land is in parcels which can be some distance apart, George put me up in a motel the first couple nights, and told me that he would be moving me to a cabin an hour away if I didn’t get a bear right away, where I would hunt another section of native-owned land.
I spent the first day helping George run bear baits and I liked him right off. He had a great sense of humor, and I could tell he was ambitious and willing to work hard to get his clients on a bear. Too many guides aren’t willing to spend the time or the money to really do it right, but he used good quality bait and plenty of it.
The weather was hot and humid. I mean ridiculously hot. There was not way to get into a stand without breaking a sweat, but we made the most of it. I was placed on a bait the first evening which had a couple nice bears hitting it, but didn’t see anything. Not surprising when you consider that it was still 80 degrees at dark when I climbed down. The 4-wheeler ride back to the truck actually felt good with the breeze blowing across me!
Day two brought more warm weather as I spent the day running baits with George. Baiting is one of the things I enjoy the most. I got to ride an ATV through the trails on native land, checking trail cameras, hauling baits and comparing notes on baiting strategy with a guide from another part of the world. Great fun!
On evening number two I sat at the same bait, and toughed it out in the heat. At the very end of legal shooting light, I heard jaws popping off to my right. Sure enough, a bear was coming. It was too dark to make it out right away, but I pulled my bow off the hanger and noticed that I could still make out my sight pins. I heard the teeth clacking again a minute later and then I could hear an ATV coming down the trail in the distance. Here comes George and this is going to be close. As soon as the ATV’s headlights broke a hill a hundred yards away, I could hear the bear shuffle off. Night number two was in the books.
Day three brought a change in the weather. The high was in the 60’s and a west wind cooled off the forest. George’s buddy showed up with a bunch of lobsters and clams and a big pot to boil them in. He placed a couple cans of beer and some water in the pot and dumped it all in. Once it was steamed, we feasted on a traditional Maine meal of seafood dipped in butter. This is another one of the reasons I love Maine!
A father and son duo from Wester Virginia were staying at the remote cabin and they were heading home so I moved out there along with Bob, another hunter. Despite the heat, the son had shot a bear to take back with him. Bob was a business man who was a fun guy to spend a bear camp with, despite the fact that he tricked me into drinking some Moxie Soda. If you’ve never had Moxie in Maine, that doesn’t mean anything to you; but let me put it this way, if you never get to Maine to try this local soda with a colorful background, just stay home and eat mothballs which will be a similar experience.
We put up a ladder stand at a bait where I would be sitting for that evening and checked the trail camera. I was excited to see several bears on the camera, including a big male who seemed to be getting interested in a sow that was a regular at the site. This increased my enthusiasm level to say the least.
Getting in the stand that evening, I encountered a completely different environ than I had the previous nights. A cooling breeze made things very comfortable, birds were chirping and flitting about and squirrels were bouncing around as if to show their joy that the oppressing heat of the past few days was finally over. The bears should be on the move!
About an hour before sunset, I saw my first patch of black fur quite a distance away through the brush. It disappeared, then reappeared a few minutes later just to the right of the bait. I could tell it was a small bear, possibly the yearling that had been with the sow on the trail camera photos. It circled around behind me, then slowly worked its way back in a large half-circle to show up behind the bait again. Over the next hour, it made circles around the bait site, never committing to the bait site itself. Several times, it would stop in an opening in the brush on the side of a hill, 40 yards from the bait where it could observe the bait site.
This little bugger was truly scared to death of a bigger bear. My guess was that it had just been beat up by the big male who probably made off with his mother. I had no intention of shooting this 100-pound bear of course, but I was surprised at its level of caution. Then it walked away for good. Or so I thought.
I kept looking at that opening in the brush, expecting it to come back at some point. Then, a few minutes before the end of legal shooting light, upon glancing over at the spot for the umpteenth time, a surge of adrenaline shot through me. There was a bear sitting there, and this one was clearly bigger than the bear that had been around me for an hour. This bear just sat there as my anticipation built. It was getting darker by the minute, and I kept checking the bow in my hand to see if I could still use my sight pins. I didn’t dare pull out my phone to look at the time and risk lighting up my face.
Finally, the bear made a move towards the bait. He had 40 yards to cover and I prayed that he would cover it in a hurry as he disappeared into the thick cover. A moment later he stepped out at the barrel, facing directly towards me. I had no shot. I was sure I was going to lose this opportunity as I already knew my camera wasn’t picking up enough light to video. He moved slowly and cautiously about, picking at bits of trail mix until he was broadside. I settled the pin and send the arrow on its way.
The lighted nock looked like it hit perfectly. The bear crashed off in a half circle, but the noise ended almost as soon as it had begun. There is a lot of moss in these deep woods so I wasn’t surprised that the sound ended that fast. I looked at my phone. One minute left of legal light.
I got down and looked at my arrow. The blood on the arrow looked good so, after a few minutes I started looking where the bear ran. I could see vegetation bent over and depressions in the moss but no blood. After going 20 yards and not finding a drop of blood I backed out and called George. He advised we go back in the morning.
I slept well that night expecting to walk up to a dead bear in the morning with no problem. But morning would bring a scenario I was not expecting.
Bob and I headed out to recover the bear after breakfast. We went to the location of the last sound I heard and started looking for sign and blood. We found neither. It wasn’t that concerning at first, but after two hours of body searching, those doubts began to creep in. There’s this sick feeling I really hate. It’s hard to describe, but if you’ve felt it, you know what I’m talking about. Doubts. Concerns. Bleh.
George had a long way to come and had some errands to run so when he showed up, Bob and I were pretty discouraged. He was surprised because he had taken his time, assuming that we would have a bear recovered right away.
I explained the trail leaving the bait, where I had found the tracks and knocked over brush. George started walking and walked right to the bear within 10 minutes. Not a drop of blood, but he just stumbled across it. It had fallen into a depression in the moss; both Bob and I had walked within a few yards of it but couldn’t see it.
Bob hollered to me, “Here’s your bear but it’s not the one you think your shot!”
He was right. I had shot the 100-pounder. I stood in disbelief for a moment trying to sort out what had happened. The only explanation is that the little bear had come back and committed to the bait at the exact time the larger one had left my vision and moved towards the bait. Where did the larger bear go? I guess I’ll never know.
George threw the bear over his shoulders and walked it back to the truck. I had already made arrangements to donate the bear to one of George’s friends who needed the meat, so it went to the locker and I have the photos and video to remember it by and that’s satisfying enough.
I really grew to appreciate George and enjoy his company on this trip. He has a good thing going, he has the ambition and the smarts, so he’d like to grow it. His limiting factor is finding good, reliable native guides who can help him with the workload. He certainly has good property to hunt, and he has the bears. Maine is a long way to go for this Midwestern hunter, but I have a hankering to go back and redeem myself. And the fresh lobster is calling my name.