On a year when there is a good crop of nuts (hard mast), you can find bears wherever the nuts grow. This past year in Maine there were some areas that had them and other areas that didn’t. If there is any kind of natural food source in the woods, you can be guaranteed one thing--the bears will find it. If there is a limited amount of that food, they will go nuts over it.
From year to year the amount of nuts is greatly determined by the weather in the spring during the flowering period and the amount of precipitation an area gets at certain times of the year. Some years there is a massive crop and other years there is none or spotty amounts of nuts. This past year there was a spotty amount of Beechnuts, but when I found them, there were bears literally tearing the branches out of the trees to get them. I found areas where the bears were climbing the trees knocking the branches down to the ground, and then living on the nuts until they were gone. The bears were going nuts for nuts.
In the spring, I was getting reports from loggers all over the state that it was going to be a good Beechnut year. But as the year went on, we went through a dry spell with no rain. When fall came, I walked ridges looking for nuts and to my surprise the higher ground trees did not yield any nuts but some of the lower ground trees did. In other parts of the state I got reports of beechnuts high and not low so it really depends on where you are. In some areas every third or fourth tree had limited amounts of nuts and in some areas you could walk for miles and never find one single tree that had nuts. On other years, it doesn’t matter where you go there are nuts everywhere. I prefer years with limited mast because if you do your homework and find those areas where there are nuts, you will find multiple bears in one area. On the flip side, when there are nuts everywhere, the bears are more spread out instead of being confined to small areas with nuts.
On years with lean mast, bears will frequent the bait sites very . On years when there is a good crop of nuts, bears will stop hitting bait sites. As a guide you may have to do a lot more walking and rigging to find bears instead of starting the hounds off of bait sites. I have always said in the past when there is a large crop of natural food, it is hard to compete with the natural food source and keep bears coming to the bait sites. This past year we ran a lot of bears off bait sites, but if you could find those areas where there were nuts, there were lots of bears there, too. I found a low-lying ridge that had Beechnuts and it was very evident that there were multiple bears living there. You could see where the bears had beat down paths around branches that were knocked out of the trees and the tops of trees where bears had broken them off to the ground and then made burrows in the ground around them. I went to one area and treed multiple bears from an area no bigger than a football field on several different days. Even after harvesting a few bears, there were still bears visiting this area. A lot of people walk right by this sign and don’t even notice the damage made by hungry, nutty bears.
On one particular day I had a client who had just treed and harvested a bear. On the way out of the woods to the truck, I stopped and pointed out a tree where a bear had climbed and broke the top of the tree off to the ground. The Beechnuts were plentiful and it was very evident there were bears getting their bellies full and living around the top of the tree on the ground. Sometimes the Beechnuts don’t fall fast enough, so the bears use their “tools” given to them, and they make them fall. I am always fascinated with the strength and determination bears have to get food. In this one spot, I could tell that there were several bears in the area, and some good bears too. I went back to that tree the next day, started a bear, treed it 500 yards away and might have possibly pushed the bear off the tree on the ground on the way in. Whenever you find a good food source with bear sign, more than likely there will be multiple bears and it will be a good place to start from.
When free casting hounds on mast crop be sure to drop the dogs on the down wind side of these areas. Some hounds free cast well and others will need to be brought right into the areas with fresh bear sign. When running hounds off a bait you generally have an idea of what type of bear you’re running because of game cameras. Free casting, like rigging, is old school because you never know what you’re going to tree!
Over the years I have noticed during mass crop years, bears can just wander around on the ground and gorge on food, but when you find nuts in clusters, they go nuts and tear the trees apart for that limited amount of food. During training season walking to and from trees, I use that time to scout around and mark spots on my GPS to re-visit in the fall when hunting season opens. These spots can help your success as a hunter, as a guide or as an outfitter.