Maine Bear Hunting and Trapping

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Why hunt for bear in Maine?

For new and experienced hunters alike, going on a bear hunt is a great way to enjoy nature, get some exercise, and spend quality time outdoors with friends and family. The season starts in late August, offering experienced hunters extra time to scout for other species such as deer or moose while enjoying warmer temperatures.

Successful hunters are rewarded with wholesome, locally sourced, free-range, hormone-free lean protein which, if handled properly, is excellent to eat! 

Bear hunting also helps manage the population. Maine has a healthy and stable population of black bears – the largest in the eastern United States, in fact. Since black bears do not have any natural predators, it would be very easy for the population to grow to an unsustainable level, leading to starvation, disease, and death. Bear hunting helps keep the population at a number where bears and their environment stay healthy.

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Who can hunt or trap a bear?

We do not limit the number of bear permits issued to hunters due to the abundance of bears in the State. Anyone who has the necessary hunting or trapping license and a bear permit can hunt or trap bears in Maine. To obtain a license, new hunters must complete a hunter/trapper safety course, demonstrating their capabilities to properly and safely hunt or trap bears.

Residents: Prior to the November deer firearms season, in addition to a hunting or trapping license, you need a bear hunting or trapping permit. If you have a hunting license during the November deer firearms season, you can harvest a bear or a deer (this is the only time you can hunt a bear without a bear permit).

Nonresidents: In addition to a hunting or trapping license, you need a bear permit to harvest a bear anytime during the fall bear hunting and trapping season. If you wish to harvest a bear with dogs, you must hire a State of Maine-licensed Professional Bear Hunting Guide.

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When can you hunt/trap for bear?

Maine's 13-week bear season opens the last Monday in August (with a special Youth Hunting Day the Saturday prior) and extends through late November and coincides with the last day of regular firearms season for deer. Spot and stalk and still-hunting (without bait) are allowed throughout the entire season, but other methods are limited to certain weeks. Hunting over bait is permitted for the first four weeks of the season; hunting with dogs is permitted for six weeks starting on the third week of the season; and trapping is open for two months, from September 1 through October 31.

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Where can you hunt/trap for bear?

Bears are most common in northern, western, and eastern Maine, and less common in the central and southern parts of the state. Still, central and southern Maine offer the chance to hunt closer to home or to harvest a bear while deer hunting.

To learn about opportunities to harvest a bear in your area, consider calling a local game warden or biologist. They can tell you where conflicts with bears are occurring so that you can help remove bears that are causing damage.

Bear hunting and trapping is legal statewide; but most of Maine’s forest is privately owned, so you must obtain landowner permission.  There are many situations that require written permission by law, such as to place bait, a game camera, or trap on private land, so getting written permission is best practice for all methods and requests. Some large private landowners require a landowner permit to hunt or trap black bears on their land.  Learn more about bear hunting prohibitions and laws regarding bait.

How to obtain landowner permission:

On large private lands:

Most of the best bear habitat in Maine is owned by large private landowners that lease areas to bear hunters. Each landowner has their own policies and fees, and typically offer commercial and non-commercial sites to guides and individual hunters. The following are a few of the largest landowners that allow bear hunting on their land with a landowner permit. Contact them for more information on the sites they may have available: 

From small private landowners:

  • In central and southern Maine, as well as near developed towns in northern and eastern Maine, smaller parcels of private land are more common. It can be challenging, but if you want to place bait or set a trap, you must acquire permission from the landowner. To find contact information for the owner, a good starting place is either a trip to the town office or searching online tax maps. Most towns have an online GIS system that will allow you to identify a parcel and view the owner’s name.

MDIFW Wildlife Management Areas:

Permission is required to hunt bears over bait and to trap for bears on MDIFW Wildlife Management Areas. Please contact the appropriate Regional Wildlife Biologist to obtain a permit to hunt or trap a bear on a WMA.  Depending on the amount of interest in bear hunting on WMAs there may be an annual lottery to select hunters who may hunt over bait or trap for bears on WMAs.

  • Region A - Sebago Lake Region
    (207) 287-2345 – press 1
  • Region B - Belgrade Lakes Region
    (207) 287-5300 – press 1
  • Region C - Grand Lake Region
    (207) 434-5927
  • Region D – Rangeley Lakes Region
    (207) 778-3324
  • Region E - Moosehead Region
    (207) 695-3756 - press 3
  • Region F - Penobscot Region
    (207) 732-4132
  • Region G - Fish River Lakes Region
    (207) 435-3231

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What are the laws and guidelines for bear hunting in Maine?

Bear hunters need to know and follow Maine’s general big game hunting laws as well as bear-specific provisions. A few of the basics include:

  • Equipment: Bears may be taken with a rifle, handgun, muzzleloader, shotgun (with slugs only, not larger than 10 gauge), bow and arrow (with a minimum draw weight of 35 lbs.), or crossbow (with a minimum draw weight of 100 lbs.). It is illegal to hunt bear using firearms with .17 or .22 caliber rimfire cartridges, or shotguns with shotloads.
  • Registration: You must register your bear within 18 hours at the closest tagging station (see law book for exceptions). At registration, you will need to submit a tooth from your bear for aging purposes (the station will give you instructions and materials). The following August, you can look up your bear’s age on the MDIFW website.

Before heading out, be sure to pick up or download a copy of the Maine Hunting Laws book, and keep it handy – either in your vehicle or downloaded to your mobile device for offline access.

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Tips for a Successful Bear Hunt

1. Decide if you will use a guide

Maine guides can help hunters navigate the area and the bear hunting process, and some offer different levels of assistance. As it pertains to using a guide in Maine, you have three options:

Fully-guided hunt: Guided bear hunts are usually a week long, with the Registered Maine Guide often providing lodging and meals. Guides specialize in hunting bears with dogs, still hunting, trapping, and/or over bait (learn more about the various methods in tip 3). Depending on the method(s) they specialize in, the guide typically maintains active bait site(s) and provides trained bear dogs and nearly all necessary equipment other than firearms. Guides have a wealth of information and offer guidance and tips for a successful hunt or trapping (shot placement, judging size and sex of bear, safety, etc.), provides transportation to and from hunting area, helps retrieve the bear, cares for the meat and hide, and assists hunters in properly registering their bear.

Semi-guided hunt: Some Registered Maine Guides offer semi-guided bear hunts for a reduced rate. In this scenario, the guide may provide a pre-baited site (with a stand or blind) and guidance (proper shot placement, safety, etc.), but the hunter would typically be responsible for maintaining the bait site, getting to and from the site, and harvesting and registering the animal. Guides may provide lodging and/or meals, and may offer meat processing or provide recommendations for a local meat cutter. Semi-guided hunts are often more affordable than fully-guided hunts, but still save you time and give you the benefit of a guide’s expertise.

Do-it-yourself hunt: If you choose not to use a guide, you will be responsible for all aspects of your hunt, including finding areas to hunt bears, obtaining necessary landowner permission, erecting a stand or blind, training dogs if you choose, and (if hunting with bait) obtaining bait and establishing and maintaining a bait site. This option is often more popular with residents due to non-residents’ time and travel restrictions.

To view listings of local guides, visit ww.maineguides.org or www.maineguides.com.

2. Time your hunt

You’ll want to time your hunt prior to bears entering their winter dens. Bears typically enter dens by November 1st, but depending on natural food levels can enter as early as September or as late as December. In addition, female bears and bears in northern Maine typically enter dens earlier than males or bears in central Maine that stay out foraging longer.

Natural food levels play a key role in when bears enter their dens (and in hunters’ success). In a poor natural food year, bears show greater interest in bait and enter their winter dens early to conserve their limited fat reserves (meaning your chances of baiting a bear in the early season are good, but your chances of seeing one while hunting deer in November are not). In a good food year, bears show less interest in bait sites, because they have plenty of natural food already providing less opportunity to hunters using bait. Since they also keep foraging through late fall, November deer hunters gain more bear hunting opportunities. Natural food abundance is often predictable, with a good natural food year typically followed by a poor food year. For the most recent season’s natural food trends, check out the bear section of the most recent MDIFW Research and Management Report.

3. Choose your method

In Maine, there are four legal ways to take a bear: still hunting, hunting with dogs, baiting, and trapping. The best option for you depends on many factors including your experience level, physical stamina, patience, and more. Below is an overview of each method and some tips on how to make it a success:

Still Hunting

An excellent option for beginners or newer bear hunters, still hunting allows you to scout for bear while simultaneously hunting deer or moose. Because bears are elusive and are generally found in dense forest, still hunting success rates are significantly lower than other methods. When hunting in more open habitats (e.g. oak or beech ridges), hunters often have a limited time to view bears. This reduces shot options and may present a challenging, longer-range shot that could lead to higher wounding losses.

For a successful still hunt, take some time to scout out spots where you can hunt over natural foods or agricultural areas that attract bears. Great areas include beech and oak ridges, grown up cuts with late hanging cherry, riverside with lots of beaked hazelnuts, oat and corn fields, locations with lots of blackberries, bristly sarsaparilla, mountain ash, or wild apple trees.

Hunting with Dogs

Hunting with trained bear dogs is a unique, physically challenging, fast-paced experience that boasts a 25-30% success rate. This rate is even higher among those who hunt with guides (who spend a lot of time training their dogs!). Because of the time and expense involved in training and caring forany pet, let alone active dogs, many people find hiring a guide to be the best way to go for this hunting method.

When a bear is treed, a hunter can identify the size and sex of the animal, and take time to determine if they want to harvest it. This allows hunters to be selective and take a close, clean shot.

Baiting

In general, hunters that use bait can expect a 25-30% success rate, with higher success rates among those that hire a guide. Baiting allows hunters time to view bears allowing hunters to be selective and take a close, clean shot. That said, it takes a serious time commitment to establish and maintain bait sites. You will need to plan, scout, identify spots to hunt, and obtain landowner permission and permits before even starting the work of maintaining bait sites (all reasons why many hunters use a guide).

Whether you use a guide or not, you’ll still need to have the patience to sit still in your stand for hours each day of hunting (more so during good natural food years). Even the slightest movement can cause a bear to flee.  Be sure to keep wind direction and air currents in mind as there is likely no animal in the woods with a more keen nose than a bear, especially one on the lookout for the presence of a hunter.

The idea is to create a bait and stand or blind setup where the presence of your bait allows some level of comfort for a bear to find and utilize it, but your human presence goes unnoticed.

Bait site considerations:

Location - The first step is to narrow in on a location where bears are likely to spend time. Consider areas near water sources where they might go to drink, spots with thicker growth and canopy for shade and concealment, and areas near other food sources such as blackberries, apples, oak, or beech ridges. Travel corridors like saddles, uncut forested strips, and riparian zones are also good bets. You can usually tell if an area has been frequented by bears based on bear sign such as claw marks on beech or poplar trees, scat, logs and stumps torn apart from ant feeding.  Less obvious signs include several scent marking areas made by bears. This includes trees where bears have bit and exposed the bark, rubbed their backs, and left scent as well as some hair behind, bushes bent over from bears straddling and walking over them, or trails with heavily depressed rounded tracks made by bears twisting their feet while walking to mark with scent glands on their pads.

Once you have identified an area where bears are likely to spend time, consider what direction the bear will be traveling, if there is a tree suitable for placing a stand that isn’t along the bear travel route to the bait, and if it is appropriate distance and direction from the bait.  Once you have established these, then consider where to place your bait.

Bait type - While many types of bait will attract black bears, consider options that are less likely to mold or disintegrate when left to the elements. Many grain-based or fruit-based products work well and last longer in the environment than pastries or baked goods. Just be sure to put it in a container or under a weighted cover to limit access by non-target species.

Scent - You can attract bears from a distance by pouring paste or liquid scent lures on a cotton rag and hanging it in the air. Common and effective scents include skunk essence, anise, and fruit extracts.

Timing – Late afternoon and early evening hunts are generally most effective and with more daylight hours during the bear hunting season, legal hunting hours allow those with busy schedules more time to hunt.  Although dusk is the favored time to observe bears, there is often activity at other times of day, especially early mornings on cooler days. 

Stand/blind placement considerations:

Bear activity - Consider placing a trail camera at the site and/or looking for sign around the bait area to see if you can tell where bears might be coming from (hunters should avoid leaving scent on the camera by wearing gloves when placing the device and not storing the camera near bait or lures to prevent the bear from destroying the camera). You can also estimate the size/sex of the bears visiting the site based on scat size, the height of bite marks on trees, scent marking with pads vs actual tracks, and track size. Claw marks on a tree are usually a sign of smaller bears.

Wind direction – Place your stand so that it works with your bait spot and the wind (you want the wind to blow your scent away from the bait site, not toward it). The prevailing wind direction in Maine is NW, but we also experience many SW fronts in the late summer and early fall. If the wind is not in your favor, do not hunt the site that day. If the bear smells a human nearby, it can become unsettled and may avoid the site.

Topography – Keep in mind that as warm days turn into cool nights, scent can travel into low areas.  Consider placing your blind or stand on higher land.

Concealment – In addition to wearing camouflage, use tree trunks, limbs, and bushes to conceal yourself visually, and avoid setting blinds or stands in areas that the bear may be coming in from.

Distance - Set your stand as far back as you can while still being able to take a comfortable, safe shot with your firearm or archery equipment.

Reminder: Baits and tree stands must be labeled with a 2"x4" minimum label with the hunters name and address. Game cameras must also have a label with contact information.

Learn more about bear baiting laws.

Trapping:

Trappers experience similar success rates as hunters that hunt over bait or with trained bear dogs. Like those methods, trapping also provides opportunity for a close clean shot. However, trapping bears is challenging, and it takes time and hard work to become experienced enough to harvest a bear. Those less experienced can find it frustrating and less successful since it is difficult to gain experience when limited to one trap set at a time (either a cage-style or a cable-restraint foot trap).  The best place for a new trapper to start is by taking MDIFW’s trapper safety course. To harvest a bear, you’ll need a trapping license and a bear trapping permit.

Keep in mind, when using a cable foot restraint to capture a bear, a stop is required to avoid non-target captures and smaller bears. By law the closing diameter of the cable foot restraint must be no more than 2 ½ inches. This requirement will also minimize captures of most female bears and smaller males. If you are interested in being more selective when trapping a bear, you can employ the same techniques for determining size as you would when observing a bait site for hunting.

4. Take Your Shot

It is legal to harvest any bear, including a cub or a female with cubs. In years when natural foods are plentiful, bear cubs can approach 80 pounds and can be difficult to distinguish from other bears. In the fall, bear cubs are nearly a year old, are weaned, and capable of surviving on their own. Still, many hunters would rather not. In that case, take your time to observe if cubs are accompanying the bear before taking your shot.

To identify a smaller, younger bear, look for:

  • Disproportionately larger “mickey mouse ears”
  • A leggy appearance with lots of space between the bear’s belly and the ground
  • Smaller size (use something at the bait site to help judge size such as a barrel, mark on a tree, or noting a certain bush)

Shot Placement

The target area for shot placement on a bear is smaller than on a deer and close to the shoulder.  Bears also have deep muscular shoulders which should be considered when selecting equipment, firearm caliber size, and shot placement.

Credit: Archery Trade Association

5. Retrieve Your Bear

Black bears, with their thick coats, can be difficult to track and recover in Maine’s thick forests. After your shot, take notice of the direction the bear travels and listen for signs of how far off it may be. Bears by nature are more vocal animals than cervids and will vocalize often with a well-placed shot. Plus the adipose fat that they store for winter can limit external blood loss, making tracking more difficult. Deciding when to go find an animal after the shot is always difficult and anticipation can often war with patience.  It is important to make judgments based on what you see and hear following the shot but always advisable to wait at least 15 minutes.

Bear also tend to move differently through the woods, leaving fewer tracks – so you’ll want to look for less obvious signs like matted grasses and ferns, newly broken limbs, etc. Unlike deer, they will run the length of downed logs and move through thick, low-to-the-ground areas. Finding them might involve getting on your hands and knees, making a headlamp and flashlight critical. It’s important to keep a compass or GPS on you when tracking down a bear, too, as crawling through thickets and swamps in the dark makes it easy to get turned around. 

For an easier option, many registered Maine guides are skilled at tracking bears and have dogs that are trained and licensed to retrieve game.

6. Take it Home

Cool your bear ASAP.  The insulation from a bear’s fat layers and thick hide can cause bear meat to spoil more quickly than other large game. To preserve the meat, you need to cool the carcass immediately using blocks of ice in coolers, refrigerated coolers, etc. and get it to the meat processor as quickly as possible. From there, freezing or canning the meat quickly will protect the flavor.

The quickest way to cool the meat is to field dress the bear right away. If you do not have access to a cooler, or if you are hunting in warm temperatures, consider removing the hide and quartering the bear.

Get it out of the woods. With its thick coat and round body, a bear is much more difficult to drag or move than a deer of comparable weight. And bears, on average, also weigh more than deer. With help, you may be able to drag the bear out whole; but you also have the option of quartering it.

If you choose to drag out the bear, field dress it immediately so the body temperature can start to cool. You will likely need another person to help you haul it out of the woods; but don’t wait for them to arrive before you get started. To drag, lift the front (head and shoulders) slightly up and lash to a pole to reduce ground contact. A heavy-duty tarp, stretcher, and/or utility sled can make it easier. Once you reach a road, a winch and ramp can help you load your bear onto your vehicle.

Quartering is much easier than dragging the bear out, and makes a world of difference with meat quality because the meat cools down so much quicker. If you are in an area where it is difficult to get close to a road to retrieve the bear, quartering the bear and packing it out in meat bags is your best option. To make quartering and skinning easier, you may want to bring a rope and pulley. You may remove the quarters and all edible meat leaving behind the viscera and spinal column as long as the sex of the animal can be determined at registration.  Bear ribs are phenomenal eating so don’t leave those behind.  Even if you don’t intend on saving the skull, make sure to bring it out and remove the tooth as this is required at registration.

How to skin a bear

Though it’s best to consult a taxidermist for instructions prior to harvesting a bear, the following method is generally considered acceptable:

  • Extend the center cut used for removing the entrails toward the head to the base of the throat, stopping approximately in line with the ears.
  • Beginning at the wrist of each front paw, cut down the inside of each front leg, first toward the elbow and then at an angle toward the armpit, until you reach the center incision. Make sure the arm cuts meet at the same place in the center of the chest.
  • For the back legs, begin at the base of the heel and make your cut down the back of each leg, meeting approximately 3 inches above the vent.
  • Cut through either the ankle joints or toe joints of each paw to get the skin off the body. Start with the rear paws, then the tail, and work the skin forward toward the head.
  • Depending on what you intend to do with your bear hide, you must make a decision regarding the bear’s pads (bottom of paws). Generally, unlike mounted specimens, pads are not required for bearskin rugs. However, prior consultation and planning with a taxidermist is recommended.
  • Continue working the hide toward the head until it is stripped up to the neck region.
  • It is recommended that at this point you sever the head from the rest of the body allowing it to remain with the hide. Since skinning the head properly can be tedious and time consuming, it is best performed in the comforts of a well-lighted area. Special attention is needed when skinning the ears and nose.
  • The next step after skinning is to remove the fat from the carcass. The amount of fat can vary depending on the size of the animal and by the year. During good natural food years, they often don’t fatten up until later in the season. You can render the fat into lard for cooking, and it’s also great for curing cast iron and making leather treatments and cosmetics.
  • Once the fat is removed, split the carcass down the center and begin reducing the meat into smaller sizes for storage. It is best to put the meat into an ice chest and not into cold water; but if cold water is your only option, it is better than spoilage.

How to care for the hide

After skinning, take the hide to taxidermist or place it in a refrigerated cooler. If you are not using a taxidermist or will be delayed in reaching one, be sure to remove as much fat and flesh from the hide as possible and salt it heavily (the average bear takes 15-20 lbs. of salt). This will preserve the hide and minimize hair loss. Pour the salt on the flesh side of the hide and spread it about 3/8” deep, taking special care around the face, lips, nose and ears. Once salted, fold the skin flesh to flesh, roll it up, and place it in a breathable paper, burlap, or muslin bag (do not use plastic).

Processing black bear meat

Butchering big game is not a simple task. If you don’t have the know-how, the time or equipment to do it properly yourself, commercial facilities are available. Be sure to contact a butcher prior to your hunt unless you plan to do it yourself. If you are hiring a Registered Maine Guide, they may have contacted a meat processor already. Click here to find a list of bear meat processing facilities.

7. Make Good Use of Your Bear

Cooking Bear Meat

When properly cared for, bear meat is very tasty and is a good source of lean protein providing hunters with another source of healthy food for their families. Bear meat is excellent in soups and chilis, barbecued (pulled bear and BBQ ribs), roasted in the oven, or grilled (backstrap rubbed in spices).

Although bear meat can be a carrier of Trichinella spiralis and Toxoplasma gondii, the parasites that cause the diseases trichinosis and toxoplasmosis in humans, proper cooking techniques can ensure that your bear meat is safe to eat (freezing meat does not always kill these parasites). Like pork, the proper cooking time and temperature for bear meat is 375 degrees F for 20-25 minutes per pound. Internal cooking temperature should reach 160 degrees for 3 minutes or more before consumption. Cook until there is no trace of pink meat or fluid, paying close attention to areas around the joints and close to the bone.

Donating Bear Meat

If you don’t want the meat, you can donate it to Hunters for the Hungry. For more information or to get connected to a Hunters for the Hungry participating meat processor call 207-287-7513.

If you are employing a registered Maine guide, they often will donate your meat for you.

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