4 years, one man, and (eventually) a 520-pound bear

The not-so-subtle grumbling from some bitter folks began a couple of weeks ago when I wrote a blog post about a 600-pound bear that a … gulp! … Indiana man had bagged in the Maine woods.

Out-of-stater, some online wizards spat. Comes to Maine. Hires a guide who does all the work. Never been on a bear hunt in his life. And he takes home OUR trophy animal? Ptooey!

To those who take umbrage when a fellow “from away” comes here, spends a couple of thousand dollars, supports local businesses, and (sometimes) tags a large wild animal, I say this: Ptooey to you, too.

To clarify the situation, here are a couple of stats to consider: Bear hunting provides a pretty sizable boost to the economy in certain parts of the state. Non-resident hunters provide most of that boost, but out-of-staters aren’t the only ones who participate. In 2011, non-residents tagged 1,483 bears in Maine. Mainers tagged 917.

With that said, I also like hearing stories from Mainers who have had their own do-it-yourself success in the woods during bear season. And as those tales go, the one I’ll share today is world-class.

It illustrates the determination and single-mindedness that we Mainers always claim help to define us. It shows that bear-hunting, even over bait, is not as easy as another group of critics would claim. It involves one man on a four-year quest, and proves that changing tactics can sometimes make all the difference in the world.

Intrigued? Curious? Reaching for the “comment” button so you can spread a bit of Internet bile? Good. Any of those reactions work for me.

Meet Jeff Hilton of Charleston. He’s a bear hunter, and has been baiting and hunting for about  decade. He maintains two bait sites for his own personal use, with the help of a buddy.

He has quite a story to tell.

“Four [seasons] ago I was tipped on this bear crossing the road in a particular place [not far from home],” Hilton said earlier this week.

Hilton liked the spot, and the next year [in 2010] I put a bait in there,” he said. He didn’t fill his tag that year, but did film three bears as they made nighttime visits to his bait.

Bear hunters can’t hunt at night, and bears that visit baits more than a half hour after sunset — the end of “legal shooting hours” —are safe.

“In 2011, I moved the bait off to a little bit darker spot, hoping [the bears] would come in a little bit earlier. Nothing,” Hilton said. “I baited the whole month of August, right up until Sept. 12.”

Then, frustrated, he simply gave up. He went to the site, took down his trail camera, pulled out his bait bucket, and called it a season.

“I was going to check the [camera’s memory] card that night, but I forgot,” Hilton said.

Time passed. Then, in October (after baiting season had ended), he remembered the card, and decided to check it to see if any deer had walked in front of the lens.

“That bear had come the night before, and I got a video of him looking up. Seven minutes later [on the photo’s time stamp] I came into the frame. He was there that night and he was there for two hours during daylight,” Hilton said. “I pulled [the bait] right out from under him. Didn’t know it.”

Hilton was sure it was a bear he’d photographed the year before because it sported  ear tags that marked it as a member of the state’s bear study group. Those bears are not immune to hunting — several are legally taken by hunters each year. Biologists use snares to trap new bears for the study group each year.

This year, a determined Hilton returned to that bait site and got back to work. Early results mirrored those of 2011: The bear showed up on camera, but only after legal shooting hours. And the bear had a well-defined pattern of behavior.

“I knew that when I sat in the stand, he wouldn’t come until after 9 o’clock. When I didn’t sit in the stand, he was there 15 minutes after legal time,” Hilton said. “He knew when I was in the stand.”

On Sept. 12, Hilton headed to his stand and put out a “honey burn,” which he described as a Sterno can that heats a frying pan of honey. Theoretically, the aroma will attract a bear. And it worked … almost.

“At 7 p.m. I heard something very faintly come walking in beside my stand. Less than 15 feet, but I couldn’t see anything through the fir trees,” Hilton said. “I held my breath. I though I could hear him sniffing. Then, just as quietly as it had stepped in, it stepped back out.”

Hilton said that as he’d been sitting in the stand, he had heard something walking through the meadow grass behind his stand. He had assumed that deer were passing through it. But he wasn’t sure.

“[The next day] I went and baited and I said, ‘I’m going to go walk out behind. I’ve got to know what’s going on,'” he said. “Sure enough, I could see where he’d been casing me the whole season, coming in and sniffing me. He knew when I was there and when I wasn’t.”

Armed with that knowledge, Hilton decided to change things up. He talked to a friend who had been helping him bait the sites, and laid out their plan for the following evening.

“I told Brian [Ellis], ‘Get your stuff. Friday night, you’re gonna sit in my stand. I’m going out back,'” Hilton said.

Hilton had set up another stand 80 yards behind Ellis, and hoped to get a shot at the bear as it cased the stand that all the activity had been taking place at for the past two years.

“[The plan worked like ] clockwork,” Hilton said.

The bear came in. It did as Hilton expected it might, and paid close attention to the spot where Ellis was sitting. Hilton ended up getting a good shot, and made it count.

The bear weighed in at 520 pounds, live weight, at the scales at John Dykstra’s Northland Taxidermy in Alton. Perhaps as impressive, Hilton said the bear stretched 8 1/2 feet from the tip of its nose to its back foot.

“I knew he was a big bear [from the photos],” Hilton said. “I was figuring 350 to 400. It was phenomenal.”

And though the bear didn’t have any ear tags, Hilton was quite sure it was the same bear he’d be matching wits with. After noticing that the bear’s ears seemed to have been injured. Dykstra checked closer and found the tattoo that biologists put on the inner lip of each study bear to identify it if its ear tags fall out.

The tattoo identified the bruin as bear No. 895.

Or, as Jeff Hilton undoubtedly thinks of it: The same bear that had shown up at the bait back in 2010.

“The fact that I’ve been three years on that one site, I’ve fed him a lot of bait,” Hilton said.

Add in the value of Hilton’s time, the cost of fuel, taxidermy, butcher services and some other miscellaneous purchases, and Hilton admits his DIY approach wasn’t exactly cheap.

“Even though I did it all myself, I’ve got some money invested,” he said.



John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.