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Bona fide black bear bonanza in Canada

Though Ontario is home to more black bears than any state in America, bruin hunting success there is still dependant on location and hunter know-how.

Even with an estimated 75,000 to 115,000 widely distributed bears in the Canadian province, some hunters go home every year scratching their heads, wondering where all the bears were hiding.

Those hunters likely underestimated their quarry and didn't do their homework.

Despite a growing bear population (courtesy of the legislative cessation of spring hunts in 1999), easy access and unlimited over-the-counter tags for nonresident hunters, bruin hunting varies greatly from one end of the province to the other.

Perhaps the only constant when it comes to hunting bear across Ontario is that almost every one hunts over bait.

Bears in Ontario live in dense, boreal forests that are interwoven with endless swamps and interlocked lakes. As a result, very few guides, outfitters or locals conduct spot and stalk bear hunts.

And among bait hunting options, there are essentially two types: hunts that are accessible from a road, and hunts that require transport by bush plane or float plane.

Though they both historically offer great success rates for resident and nonresident hunters, there are good reasons to choose one over the other, depending on the hunter's needs, expectations and hunting prowess.

Hit the road

Though bears range across the entire province north of Perry Sound, the road system in the area only touches the southern boundary of the expansive northern wilderness.

Guided bear hunts are easy to find along the highways and winding gravel roads, and most boast great success rates.

But drive-to hunts aren't for everyone.

"I think my hunts are best suited for first-time or younger hunters that simply want to see some bears and probably get a shot at one," said Mike Piano, owner of Mountain Cove Lodge near Espanola, Ontario.

Piano has been putting hunters on baited stands for more than 20 years with consistent results. The bears in his area are plentiful, but perhaps not big enough for trophy hunters. A typical bear ranges from 150 to 250 pounds, he said.

And while province biologists say they routinely see bears much bigger in the southern region, hunters do not.

According to Piano, he hasn't seen a bear of 300 pounds or more since the spring season was cancelled. He believes the bigger bears are up north or deep in the bush in the fall, preferring berries over his Cracker Jack and jelly doughnut offerings.

Drive-to hunts also are more likely to be disrupted by other outdoor activities.

Most of Ontario's bear season runs from Aug. 15 to Oct. 31, with some exceptions allowing hunting until Nov. 30. According to Piano, however, his season is essentially over Sept. 15, when grouse season opens.

"As soon as grouse hunters hit the woods, the bears stop visiting the baits they had been predictably using every day for two months," he said.

Luckily, most of Piano's hunters are tagged out well before the grouse season starts.

He credits his success to the sheer number of bears in his area, and the way he maintains several widely scattered, well attended bait stations.

Having the option of arriving in hunting camp with an entire truckload of gear is one reason some guys to prefer a drive-to hunt, but for others, it all comes down to money.

Drive-to hunts are always a lot cheaper than fly-in hunts.

Piano charges $1,000 for a week of hunting over bait from a private cabin on a picturesque lake, including boat and motor. Fly-in camps often cost three or four times that amount, but with good reason.

Why fly?

"Our season starts on Aug. 15, but we would have bears hitting the bait the entire season, if we chose to keep hunting them," said Jeff Thomas, owner of Latreille Lake Lodge in northwest Ontario.

Latreille is only accessible by float plane out of Ear Falls.

Thomas said he has never seen a grouse hunter in the area, and that the bears move naturally all year long in the undisturbed wilderness.

And where drive-to hunters might have to settle for a smaller, younger bear, remote wilderness hunters routinely kill bigger, older bruins all season long.

"There is also something to be said for the entire experience here," he said. "When you sit in a stand here, you are truly alone and will never be interrupted by anything except forest critters."

But buyers need to beware with fly-in camps, too.

Some outfitters allow too many hunters in camp and do not adequately bait enough sites to accommodate all the hunters.

In an effort to offset the high cost of flying in bait, some remote outfitters claim it is not necessary to bait every day in remote parts of the province. Their clients usually never return and are typically the guys complaining at the border crossing about the seeming lack of bears in Ontario.

Places like Latreille only take six hunters per year, and start baiting in May for the August opener. Like a good drive-to outfitter, guides bait everyday prior to season and don't stop until the season ends.

As would-be bear hunters pile up preference points in the hopes they may eventually draw a bear tag somewhere in the lower 48, others are simply driving across the border into Canada and killing a bear every year.

There are no guarantees in Ontario, but for the well informed, there are a lot of ways to come pretty close.

For more information on hunting bears in Ontario, contact Mike Piano at Mountain Cove Lodge at (705) 866-7000 or visit the Web site. Call Jeff Horton with questions about Latreille Lake Lodge at (317) 544-2250 or check out the site.