Considered a predator, various states and provinces allow baiting of black bears (ursus americanus). As an Alberta-based outfitter, I’ve hunted bears in just about every manner possible. Although I favor the spot and stalk approach, for my money baiting is undeniably the best way to provide a hunter with an up-close and personal view before hitting the switch. By bringing a bear in to as close as a few yards, the hunter has the opportunity to ensure that it is not a sow with cubs and properly evaluate the bear, not to mention the much improved opportunity for perfect shot placement.
Many deem baiting unfair, giving the hunter a considerable advantage. But contrary to what some would have us believe, it’s far from easy, and holds no guarantees! I’ve witnessed bears sneak in undetected, grab a morsel of meat and disappear as fast as they arrived. I’ve also had bears skulk around the bait for hours, never showing themselves. From time to time you get lucky and have one move in cautiously to inspect the provisions, but this is more frequently the exception than the rule. The biggest advantage to baiting is that, if and when a bruin finally commits to the bait, it allows the hunter an opportunity to assess size and stature.
To operate successful bait stations, a number of steps must be taken. Based on 15 years of experience, I’ll try to narrow it down to 10 basic tips. Consider these and you’ll be well on your way to closing a tag.
The more you know about bears, the more likely you are to put your bait in the right place. A black bear’s home range can span from two to 10 miles and resident populations often hold a variety of boars, sows and cubs, so it’s not uncommon to have multiple bears visiting your site. Black bears undergo an annual rut cycle beginning in late May and continuing through June. The larger, more educated, and otherwise reclusive boars become increasingly visible as they readily cross roadways, clear cuts and feed in open areas as they search for sows in estrus. With this in mind, it is most common to have smaller bears frequent your bait in the early part of the season. As larger bears travel extensively as the rut progresses, chances of them finding your bait increase dramatically. Black bears have relatively poor eyesight, but outstanding olfactory and auditory senses. Once they get a taste of your bait, as long as it is replenished regularly, they will be reluctant to leave the area. In fact, once a site is established, you may see the same bruin year after year.
Location is Critical
Bait should be placed along a bear’s natural movement corridor. Bruins hang out in distinct areas where food is available. Heavily timbered forests near agricultural lands often sustain good bear densities. With cereal crops like oats nearby, black bears favor the accessibility and abundance of such forage and often reside in proximity. The same holds true with natural forage such as wild berries and dandelions.
With the aid of topographical maps, look for streams, rivers and ample low ground to provide damp, dark and cool cover. Dense moss-laden boreal forests bordering swamps and isolated marshy wetlands often play host to good numbers of bears. Beavers are a staple food source in some regions, so areas with spruce and poplar mixed forest near cascading beaver dams can be dynamite locations for establishing a bait site.
Look for indicators like claw marks on deciduous trees. While rarely do you stumble upon fresh markings, these lasting scars unveil a historical presence. Nomadic creatures, bears commonly travel traditional trails along waterways and natural movement corridors like valleys and ridges. Finding fresh scat can instill further confidence.
Timing Also Important
In Alberta, Canada where I outfit, we can begin baiting two weeks prior to the season opener on April 1st. Some years I begin stocking my bait stations the third week in April. But this is typically a factor of weather as snowmelt occurs at that time. In practical terms, I stock my baits two weeks prior to the time I want to hunt them. Given the amount of work and often the amount of bait that can be consumed by bears, any more time in advance of your hunt is generally overkill.
What to Use
Bears are omnivorous and will scarf down just about anything from produce to pastries, bread and meat scraps. The key is to make sure your offerings have a strong odor - sometimes the more putrid the smell, the better … at least when it comes to attracting them.
I’ve learned to simplify my bait ingredients by using beaver carcasses hung in trees. Where legal, beavers are a key ingredient. As for bulk, I use sacks of cream filled cookies. A pale of rotting fish guts serves as a great stink bait and the final touch is a bucket of grease poured around the base of the bait barrel, particularly the kind discarded by restaurants that use deep fryers. Visiting bears step in the oozing mess and establish their own scent trail to and from the bait.
The Set Up
Bait stations can be simple or complex. I use a 50-gallon drum chained to a tree. The barrel can be cribbed with logs and branches to ensure the bear approaches from the front and presents a good shot angle. By cutting a small six-inch diameter hole at the base, I ensure the bears are able to dig food out a little at a time. I prefer a tree stand for most set-ups because it allows the best view. As an archer, this generally offers more shot opportunities. I try to select a stand location no more than 20 yards away, ideally in a spruce tree.
Know the Rules
Study your state or provincial hunting regulations. Know what you can and can’t do, season dates, licensing guidelines, where baiting is and isn’t allowed, how to properly post warning signs, whether it is unlawful to shoot a sow with young cubs, and so on.
When to sit baits
Evening hours are by far the proven time to encounter bears on bait. This however is simply a higher percentage timeframe. Approaching the bait cautiously, I’ve stumbled on bears contently feeding at all hours, including early morning and mid-day.
Pay Attention to Detail
Scent can be your biggest ally or your worst enemy. Bears are attracted to the aroma of a free meal, but if they catch a whiff of your boot track, you can often kiss them good-bye. Keep your clothing and footwear as scent-free as possible. Approach your stand or blind from the opposite direction that the bear is anticipated to enter the site. Once established, well-worn trails will reveal access points.
Be on your toes at all times while hunting your bait. You will most often see bears before you hear them. With padded feet, they move with calculated precision. Remember, when they come in to a bait station, they know the treats were left by humans.
Learning when and where to shoot can mean the difference between an expedient kill and a potentially dangerous encounter. I prefer to wait until the bear is preoccupied with the bait and is facing away while standing broadside or quartering away. Bears are extremely tough, so a double lung shot is always your best option.
The bottom line – baiting is a unique but proven strategy for attracting a wary game animal with a voracious appetite. It involves much more than just tossing out a few tasty morsels. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Keen attention to detail is the key to success. Consider the academics of where a bear lives, what he eats and why, how to appeal to a bear’s curiosity, his daily routines and where/when you will get a good shot opportunity … and you’re well on your way to a successful hunt.
Most importantly, remember baiting is a ton of work. From gathering the ingredients and materials prior to entering the woods, to establishing and maintaining each site, it requires foresight and commitment. That said, if you’re willing to invest the requisite time and energy to do it right, it can be rewarding. You’ll observe bears at close range and, with a little luck, you’ll tag a nice bruin. So if you’re interested in trying something new, or perhaps modifying your current baiting practices, consider these proven tips and you won’t be disappointed.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.