By Tim Lesmeister
My son Jason has been living and hunting in Alaska for almost 20 years. He moved there out of high school and went to work for hunting outfitters, first as a packer, and after paying his dues, a full-time guide. His favorite animal to hunt is the bear. He is fortunate to have both the brown and the black bear to hunt while most of us in the Lower 48 are limited to black bear only. There is a debate raging right now whether to open seasons on Grizzly Bear in some of the west-central states, but that might be a long time coming. For now, if you hunt in the United States, with the exception of Alaska you will be hunting the black bear.
My son and I have often discussed the multitudes of contrasting regulations throughout the states where bear hunting is an option. In most states bear can be baited, or chased with hounds, while in others these practices are strictly forbidden. Some states have spring bear hunts, which tend to be fodder for the anti-hunting crowds, but have no adverse affect on bear populations. Many states that had marginal hunting not that long ago are seeing a boom in bear populations and this has resulted in higher interest among hunters to try the sport for themselves. In the state of Florida there have been so many bear sightings recently that discussion has begun among residents of that state to start the process for a hunting season where none exists at this time.
Hunting for bear, unless you’re hunting with dogs, has a lot of similarities to hunting deer, especially in states where you can set up bait stations for both deer and bear. There is only the need to scout an area, set up the bait stations and put yourself in a good hunting position, preferably a tree stand.
Most of the scouting these days takes place with a trail camera. While placing a trail camera on the bait pile will tell you whether the bait is being eaten by big bears or smaller animals, there is something to be said about using the camera before putting out the bait.
Like deer, bear tend to use well-worn pathways to get from their sanctuaries to their roaming grounds. Why waste bait on a couple of small bears when you can size them up with a trail camera and put the bait pile near where the big bears are showing up? Unless it’s that time of year when the bears are in the reproductive stage, they seldom travel far within their home range, so areas can be ruled out for a bait station with good trail camera placement prior to starting the baiting.
The bait itself tends to elicit long and contentious debates among hunters who all have their favorite bear “potions” that can’t be resisted. Some hunters might swear by a commercial concoction they purchased and used while some live and breathe by their own recipe and keep the formula in a safe deposit box only to be passed on to family members upon their death.
What hunters new to the sport fail to understand is that just because they put out a bait pile doesn’t mean bears will come running right up to it and gobble all the goodies down. It’s just as often that a bait station will go untouched and have to be moved a few times before the bear finally begins to use it.
So much depends on the amount of available natural forage, the placement of the bait and what is in the bait, that when a bait station is untouched it can cause some frustration.
When scouting for bear prior to baiting, one of the telltale signs that a bear is using a trail is a big pile of bear scat. This not only tells you a bear is in that vicinity, you can see plainly what the bear has been eating and it might provide clues to the area, so grab a stick and dig around in it.
Depending upon what part of the country you hunt, you might find signs of a bear eating fruit like apples, plums or berries. This can direct your scouting efforts to find where the orchard or berry patches are.
If the bear is feeding on beavers or other small animals tufts of fur or bones will show up in the scat. Find the nearby water and set up a camera near the beaver dams. You won’t be putting your bait station next to the water, you only want to get a feel for the size of the bear in the area. There is nothing worse than shooting a bear only to have it run into a pond or wet swamp to die. You want to keep a nice rim of dry land around that bait station.
Insects are also a staple in a bear’s diet and anywhere there are old dead trees that can be rolled over, look to see if bears have been foraging there. If so, set up the camera.
Baiting is as complex as one wants to make it. Just tossing a pile of bait on the ground will ensure lots of small animals and insects so it’s best to use a container for the bait and keep it off the ground. Some hunters build bait stations from wood, others use 50-gallon drums. It is imperative that the bait-holding structure be secured to a tree, if legal, otherwise it is sure to be tipped over or dragged away. The bait station should also be placed in a position that allows a good shot whether with bow or gun. You can get an idea quickly as to which direction the bear, or bears are coming in to the bait station and place your stand accordingly, but, you should initially place the bait station in a location that can offer great shot placement options.
A good bait station will allow the bait to be metered out to the bear. This means they will keep coming back for more and hang around the bait station longer. Most metal drum bait stations require the bear to paw out the bait from a hole in the bottom of the barrel.
Make sure and check your local regulations to be absolutely sure what can and cannot be used for bait and how it must be presented. Again, the laws vary widely from state to state and in some places you can use animal carcasses or fish carcasses in exposed barrels and in some states this would be illegal.
So what is the best bait? Most will agree that bears like carbohydrates. Baiters will load their bait stations with bread, sweet pastries and lots of sugary syrups like molasses. Where meat is legal, fish carcasses are always coveted. The one variable that is always a big factor is the smell quotient.
Bears may not have the keenest of eyesight but they have a strong sense of smell. With this in mind when you begin baiting it pays to generate a lot of odor right away. This will get your bear to the bait pile and then it’s just a matter of keeping them there.
So start the baiting process with more of the smell-producing baits, like dead fish covered in used cooking oil or bacon grease. Once you see there is a bear working the bait pile then you can switch over to the bread and donuts mixed in with a big helping of molasses-covered oats. Dog food is becoming extremely popular with bear hunters because once a bear is established on the bait station it can be kept coming back with that cheap dog food that can be found at the big warehouse food stores. Pour molasses or bacon grease over the dog food and you have a great bait.
How much and when become the next question for baiters. Some baiters are minimalists and only leave a gallon or two of bait, but these are the hunters who most often get to their bait stations every day or two. Then there are those that believe bears can’t get too much of a good thing and will put out ten gallons or more. In some states there is a maximum restriction for the amount of bait per station.
If you are getting out to the bait station ever day or two a few gallons is plenty. If just a couple times a week is all your schedule will allow then more will be necessary to maintain the momentum of the bait station.
Timing can be whenever the opportunity exists. Some guys set up a pattern of checking their bait stations right before, or right after work. Those with a flexible schedule might check their trail cameras and discover that the bear are there in the morning so they will add bait in the afternoon so not to spook the bears.
Some baiters feel that as little hunter presence as possible is better and strive to leave no trace of their visits to the bait station. Some think the bears don’t care and may use the signs of the hunter as a dinner bell. Some baiters set up their feeding times to coincide with their hunting times and might even bang the barrel as they leave to signal a bait delivery. From the research it seems that bears closer to humans in more well-developed areas have a pretty high tolerance to human presence. In the more wilderness areas any sign or scent of a human might spook that bear from the bait.
While some hunters will shoot a bear from a ground position, the preferred method is from a tree stand for a couple of reasons. Shooting from the ground might put you face to face with an angry wounded bear, and by elevating yourself in a tree stand or an elevated blind the height will allow you to have a better angle to see the bear coming to the bait and provide a better angle for the shot as well. For bowhunters the stand is almost considered a requirement for success.
Rifle hunters often debate the best rifle caliber for bear hunting. Some think a bear can be killed with any caliber cartridge while some stand by the rule that bigger is better and opt for a bullet that falls at least into the 30-caliber range. I posed the question to my son who hunts with a wide array of clients with different calibers and he says it really comes down to personal preference. He says it is more about placing the shot than worrying if the bullet is big enough.
Jason says the bottom line is that knowing where to place the shot can be the difference between a clean kill or having to stare down an angry wounded bear. He says many hunters know that a double-lung shot is the optimum for bear, but when the time comes to pull the trigger hunters, even experienced ones, can get nervous and make a marginal shot. His recommendation is to wait for the perfect position where the bear is standing broadside or slightly quartering. Never try to hand-hold the rifle, always use some support. Before you squeeze the trigger relax, yet focus. Jason says this all sounds easy until you are 30 yards from a 400-pound black bear that has just turned and is looking at you because it heard your safety click.
Once you shoot the bear it will likely run, possibly out of sight. This might actually be when the fun begins. Tracking the bear you just shot.
Lung shots bleed a lot, so hope for a healthy blood trail. This is where Jason says the bigger bullets prove their worth, in providing a healthy blood trail. As you creep up to the downed animal you can often plainly see if the bear is breathing by the chest expansion, but always have your gun ready.
As you can see hunting bear with bait can create an entirely new experience for hunters that enjoy setting up in a stand for an animal that comes to them. Of course there are some who would love to try bear hunting but don’t have the time or resources to get the bait out on a regular basis. With bear hunting comes a responsibility to maintain a routine or risk success. If it’s not possible to handle the preliminary process then a guide is the answer. There are huge numbers of hunters that set up relationships with bear guides every year. Many of the guides will allow the hunters to join them for some of the scouting and baiting processes. Or, you can just show up when the season opens and take advantage of the work that was done for you by the guide. Some might think this is too easy, but talk to a bear guide and you will quickly discover that you still have to have all the skills of a good hunter. You must be concealed, quiet and able to keep your head when it’s time to pull that trigger.
The population of bears is expanding and so are the numbers of hunters chasing them. Bear hunting is a great sport and like deer hunting can lead to another family tradition called, The Annual (fill in your name) Bear Hunt. It has a nice ring to it.