By Clay Newcomb
The bears were working the system like a charm. I was going into the bait every three days at around 12 noon and filling the three bait barrels up with literally hundreds of pounds of bait. Secondly, I was consistently using spray scents and grease additives on each trip. I was amazed at how much food the bears were packing away. Additionally, they were using the baits as much during the daytime as at night, maybe even more in the daytime. Some might call it luck, some might say the moon was right, or that it was simply good bait placement, however, I attribute a lot of it to keeping my bears on a routine. Part of this routine involves using commercial scent. Layering your routine with as many things as possible is underrated when hunting tough bears.
On my personal baits, I keep my bears on a strict routine. For example, I would rather my bears run out of bait for a day than going in to rebait during prime feeding hours late in the day. I only go into my best baits during midday and usually at the exact same time. I find this makes the bears very trusting - even the big ones. When the bait is humming, bears will be there minutes before I get there, and they’ll quickly be back after I leave. I’m not baiting in a Canadian wilderness where you might expect this, but rather in fairly high-pressured region of Arkansas and Oklahoma. You’ve got to do a lot of things right to kill a big bear here. It’s probably not much different than baiting in Michigan or Wisconsin. You’ve got to watch your P’s and Q’s.
Secondly, I’m consistent with my bait. I feed them what they like and give them a lot of it. I start out with quality bait (donuts, bread, cookies, frosting, kettlecorn, etc) to keep them happy and full. I also like to treat them with multiple cans of sardines each time I bait. The bears know when I will be there, and they know what to expect when I’m gone. Think like a bear, and then contrast this with a bait that is randomly re-baited. The hunter might be there before work at daylight, or after work right at dark. If a bear is constantly on edge thinking that a human might bump him off the bait, he’s less likely to want to be there during the daytime. This same hunter might use a lot of bait one time, and a little the next. This creates a level of uncertainty, especially regarding the time of baiting. I like to reduce the number of uncertainties are my bait sites. Anything that deepens the routine is good. Anything that adds uncertainty to it is bad. Scent conditioning adds a layer to the routine that I do every time I bait.
Scent conditioning is simple. It means that you use commercial scents every time you bait. The scent is the strongest smelling part of the baiting routine. It broadcasts to the bears that the bait is fresh. Like Pavolov’s dogs that salivated whenever he entered the room after he conditioned them to feeding times, a well-conditioned bear is no different when he smells the exaggerated scent. Pavlov studied how any introduced item associated with feeding caused the dogs to salivate. He classified this as a “stimulus-response connection that required no training.” When a bear smells the powerful scent he is rewarded by a full stomach and fresh release of dopamine (the chemical in the brain that makes all animals, including humans, feel pleasure and satisfaction). The commercial scents become a trigger to come and feed.
Some hunters just use commercial scents to get a bait started. And they are excellent at that. However, keep using commercial scents throughout the baiting cycle to deepen your routine and help keep bears coming in the daylight. Additionally, by continuing to use commercial scents throughout the baiting cycle you’ll continue to broadcast the bait’s potential scent range to it’s furthest points, increasing the chances of getting new bears into the baits. Bears have large ranges and utilize them differently throughout the year. You never know when you might catch one inside the scent range of your bait and successfully attract him. Getting new bears into your bait is critical and can often be the difference in success and failure. New bears are usually easier to kill than the ones you’ve been feeding for extended periods of time. Using commercial scents undoubtedly increases your odds of attracting new bears.
What I am learning about baiting black bears is that it isn’t as simple as many hunters think. This is especially true if you are trying to take your success to the next level. It’s the nuanced and small things that can make a big difference.