By Bernie Barringer
Bear Hunting Magazine
Mar/Apr 2009 Issue
It is no secret that motion-sensing trail cameras have revolutionized many aspects of hunting. That is especially true in hunting bears over bait. When I first started baiting bears, I really had little idea what was coming to the bait. What size of a bear was coming? When are they coming? Is it a sow with cubs? Are other animals eating the bait? With the use of Trail Timers that activated a clock when something pulled on the string, it helped fill in a little bit of info, but nothing tells the true story like a trail camera.
My first trail cameras were the film models. I had to rush to Wal-Mart and pay for processing, often only to be disappointed that I had 36 pictures of squirrels and raccoons; and the film had been used up before the bear came in. When I switched to digital cameras, a whole new world opened up to me. One of my cameras has now taken more than 10,000 photos. I can hardly imagine what that could have cost me in film and processing.
I now use a system of three digital cameras. I mostly run a few bear baits each year for family and friends. I am able to rotate those three cameras from bait to bait every few days, and I have an amazingly detailed documentary on what is going on at the baits. The cameras I use capture the pictures to an SD card, which I take home and check on my computer each day.
My system works like this: for each of the cameras, I have two SD cards. I also carry one spare set of batteries fully charged with me at all times. That way I can rotate the batteries out as needed. With six SD cards and three cameras, I just replace the SD card at each camera each time I bait the site. Back at my computer, I view the photos and I know which bait is the best bait to hunt that evening, based on the pictures. Last year, I harvested a bear that came in early the previous night. I knew which bait to be on, and what time to be there.
It sounds simple, and it is. But over the years of looking over thousands of trail camera photos, I have learned that there are some things to look for; things that most people would miss if they are not carefully analyzing what they see in the pictures. Some of it is good news, and a lot of it is bad news. But the bad news helps you to know when you are wasting your time, money and bait at a location. Which I guess is good news in the long run. Let us take a look at 10 sample photos that look quite generic at first glance, but when you really learn to understand what you are looking at, each of these photos tells a story that is very important to your success.
Here we have a 2 1/2 year-old that is at the bait about a half hour before dark. If we look closely at the bear’s posture and body language, we can learn an important thing. This bear is very nervous and is standing up to look around. A bear that is on edge like this definitely means that this is not the dominant bear at this bait. There is a bigger, more mature bear visiting this bait and the bear in the picture knows it. When the time comes to hunt this bait, you may want to consider passing on this smaller bear, because there is definitely a bigger one in the neighborhood. This is a good situation because the competition at the bait is likely to bring the bears in earlier, and it helps reduce your chances of having the bears go nocturnal.
Here is a good-sized bear lounging around the bait. This bear is relaxed and feeding without a care in the world. And he is there in the daylight. It is an ideal situation. He is probably the dominant bear at this bait. He will be back at his leisure and you had best be waiting for him when he gets there.
Here is a bear that is coming in during the daylight; but how big is this bear? Well, he is shaped like a decent sized bear. He has got pretty wide hips, but we cannot really see his head in relation to his ears. There is a reference point in the photo that will help us determine a little more about the size of this bear. That log lying across the top of the bait was intentionally cut about four feet long, and the bear appears to be not quite as long as that log. I would say this is a 1 1/2 year-old bear, probably a male about 100 pounds.
What happened here? Well, sometimes a camera’s flash can make a bear curious and they may come over for a close-up look. But more often than not, the bear smell-ed something that brought it over there. Did you touch the camera with sticky hands after dumping doughnuts on the bait? Did the camera come into contact with some kind of sweets when it was in your vehicle? Better get out there and clean it up before the next bear decides to take a bite out of it.
I hate seeing this, but it is something that cannot be avoided. Raccoon populations have exploded in my area of northern Minnesota in the last two decades. They are a serious problem at most bait sites. Rarely do I have a bait site that does not have coon activity and I often have 300 or more photos of them in a night at some baits. I had no idea how many coons I was feeding until I started using trail cameras. They are masters at digging under the logs and moving small logs to get morsels of bait. And once the bear has been there and moved the logs, they will come along and clean up every last scrap. You may think you have a bear that is just hammering your bait, but in reality it is just picking out a few choice morsels and moving on. The coons are doing the rest. This photo tells the story.
Here is a really nasty situation. Crows and ravens can take over the bait and they are very good at poking in and getting scraps of bait. They will get enough to keep them coming back, and the more they come back the more likely the bear is just going to abandon the bait altogether. They foul the bait with their droppings and their noisy racket will keep the bears away. The best thing to do when you see something like this is to stop baiting for a few days and hope they go away.
I see this quite a bit. This is a sow with three yearling cubs. Man can they eat a lot of bait in a night! In Minnesota, all three are actually legal game but they are not what I am looking for. Often sows with cubs such as this can be quite aggressive and they will not let any other bears near the bait. Unless you are interested in shooting one of these, or just spending a lot of time and money feeding them, you might as well concentrate your efforts elsewhere.
Here is another bad situation. This is a dominant male and he is marking the small tree at the bait. This is a big old mature bear and it would be a great one to shoot. But the last four nights he has only come in well after dark and he is not likely to change his pattern. His dominance is shown by the fact that he is advertising his presence on the tree and it is unlikely you are going to get a shot at him or any other bear at this bait. Find another bait site.
Here is a photo of a monster bear. I have about three dozen photos of this big bear at this particular bait. He is legitimate 500+ pound bear with a Boone & Crockett head. He came in at midnight for about a week in 2006 and every other bear completely abandoned the bait. I never saw him again. He will probably die of old age.
This is what we all love to see. A nice mature bear with a great hide and a head like a pumpkin, coming to the bait in broad daylight. All bear hunters live to see photos like this and if it does not make your heart beat a little faster you better take your pulse.
It is clear that trail cameras can make your bear hunting a lot more productive and enjoyable. For me, checking the cameras is about as much fun as the hunting. But it is a lot more than just looking at pictures. If you really take the time to analyze the photos and look closely to interpret what they really mean, it will greatly increase your chances of bagging a big bear this year.