“There’s over 100,000 acres to hunt bears and you have to hunt down this road!” grumbled Denny as the truck bounced between the ruts in the trails. “Just getting close to the bears grocery store,” was my reply, as I made sure the truck was in 4-wheel drive. “The grocery store?” Denny replied. “You bet, find where the bears are feeding on natural foods and set your baits up in those areas.”
Often times in the business, or real estate world, you will hear the importance of being in the right location. That is no less important to the bear hunter over a bait. What makes a good bait location is often what the hunter thinks a bear should like, not what the bear really needs. The three things that make a location work are food, water and shelter.
The first thing to do when looking for the bear’s grocery store is to find out what their preferred foods are. After determining what the bears prefer to eat, it is equally important to determine that those foods are available in your hunting area. Hunting during a spring or fall season will make a major difference on what foods to look for.
My bear hunting and baiting experience takes place during Minnesota’s fall season. The bears in Minnesota spend most of late May to early June feeding on ants and pupae. Not just any old ant will do. Biologists have discovered that the bears of north central Minnesota prefer several varieties of small bright yellow ants. In northeast Minnesota the bears prefer the carpenter ant.
Around mid-July, when the berries begin to ripen, bears change their diets to these wild fruits. Wild strawberry, sarsaparilla, pinch berry, raspberry, juneberry, blueberry, choke cherry, current, buckthorn, arrowhead, highbush cranberry and dogwood are the preferred berries. Later in the summer and early fall, hazel nuts and acorns play a very important part in the bear’s diet.
The density of these preferred foods can vary greatly from one area to the next. The availability of these can also be dramatically affected by weather. A bear’s survival is dependent on these food sources and they will return to them year after year. By scouting for these areas of high berry concentration, the hunter can narrow down a possible bait site. Looking at bear scat during the hunting season will tell you what they are feeding on. The seeds or pits of the berries often show up in the scat.
After you have determined what and where the bears prefer to feed on in your area, you need to find the bear’s water and shelter areas. While I do not believe you need a bait site that is on the shore of a lake, I prefer to be within a mile or so of a good water source. During late August and early September it can be quite hot. Bears need fresh water as much for hydration as they do for keeping cool.
The key to connecting the food source and water elements is shelter. Bears prefer to stay in the cover of thick woods while traveling from one area to another. It is when these three elements of food, water and shelter come together that you have location. When looking for that perfect location, first look for a transition zone. The transition can be from a grassy area that may have strawberries in it that comes in contact with a bushy area that is holding lots of choke cherry bushes. If the bushy area is next to a heavy stand of spruce or cedar it is time to take a closer look. Water is my last consideration in picking a bait site.
Check the shelter area closely. It is important that the stand of timber be not just an island but have avenues of security for the bear to come and go. Ideally, what you are trying to accomplish with your perfect location is for the bear to feed, water and rest in an area that they feel secure. If that cannot be accomplished, then the bears must be able to travel between areas with a sense of security. Bears that tend to feel comfortable in their environment will be more likely to hit a bait earlier, and not be nearly as shy approaching the bait. Studies have shown that female bears will travel up to 30 miles or more in search of food sources in the fall. Male bears have been known to travel more than 50 miles. So keeping one bear at a bait location can be tough.
Once you have narrowed down your choices of a location, look closely for sign of bears feeding in the area. Bears can leave an amazing amount of sign or at times, very little. A blueberry patch that is stomped down, high bush cranberry or choke cherry bushes that are pulled over, logs torn up and ant hills flattened are signs that bears are feeding in an area.
Scat is a valuable indicator when scouting for a location. While not the most pleasant topic for discussion, it is a very important clue for the hunter. Scat will tell you how recently the bear has been in the area. Bear scat “melts down” fairly quickly, especially if it gets rained on.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find bear tracks. However, they are the best indicator of the size of a bear. By traveling along waterways, you may be able to locate a bear track along the muddy banks. Another place to locate bear tracks is along logging roads. Though tracks can be difficult to locate, they are well worth taking the extra time to look closely for.
While this discussion has been about locating bear food sources in a forested area, agricultural areas should not be left out. Bears love oat fields and will also travel quite a distance to find sunflower and corn fields. Bears can heavily damage a field of crops and most farmers will be glad to have the bears removed by responsible hunters. The local conservation officer often has to deal with the crop damage reports from farmers. The conservation officer may also be able to issue a nuisance tag for a bear.
Finding a location for a bait site in an agricultural area is basically the same as in a forest area. Look for food, shelter and water. Find what the bears are eating. Look for some type of shelter for them. The bears will usually seek shelter in nearby woods. If possible, choose a bait site located between the feeding area and where the bears are resting.
When scouting for a bait site location be conscious of an approach to a possible stand. Consider what the predominate afternoon wind direction is in the area. Also, be in the lookout for other hunters in the area. Chances are, if you think it is a good location, another hunter may think so as well. Of course this depends on the amount of hunting pressure in the area and if you are hunting on private or public lands.
Now that you have found that perfect bait location, how do you get the bear to visit it? The most effective way that I have found for drawing in bears to a bait site is by burning bacon. Several slices of bacon cooked at the bait site in a camp stove creates a scent plume that no bear can resist. The air fills with a thick cloud of bacon odor and the grease particles cling to all the vegetation. There are many scents on the market, and I have tried many of them, but none compare to burning bacon.
While bears are known to have a sweet tooth, sweets are not always their favorite. In the fall, bears are preparing for a long winter of hibernation and are consuming mass quantities of food. Studies have shown that a bear will spend as much as 22 hours a day feeding in the fall. The best source for calories and mass that I have found to fill the appetite of a bear is fresh beef scraps. Some believe that tainted meat is better because bears love to eat maggots. Yes, they like the maggots but my experience is that they prefer the fresh meat.A balanced bait is what I like to give the bears. One of the benefits of baiting bears is the fact that a hunters baits are assisting bears in preparing for winter. Certainly not every bear that feeds at a bait site is harvested. Many bears go into hibernation with a thicker layer of fat, compliments of hunters.
My basic bait is mixed in a five gallon bucket. I start with a few cups of whole oats and cracked corn. Add five pounds of fresh beef scraps, followed by a few pastries. This is topped off with a few cups of livestock grade molasses. All this will fill a five gallon bucket about 2/3 full. I am always experimenting with baits and suggest others to do the same. I have found that bears are very fond of fruit. Over-ripe peaches seem to hold a special attraction to them. I always add a piece or two of fruit to each bait.
Bears do not live by the clock like we do. They can come and go from a bait as they like. There are a few things that the hunter can do to try to be at the bait at the same time the bears are. First, be consistent in the time you bait. I try very hard to bait the same bait at about the same time each day. I prefer to bait in the afternoon, which also works best for my work schedule. It is important to follow the same routine when approaching the bait. Park and make noise. If I am by myself, I will talk to myself. I want the bears to get familiar to the sounds of human activity just as much as I want them to get accustomed to the smell of humans around the baits. My black lab goes to the bait sites with me and it has never had a negative impact on bait activity. Frequency of baiting is also important. Generally, I start with a two or three day check on the baits. As the season closes in, (in Minnesota we are allowed two weeks of baiting prior to the season beginning) and the most active baits become apparent, I switch to baiting daily. This is important for two reasons. First, the bear will consume all the bait and I want to keep his belly full so he stays close to the bait. That is why I spent the time finding that perfect location where the bear is comfortable and has food, water and shelter. I want the bear to get a full belly of beef and go snooze it off until he hears me come back. Second, once hunting season begins somebody will be hunting those active baits everyday.
Keeping a log can be an invaluable tool for keeping track of baits, especially when you have someone else helping you run baits. Name each bait. It makes it so much easier when somebody tries to explain something about a bait. Instead of, “You know the bait by the big tree over by the rocks where we saw that fox pup two years ago.” It is much less confusing to say “Today at the Grassy Run bait we had a good hit with a big pile of scat.” The information that I like to keep for each bait is the date it is baited, if there was a “hit” or not and any different type of bait I may have used. Notes can be kept on each bait such as “Bear doesn’t like the corn or loves peaches, passed on the watermelon but ate all the meat.” Make your log as detailed as you like; keep track of predominate wind at your preferred hunting times and the effects of weather on bear activity. My logs have shown a distinct increase in activity prior to a low pressure system.
By studying your log you will see patterns emerge. If using trail timers and recording the hit times you can pattern a bait and narrow your optimum time to be in the stand. With several years of data from your log you will be able to see the effects of hunting season date changes and the effects of limit changes and hunting pressure. A well maintained log can tell you a lot about bear patterns.
Finding the perfect bear bait location may take several years of trial and error. Do not be afraid to experiment and move locations. Sometimes moving only a little will increase the bait site activity or shut it down.You will know the good sites. They are the ones that produce good consistent hits on the baits year after year. We have taken bears from the same site several years in a row. All the good bait locations have the same things in common; food, shelter and water. By looking for those three things when considering your next bear bait site, I am sure you will eventually find that perfect location.