By Bernie Barringer
A five gallon bucket of bait in each hand, I was walking down a narrow trail through the forest doing my daily bait routine. My mind was on other things as I trudged along as I had hundreds of times before. Suddenly, I was jerked to attention when a crashing noise came from the bait only 50 yards away through the bush. My first thought was that I had jumped a deer. I didn’t think much about it until I got home and plugged the SD card from the trail camera into the computer.
I was surprised to discover a picture of a bear on the bait only 60 seconds before I arrived. I hadn’t jumped a deer after all, I had bumped a mature bear off my bait at 9:30 in the morning!
That bear never came back. For the remaining three weeks of the season, the bear never returned to that bait. In fact, most bear I’ve spooked off a bait here in northcentral Minnesota has either never returned to the bait, or only returned during darkness. I’ve learned to run the baits during midday when bears are least likely to be at the bait.
Contrast that to some of the wilderness bush areas of Canada, where bumping bears off a bait is often an everyday occurrence. In fact, you can often bump a bear off a bait and get in the treestand, only to have that bear come back within the hour.
The reason I relay these two scenarios is to help you understand that conditions are vastly different and what works great in one area may not work at all in another. The advice I am about to give should be filtered through the lens of the type of hunting you do and the conditions you are faced with.
As I have done bear hunting seminars over the past decade, I have noticed that a handful of question seem to come up a lot, and two of those are “How much bait should I put out at a time?” and, “How often should I run my baits?” The issue of what time of the day is best for baiting goes hand in hand with those two questions.
Let’s deal with the frequency of baiting first. My strategy is guided by the principle that I want the bears to be rewarded with something good to eat every time the show up. No exceptions. I want that bear to have a good experience every time he shows up. In a way I am training him by giving him an award, just like training a dog to get a treat each time he rolls over or sits up. I hunt in an area where baiting is competitive and there are other baits these bears could choose, so mine has to be the best baits and I don’t want to risk losing them. If that bear finds nothing to eat, he may move to another hunter’s bait and stay there for good. Or maybe a bear was just passing through and you missed your one chance to hook him.
In a perfect scenario, that would mean I could load up a bait site with hundreds of pounds of bait and only fill it up when it gets low. But the reality of laws and circumstances create some curveballs in this strategy. In some states and provinces, it’s common to use a barrel or other container to protect the bait from the weather, but that’s illegal in others. In some states you are limited to the amount of bait you can put out, and in all states, bad weather can be a factor. Rain can ruin a good bait. Hot weather can turn things sour as well.
Here in Minnesota, I cover my bait with logs and replenish it quite often. If I’m expecting rainy weather, I will put out a smaller amount, then bait again as soon as the rain is done. I simply have to bait more often here because there are so many scavengers that whatever doesn’t get eaten by a bear is cleaned up by raccoons, squirrels, fishers, crows and ravens, and rodents. A handful of coon can eat a full bucket of donuts in one night. Once the logs are moved off the bait, it’s a free for all, and there will be no bait left within hours.
I don’t like it that I have to leave fresh human scent at the bait every day, but if I don’t bait it often, the bears will come back and find nothing there. That’s the trade-off to all the extra work and scent of baiting more often, in some cases every day.
There are exceptions to these rules. In some areas, there is little competition and fewer scavengers. I sometimes pull a tag for a zone three hours north of where I live where there are large blocks of state forest with fewer hunters and no raccoons. In this case, I can haul in 300 or more pounds of bait and put it in a crib so I only have to run the bait once or twice a week.
There are several positives to baiting often. You have a better feel for what is going on at the bait since you are checking the trail cameras every day and you know how often and when it is getting hit. That gives you a lot more information to work with when it comes time to decide which bait to hunt.
Baiting more often also allows you to keep adjusting the bait as the bears tell you what they want. As an example, if they are cleaning up the pastries and not eating the candy, that tells you to add more pastries. The key here is to make sure they are satisfied. Ideally you want them to fill up on what they like and go sleep it off nearby. When they are hungry again, they come right back to your bait and aren’t messing around somewhere else where another baiter may be able to hijack your bears.
Obviously since there are pros to baiting every day, there are cons too. Skittish bears may become alarmed by the amount of human scent at a bait site. Every bear is different and has a different tolerance level. Some bears, especially mature males, just won’t put up with it. Each situation has to be analyzed and decisions need to be made on the best information you can get; then adjust accordingly.
It stands to reason that the more times you approach the bait, the more likely you are to spook a bear off the bait. How do the bears react when you bump them off the bait? If they disappear or go nocturnal, like they do where I hunt in the competitive areas around my home, that’s an issue that needs to be taken into consideration. I bait from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to help reduce these encounters.
Baiting every day is a lot more work and takes a lot more of your time. Baiting is hard work and time-consuming, especially if you have to load and unload a 4-wheeler at each site, or make long drives back into remote areas. There are some significant costs to running baits every single day. Some of those costs are offset by the savings on bait that is not being lost to scavengers, but not much. Depending on how far you have to drive to access your baits, you will have to factor the cost of fuel as a significant piece of the puzzle when deciding how often to run those baits.
This brings up the second part of this equation, how much bait you should put out each time you visit the bait site. I’ve heard the statement that it’s not a bad idea to leave the bears wanting a little more, which is an argument for putting out less bait. I have know people that start cutting back on the amount of bait when it gets close to the season opening day in an effort to create competition or encourage the bears to come in earlier to avoid missing out.
I can say without a doubt from my personal experience that neither of these tactics have worked for me; in fact, both have been counterproductive. Trying to manipulate bear behavior by reducing the amount of bait or frequency of baiting is a recipe for failure. The hard and fast rule is to reward the bear when he comes to the bait site. Trying to control the time and frequency he comes on is like pushing a rope. It just doesn’t work.
A better strategy is trying to control how much they can eat each time they arrive. A recent change in Minnesota’s baiting regulations now allows for the use of a barrel on private land. That has been a huge benefit to me because I can fill a barrel with trail mix which is dispensed through a small hole in the bottom of one side. The bears have to claw and peck and work at it, so they spend more time at the bait, which encourages interaction among bears—a good thing—and also means they can’t just fill their belly up in a short time.
Either way, provide plenty of bait because it’s a good way to keep the bear nearby. A bear which just gorged himself and is sleeping it off nearby is still in the area when he gets hungry again as well.
Another primary factor in deciding how much to bait has to do with the number of bears that are coming to the site. It’s important to know the answer to this question, and trail cameras are one of the best tools to use to determine how many bears are using the bait. If you don’t know, you may think that you are fattening up a couple huge bears when in reality you might have a couple sows with yearling cubs eating all your bait. Instead of two shooters being held at the bait, you may actually have 6-8 small bears cleaning it up and the shooters have moved on.
Trail cameras help you inventory the bears and help you choose how much to bait and how often. I cannot overstress the importance of knowing what is coming to the bait, not just guessing. Put a camera on every bait.
So how much bait do you put out and how often? I suppose by now you realize that I got to the end of this article without really telling you the answer to that. That’s because there is no one answer; there are so many variables. I hope I have helped you analyze your situation a little better so you can make your own choices, and then continue to analyze it and tweak your own system as time goes on.