By Bernie Barringer
My first exposure to baiting bears with barrels was on a Canadian bear hunt several years ago. At the time, barrels were not allowed in Minnesota so this was my first experience. I was impressed with several aspects of using barrels, but two of the most important were the obvious advantages of protecting bait from the weather, and using an opening in the barrel to regulate how much of the bait the bears could get at a time.
Bears will work really hard to get small amounts of goodies out of a hole in a barrel. The longer it takes them to get their fill, the more time they spend at the bait. One of the ways you create an active bait site is by having interaction between bears at the baits. This causes them to stay nearby and the competition really improves the odds that a big one is going to be there during the day. The longer the bears are at the site, the more interaction you have.
In an extreme case, I watched Tom Ainsworth of Grandview Outfitting seal an entire beaver inside a 55-gallon steel drum. This drum had a half-dozen 1-inch holes in it. The bears managed to get the entire beaver out of those holes little by little. Tooth and claw and scratch bite, they completely cleaned it up over a few days. That kind of dedication is hard to imagine, but that’s the power of a barrel—and a beaver.
I live in an area with a high bear population, so I decided to put some steel barrels out behind my house and load them up with bait to see what would happen. I attached them to a tree, sitting upright and chained them so the bears could not tip them over. Well, the results were remarkable as I had a dozen or more bears feeding at my barrels in no time. Over the next couple years I settled on two barrels, one of which has a 12-inch diameter hole right in the side, which I use to feed pastries and meat scraps. The other barrel has a 1 ½-inch hole near the bottom of the side, which regulates the distribution of things like trail mix, peanuts, corn, oats and other small stuff. Experimenting with these barrels has taught me a lot.
One of the things I learned early was that the big hole in the side of the barrel was not optimal for baiting bears. It worked fine for feeding bears 100 yards from my back door because I could keep an eye on the food and then add more once it ran out. But when you are baiting for hunting and you show up with a couple buckets of bait, what do you do if there is still more bait in the bottom of the barrel? Well you dump the new bait in on top. After a couple times of doing that, the bait in the bottom is going bad and probably getting moldy.
The answer to that is simple: put the hole at the bottom of the side. That way, the bears are feeding off the oldest stuff first as they feed from the bottom of the barrel. But this created a new problem. The bears would come in and plop right down on their bellies to feed, making it difficult to get the shot angle I wanted.
In 2014, I started baiting in Ontario and invited about 10 friends and family to join me. I hauled a lot of barrels of bait up there and continued to use the barrels to hold bait. I would normally only be able to bait every 2-3 weeks during late summer, so I stuffed the barrels full. My typical set-up was two barrels chained to a tree, one with a large hole in the bottom, and one with a small hole. I would fill up the former with pastries stuffed to the brim, the other I would fill with trail mix. They would all be empty when I came back in 2-3 weeks but man the bears were eager to be fed and we killed a lot of bears; 9-10 people for four years and everyone got a bear every year.
I also used barrels to bait bears in Wyoming, where I experimented with 30-gallon poly barrels with a hole in the bottom of the side. I learned a lot from that experience as well. I experimented with blue poly barrels at home, using ratchet straps to hold them to a tree. As expected that was a short-lived experiment. Chain is expensive but it’s the only way to go.
In the middle of these learning experiences, Minnesota began to allow barrels for use in bear baiting on private land, and after a couple years of monitoring that sample size, now allows barrels for use on public land as well. I’m in full-fledged barrel mode for bear baiting and now that I am guiding for bears as well, I am running 12-15 baits with barrels at each of them.
Over time, I have continued to modify and improve my barrel set-up. I am now using the blue poly 30-gallon barrels with a 6-inch hold in the bottom of the side. These barrels are durable and lighter to carry than steel. I chain them to a tree, but I do something important that minimizes the bears lying down to eat. I set a 5-gallon bucket under the barrel when I attach it to the tree so the opening is roughly a foot and a half above the ground. The bears mostly stand to feed on it.
I have also found that the opening allows them to get their paw all the way into the barrel to clean it out completely which reduces the wear and tear on the barrels. If the bears cannot get to all the feed they will shake and pull on the barrel, sometimes tearing it up or twisting it off the tree. Two chains bolted tightly almost eliminate the barrels being twisted off the tree. Almost.
By position the opening in the barrel at a 90-dgree angle to the treestand, you increase the odds of getting a broadside shot on a standing bear. Perfect. Even with 2-3 bears hitting the bait, 30 gallons will last two days if I really stuff it full of pastries and trail mix in alternating layers.
So that’s my system today and it seems to work very well. Can it be improved? Probably, we will see over time if I find things that need to be tweaked. I’m always learning and experimenting; I don’t think that will ever change.