By Clay Newcomb
Baiting black bear can be one of the most exciting and effective ways to hunt them. If you’ve never ran your own baits from start to finish, then you might have a hard time appreciating how much work it can be, but also how rewarding success is. The murmur that baiting bear is easy is a farce told by those who’ve never done it themselves. Targeting older mature male bears over bait is a significantly underrated challenge. It’s no secret to the bruins that humans are involved with the bait - and big bears don’t like people. Man-made baits are in constant competition with 10,000 years of dietary history, pushing bears back to natural food sources. A pile of donuts and frosting isn’t enough alone to give you the edge – you’ll need some tricks up your sleeve to keep the big boys in black coming until the season opens.
This introduces us to one of the biggest challenges in hunting over bait: keeping the bears coming until the season opener. As much as bears crave the unique feed they can get a bait station, natural food sources, in the long term, are more attractive, and they’ll leave your bait to get them. Bears will hit man-made bait for a period of time, often losing interest once natural mast becomes available. Baiting bears can be heart breaking after watching weeks, and even months, of daylight trail camera pictures begin to dwindle the closer you get to the season – especially in the fall. I’ve had as many as nine bears coming to the same bait within a week of opening day, only to have them all leave, except for a 75-pound cub. However, there is a strategy that we’ve begun to use with success, and we call it bait switching. It’s a strategy that can keep the bears interested in your baits for a few extra days. Sometimes that is all you need.
When baiting your own bears, I find I’ve usually got one type of bait that is readily available that I can get in large quantities. It may be bait I’ve bought in bulk from a commercial bear bait company (like Bigwoods Bear Bait) or that I’ve gathered from local sourcing. This bait is the primary bulk of my first stage of bear baiting. In my case, it’s usually bread (dowsed in fryer grease treated with a commercial scent grease additive), donuts and popcorn. In Arkansas, we bait in the fall and bears devour carbohydrates until the acorns begin to hit the ground. Once they can get natural carbohydrates in places they are more comfortable going to (out in the wild where there is no human influence), they’ll drop your baits like a hot potato with no fixins.
In the springtime, baits will be hit hard until spring green up. When natural food is scarce, man-made baits are irresistible bears. Once the green vegetation arrives, you’ll begin to see bears slump off the radar compared to what was coming in before. Sometimes you’ve got a target bear that you need to hold for just a few more days. Likewise, in the fall, bears will respond with amazing appetites to man-made bait until the fall mast begins to fall (acorns, hickory nuts, beech nuts, persimmons, apples, etc.).
The concept of bait switching is simple. Hold back a completely different type of bait until just before the season opener. During the time when your bears would historically begin to leave, introduce the totally new, attractive bait to them. In the fall in Arkansas, I like to feed carbohydrates heavily until three to five days before the season opener, and then I begin to put out protein. I put out something they haven’t seen all year and don’t have access to in the wild – this is key. The carbs I was feeding are now in competition with natural carbohydrates, however, there is very little, if any, protein sources available for bears. Fawns are mature, carrion is scarce, and the meat and fish products I introduce to the bait create a new smell and add a new flavor to the buffet. Curiosity keeps them coming in, and the metabolic satisfaction of protein is unique for this time of year. If I had been feeding them meat and fish for the last month, it wouldn’t be anything special. However, it will be special for at least a few days. And just at the right time.
For your region you may want to try different combinations of carbs, protein and sweets. The key is going to be withholding one until the end. This takes some discipline and planning. My go-to switch in Arkansas in the fall is carbs to protein. However, you may find that switching to something ultra sweet like frosting, syrups or fruit concentrates make the best switch. Usually, in the fall, I feed a combination of bread, donuts, kettle popcorn and sweets (sweet pastries, candies) in bulk for about three to four weeks prior to the season opener. I like to feed the bears as much as they’ll eat. For us this means baiting with several hundred pounds of bait per week. This keeps the bears happy. You know they’re happy if you are coming back to an empty bait station. Three to five days out from the opener, I introduce fresh beef and pork butcher scraps along with pork and beef fat. I also like to use large quantities of sardines in soybean oil. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bear turn down a half-opened can of sardines. It’s one of my favorite baits. I like putting the beef and pork fat out frozen because it will keep longer this way.
It’s important to note that during the switch I actually continue to put out the same types of bait as before. Really, I’m just adding an item to the menu. What I begin to see once the acorns begin to fall is a short window where bears visit the baits only to get the protein. I once watched a bear on October 1st come to my bait and dig through a pile of donuts to find a beef bone, which he proceeded to crack and eat. You could have heard it crunching that bone 150 yards away. You could have twisted your ankle on all the acorns that covered the ground around the bait. The bear had all the carbs it wanted in the woods, but it didn’t have protein. In spring bear hunting up north, bears devour any protein source they’ve got available. I once hunted with an outfitter that started his spring baits in northern Alberta by opening a 55-gallon drum of pork trimmings. The bears devoured it. Perhaps a good switch in the north would be to hammer them with sweets just before the season opener while continuing to feed them protein.
Every Bear is Different – But Most are Similar
As in most things that deal with mass numbers of individual animals, there is a range of normal with outliers on either side of normal. Some bears will eat a single type of bait for a very long period of time, while most will not. Often times bait hunter’s options of bruins to harvest are trimmed dramatically by the season opener, and they end up killing a bear simply because it was one that was left. Often these aren’t the older mature males, but rather the average bears that are taking advantage of a food source that is lacking competition because the big boys left. By surprising them with a new option, you’ll have a better chance of appealing to more bears for a longer period of time.
I’ve also seen that some bait locations are better at holding older mature males through the season opener than others. You may not have a hard time holding bears through your season opener. Often this has to do with a bear’s preferred home range for that period of the year. If your bait is located in the place that bear naturally wants to be for that time of year (as opposed to pulling him from a long distance), he’ll be easier to hold. It also has to do with the baits proximity to natural cover, food and water.
The basis of the bait switch is that bears will eventually get tired of the same food, but are intrigued by new food. Bears will gravitate towards natural food sources over man-made food sources. Switching the bait to something totally different than what you’ve been feeding can hold bears for a few extra days at a time when they naturally want to leave.