Being Selective | Waiting for the Right Bruin
By Jana Waller
I’ve said it before but I believe it deserves repeating, bear baiting is truly one of the most misunderstood forms of hunting. Bear hunting in general is often misunderstood by the general public, but it’s also under scrutiny at times from the average deer or turkey hunter. Many of its critics are people who have never personally baited and who have misconceptions about the process. You can assume when you read comments on social media such as “baiting is cheating” or “it’s like shooting fish in a barrel” that the ‘warrior’ behind that keyboard has never been a player on the field. Like many things in life, it’s easy to criticize the game from the bleachers.
Bear hunting is not only a necessary part of wildlife management and an important key to healthy ungulate populations, but bear baiting is the best way to determine the right bear to take. Size and sex of bears is often hard to tell at a distance, but when you’re only 25 yards away it takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. Baiting allows you to know what’s in the area with your trail cameras, but also gives you time and opportunity to be selective.
It’s been almost 14 years since I was first introduced to bear baiting. A friend was nice enough to let me tag along on their Idaho bear hunting adventure and I was excited about the possibility of seeing a bear up close! I remember watching my friend’s kids sit on their garage floor and unwrap individually packaged stale and expired bakery goods one by one and put them into buckets. Large 50 pound bags of dog food were strapped to pack frames and gallons of old grease were loaded into their pickup. After hiking over a mile to their bait site, I can still remember thinking, ‘Whoa, this is a ton of work!’ And I didn’t have to carry in the tree stands or barrels; that was already done on a previous trip. We loaded that site as well as two other stands and went back the following week to hunt. During that week, we hunted multiple stands and saw a total of one young bear. That was my first true understanding of the amount of work that goes into bear baiting and the undeniable fact that it is unpredictable. While you can often pattern bears and have your eyes set on a specific bruin, there’s no guarantee he’s going to show up with you in the stand.
Fast forward to the present day, I have learned so much from the incredible bear hunting opportunities I’ve had in the last decade plus. I’ve learned a lot from many of my friends who bait bears as well as some Canadian and Alaska outfitters. I’ve been blessed to notch my tag on 17 bears, all of which have been unique and special, from their colors and size to the overall experience of the hunt. Along with the misconceptions about the practice of baiting comes the popular notion that bears are simply a “trophy animal”. For some reason, the general public can stomach the idea of eating deer but often I get a look of shock when I’m explaining to non-hunters that bears produce more delicious meat and usable fat for rendering than most other big game. I’ve often thought about how fun it would be to have a fancy dinner party, one that could rival Martha Stewart’s, and announce after dessert, “Surprise! You’ve just enjoyed mountain lion, bear, and wild hog!”
I’ve been running my own baits in Idaho with my business partner, cameraman, and all-around great friend, Heath Helgert, for the past six years. Heath is a lot like myself, a self-proclaimed bear addict. We have so much history with the bears on our sites and often see the same ones year after year. We do a lot of filming and often find ourselves digging through the archives of footage to see if it’s a repeat customer. We’ve watched cubs grow up and have a few old giants that continue to tease us with a midnight trail camera pic or two.
This Spring, Heath and I loaded our sites with our favorite concoction of stale trail mix, candy, and pretzels garnished with a plethora of Boarmasters “raz-donut” and “carnivore candy” sprays. We always add Boarmaster’s concentrated scented oil to our grease that we pour around the site so the bears track the scent back into the woods. Nick from Boarmasters also had tubs of orange frosting for sale this season, so we topped o? our delicious menu with the best part of birthday cake. When we are done, the forest always smells like a giant candy factory that’s hard to resist.
This year I was after one bear in particular. “Fatty” made an appearance just a few days after we set up the site—a daytime photo in fact—just twenty minutes before dark. He’s a beautiful jet black boar that we believe has visited our bu?et a few years in a row. It can be hard to be positive that it’s the same bear since he doesn’t have any distinctive markings, but he’s big. He’s got a blocky head and he’s very nocturnal. It’s been my experience, however, that even the big ol’ smart bruins make a mistake every now and then and simply let their bellies override their brains.
The best part of bear baiting is the opportunity to simply watch bears. They are such amazing animals with their own unique personalities. Some bears come bouncing in without a care in the world while others take 30 minutes from when you first catch a glimpse of them sneaking through the woods. There’s a reason some get nicknames like “Crabbypants” or “Karen”. But most of the bears we see in Idaho are quite cautious and timid. I believe it’s because of the high amount of hunting pressure versus bear baiting in Canada or Alaska, where it’s much more remote with less people. I always consider it a successful night if we get to watch a bear. It’s the evenings when we get skunked that are long and frustrating, but it’s also that unpredictability that makes it fun.
Despite the long bear hunting season, I personally only had one week to hunt this year due to a crazy schedule. We had a lot of bears showing up while we were in the stand as well as on the trail camera at night. That first evening, we watched a couple of di?erent bears come in and actually fight over the bait. That low rumble warning sound bears make is one of the coolest noises in the animal kingdom. My target bear was a no show but like clockwork, Fatty waddled in and got his photo taken about 30 minutes after dark, his huge sagging belly making him stand out among the others.
There are a few key factors that seem to make a di?erence when it comes to a bear hitting the bait during daylight hours. Young bears, of course, are simply not as smart. They’re often the ones to come charging in to gorge on the goodies. They always know we’re there, staring up at us in the trees, but they often can’t resist filling their bellies. They also want to avoid the larger bears, which tend to hit in the dark, so they get in and get out when the coast is clear. Weather, particularly high winds or rain, tend to make bears hunker down and elusive. Strong wind direction carrying your scent towards the bait can be a deterrent as well. Like deer behavior, the rut is another important determining factor. While some boars disappear during the bear rut, going on long distance walkabouts to find a sow, others can lose their common sense and follow a sow right in during daylight hours. I was hoping that would be the case with Fatty since one of our trail camera pictures clearly showed the rut was in full swing. Cue the Marvin Gaye music.
Fatty continued to show up on the trail camera for a few days, always within an hour or two after dark. He was big for a reason; he was nobody’s fool. Heath and I continued to hunt hard for the remainder of the week. We watched a total of nine bears come into the bait, including a favorite old cinnamon sow who showed up to indulge in the orange frosting. We have seen her multiple years in a row and believe she’s an older, dry sow. If she shows up next year without cubs, that will be three or four years in a row, determining she’s most likely past breeding age and would be a good bear to harvest. We also watched a beautiful rusty-colored pine marten hunt chipmunks that were hanging around our bait. That was worth the time in the woods alone.
Unfortunately, time simply ran out and Fatty didn’t show himself. In fact, he disappeared after a few days on camera like the previous years. It’s his MOA. He shows up early, gorges for a few days, then disappears. I’m hoping, like other years, he simply moves on to other parts of the mountain and will return. There’s a chance another hunter notched their tag with Fatty, but I like to think he’s still out there. That’s part of the alluring mystery with bear hunting. Sometimes they’re predictable, sometimes they’re not. But a week of sitting in the trees watching these amazing animals is considered a successful hunt in my book.
To watch this episode of Skull Bound Chronicles, go to CarbonTV.com or their free app and look for season 5, episode 10.