By Brian Strickland
I would be the first to admit, fall bear hunting just isn’t at the top of my to-do list every year. Living in Colorado, there’s just too many other opportunities to sink my teeth into, with hunting mule deer, antelope and elk always making it to the top of my list. That being said, as primarily a bowhunter, my western season generally comes to a close towards the end of September. And with November whitetails still a month away, October can be a great time to match wits with a fall bruin looking to put on some pounds before winter.
Idaho resident Nick Hopkins is no stranger to bears and bear hunting. Similar to me, bowhunting elk and mule deer in Idaho’s scenic byways are always at the top of his to-do list every fall, but bears are close behind, says Nick. As the years have gone by, so has his fondness of black bears and the challenge they pose the do-it-yourself western bowhunter. Despite what many hunters “think,” baiting western black bears is no slam-dunk, especially for the DIY hunter. The ups and downs these types of hunts can throw at you have left me shaking my head in disbelief on more than one occasion. And although the bugling sound of a bull elk is what sends shivers down Nick’s spine come fall, the more time he spends chasing the bruins of Idaho and Wyoming, the more he has realized that tagging a mature boar is just as difficult in many ways as bringing home a bull elk.
In Nick’s experience, although there are some similarities when it comes to baiting bears in the fall and spring, there are some distinct differences that a hunter should take note of before establishing a food source in vain. First off, in Nick’s experience, it tends to be harder to hold bears on a particular bait in the fall when there are so many natural food sources to compete with. As Nick explains it, “Big boars tend to own a bait site in the fall if it’s baited right and stays full, but once that barrel goes empty for a day or two you may never see that bear again.”
In the fall bears may forage up to 20 hours a day in an effort to increase their body weight by 30% or more before hibernation. This “hyperphagia” stage literally means, “abnormally increased appetite.” Once a bear finds quality bait, they clean it out quick, and if it goes dry they can’t afford to wait around for another load.
While some bears appear to be infatuated with carbohydrates such as pastries, candy and other sweet treats in the spring, according to Nick, fresh meats, grains and other fatty foods tend to be more effective in the fall. In fact, several years ago he put two barrels at a particular site, one filled with meat and the other with sweets just to see which they preferred. Without question, the meat barrel was hit significantly harder in the fall, and when spring rolled around the following year, the opposite was true. In the fall, these types of food sources enable bears to pack on weight quickly. With this in mind, Nick’s fall baits generally consist of an 80/20 mix of high protein foods/sweets. Fryer grease is a great addition as well. Not only does it mix well with grains, sweet food and dog food, but the grease on the bear’s pads make for a great scent trail leading to and from your bait for other bears to follow.
The last ingredient you must add to any fall bait is scent, and you can’t beat the draw that berries provide, adds Nick. The most significant natural food out west this time of year is wild blueberry and raspberry patches. Obviously, Nick is partial to his Bear-ly Legal sprays and mixes in blueberry and cherry, as well as his Sweet Surrender raspberry formula, but he also indicates the raz-donuts and bacon scents are effective in the fall.
As far as stand locations, Nick likes the bottom of canyons or deep draws where water is close by. Cover tends to be thicker in these areas so bears feel more secluded. Furthermore, because bears need to consume more water to process the excessive food they are consuming and rid their bodies of nitrogenous waste, as well as to cool themselves from the warmer temperatures, having water close is a plus. For bowhunting, Nick prefers to have his stand positioned 25 to 30 yards away from the bait on the uphill side. Although he admits these longer shots are no slam-dunk at such a steep angle, it’s less likely a mature boar is going to pick you off as he approaches or when you draw.
Hunting all day is also important this time of year. “Unlike spring when you can expect bears to be more active in the afternoon and evening hours,” explains Nick, “because bears are feeding so much they are likely to show up anytime during the day, and will even hit it several times throughout the day.” Although less bears tend to hit your bait this time of year, if a good boar finds it he will often camp at the bait until he’s had his fill.
Lastly, when it comes to finding mature boars, leaving other hunters behind can make a big difference. Being in the bear baiting business, Nick has the opportunity to talk with a lot of successful hunters, and without question, those that consistently kill mature boars get off the beaten path, and this can be even more important in the fall. Because there tends to be more hunters in the woods chasing deer and elk, incidental hunting pressure is more likely to occur. Although it truly is a labor of love baiting in more remote locations, the end result is often an unsuspecting mature bruin slipping in for a taste.