By Clay Newcomb
By now the luscious summer landscape of green has yielded its glory to the depths of autumn. The oncoming winter is on the horizon, temperatures are cooling and the black bear is at the peak of its fall feeding frenzy. Bear hunting over bait is a strategic tool used by wildlife management agencies to harvest their target number of bears in the different regions of North America where spot and stalk hunting just won’t cut it, like Arkansas. Baiting fall bears is as exciting as it gets in bear hunting. Why? Wildlife managers and hunters are capitalizing on the ancient biological process that has enabled black bears to be the most successful bear species on the planet, which is their fall hyperphagia. During the late fall there are many things lined up in favor of the diligent bear hunter. Bear hides are at their peak quality and bears are at their top weights.
Taking place in the fall, hyperphagia is a period of excessive eating and drinking that prepares bears for the winter den. Bears can eat up 15,000 to 20,000 calories per day, forage for 20 hours per day and gain up to two pounds per day. To metabolize this much food a bear need lots of water. Studies have shown that the daily urine volume of bears can be up to four gallons per day. Embedded inside of these stats are some keys to early fall bear baiting. However, directly before bears go into the den they enter into a period some call the “fall transition” period. During this time their metabolic processes begin to change in preparation for the long winter in the den. They eat much less and move less. By this time they have likely identified their den site and are keying in on food sources near it, but not venturing too far. How long this period lasts is different in every region. Specific time frames are hard to cite as the black bear’s range extends to the northern reaches of Canada all the way in to the swamps of Louisiana and even into Mexico. However, all black bears experience the same cycles. In Arkansas, sow bears may go into the den as early as mid-November. The boars will enter in later based upon food availability.
This article targets seven keys to baiting in the late fall or during the “fall transition” after the peak of the feeding frenzy has faded. Get ready, this may be your year to snag the big one late. It’s not over till the fattest bear falls asleep or the season ends.
A Fall Transition Hunt
It was November 6th and veteran bear hunter, Moe Shepherd, had put out a Hail Mary bait on November 2nd in Arkansas. It was on an established bait site that had yielded 13 bears in the last ten years. The site was midway down the mountain on a southern slope adjacent to thousands of acres of the Ozark National Forest. The mast crop had been heavy and the ancient eroded hillsides had produced bumper yields of acorns and hickory nuts. He had baited the site in late September in preparation for the October 1st Arkansas opener, however, with fresh acorns on the ground the bears had hit the bait hard for about ten days then snubbed the artificial grub and moved to natural foods. As well, the young man that Moe had invited to hunt the spot had just acquired his first real job and wasn’t able to make it out to the remote bait site.
Fast forward one month to November 2nd and Moe decided to give the faithful spot one more shot. It was his first attempt at November baiting. He opened the new bait with dog food, grease, doughnuts, sardines and cola syrup and within two days he had two bears coming to the bait. They were primarily hitting it at night, but over the course of three days one came in just before dark a couple of times. The bears weren’t hitting the bait hard and it seemed they were picking through it quite selectively. This was in stark contrast to the early season action, as the bears would clean out the 55-gallon drum in two days. These bears were in their fall transition period. The period of excessive eating seemed to be closing down, however they were still responding to bait. The bears were getting ready for fall denning, time was closing down and Moe had to act fast.
Moe had killed numerous bears with archery tackle, muzzleloaders and rifles; however, he had never taken one with a handgun. On the evening of November 6th, he slipped into the ladder stand at 3:00 p.m. It was no more than 18 yards from the blue plastic barrel that had drawn in so many bears over the years. He was carrying his Ruger Super Redhawk single action .44 magnum. Within two hours, Moe was standing over his first pistol-harvested bruin. Another first was that it was his first fall transition bear over bait. He had snagged this bear at the last minute. The bear was living close and clearly wasn’t ranging far. It was close to denning.
Seven Keys to Hunting the fall Transition Period
Bait Near Natural Food Sources
The key to late fall hunting is baiting near the areas the bears already frequent. In the late summer and early fall, bears are moving throughout the wider reaches of their ranges, which can be extensive, looking for prime food sources. Often times you can hold a ranging bear for several days or even weeks, however, in the late fall you won’t be able to do this. In preparation for winter denning they are retreating to the core of their ranges or wherever their preferred den sites are located. In Arkansas, you’ll need to be baiting close to were bears are naturally feeding on acorns and fall mast.
Bait in Core Bear Areas
Anybody that has baited bear for very long has an idea of what this phrase means– Bear Core Areas. Over the years many of my baits have proven to be “fringe” baits, or baits that aren’t in the major bear “flyways”. A core area for me is a bait site that gets hit in less than 24 hours of opening the bait. These are areas that have proven to hold bears year round. In regions with very high bear densities these spots are easier to find and there are more of them. In regions with lesser densities they are fewer and farther between. Regardless, when baiting the fall transition period you have to find the core. Fringe baits will rot with the autumn leaves.
When studying radio telemetry data on bear home ranges you see that bears have extensive ranges, but they always have core areas that get used more. In Arkansas, a boar bear can have up to a 100-square-mile home range and sows up to 20 square miles. When you look at a topography map with the random location of the collared bear plotted you begin to see a pattern. Each bear has a core area or an area that he spends a larger percentage of his time in on a yearly basis. In areas with higher densities bear ranges overlap considerably. When you find a bait site that is inside the core area of several bears, you’ve found a honey hole.
Variety in the Bait is Key
When baiting fall transition bear it’s hard to predict what bait food they are going to key in, however, it’s almost always whatever they can’t get in their natural environment. In Arkansas, carbohydrates litter the forest floor for much of the fall. I’ve found that bears respond better to protein late in the year. The late fall bears that Moe was baiting were responding well to the dog food and sardines, both nutrients that they couldn’t get much of through natural sources. Beef scraps and fat would also be a great addition to any fall bait. The temperatures are cool so it won’t spoil as quickly. You don’t have to put out the volume of feed that you did earlier in the year, but put out more variety.
Keep it Fresh
Keeping the bait fresh is key during the fall transition period. Bears have been gorging themselves on choice foods all fall and they won’t tolerate slack service and freshness. Put out smaller quantities of bait so if you don’t get a quick hit you can change out the bait with fresh stuff after a few days. Late fall baiting is not for the faint of heart. It takes some dedication and commitment with a smaller chance of return. However, when it comes together, victory is sweet.
Use Commercial Scents
If they can’t smell it they won’t come. When opening a new fall you bait you are in a race with a bear’s biological clock. You don’t have much time. It’s a known fact that using LOUD commercial scents can advertise your bait site much more effectively and quickly that most natural food scents. I believe it’s in a baiter’s best interest to use a high quality commercial scent to draw a bear in quick.
When deciding where to place your fall bait be sure to put it where the prevailing winds for that time period will be blowing the scent into the areas where you think the bears are. Typically, this would mean placing your bait on the northern side of the areas that are holding bears. By early November, in most regions, prevailing winds will be blowing out of the north. If they can’t smell it they won’t come.
Be diligent: Check Baits Often
In the late fall, you will not be able to hold a bear for very long. It would be advisable to check your baits daily or at least every other day (at non-peak bear feeding times). Fall transition baiting is a sprint that is going to produce success or a goose egg pretty quick. Be prepared to hunt every time you go into the bait. A monster may have showed up in the night and you better be ready to sit that evening because he may not stay long. Fall transition hunting is a high stakes game that can yield fantastic rewards in the form of thick bear hides, big skulls and epic stories. Be diligent and ready to hunt.
This goes without saying, but you’ll need a trail camera up at every site. Knowledge of the timing of bears hitting your bait is key in the late fall. Every tidbit of information you can get will help you be more successful.
Numerous Bait Sites are Better
Like in any high stakes game, the more you play the better chances you have of winning. The more bait sites you have out, the better chances you’ll have of catching the right bear at the right time. Some of your late summer and early fall honey holes will be dry by now and you’ll need to create more opportunity. Gather up the kids and your best hunting buddy, forget about deer hunting for a day and put up two or three late fall bears baits if you’ve got a tag left. You’ll be glad you did!
In closing, hunting the late fall can produce some whopper bears with beautiful hides. If you are hunting this late it indicates that you haven’t filled your tag yet. Sometimes the last minute hunts that are successful are the sweetest! Be careful this fall and winter, involve the kids in your hunting and be sure to introduce somebody new to this great passion of ours – bear hunting.