Aug 10 2018
By Bernie Barringer
Black Bear Hunting using Bait
Early in my education as a bear hunter I had read several things about doing a honey burn. I became convinced I had to use this technique, so I planned it as my ace in the hole when opening day arrived.
I had a couple bears coming to my bait site and my scouting camera showed that one was fairly consistent in coming to the bait in the last moments of legal shooting light. When opening day arrived, I loaded up my gear, including the materials to do a honey burn. When I arrived at the stand, I started the burn just as the experts had instructed me to.
A couple hours later, a bear appeared on the outskirts of the area, first as nothing more than a dark spot that moved through a small opening. Then I saw it again, sitting on its haunches up on the hillside overlooking the bait. He had the wind in his favor and he wasn’t moving. Smugly, I thought my idea of doing the honey burn was going to be just the inducement I needed to bring in this obviously cautious bear.
Hunting black bears over bait is a great way to be selective when bear hunting.
But it was not to be. He disappeared a while later and never appeared at the bait. Looking back over the many years since that day, I am now convinced that the honey burn was the reason he did not come in.
Bears become well accustomed to the sights, scents and smells of the bait site. Within the first couple visits, they have it figured out. I like to call it the “bait package.” The package includes everything to do with the bait itself and the movements of the humans and animals—including but not limited to—the other bears using the bait.
They eventually get comfortable with the bait package, and the more comfortable they are the more likely they are to approach the bait during daylight hours. If anything seems off, such as a new smell or sight, the more cautious bears, especially more mature males, may just use that as a reason to back off and wait a while before coming in.
Having the benefit of another 15 years of experience since the day I used that honey burn, I can see that what I did was really throw that bear a curveball. He hadn’t smelled that particular scent in all the other times he had arrived at the site, so he just decided his desire to get the good food wasn’t worth the commitment.
Lending credibility to that belief is the evidence from the trail cameras. He didn’t come back for a few days and then only after dark.
Over the years I have been quite cautious about the scents around my bait sites. I often bait for family and friends, and I involve them in the baiting a few times so their scent becomes part of the bait package.
In what some might consider a move that’s overkill, I keep track of which types of lures I use at bait sites and try not to vary it too much. I open most all my baits with a mixture of cooking oil and Northwoods Gold Rush, an additive to the cooking oil that makes it smell like butterscotch. I’ll pick another spray scent for the bait and use it on the bushes all around the bait. For fall bear hunting, I like the fruit smells such as blueberry, cherry, raspberry and sweet smells such as Gold Mist, which smells just like Gold Rush.
As the baiting period goes on, I grab the same bear lure as I head into the bait site so I am not mixing things up too much. The trails become obvious over time, so I spray the bushes along the trails with the scent, which causes the bear to get it on their fur so they smell it all the time. It comes a part of their daily lives and gives them a feeling of comfort around the bait.
Older bears can be super cautious, so tossing a different smell at them from time to time can really put them on edge. Don’t give them any excuse to become edgy and possibly go nocturnal on you. Once they do, it’s very difficult to get them off the nighttime pattern. I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of bears who come more boldly to the site in the daylight when everything is more consistent.
Consistency in what time of the day you bait is important as well. Bears often smell your ground scent on the trail you use to approach the bait, and they know how old it is. If you normally bait, say, between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. the bears expect your ground scent to be five hours old when they arrive at 7:00 p.m., for example. Consistency gives them a feeling of safety. Don’t mess too much with your timing.
The same is true for the day you hunt. If they are accustomed to smelling five-hour-old scent but the day you hunt you come in at 5:00 p.m. and the bear comes at 7:00 p.m. as usual, suddenly your scent is much fresher. Any reason you can give them to exercise a little more caution might cause them to back off, and that’s never a good thing.
If you’ve bear hunted very long, you have noticed a bear that tends to circle around a bait site before committing. That’s not to say they will make an entire loop, but mature bears often walk a path along the downwind side of the bait site to check it out. They want to know if any other bears are at the site, they also want to know if the fresh food is there. And they are checking for anything out of the ordinary.
I’ve noticed that many of these bears are not just winding the location, but I think they are intentionally crossing my entry trail. I am convinced that they are checking the age of my ground scent I left while walking in. If there’s little to no variation in the normal pattern, that’s one more box they can check off that makes them feel safe coming to the bait. It fits into the normal bait package.
Of course this brings up the issue that one day, suddenly you are at the bait when you never were before. This is the hardest part of the variation in bait package to overcome. There are three critical things that must be done to improve your chances of that bear committing to the bait: using the wind to your advantage, scent control and movement.
I’ll bet you that movement has saved the lives of far more bears than being winded. They have much better vision than most people realize, and their eyes are optimized for picking up the slightest movement. It’s critical to stay still on the stand because you never know when a bear may be in the area observing. It’s rare to see a bear before he sees you if you are swatting mosquitoes, messing with your phone or eating a sandwich.
I do my best to choose treestand locations where I can use the wind to my advantage, and there are a few baits that I will only hunt in certain winds. I’ve had two stands at some baits for varying wind directions. But mainly I minimize my scent impact by using scent-killing products. I’m not an advocate of any strategy that accepts the elimination of human scent, but there is value in reducing it. Scent Killer spray helps with this, as do scent killing laundry detergents and antibacterial soaps, shampoos and deodorants. Keep yourself clean and as free from human scent as is possible. It’s not magic, but it can tip the odds in your favor when a mature bear is deciding whether or not the bait site looks and smells safe enough to approach.
When it comes to baiting patterns, scents and lures, and human odor, you might as well let the bears pattern you. They are going to have your habits pegged no matter what you do and consistency offers them comfort. You might as well use their tendencies to analyze every aspect of the bait location to your advantage.