By Steve Carpenteri
Today’s tree-stand-and-cubby bear hunters may not remember a time when the only bait in town consisted of natural foods such as apples, corn, beechnuts and acorns. Granted, it is much easier to establish a bait site, fill it with sugary goodies and wait nearby for a bruin to show up, but experienced hunters know that the biggest challenge these days is finding enough donuts, cakes and meat scraps to keep a site going all season.
Depending on the season, there are always natural foods that bears prefer, often to the point of ignoring the junk foods hunters put out to attract them. If bears start coming to your bait sites regularly and suddenly stop for days or even weeks at a time, the odds are that they have found more desirable, natural food sources nearby. In spring, for example, bears first fill up on water because they must hydrate their digestive systems after a long winter of dormancy. The spend most of their time filling up on grasses, sedges, buds and (oddly!) the inner bark of evergreen trees, notably pine and hemlock. As the weather becomes warmer they begin rooting for starchy bulbs and plant sprouts. It is difficult to pinpoint where and when bears will stop to feed on such foods because green plants are so abundant in spring. Scouting, which is becoming a lost art, should reveal areas where the animals have spent time digging for roots and bulbs.
Back when Maine still had a spring bear season (prior to 1980) I had good luck using piles of speared suckers for bait. It happened that the spring bear season coincided with the suckers’ spring spawning run, and it was an easy matter to straddle a small stream and spear enough suckers to keep the bears coming in for a week or two till the spawn ended.
Most bear-hunting seasons in the U.S. occur in early to late fall, when bears are busy putting on fat for winter. Wild foods are abundant at this time, starting with the late summer berries such as raspberries, blueberries, currants and dewberries. Later the focus will be on apples, pears and other large fruits, and finally the animals will turn to crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans or natural mast such as acorns and beechnuts.
What the bears want are fat-producing foods in great quantity. The damage these animals can do to a cornfield, apple orchard or wheat field is astounding. While the outside edge of a crop field may seem normal enough, the inside portion will be torn up, flattened and denuded of grain. Wheat fields have that “aliens did it” look with paths and trails pounded down to the ground in all directions. When the bears get into the apples they will break branches and nearly kill the tree as they work to remove every apple they can reach.
It is most interesting to be on stand near a crop field or orchard after dark and just listen to the bears at work. They are loud, aggressive, destructive and persistent as they plow through and eat every bit of grain or fruit they can find. I guarantee that the hair will stand up on the back of your neck if you decide to sit on the ground or in a blind after dark. I have been close enough to busy cornfield bruins to be able to see the stalks quivering just three rows in! It’s when the bear stops feeding that things get really interesting. It’s one of the most frightening moments in hunting when you know a bear is just a few yards away and he’s dead silent in the darkness. You’d give everything you have for a nice, safe tree stand!
NATURAL BAIT TACTICS
When considering a hunt in a large area of apple trees, berry patches, crop fields, mast-producing trees and other natural foods it’s easy to become overwhelmed when trying to set up for a bear hunt. You can’t be everywhere at once and it seems as if the bears have all the options.
The solution is to do some serious scouting. Expect to spend several days walking the edges of prospective natural food sources as you work to find where the bears are entering or leaving the area and where they are focusing their efforts. Not all crops, fruits or nuts ripen at exactly the same time and bears are experts at finding the right foods at the right time. Studying bear tracks, trails and scat during the peak ripening period for natural foods in your area will help narrow the search.
Walk the edges of the food source and look for places where bears are entering and leaving the area. In most cases they like low, wet and thick – in any variation of cover types. It may be rhododendron, spruce, fir, hemlocks, cedars or alders but they like it dense and seemingly impenetrable so they can show up out of nowhere and scare the bejeebers out of you!
Like most predators, bears love to defecate in our carefully tended roads and trails – as if they are sending us a message! These piles of undigested food can be the bear’s undoing, however, because they will be loaded with the remains of whatever that bear has been eating in the last few hours (when eating apples, for example, they pass them almost as fast as they eat them!). Check the scat thoroughly for signs of nuts, berries, apples, corn or other foods and then check out nearby places containing those foods.
Bears travel for miles in search of forage and may be seen just about anywhere (roadside, in open fields or in mature forest) but when they are approaching a natural food source they like to come in slowly and patiently, easing through thick cover like a snake in the grass – and just as quietly!
When they are undisturbed by human contact bears will normally access a food source via the same paths and trails each day for as long as the food source is available. This can often be just a few days (in the case of raspberries, blackberries and black cherries) or a few weeks (when they are feeding on corn, soybeans and other crops or apples, blueberries, beechnuts and the like). Most of this activity will occur at night, but hungry bears are unpredictable, so plan on being set up early in the evening at the very least and all day if you have the time and patience.
The bears will come in, glean all they can of the target foods and then move on. Bears want large quantities of food and ease of access, so look for the places where the most forage is readily available and plan to hunt as close to these areas as your gear allows.
Of course, you’ll have to set up closer when using bows or crossbows than you might if you were using a handgun, shotgun or muzzleloader, while a scoped rifle will give you a margin of error of 150 yards or more.
Always approach a natural food source as if the bears are already there. And sometimes they will be. Just because humans like to regulate their lives by the clock don’t think that a bear has the same inclination. They may show up at dawn, at noon, at sunset or anywhere in between, so come in to your stand slowly, alertly and ready to shoot. Encounters with feeding bears may be fleet and sudden, but in that first instant of, “What’s that?” between you there is an opportunity for a shot. Be ready for it.
Bears are duly suspicious of unusual sounds and sights, but their sense of smell is their lifeline. If anything, bears are painfully patient when approaching a food source. They may stand on the edge of a berry patch or apple orchard for hours, just sniffing the breeze before stepping into the open. Bears often move into the vicinity of a preferred food source as early as midday but may not expose themselves till sunset or later.
Knowing all this, the trick is to select a stand site that is downwind of the bear’s expected approach while offering a good view of the target food source as well as the surrounding habitat.
Don’t expect to see much in the brush and woods along the bear’s travel path. They will stick to the dark places until they are forced to exit the thick cover. Just as in baiting, they will appear out of thin air and you’ll wonder how they ever got there.
If you have done your scouting and have found all the evidence you need to make an educated guess as to where the bears will enter or leave the area, it’s time to decide how to hunt the site. Whenever possible a tree stand is the way to go, but what if there are no trees nearby (such as in a blueberry barren or raspberry-laden clear-cut)? In this case the best choice is a portable blind, which helps conceal the hunter and somewhat contains his scent.
There is a risk of a bear investigating the blind, especially if he smells food in the vicinity such as apples, granola bars, peanuts, fruity drinks or other snacks. The best advice is to come into the blind with as little gear as possible; no sweet-smelling foods and just water to drink.
One such blind I hunted out of in Quebec last year was torn to pieces the night before I arrived because the last hunter in it had left banana peels, granola wrappers and energy drink cans inside. I cleaned the blind out before I got into it, but it was a very interesting evening as darkness fell and I began to hear twigs snapping all around me. No bear came to the bait that night but I was locked and loaded, ready for action the entire time. It was the most anxious five hours I’ve ever spent in the woods!
The key with hunting natural foods is to avoid the tendency to stay in the same spot all season. Bears will feed heavily on certain foods for as much as several days until the food source is depleted, and then they will move to the next abundant supply of food, which could be miles away, across the river or on the other side of the lake.
To keep ahead of the bears it’s important to continue daily scouting throughout the season. You may be hunting a cornfield today, a blueberry barren next week, a cherry or apple grove the next. The trick is to find the next most desirable food source and spend two or three days hunting it. When the action slows down it’s time to find the next orchard, crop field or stand of mast trees and set up for the next several days. If you time things right the first two days should be the most productive. Your odds for success dwindle as fast as the food source disappears. Be ready to move on when the bear sign begins to diminish.
When hunting mast stands (oaks, beeches, etc), look for the places where the acorns or beechnuts are most abundant. Bears are gorgers, unlike deer, which pick and peck their way through the woods. A bear eats food by the shovelful and hasn’t the time to browse.
There is a point where any kind of bear hunting is relatively pointless. Ask your state or provincial bear biologist when “his” bruins start to head for their winter dens. In most cases the sows and cubs will be fast asleep by late October, and the bigger boars may remain on the prowl till late November depending on food availability. Also, keep in mind that bears stop eating for several days before they enter their dens as they empty their bowels in anticipation of a long winter’s nap. This means they may stop coming to baits of any kind by early October, which may explain why hard-hit baits are suddenly ignored toward the end of the season.
The window of opportunity for hunting over natural baits is mostly dictated by the established hunting season dates. Scout well before the season and hunt over natural foods that are ripe and abundant during that period.
There is a lot of effort involved in hunting any bear over any bait (ask your guide about that!) but the work is forgotten when you finally have a bruin in your sights. If baiting is illegal where you hunt the logical option is natural food sources. Find them and you will find the bears!