The Strategic Bear Hunter

How I Got This Way

Every so often someone asks me how I got started in bear hunting and why I put the effort into the hunting, especially baiting for bears, that it takes to be successful at a high level. I’m not really sure how I got hopelessly addicted to this, but I can tell you my story.

I made a good living as a commercial fur trapper in the 1980s living in Iowa and targeting mostly raccoons and minks, but also making good catches of foxes, muskrats, and beavers when the opportunity presented itself. I worked on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska in the summer of 1988, then came back to find that the fur markets had crashed. Long story short, I went to a community college and got my degree in Journalism/Photography in an effort to figure out a way to keep from getting a real job, I suppose. Turns out God had gifted me with a natural ability to tell stories, and I quickly began making a living doing so.

I began writing full time in the early 1990s and selling magazine articles to hunting and fishing magazines. I specialized in whitetail deer hunting and I was also involved in fishing tournaments. Bow hunting was really growing at that time and I worked hard to become a leader in that category. I found that a few deer hunting magazines would buy almost everything I produced, notably North American Whitetail Magazine.

But I had always been fascinated by bears from a young age. Living in Iowa, I had no opportunity to hunt bears without traveling. In 1993, I was covering the Professional Walleye Trail Championship for a magazine story, which was held at Wheeler’s Point where the Rainy River meets Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota. I combined that with a bow hunt for whitetails, and also noticed that it was an area where people were pretty avid about their bear hunting. That was something I filed away in the back of my mind.

In 1999, Jeff Folsom had Bear Hunting Magazine up and running and he was looking for experienced writers to help give the magazine traction. I was the writer he needed, but I didn’t know anything about bear hunting, so we worked out a deal. I would do a guided bear hunt in Northern Minnesota and write a story about the experience from the eyes of a first time bear hunter. I called up an outfitter near Lake of the Woods named Chris Ford and proposed that he provide me with a hunt in exchange for the publicity he would get in the magazine.

Chris was not just a great bear hunting guide but he was an aggressive marketer, so he went for the deal. The rest, as they say, is history. My intent had been just to kill a bear with my bow and check that off my list. I would just move on to the next experience. Well, I shot a nice bear on the hunt with Chris, but I found bear hunting, especially with bait, to be very compelling. I was fascinated by the whole experience, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last time. Chris ended up getting a lot of calls from the story I did in Bear Hunting Magazine, and he was thrilled. I was, too, because I realized I could do more of this! Then things changed radically for me on November 8, 2000.

In the mid 1990s, I had moved a used travel trailer onto my property in Iowa, which I had converted to an office for my writing and publishing. On that November day in 2000, a propane leak caused an explosion and fire that destroyed every single scrap of that office. Fortunately, no one was in it at the time, but I had lost everything, including 75,000 photos and all computers and digital files of books and magazine articles, both finished and unfinished. It was life-changing to say the least.

My wife and I and our five kids had vacationed in the Brainerd area of Minnesota for years, and we had discussed how nice it would be to live there. After the fire, I convinced my wife to move. I packed up my family and headed north. We bought a place north of Pine River with the Foothills State Forest at our doorstep.

I was now in bear country, and my smoldering interest in bear hunting was about to be fanned into a roaring inferno. At first, I really struggled. I put out many baits, but most of them had few, if any, bears on them and I discovered it was extremely difficult to get bears to come to a bait site in the daylight. I didn’t understand the value of location nor the right foods to provide for the bears. I would take the film from my trail cameras 45 minutes to the nearest Walmart for development, only to discover I had picture after picture of raccoons and ravens.

Regardless, I had three things going for me. First of all, and most importantly, I was passionate about it. Secondly, someone in the family could get a tag every year and I was getting one most every year. Therefore I could bait each year, which really shortened my learning curve. And third, there was no restriction on the number of baits a hunter could put out—that really helped me learn. I would put out around 10 baits. At the end of the season, I would analyze each of those baits, which ones were good and which ones were not. Maybe two or three of those would be pretty good, so I kept those and abandoned the rest. The next year, I would bait those top two or three and add a whole bunch more. Once again, I would analyze my notes and trail cam photos, picking out the best of the best.

After three to four years of doing this, some patterns began to emerge. I would look at the baits which had been consistently good year after year and try to find things they had in common. Why were some locations good and others not? Proximity to water was one. Heavy travel cover was another. Security and lack of human intrusion were yet another, as well as entry and exit strategies, stand locations, etc. Using this knowledge, I finally shot a couple of bears. My kids got a couple as well, and even my wife missed a shot at one on opening day one year. Things finally started to come together.

Over the next few years, I would form a system that really helped me understand the value of a good location and the features I wanted to find that I knew would make a great bait site. These days, I can pick out a great spot from an aerial photograph, walk into the place, and drop in a bait with a huge degree of confidence. But it took more than 20 years of experience, and a lot of mistakes, to get to that point. I also hunted with a lot of outfitters across North America, from British Columbia and Idaho to Maine, and a lot of places in between. I eagerly learned bits and pieces from each hunt. I’ve killed nearly 40 black bears and every one taught me something.

As I started to get the location aspects figured out, I began to learn more about the right types of baits, how much bait to put out and how often, and other items of baiting strategy. I wrote the book The Bear Baiter’s Manual in 2013, and I have even further refined my approach. My DVD “How to Bait Big Bears” came out in 2015, which gave illustration to the things I had been putting into print for many years. Both of these resources are nearly sold out and I am now putting most of my bear hunting instructional materials on my YouTube channel “Bowhunting Road.”

I continue to learn about bears and tweak my strategy. Any changes now are in very small increments, but I am still learning and hope to always be. The fun years of biting off big chunks of knowledge are gone, but that just makes it so much more rewarding when I learn a new little nugget about bears that I didn’t know before.

My fascination with black bears, and how to get the mature ones to walk into a bait during legal shooting hours, has never waned. The passion burns strong, even as my hair turns gray and my body complains about the hard work it takes to do so. The more I know about bears, I realize how much more there is to know.