Idaho offers bear hunting opportunities over bait. But don’t think for a minute that its easy. Many hunters fail to draw bears in. Here’s how to make bear baits that work.
For the fifth night in a row, the chocolate bear came off a thickly forested hillside south of my tree stand and circled forty yards down wind. Only this time my wife, Katie, occupied a tree stand twenty yards from the well worn trail. From my position in a tree stand just forty yards behind her, I watched as Katie stood raising her bow. The big bruin stopped momentarily before disappearing into the mass of blown down trees and fresh spring vegetation. With daylight gone, I walked the short distance to find Katie still shaking and excited. I listened to her quivering voice as she explained how she didn’t have a shot, how that was her closet encounter with a bear and she couldn’t wait to come back! Moments like those are what keep me hauling bait every four days to my favorite locations week after week during the spring bear season.
WHAT IT TAKES
Hunting bears over bait gets a lot of attention. Those opposed to bear baiting lead our non-hunting media to report the act as an easy and unsporting way to hunt game. I’ll avoid discussing the ethics of hunting over bait in remote wilderness areas for now – but I’ll take the ” it’s easy” accusation head on. The work involved in keeping active bait sites active is tremendous. The sheer time commitment may be a turn off for many would be bear baiters, but, the physical demands can also be overwhelming. Many excellent bait sites are off the beaten path. The effort required to haul barrels, tree stands, scent bags, gear and bait into these areas can wear down even the toughest of seasoned hunters. Several days may pass without seeing a single bear and some hunters will sit all season to catch a glimpse of a mature boar. The work involved in maintaining a quality bait site makes placing the final shot on a trophy bear very rewarding – the kind of satisfaction tired legs and sore shoulders deserve. The miles hiked to carry all the equipment to the site are the same required to carry it all out again and if the hunter is lucky, there will be additional weight added to the load. The bottom line is, hunting bears over bait can be one of the most physically demanding and rewarding pursuits a hunter could ask for.
BEAR BAITING SIMPLIFIED
If you aren’t prepared to go all out storing bait all winter, hauling baits for miles, and maintaining sites for weeks on end, there are alternatives. Although nothing beats an established bait site, bears will respond to well used lures . Find a location where bears are present and use a small stove to heat up something that will get bears’ attention. Success can be had by frying bacon, grease, boiling honey, syrup, marshmallows, sugar or any combination of odoriferous foods. Bait sites can be enhanced by using this method in addition to the bait already present. This has potential to get messy so use old cookware and caution!
Spring bears are also susceptible to estrus lures, a fact that should not be overlooked at any bait site.
WHERE TO GO
Several states offer bear baiting opportunities. These states include Arizona, Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Many of these states offer over the counter licenses, additional tags at reduced prices and greatly discounted youth hunting opportunities. A quick search for each states’ Game agency will list season dates, license information, and hunting opportunities throughout the state.
Idaho offers some of the best bear hunting opportunities in the country and it is my personal favorite. The spring bear season is long – three month long spring and fall seasons – in some regions, with bait placement legal up to a week in advance of the season opener. Check the regulations for the state you want to hunt and go for it. A word of caution: Some hunt units with liberal tags and low fees are difficult to access, particularly in the early spring. Snow filled or muddy roads blocked with winter blow down can stop you in your tracks. So be sure to call local forest authorities prior to laying money down for licenses.
MAKING BAITS WORK
The typical set up for a hard working bear hunter results in sitting 20-50 yards from a large steel drum filled with oats, doughnuts, pork fat and grease. About 100 feet away is a good distance for a scent bag to be hung 15 feet off the ground and 8 feet from the nearest tree. By keeping the scent bag in the direct sun light, the contents will become “ripe” in a hurry. A burlap bag filled with fish, fish oil, beaver castor – anything with a strong odor will aid in drawing bears close. To get the most out of the scent bag, the location may be more important than the contents. Using the knowledge of local topography and prevailing wind direction to funnel the scents to passing bears is key. A nearby water source is absolutely necessary for a bait site to consistently produce.
Black bears have uncanny smelling capabilities. That includes smelling a hunter sitting nearby, so keep that tree stand or ground blind downwind. Trails will become apparent as the season wears on. As bears approach the bait, they will begin to use the same route over and over again. Trail timers were once the cutting edge technology employed by successful bear hunters to determine when hungry visitors were using the site. Today, hunters are able to use trail cameras in several states. This technology has enabled hunters to learn when bears are coming in and to see exactly how big and what color they are. Some of the most exciting moments of the baiting experience are seeing those images captured in the middle of the night – a time when the biggest of bruins find their way to the bait site.
Pouring fry grease on the ground just in front of the bait can gain several advantages. Feeding bears will step in the grease, the tracks from the bear will be visible in the soft soil and grease, which can help in determining the size of the bear. As the bears move out of the area, the scent on their paws will be tracked back to the site by other bears. The more bears working a bait, the more potential there is of even more bears finding it.
In order to keep up with the large quantities of bait, collections must begin several months in advance. Local meat processors will often have scraps available daily. Those scraps can be invaluable as contrary to popular belief, bears prefer fresh meat. A ready supply of all types of baked goods will also be necessary. The bait site must never be completely emptied or else the regular visitors will begin looking elsewhere. Regular baiting intervals will result in regular visits. If you’ll be travelling out of state, bring enough bait to last the duration of your stay, or make arrangements (with supermarkets, meat packing companies, doughnut shops etc.) to collect baits when you get there.
Before you head out after a hard earned black bear, there are a few additional things to consider. Spring season is not available in all bear hunting states. Spring bears are often skinny in the spring, and bears may be missing large patches of hair as they rub off thick winter coats. Big boars’ are more likely seen this time of year as they travel in search of sows in heat. The bear rut will offer opportunities to use “sow in heat” products – which can add another element to the hunt.
Fall black bears will have sleek full coats and weigh much more at that time of year. Also, sows and cubs will be more likely to visit a bait site in the fall than in the spring. There may be less competition for baiting areas in the fall – for those states that offer a spring and fall season.
PREPARATION MEETS OPPORTUNITY
By working hard and taking advantage of available hunting opportunities, you can succeed in drawing bears in close. If you’re looking for an adventure, stockpile some baits starting right now, look up the regulations for baiting bears in the nearest state and get out there. Baiting bears is fun and challenging. Few other outdoor pursuits are so well suited for doing with a partner and sharing the reward adds to the excitement. How-ever or where ever you hunt, remember to enjoy your time afield.