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Hunt Baited Black Bears
Four key elements to successfully harvest a black bear over bait
Few activities are as rewarding as observing wild bruins up close in their natural surroundings, deep in the woods. Furthermore, harvesting an animal with primitive hunting equipment, like a bow and arrow, appears on many hunters’ bucket lists. Many areas in western Canada allow baiting for black bears during spring when they are hungry, so what could go wrong with piling up stale bread and setting up a nearby tree stand to arrow a boar? Truthfully, it just isn’t that easy and baiting requires a lot of hard work for it to pay off. For instance, you need a good location with resident bears, a quality bait station and shooter set up that promotes clean, ethical shots and, finally, a recipe that attracts and hold bears. Follow through on those four elements and you’ll have a bear rug in no time.
Location is by far the most critical element. There’s no point in investing time, work and money into locations that don’t have healthy bear populations. The goal of baiting is to attract bears from resident stable grounds with strong, appealing smells and copious calories, turning them into predictable returning eaters.
The first step in determining viable bear baiting areas is to start broad, with a large, high-probability area. This can be done by reviewing government and industry reports and regulations containing metrics like Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) where baiting is allowed, total estimated population of black bears and total black bear harvest. Although all the statistics are important, focus on areas with legal baiting WMUs and high bear densities – it’ll give you the best starting odds. Other things to consider are hunting seasons, tag quotas, outfitter allocations and special regulations. If possible, strongly consider an area that you can hunt every year, without the hindrances of limited draws. Hunting the same spot year after year gives you a superb advantage, as you can keep a journal of bear sightings and activities. This recorded information will be invaluable over the coming years.
Once you’ve selected a WMU to hunt, your focus will now turn to finding promising bear habitat by reviewing topographical maps and satellite imagery, such as those found on Google Earth. Seek out low, cool grounds along river systems or marshes bordering abundant food sources, such as planted cereal crops like oats, or natural forage patches of berries or clover. Sometimes you’ll even get lucky with the imagery and be reviewing photos taken during the late fall or winter, showing which cover is sparse versus heavy, thick timber.
Before you head afield, talk to wildlife biologists, trappers, officers, industry workers, outfitters and bush pilots familiar with the area you’re pursuing. These people will know the area best and are often willing to share key intelligence with outdoorsmen who are respectful and courteous. Contact them to discuss noted key areas you discovered by analyzing your maps and aerial photos. Often these discussions will point you to other places you may have overlooked or just not seen. Just because your initial focus was in one particular area, doesn’t mean there aren’t other places to explore. It’s always good to have alternative plans, just in case your primary doesn’t pan out.
After deciding on likely areas, it’s time to confirm your speculation and roll your truck odometer forward, along with putting some miles on your boots. Once aground, look for trails alongside river systems, in valleys and over ridges. Bears also like to live in low-lying marshy areas, assuming abundant food is nearby. Look for indicators like scat or claw marks on trees. Beavers are a favorite food of bears, so targeting areas with beaver activity can produce excellent results, for two reasons: one, the presence of beavers, and two, because those areas tend to green up first, providing plant material to munch on.
Establishing baits in areas that bears move naturally makes it that much easier to attract them into your bait station for a shot.
Bait station set up
An optimal setup for a bait station is a sparsely treed area, surrounded by thick dense cover, close to a natural travel corridor, with ample food nearby. Woods like this allow bears to approach the bait feeling safe and give you an opportunity to identify them and ready yourself before they’re packing on calories.
As for the actual bait station site, ensure you follow the regulations, including distances from dwellings and roadways and proper signage. Your bait container should be a 50-gallon barrel with a removable lid that clamps on securely. Make a hole eight-inches in diametre in the top quarter of the barrel’s height. In addition, make a few other, smaller holes large enough to slip a cable or chain through to fasten the barrel to a tree – this prevents the bear from rolling it out of place. The removable lid is key to keeping your bait protected from weather, but still allowing you to re-stock your bait barrel quickly and easily. An open-ended barrel provides bears with a grab and go option, leaving you without a shot, while a smaller feeder hole forces bears to spend more time at the barrel getting food out, providing you with a few extra seconds that you may need.
Bow shots require a good view of a broadside bear, with his front leg forward. To accomplish this, build a crib or fence to place your bait barrel against, forcing the bear to always approach from either side and stick his front paw into the barrel, exposing his vitals for clean and ethical kill shot. If you’re seeking six-foot bears, cut logs exactly that long and place them around the bait barrel to compare the bear’s length. These small details require additional effort when setting up your bait station, but they will pay dividends to ensure you don’t have bears sneaking into the bait unexposed or stealing food and dashing back to cover, leaving you without a shooting opportunity. Barrels provide excellent gauges for the bear’s size, meaning when its back reaches the top of the barrel, I know it’s a mature bear.
Shooter set up
Set up your tree stand or ground blind 20 to 25 metres away from your bait barrel in the some dense bush that provides cover, although this isn’t always possible. If you’re setting up a tree stand, place it 16 to 20 feet high, preferably in a spruce tree, which will provide the best cover and background to blend in with, much better than poplar stands. For ground blinds, brush and blend them into the surrounding natural habitat so they don’t look abnormal. With either method, ensure you clear any interference from your shooting lanes before hand, right down to the smallest twigs or branches. It’s a delicate balance between cover and being able to see approaching bears, but keep enough to not skyline yourself or look like a foreign treed object.
Setting up the shooter on the downwind side of the bait is important to staying undetected, as bears have an unbelievable sense of smell and can detect smells emanating from bodies. Using scent-eliminating products on yourself and your clothes will help immensely, along with cover scent to disguise yourself. A set up detail often overlooked is ensuring safe entry and retreat from the shooting position, without passing by the bait barrel. Hunters on baits will sit until nearly 11 p.m. during the spring evenings.
One night last spring, I was targeting a large boar that didn’t happen to come into the bait that evening, but three other boars did. The time had come to get down from my tree stand and it was an eerie feeling climbing down to the ground in the darkness within the vicinity of three hungry bears. I had my bear spray in case of any danger, but gladly didn’t have to use it. I was comfortable to get down quietly and retreat to my truck without having to fumble my way around the bait to avoid the actively feeding bears. If you happen to have set up on the downwind side of the bait barrel, but require going in the direction of the bait barrel to retreat, cut a trail beforehand through the bush, giving the barrel a wide berth. If possible, try not to place the shooter east of your bait, as this will make it tough to see during evenings sits.
Being omnivores, bears will eat just about anything, but some favourites are pastries, popcorn, bread, oats and meat scraps. Again, having a lid on the barrel will protect breads, pastries and popcorn from weather damage and keep your bait attractive. In addition to providing calories, you need to have a strong odour – the more horrific the smell, the better. Many bear baiters use “stink,” composed of buckets of rotting fish guts. Pour this viscous grey liquid mixture around the bait site to attract bears to come in for a closer sniff.
Another attractor technique is to use beaver carcasses, either hung in trees (so they continually produce a favourite smell of bears) or filling a bait barrel with some. Beavers are a favourite food for black bears so using them is a natural fit. In addition to meat, I usually have at least one barrel filled with oats, coated with either syrup, molasses or restaurant grease discarded from deep-frying units. The sticky coating adheres to the bear’s paws and leaves a scent trail to and from the bait as the bear roams, thus attracting more bears. Every bear and bear area is different, so favourite hunter recipes for attracting bears are abundant. If you plan on using multiple bait supplies, use several barrels and add only one type of food to each one, seeing which ones disappear first, second and third, making it easy to determine the favourite feast for the bears visiting your bait.
If you plan on targeting a specific bear, a trail camera is a useful tool to help identify which bears eat what. For example, sows and cubs might prefer one food to another, but it could be the exact opposite for boars. Each specific bear might even have a favourite. The key is to have a good available supply of their favourite food on hand, to keep your baits topped up and ensure they don’t run dry, forcing bears to seek alternative food sources and leaving the area altogether. By knowing the bear’s preferred food, restock with those and they’ll be back.
To summarize bow hunting for black bears, start with a WMU known for high bear population and hone in on quality living quarters and travel corridors. Once you’ve selected an area, properly set up one or many 50-gallon barrels full of smelly, calorie-rich food to attract bears in for a quality shot. Ensure your shooting location is concealed and safe. Following these four key elements, the odds are in your favour that you’ll be presented with a quality, ethical shooting opportunity.
Field Judging Bears
Judging black bears takes practice. After a while, you’ll know big boars by their tougher and stronger appearance, including the way they walk with a “king of the hill,” slow, swaying attitude. There’s no substitute for looking at lots of bears when it comes to judging how big they are, but when you’re starting out that can be tough. Here are some tips that’ll help judge a bear’s size:
- Body length and size – Big, trophy-class boars often measure more than six feet from nose to tail. Using precut logs as gauges is very handy for measuring length when they walk into the bait. They are heavy and as they walk they waddle from side to side.
- Height – Use the barrel to gauge. If the bear’s backline reaches the top of the barrel, it’s a good bear worth shooting.
- Snout and head – Big bears have what appears to be a short, blocky snout, with a round, dish-like face and square head. Younger bears and females have what appears to be a longish, pointed snout set on a more sloping head.
- Ears – Big bears appear to have small ears because their heads are so large. Their ears are often off to the side and are shaped like small triangles. A smaller bear will have ears that appear tall and more like a dog or Mickey Mouse.
- Front legs and paws – A rule of thumb to estimate the rug size of a bear is to measure the front paw track, add one, change inches to feet, and you have the approximate size the bear’s hide squared out. Thus, a five-and-a-half-inch footpad will carry a six-and-a-half-foot rug. Large boars have thick, round, muscular and defined front shoulders and legs, along with large paws that aren’t disproportioned to their leg.
- Belly – A big male will have a low hanging, large belly, nearly touching the ground, even in the spring. Younger bears have smaller, flatter bellies with lots of space underneath them.
- Attitude – Big boars are loners, except during the rut. They will not tolerate cubs so large bears with cubs are likely sows. Big boars are seldom afraid of much, but can be wary at baits because of the presence of human smell. Big boars are bullies, acting fearless, slowly waddling around like they know they’re the boss. They often run off smaller bears that move quickly and are constantly watching for danger.
- Scars – Big bears may have facial battle scars from fighting other bears for food or sows during their lifetime.
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