To the uninitiated, shooting bears over bait is simple, perhaps even boring. But, it can be one of the most challenging and exciting hunts there is.
A black bear has a sense of smell that is seven times better than a bloodhound, meaning it can smell from miles away. Its hearing is superior to humans—although this is hard to test—and its vision is at least as good as humans. And to add to the excitement, bears are very much dangerous game.
My first bear hunt over bait was a real eye opener. Hunting with my wife at Key Harbor Lodge in bear-rich Ontario, it did seem simple to her. She had six opportunities to shoot a bear the first night and ultimately harvested a 200-pound-plus male the second night. It’s not always that easy, especially when pursuing large bears, which are more educated and harder to get close to.
It was the second night before I had any contact, myself. I could hear the guys about a quarter-mile from my bait site cleaning Karen’s bear when I heard sounds in the bush that were definitely being made by a bear. Breaking branches followed. A mother with two cubs came out a few minutes later. As lodge owner Chris Dawson pulled in on his quad, the three bears ran into a meadow behind me. He still heard other breaking branches.
“There’s a big one coming in, I’ll come back for you,” he said.
For the next hour, I listened to that bear growl until legal shooting time was past. If you want to talk about raising the hair on the back of your neck and something that gets your heart pounding, this is it. Although I was curious to see Karen’s bear, I wasn’t getting out of the stand and walking in the dark to see it with another live bear growling at me.
Discussing my hunt with Dawson later, he said the fact I had urinated in the stand in a pop can without a lid likely spooked the bear. And, so my education began.
Here are a few tips to increase your chance at success when hunting bears from a stand.
1. The first challenge is to get a bear to hit your bait. Ensure that the bait is put on, or near, a game trail regularly used by bears. Trail cameras can be used to confirm bears use the trail.
2. Smell is the bear’s primary sense and used to locate food. Bruce MacDonald, owner of Olive the Lake Lodge in northeastern Ontario, said bears use the scent of their own feces to locate baits. One trick he uses is to find bear feces in the woods and place it by his bait stands.
3. Get in the stand early. Although hunting bears over bait is mainly an afternoon game with the best hunting late in the day, still get in the stand early. By getting in the stand hours before you expect the bear, your scent will dissipate. If the bear is aware you're in the area—which is often the case—the hope is by being in the stand longer it will get used to your presence and still come in to the bait.
4. Always follow the same routine when baiting. For instance, come into the bait bucket, empty it and bang the pail on the bucket on the way out. When you start hunting, follow the same routine but head to the stand instead of the usual route out. Rory Rought of Northern Michigan Outfitters goes one step further and suggests having the same person baiting as bears get used to the scent. “I am a firm believer that you can put bears on a feeding schedule,” he said. “To do this you need to do the exact same routine every single day. Bait at the same time, mornings are best, walk into the baits the same way, keep plenty of food at the baits and spray scents on surrounding underbrush.”
5. Be comfortable in your stand. Having a seat, and perhaps back support, will help ensure comfort, which in turn, is key to being able to spend more time there.
6. Use scent control detergent for your clothing and store it in a zip-lock bag to minimize your smell. In fact, MacDonald rates this as the number one thing hunters can do to improve their odds of pulling the trigger. “When I meet new hunters I always try to educate them that it is very important to use shampoo, detergent, and spray when visiting their stands,” he said. “Remember bears can smell you from hundreds of yards away.” Beyond scent control clothing, have a plan for scent control while in the stand as I learned. Have a container with a lid to urinate in, don’t smoke and think about what you are eating in the stand.
7. Use pheromone spray to attract bears male bears. The scent of a female bear helps cause the males to throw caution to the wind and approach the bait earlier in the day—this is especially effective in the spring. Cover scents are also valuable to mask the presence of the hunter.
8. Install skirting around your stand. Three, four or five hours is a long time to sit in a stand, and an even longer time to hold your gun or bow so it is easily accessible. Dawson uses camouflage burlap around his stands to try to mask hunter movement when the bear is in close.
9. Having more than one bait stand is important to success. While a bear might be hitting bait regularly, it can stop for a wide variety of reasons. Even regular feeders can disappear due to weather changes, environmental factors or if someone else at another bait harvests it. This also lets you play the wind direction.10. Approach your bait stand stealthily and be ready to shoot. You never know when the bear is going to be on the bait and, with a little luck with the wind being in your favor; you might sneak up on it.