I’m convinced that one of the reasons black bear hunting isn’t more popular is because it looks so easy on television. Most bear hunting shows follow a very similar pattern of a hunter showing up at an outfitter’s place and then setting up over a bait. Soon enough, a black blob walks in and it’s all over. In my experience, that’s about as far from reality as bear hunting gets.
The bulk of black bear hunting work is baiting. It’s no different than killing mature whitetails consistently for the DIY hunter. The actual hunting is a very small part of the overall equation, and success almost always stems from the work conducted well before the opening bell. Baiting fall black bears is pretty similar.
Where I hunt in Minnesota is an area with unlimited over-the-counter tags. It’s also at the very fringes of the best bear territory, which means we’ve got a low population of bears and a high population of hunters.
After messing around with different bear sites, I’ve found a few things do help my odds of success. The first is exact location. I started scouting out bear sites much like I’ll scout deep-woods deer stand sites. If there’s a high spine in the swamp for the bears to travel, that’s a good start.
Even better is a high spine that terminates near an oak ridge. Black bears love acorns, and in the fringe-territory where I hunt, acorns play a tremendous role in bear movement throughout the fall. If I can set up a bait site close to a natural food source that’s sure to draw bears, I’m much better off. Farther north it might boil down to blueberries or some other natural food source that will influence bait sites.
Even though bears aren’t known for their eyesight, they do possess olfactory skills that would shame a seven-and-a-half year old public-land whitetail. Set your stand at 20 yards, in a good-sized tree that offers both cover and the ability to play the wind.
A good bear bait site will also allow you to play the wind during every sit. I like to set up with a few different plausible wind options, with my favorite allowing me to hunt everything but a south wind. That means that 75 percent of the wind directions allow for a bear hunt, which is important for me considering I don’t have a ton of free time to burn on a bear stand. If I get a free night to drive north and hunt, I like knowing that I have one place that I can probably sit. I never leave home without first checking my ScentCone for all my bait sites.
In areas with low bear numbers and high hunter numbers, you’ve got to out-bait and out-hunt the competition. Oftentimes, that means baiting right through to the end of the season when most of the other hunters have tagged out or given up.
A good location will also have a near-perfect tree for a stand. I like to be 20 yards from my barrel, with enough cover to feel like I’m somewhat hidden. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to be hanging out in the open with bears, but a couple of decades of hardcore whitetail hunting has instilled in me a deep belief that being hidden from game is a good thing, so that’s what I opt for in the bear woods.
The key to drawing in bears where others are hunting involves giving them something the others are not. This is a tricky proposition and involves sourcing the right kinds of baits. Over the years, I’ve come to rely heavily on trail mix. It seems like no matter what kind of bait I put out, the bruins eat the trail mix first. They’ll eat gummies, frosting, doughnuts or whatever, but they eat the trail mix first.
Most hunters opt for bread-based baits, but those can get soggy and moldy in a hurry. The author prefers trail mix, which contains nuts and dehydrated fruit—two things the bears need in their diet. Plus, trail mix is more naturally weather resistant than most baits.
That’s important for a few reasons. It has nuts, dehydrated fruit, and other things the bears need in their diet. It also means there can be some competition for the available trail mix every day. If you’ve got a couple of bears hitting your site, you’ll be prone to having more daylight visits as the bears try to be the first to fill their bellies.
Trail mix offers another benefit, as do certain gummies and candies—they’re more weather resistant. If you can’t bait in a covered barrel, your bait is going to be exposed to rain. Doughnuts, wafer cookies and pretty much anything bread-based is going to turn to a soggy mess. That doesn’t mean the bears won’t still eat it, because they might. But I’d rather have something out that is more appealing than a glob of doughy sugar. This is especially true if there’s plenty of competition amongst bear baiters.
TIMING YOUR HUNT
It seems as if everyone starts baiting as soon as it’s allowed, but a couple of weeks into the season a lot of hunters lose that initial fervor. That means the back half of your season can be much better than the front, simply from a diminishing food-supply standard. This is even more true when you consider natural food sources can also start to disappear.
Stick it out if you have to and keep baiting. Eventually a bruin will learn that your buffet is the most restocked feast in the woods, and he’ll be in line every day.
The author arrowed this bruin in Minnesota’s no-quota zone, which offers unlimited tags. To draw in bears where other hunters are baiting, he uses trail mix, plans his bait sites very carefully, and hunts through the entire season.
Black bear hunting is work, there’s no way around it unless you opt for an outfitted hunt (and even then someone is doing a lot of work, just not you). It’s also one of the most rewarding hunts because of the labor necessary to succeed. There’s something so cool about lugging bait into the woods during late August and September and waiting for just the right time to sit. And if you’ve never been on a bear stand, over a freshly hit bait, as the sun sets and the woods settle … you’re missing out on something truly exciting.