By Gary Lewis
Every time I see a bear, my heart skips a beat.
‘That’s a very small bear,’ I told myself. My heart skipped another beat. Another small bear.
Momma came in wary. I didn’t move a muscle. We were 11 yards apart. For 15 minutes, the bears fed in front of me, then their ears perked up and they looked back into the timber. They’d heard another bear. It was time to leave before the big one killed the little ones.
Forty-five minutes later, I connected on the big male when I glimpsed him pacing in the timber.
We hunted with Arrowhead Wilderness Outfitters in the Superior National Forest, in upper Minnesota last September. Our guides used a bait that consisted of mixed nuts, cookie dough and gummy bears. It was pleasant, did not attract flies and had a good mix of protein, salt and sweets.The bears knew when the four-wheeler came and went. All tree stands were set about ten feet high and the prevailing winds were considered. We only hunted afternoons.Because last summer’s berry crops failed, the males were hitting the baits hard and the bigger animals were dominating the only reliable food sources. This translated to good success for us. Eleven of our 14 bears were boars. Fourteen of our 16 hunters tagged their bear.
Bear hunters subscribe to a number of theories about why their baits work and there is no one best way to invite a bruin to dinner. Here’s Brian Bachman’s baiting theory, based on 35 years of experience in his neck of the woods.
Brian Bachman is the owner of Arrowhead Wilderness Lodge. His company guides hunters from all over the world to their chance at a Minnesota bruin. He outfits for an average of 40 hunters over two five-day periods and plans to be finished with his bear hunts each September prior to the start of grouse season when the bird hunters take to the woods.
Approximately two weeks before the season opener on September 1, Bachman begins setting out his baits on old sites, adding a few new ones each year.
Most of his hunting takes place on public land. For Bachman and his guides, morning is time to check the bait. Bachman’s hunters hunt afternoons and evenings only.
“Eighty percent of our hunters try to shoot the first bear they see,” Bachman said. “Roughly twenty percent are bigger bears,” he said. “Our success is dependent on the food availability and the shooter’s ability.”
Bachman’s favorite ingredients are mixed nuts, cookie dough and gummy candy.
“If people will eat it, bears will eat it. I’ve tried everything.” Early in his career, Bachman used meat scraps. Now that wolves are prevalent in Minnesota, he doesn’t use meat anymore. He doesn’t like to use breads and doughnuts because of the mess.
“Here in our forests, our bears mostly eat berries,” Bachman said. He believes his bears have a sweet tooth. “I haven’t got them to eat fish or dog food.”
It’s important, Bachman believes, to vary the tastes.
“I don’t want to use just one thing, because they will get tired of it. A variety keeps them there longer.”
We hunted during a September when the berry crops had failed. There were no berries on the bushes and the bears were hungry, hitting the baits with regularity.
“When there is a lot of food out there, they will come, but they are very intolerant and will just come at night or they won’t come because they don’t have to come. But when there isn’t a lot of natural food, they’ll put up with the human scent.”
Bachman says you can’t fool them. They know they’re getting food from humans. To play to his audience, he likes to rotate guides on each bait as they freshen each site each day. That way the bears get used to more than one human’s odor.
He keeps sites about a mile apart. “That usually keeps the bears separated,” he said. “I’ve shot 300-pound and bigger bears within a mile of each other within a day of each other. The big bears will be that close.”
The first day of my hunt we went in about three miles on a 4-wheeler. On the second day the wind changed and Bachman moved me. I was struck by how close to a main road my second stand was. Around me, the canopy was thick and I could not see more than 23 paces in any direction. I was only 50 yards from a gravel road.
“When I first started, I would carry the bait further in from the road or trail. As I got older, I didn’t feel like carrying the baits that far in or the bears out. The road doesn’t usually bother them, except they don’t like to cross the road.”
Because these public lands bears are used to human scent, Bachman is not too worried about wind direction. He does place stands to take advantage of prevailing patterns.
“Most of our clients are deer hunters and they’re conscious of wind,” he said. “There is human scent at each of our baits. The bears expect it, and the wind seems to swirl at the end of the day anyway.”
Although he could get away with taking more bears per stand, Bachman usually only takes one bear per stand each season. After that, he’ll take the stand down.
“Hunters pay me to put them on a stand and I only have a few days and I don’t want to risk putting them on a stand that might not produce for a day or two. On the other hand, the bears remember that bait and come back next year.”
Whether a bear comes into a bait or not depends a lot on what the hunter is or isn’t doing.
“Smoking in the stand is really bad,” Bachman said. But smoking in camp is a problem too, because the scent lingers on clothing and gear.
“Hunters that smoke can try to clean up as much as they can, but it doesn’t work very well. I have only had a couple of cigarette smokers actually get bears in all my years.”
Bachman tries to position baits to present the best shot angles, even considering whether an archer is left- or right-handed. He says an optimum bow shot is when, broadside, the bear’s front leg is extended. He prefers a quartering away shot where the arrow is angled behind the last rib, channeling the arrow into the heart.
Baits are close, which can be tricky for a rifle hunter. In my case, the bait was 11 paces from the base of my tree. I had my scope dialed to the lowest setting – 4.5x – and it was still not dialed out enough. I’d have preferred 2x or 3x.
Bachman prefers hunters use low-power scopes rather than open sights. “That light-gathering ability of a scope can make a difference right before dark.”
Bachman has a little experience with hunters bringing attractant scents. In his corner of the forest there are no acorns, there aren’t any big fish runs up the creeks. He prefers attractants that play off the local bears’ tastes – cherries, berries and honey instead of bacon, beaver or fish.
On my hunt, I brought Northwoods Cherry Blast, a powdered attractant that comes in a canister not unlike garlic seasoning. I waited about 20 minutes after my guide, Paige Bachman, had knocked on the bucket with a stick and walked away.
Paige disappeared down the trail, I heard the vehicle start and drive off. Then I shook out the Cherry Blast, a good 30 percent of the bottle and watched the flakes float through the shifting shafts of sunlight. It smelled good. Two hours later, the cubs showed up, the sow testing the wind. They telegraphed the presence of the boar.
I believe that extra scent in the air brought the family group in earlier. And their presence brought the big bear.
There are many ways to set the table for a dominant bear, but Bachman’s last advice is for the hunter.
“You may only get once chance at a big bear. Shoot it the first good look it gives you.” That was the counsel ringing in my ears when my bear walked into an opening ten yards behind the bait.