Dark Timber

Baiting Bears DIY In The Unforgiving Mountains Of Idaho

Baiting black bears in the alluring high country is a rewarding process and thrilling way to hunt. The exhilaration of an up-close and personal encounter with a deadly carnivore is something bear hunters crave and that must be experienced firsthand to fully appreciate. There are many false perceptions surrounding this style of hunting and it’s surprising to me that even some hunters take issue with the idea, as if baiting bears is somehow cheating. Critics seem to assume that if you throw a donut on the ground, some big dumb bruin will soon come sniffing for it with reckless abandon. Anyone familiar with bear hunting knows nothing could be further from the truth. Bear baiting is a challenging sport and ethical means to selectively harvest mature boars. It is also a useful management tool in densely forested areas where spot and stalk are less effective. For those reasons alone it really should be legalized in more states.

Viewing black bears through an ignorant lens does not give them the respect they are due. Mature bears are downright difficult to kill over bait. These are clever creatures and inherently nocturnal scavengers. Bears have knowledge and dominion of their habitat that is unique to the genus aided by, arguably, the most powerful sense in the animal kingdom and a long lifespan in the wild. There is no fooling a bear’s nose. The same ability of Ursidae to smell food sources from miles away also provides formidable defense and with age, these mammals become very wise. Black bears may seem nonchalant when rummaging through protected areas like certain campgrounds or parks where they cannot be hunted and face little threat. However, the realities of bear hunting and their behavior in the backcountry tell a vastly different story. They know how to make themselves scarce in the woods and can be very elusive.

I have been on several bait hunts in recent years in different regions of Idaho and learned a lot from my observations and discussions with outfitters and other hunters. This year, I set out with my good friend, Matt Drake (Instagram handle: @mattdrakebaits208), on a do-it-yourself hunt. Matt is a hardcore bear hunter who has been baiting for fifteen years in the backcountry of Idaho. His expertise and passion are second to none and he has killed tremendous bruins over the years. He has earned every one of them. The amount of work Matt puts into baiting is extraordinary, which is why he is successful. It is not for the faint of heart, especially when hunting the remote and unforgiving canyons that the biggest black bears call home. He and other bear maniacs like him enjoy torturing themselves: packing 55-gallon drums, tree stands, and hundreds of pounds of bait miles across steep terrain, even through deep snow at the beginning of spring. Matt enjoys the extreme fitness aspect of it as much as anything. I was in for a huge challenge just trying to keep up with him.

When June came, I ordered bait supplies from Boar Masters, purchased my bear tag and baiting permit, and left for scenic Idaho to join my friend. Matt had been hunting the same remote site for many years. It sits on the side of a steep, densely forested canyon and is a mile from the nearest two-track. The green, rugged landscape was stunning. It predictably kicked my butt. The first evening, we rebaited and climbed into the tree stands for an evening sit. There were many bears on camera, including two gorgeous blonde boars that would periodically visit the bait during shooting hours. The weather was perfect, but we did not see any bears that night. This was not surprising with me intruding the bait site with my foreign scent for the first time. Experienced baiters know the difficulty of getting big bears to commit and present themselves at the bait during legal shooting light, especially with someone new present.

The next evening, we were visited by a gorgeous cinnamon colored sow and three cubs. The big sow was very cautious and anxiously paced around while her cubs gorged themselves on trail mix. She was on high alert for any intrusive boar and the danger that could present for the cubs, especially during the rut. At one point she was directly under my tree. We locked eyes, but she didn’t care much. I’m sure she knew we were there prior to approaching the bait with her young. Matt had years’ worth of camera footage of this spectacular bear. Under different circumstances, she could be mistaken for a boar due to her stature. Field judging can be tricky even for seasoned hunters. Yet, due to this style of hunting there was zero chance of mistakenly killing this bear by misjudging it or not realizing she had cubs. Bait hunting greatly enhances the hunter’s ability to scrutinize the animal and selectively target.

The bait site had been on fire prior to my arrival, but the next couple of days brought high winds and the bear activity ceased. The area was increasing dramatically in popularity and foot traffic despite its remote location. Matt had wrestled with the decision to relocate to another unit. After extensive scouting, he felt it was time to finally pull the plug. Fortunately, I would be returning in the fall for round two and was excited to hunt another spectacular part of Idaho.

The fall bait season began slowly at the new bait site. The forest fires in northern and central Idaho wreaked some havoc as Matt worked to get the bait established. He persisted and before long, the bait started to catch fire. By the end of the month some exceptional bears were hitting the bait, including several color phases. Most of the bears on camera were shooters and I was anxious to get back up there. One of the boars is a world class giant, the largest Matt has ever seen on camera in fifteen years of baiting. I left my Utah home at 5:00 a.m. so I would make it to camp in time for the evening hunt. When I arrived, it was a thirteen-mile ride in the RZR to the trailhead. It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of this remote country. The steep, dark timbered canyon was tremendously deep. I could tell this is what made the bait site so special, accounting for the incredible caliber of bears on camera. I instantly fell in love with this unforgiving environment and the allure it produced.

The bait barrel was chained to a tree on a well-traveled bear trail carved out of the dark inclined mountainside. We packed in a ground blind and selected a spot 50 yards from the bait that would put the predominant wind and evening thermals in our favor. The blind would be concealed well under a large pine surrounded by deadfall. I went to work with a shovel digging a level platform to sit in the blind while Matt rebaited with trail mix, flavored paste, and anise spray, along with some popcorn. We exclusively used Boar Masters products during this hunt and in preparation. When it comes to baiting bears effectively, the rewards must outweigh the risk. Matt had been rewarding these bears heavily in the lead up to this hunt and there was lots of competition on the bait. It was the perfect setup, and I was confident that if we sat long enough it would come together.

The weather was calm and perfect. Less than two hours into our sit that evening, we heard branches break and Matt spotted movement below the bait. He could tell it was one of several big color phase bears frequenting the bait. A few minutes later we spotted the bear moving uphill behind the bait. To our disappointment, the bear never committed. As darkness approached, another black colored bear did the same thing. They possibly were dissuaded during daylight by my foreign scent in that area for the first time that evening. However, this created plenty of optimism for day two.

We planned an extra-long sit on day two and made it to the bait around 10:30 a.m. This would give us roughly nine hours of legal hunting light. The weather shifted and it was cold and windy. A few hours into our sit, we heard branches snap again and the clear sound of a bear grunting below the bait. The bear never showed itself. The bears’ lack of cooperation was frustrating, but I’ve hunted them enough to know things can change in the blink of an eye. Around 6:00 p.m., the evening thermals shifted and that’s exactly what happened. A beautiful chocolate boar appeared silently on the trail just above the bait.  We briefly examined the bear as he approached and concluded that I should take it. The bear stood facing towards the blind and then turned his head, looking around with his nose to the air. With the chest exposed, I took the frontal shot and the bruin instantly dropped in its tracks. The Barnes LRX from my 300 RUM hammered through the bear’s entire cavity and clobbered the bait barrel behind it. It was a quick ending to a long and rewarding process that Matt graciously let me be part of. The culmination of work, sweat, patience, and sacrifice. This was an awesome hunt in every way.

I was fortunate to harvest my first color phase in the dark timber of remote Idaho. I would like to thank my good friend, Matt Drake, for inviting me to join him. We’ve shared lots of laughs during our time together in the woods and I’ve learned a lot from him about baiting. The guy is as hardcore as it gets and runs circles around me. I admire his drive and persistence as a bear hunter and baiter. If you haven’t tried hunting bears over bait, you should. The effort required for success is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are worth it. It is incumbent upon us as bear hunters to help change false perceptions and any stigma wrongfully attached to this sport that we are passionate about. I am awestruck by these majestic carnivores whom I long to share the woods with.