Bear University

A Wisconsin Bear Bait Story

Fifty hours is a long time to sit in motionless silence, longer than the most devout monks’ meditation sessions and longer than it would take to circumnavigate our planet in an airplane. There have been entire countries that rose and fell in less time. And that’s how long I spent this autumn, perched in a tree stand, staring at a pile of bait in Wisconsin’s 68,000-acre Black River State Forest, thinking about bears. Spread out over the course of a week, I sat and waited, watching the hours creep by. I tried not to move my feet or my head. I tried not to blink. I fought the terrible compulsion to check my phone every few minutes. I tried not to scratch the various itches that sprang up out of nowhere the moment I climbed into the stand each day.  

Most non-hunters assume the pursuit of big game is a rollicking, action-packed adventure. But my first bear hunt was more of a spiritual journey than a physical one. I experienced various crises of faith, eventually deciding that I believed devoutly in God, to whom I immediately prayed for a bear to saunter into the clearing in front of me. The all-powerful deity instead chose to send me 500 heavy-footed squirrels, each of which made my heart thud in my chest, only to fall with disappointment.  

I lived in a remote old farmhouse during much of my trip. Each night, I would go to sleep discouraged, rereading Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing as I drifted off to sleep. I would wake up with my well of hope ever-so-slightly replenished by some trick of the night.  

“Today’s the day!” I said to my fellow hunters as I ventured into the woods again. I was correct. Each day was “the day”: the day I didn’t see any of the state’s 24,000 black bears, the day my legs fell asleep, the day I almost died trying to hold in a sneeze, and then the day I flirted with madness. And each day I sat and thought about bears, chewing on the countless facts and stories I had consumed about them over the course of the prior six months like some kind of hunting ruminant, gnawing on the cud of all the information I had gathered as I prepared for my trip. I thought about the way they move, the way they think, the way they experience the world.  

I applied for my first bear tag on a whim while buying my annual deer licenses. I figured it would take a few years of preference points to draw a tag—it can take a full decade in some parts of the state—and was pleasantly surprised to receive a bright orange card from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources a few months later, informing me that I had earned the chance to go bear hunting that very fall. The only hitch was that I knew almost nothing about bears or how to harvest them.  

I did the only thing you can do when you are completely clueless about a topic. I turned my attention to anyone and anything that might teach me, any guide that might help me inch closer to the summit of this mountain. I read every article about bear hunting I could find. I listened to podcasts about food sources. I watched countless YouTube videos about shot placement, learning quickly that there are various passionate debates about whether or not you should aim for the middle of the middle or a spot a few inches back toward the front of the animal. I read The Ozark Journal of Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Gerstäcker, reliving his various accounts of market hunting with his dog, Beargrease, in 1841 and 1842, my jaw dropping as he chronicled one bear hunt in which an enraged bruin killed his human hunting companion and five of their best hounds. I reread William Faulkner’s The Bear, in which a group of men in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County pursue Old Ben, a legendary boar, year after year. Even my nine-year-old daughter walked down to the library and took out all the books about bears she could find, bringing them home to us to read together. We ventured to zoos, where I gazed intently at the bears, trying to see through their heavy fat and fur and glean the exact situation of their vitals.  

I also read everything I could find about the Ainu people, the bearded, tattooed indigenous people of Japan’s northern islands, who worshiped bears and practiced animism. Despite centuries of attempts by Japan’s predominant culture and government to erase the Ainu and their history, they persist today in small numbers, offering glimpses into a culture that is 20,000 years old. In the Ainu faith, the world is filled with spiritual beings capable of helping or harming people and their pursuits. The most important religious ritual in Ainu culture involved the capture of a bear cub that was then raised as a member of a human family and then ritually killed. The belief was that, because humans had taken in and cared for the bear in life, the bears would take people in and care for them in death to return the favor.  

In addition, I watched every video I could find about rendering bear fat, asking my wife if we still had plenty of mason jars in the pantry. I boasted that my cast iron skillets would soon be glimmering, my boots would be divinely waterproofed, and my baldness would be heartily cured.  

I learned how incredibly rare black bear attacks on humans are, but also gave significant thought to the fact that “rare” and “impossible” are not even remotely synonyms. I was reminded of my favorite line from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, “Black bears rarely attack. But here's the thing: sometimes they do.” I also thought long and hard about the old proverb, “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.”  

I learned all about the laws and ethics of baiting bears in my home state. I read with pleasure that the number of black bears here has essentially tripled in the last 15 years, and their range is slowly moving back southward. If you drive around the communities of central or northern Wisconsin, you see bears depicted everywhere. When our present civilization falls and future beings dig through our rubble, they will undoubtedly think the people who called this part of Wisconsin home practiced arctolatry, the worship of bears, just like the Ainu. Sculptures and pictures of bears are placed prominently across the landscape, from splashy water parks to the quaint lawns outside private homes. They are on coffee mugs and bank signs. Stuffed bears gaze at you with ancient eyes from the walls of local restaurants.  

When baiting, I saw their signs everywhere. Every tree oozed sap where their claws and teeth had plunged through the bark. I saw tracks and scat, and even smelled a nearby bear while filling one bait site.  

And then on the eve of the autumn hunting season, I made a fatal mistake, committing the worst sin a hunter can commit. “I just hope it’s not too easy, you know?” I said to a friend as I packed up my gear, “I hope I don’t shoot a bear right away. I want to spend some time in the woods and get the full, authentic bear hunting experience.” I can’t believe my hubris: the ridiculous, quixotic optimism that went into that statement. 


I actually did have an authentic bear hunting experience. In fact, despite the surging population of bears here, two of every three bear hunters each year do not fill their tags. I never even saw one. All the other hunters I spoke with blamed the acorns, which dropped from the trees at the exact start of the season, as if startled by the opening gunshot. Or maybe I shifted my weight too much in the stand. Maybe I checked my phone too often. Perhaps I didn’t apply enough cover scent or apply enough layers of unscented deodorant. Maybe they were right there, and I somehow missed them. Maybe that one sneeze was my undoing. Who knows?  

When the season ended, a friend heard of my failure and offered the old cliché: “You don’t have to kill an animal for your hunt to be a success.” I rolled my eyes. Killing a bear was the whole point, right? But maybe the cliché does have some truth in it because the lack of a carcass does not mean I came away empty-handed. I have everything I learned over the course of six months of intensive study. I wouldn’t have done any of it had I not drawn that bear tag: not the reading, not the trips to the zoo, not the phone calls to various universities to ask questions about bear worship, and not the special moments with my young daughter reading about ursine behavior and taxonomy in Bears of the World for a midsummer bedtime story. Sure, I’m still balding, my boots still leak, and our mason jars will have to remain vessels for jams and jellies, for now.  

I spent 50 hours in a stand, but far more time studying the animal I planned to hunt, which is the oldest and best way to get to know a fellow creature of this earth. I’m not a bear expert, not yet, but I know a lot more about them than I did a year ago. I appreciate them more because of it, and I’m more aware of all we share with these animals. And there is always next year, and the one after that. So, I’d better keep studying. The final exam is still to come.  

I just hope it’s not too easy.