A Labor Of Love
By Jana Waller
As the snow lines begin to recede and the days grow longer by the minute, springtime brings a sense of rebirth to the woods and mountains. Creeks and rivers explode from the snow runoff and the brown canyons seem to suddenly appear bright green after a few days of nourishing sunshine. Many of us anxiously await the turning of winter into spring for one big reason…bear hunting season! I currently live in Montana where the season opens mid-April and runs through mid-June, but Montana is a spot-and-stalk only state. Luckily I live close to the Idaho border where baiting is allowed and have been running bear baits with my business partner, Heath, for over a decade. I thought this March/April issue would be good timing to talk about the nitty gritty of bear baiting.
There are currently 12 states that allow bear baiting and the details may vary state to state. It’s important to familiarize yourself with your state’s regulations and check them every year since they can change annually. Details can vary such as the dates when baits can be placed and removed, distance from public areas, trails, permanent water, and roads, what exactly can be used in the bait, what attractants can be utilized, and how the bait must be placed. Some states require barrels while others allow bait to be placed directly on the ground.
Following your state’s laws isn’t negotiable, but how and what you bait with is. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, metaphorically speaking of course. Heath and I have found success for a multitude of reasons, first being the location of the baits. While it’s been my experience that bears typically don’t care about humans in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and in the remote Yukon Flats of Alaska, bears in Idaho are not as forgiving. There is a lot of hunting pressure where we bait and the bears tend to be more sensitive to human scent and interaction. They typically need thick, dark, secluded areas to feel safe to hit the baits, and I’ve never had luck sitting on the ground like I’ve routinely done in Canada. We chose sites where the evening wind direction is typically flowing away from the bait and into our faces and sit up high in tree stands typically 25 yards from the barrel for a bow or pistol shot.
Heath and I always bait with sweets versus stink baits. We typically order three or four large 55 gallon barrels from Boarmasters every spring, which usually lasts us and our other bear baiting friends throughout the spring season. We fill the barrel with whatever stale, expired trail mix, candy, and pretzel concoction is on hand. Sweet-based bait has always worked well for us and when you’re sitting in your tree stand and the evening breeze blows in your face, it’s nicer to experience whiffs of chocolate than rotting beaver. We also use a ton of sweet attractants (sprays, oils, and powders) that we add to cooking grease so the bears walk off into the woods, leaving delicious smelling trails that lead other bears right back to our bait.
I asked a few other bear baiting enthusiasts I know to share some of their tricks and tactics. Joe Letarte, Owner of Alaska Wilderness Enterprises, mentioned, “The way I bait here in Alaska is really very simple. I put out attractor baits of rotten fish guts and carcasses to draw bears to the area. I also put out dog food soaked in molasses to hold the bear to the site.” I had the pleasure of taking a great bear in the Yukon Flats of Alaska with Joe in 2021. It was such a great adventure camping out on a peninsula and traveling to the various bait sites via a small raft boat. Joe also had a little different way of utilizing the smaller barrels to hold bait. “I cut the slits in my barrels about 3 inches wide by 9 inches long which allows the bears to only get a little dog food at a time. That way they don’t overeat and go lay up because they’re full. I also put in some bacon grease and spray anise scent to help draw the bears in. I’ve had very good luck with this system over the past 30 years.”
My friend, Mark Livesay, has another great baiting technique that helps when the bears are cleaning out bait sites too quickly. “I start with a steel barrel and I drill four inch evenly spaced holes right near the bottom. The holes aren’t much bigger than a half dollar, which is the key! Then I cut two holes near the top to run a length of chain through,” Mark described. He then hangs the barrel between two trees allowing it to swing freely versus chaining it to the bottom of one large tree. “I found that the benefits of using a trickle barrel were magnified. I pack in a lightweight pull system to get the barrels off the ground about 15-18 inches. The small holes dramatically slow down the bears, but they don’t deter them. It also increases their time at the bait. They seem to hang around longer during daylight hours,” added Mark. Livesay also mentioned his preferred bait mix is 50/50 dog food and popcorn mixed generously with Boarmasters Triple Threat Powder. "The small particle dry mix works great with the small holes of the barrel and is easy to maintain.” To hear more stories and baiting tactics from Mark, listen to the “Treeline Academy Podcast” on all major platforms.
Last but not least, I reached out to my buddy, Nick Hopkins, who’s been a professional in the bear baiting business for years. “A few things we see from a bear attractant business perspective, and the large number of customers we speak with daily, is the people having the highest success are those really putting in the time and staying consistent. We offer some amazing products to really jump start your bait or bring bears into an area, from food additives that really hold bears to our extremely powerful lures that trigger those bears to travel to areas out of their normal patterns. Be consistent. Keep those baits full, keep the scent fresh, and remember that those bears are patterning you just as much as you’re patterning them. The location of the bait site, quality of the bait, along with a lot of scent and consistency are the keys to success,” Hopkins commented. Boarmasters has been in business for over a decade and is located in Chubbuck, Idaho.
There are a lot of factors that add to the success or failure of a bait site. There’s no arguing that bear baiting is a ton of work but to all of us who live for watching and hunting bears, it’s a labor of love. Best of luck to all of you who are out there enjoying the process and the journey to notching your bear tags.