Where Did My Bears Go?

Five Things That Cause Bears To Disappear From Your Bait

All across the U.S. and even parts of Canada, there is a phenomenon that takes place every year. Bear baiters are excited as the fall season approaches and the bears are hitting the baits in August—big bears, little bears, multiple bears. Then right about the first of September (the opening week of the seasons across much of North America), the activity at the bait sites plummets. Baits go dead, and activity is erratic, nocturnal, or just plain nonexistent every single year.

Experienced hunters have come to expect it, but novices freak out about it and think the sky is falling. It’s a battle we will always face, and the most common place hunters throw blame is, “The acorns are falling.” Well yes, the acorns are falling but that’s only part of the story. I believe there are five things that cause this phenomenon, and it’s not just one of them, it’s usually two or three of them at once, maybe all five in some cases. Let’s have a look at these five factors that cause the baits to go dead.

Too much sugar

We all know that some sweets attract bears to the baits. But bears can easily become “over-sugared” and they need to take a break. If you’ve been baiting for 2-3 weeks with lots of sugar, the bears are probably loving it for the first 10-15 days but then the overabundance of sugars in their diet starts to catch up with them and they back off. If your baits are heavily slanted towards candies and other sweets, you’re going to lose your bears. Always try to think of it this way: your bait is supplementing their natural diet. Using baits that are similar to their natural diet, with some sweets mixed in as a bonus, is the way to go.

Abundance of natural foods

I mentioned this briefly, but it is one of the most important factors. About the time the fall hunting seasons come in, the floodgates of natural foods become available, particularly the mast crops such as beech nuts, acorns, hazelnuts, etc. And of course the chokecherries are ripe and there are blackberries available where they are found. Many people refer to this as the “Acorn Drop”, and that’s only partly true. Bears do not need the mast crops to drop, they know where the trees holding the best nuts are found and they will climb the trees to get them. They’ll shake branches, break off branches, and even graze on the nuts while lying on a limb. You can’t fight it, so your only options are to keep good quality bait available and fresh, and wait it out.

They are miles away

The advent of GPS collars on bears has provided a lot of knowledge about black bears and their travel that we would never have guessed a few years ago. Bears travel long distances. Here in Minnesota, GPS collared bears routinely travel 30-60 miles to fall feeding areas with the best white oak acorns. You might have a bear on your bait a week before the season that is in another county on opening day. The stark reality is that the bears you have on camera in August could be far, far away in September.

They are no longer comfortable at your site

Getting bears to visit a bait site during legal shooting hours is a big challenge. They must feel safe and secure there in order to feed often and during the day. The more human intrusion, the lower their comfort level. Perhaps you spooked a bear off the bait, or maybe the bear was nearby and got a good snootful of human scent at the wrong time. Maybe just the culmination of a lot of visits has put the bear on edge. Possibly even others have found your site and tainted it: berry pickers, mushroom hunters, squirrel hunters, hound hunters running their dogs, etc. Once you start to hunt, this intrusion ramps up even more. All these things can lower the bears’ trust in the bait site, and they often go nocturnal or just move on.

Bears are being killed

Most of the places where I have baits also have others baiting within a few miles and sometimes even closer. Public land bear hunting can be quite competitive, and it’s common for bears to visit multiple baits. Beginning immediately with the opening of the season, bears are being toted out of the woods and to the meat lockers and taxidermists. If you have a bear that just disappears when the season opens, it’s quite possible that he’s on his way to being a bear rug in front of someone else’s fireplace.

I honestly think this is a much more common issue than most hunters realize. I can think of many cases where bears traveled from 4 to 14 miles in one day. This year I had a sow with two young cubs on two different baits that were nearly two miles apart; they went back and forth regularly. In one case, I came in with a hunter to put in the stand and spooked her off one bait at 4:00 PM. She showed up on camera at the other bait two miles away just a few hours later and was feeding there that evening. It’s hard to imagine those little cubs swimming a stream and multiple swamps, crawling over downed logs, pushing through heavy brush, and following the sow through all kinds of terrain while covering two miles of that jumble in less than four hours. But they did, and it’s just a part of their daily lives. It’s my belief that it’s quite rare, at least in the kind of hunting we do here in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, that bears are holding onto one bait. It’s what we strive for, but in many cases bears are hitting multiple baits.

These five things are the reasons you lose your bears around the first part of September each year. There are things you can do to combat some of them, but for the most part you just need to choose good locations and keep good bait available to the bears, and eventually you’ll get them back (unless someone else has already shot them). I hope this helps you better understand this frustrating annual phenomenon.