Struggling with bringing bears to your baits during legal shooting hours? The dynamics of nocturnal bears may surprise you.
By Bernie Barringer
Here it is sports show season again; I’m doing bear hunting seminars at several large sports and hunting shows again this year. I like this time of the year because I really enjoy meeting serious bear hunters from across bear nation. But there are some predictable downsides besides the travel and nights in motels. I will once again this year answer some of the same old predictable questions over and over. Some of these questions have easy answers and some, not so easy.
The question from hunters struggling to get mature bears to appear at a bait site during daylight is one of the most common. There are no easy answers, even though there are some trite assertions and downright myths that accompany the question. But there are answers. So here’s the short form version of a complicated issue that nearly every bear baiter has faced at one time or another.
Let’s deal with the myths first. Here are a few common statements:
1) Take the bait out with you.
2) Cut back on bait to create competition.
3) Have two people walk in and have one leave making noise.
4) Play a radio at night
5) Use a solar motion light to spook them at night
These may sound plausible on the surface, but the problem is they simply don’t work. At least not often enough to consider them a viable solution to the problem. In fact, most of them are likely to create even more problems, and possibly lead to the loss of the bears’ activity at the bait altogether. If bears do not get a positive reward when they come to the bait site, they will stop coming. If they are not comfortable with their surroundings, they will choose to feed elsewhere.
I like to group the issues with nocturnal bears into two categories: Bears that have been at the bait in the daylight but cease coming in during daylight hours; and second, bears that will not come to the bait in the daylight from the beginning.
These troubling issues usually involve the more mature bears, at least not the young ones with little life experience. There are plenty of young and dumb bears shot every year, in fact they make up the bulk of the harvest in many states. Big bears are tough and one of the ways they get old and big is by avoiding any exposure to danger at baits.
Let’s deal with the bears that went nocturnal on us first. Bears that were coming in the daylight, but something caused them to change their pattern and only come in after dark. Keep in mind that black bears are crepuscular animals. This is a scientific word that simply describes an animal that is most active in their feeding patterns in the low light hours of the day; sunrise and sunset. So if bears naturally want to feed in say, the last hour of daylight, then a nocturnal bear has had something occur that changed his normal behavior pattern.
Chances are he’s been spooked off the bait, or he was lying up very near the bait when you came in and did something that alarmed him. Maybe a significant change in odor from others at the bait site or a new lure made him uneasy. If you’re driving an ATV or truck right to the bait, you’re advertising its presence and increasing the chance that someone else will find your bait and leave their scent at the site or even spook the bear. All of these factors can cause a mature bear to just back off and become more cautious.
The most important thing to consider in baiting is the value in being consistent in all you do which helps put the bear at ease and will cause him to lower his guard. Big bears get big by avoiding risky situations. The more comfortable he becomes the more likely he is to visit the bait during daylight.
I do my best to leave little trace of where my bait is located. I hunt mostly public land so it’s important to me to be secretive in my baiting efforts. I don’t want some hiker, small game hunter, 4-wheeler rider or anyone else to find my bait and approach it. They may spook your bears, and at the very least, they are going to leave new scent there, and possibly steal your trail camera. Keeping a low profile is important to me. In most cases, even when I am using a truck or ATV to bait, I haul the bait the last 100 yards or so on foot and avoid using the same trail each time.
I like to run the baits in the middle of the day which also reduces the chances that you are going to spook a bear off the bait. My scouting cameras have taught me that between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. are the least likely times to encounter a bear at the bait. Another way to avoid spooking bears is to simply visit the site less frequently. Put out more bait less often.
Even if you do everything right, there’s no guarantee that bears will come to your bait during legal shooting hours. From 20 years of hunting public land I have become convinced that most mature bears have been educated by inexperienced hunters at some point. Just because a bear has become educated and has learned that he is safe if he only feeds after dark, doesn’t mean that you have done something wrong, it may be that someone else has already messed things up before you. There are big, mature bears that simply become unkillable by legal means. As much as I would love to get one, I have learned that my time is better spent on bears that will at some point give me an opportunity during legal shooting hours.
Of course there are bears that I categorize in a different way. Bears that tend to come to a bait during the night, but haven’t really been spooked or educated. This is far more common than most people realize and frankly, most people are shocked when I tell them what I believe is the most important factor in getting these bears to come to your bait site during the daylight. The most common failure that bear hunters make when dealing with nocturnal bears is LOCATION.
That’s right, I think most bears who are visiting a site in the dark are doing so because they simply do not feel comfortable coming to the location in daylight. Bears do not like to cross open areas during the daylight. If the bait site is located where they have corridors of thick cover to approach the bait, they will more likely travel to it before dark. Baits should be located in areas where bear feel comfortable moving about during the daylight. It’s amazing to me how many people overlook this simple but very important concept.
I had one bait in a state forest near Pine River, Minnesota which is a perfect example. I had multiple bears using this bait, and a friend of mine even shot one young bear off it, but the bear activity was almost entirely nocturnal. I became convinced that the bears simply didn’t like the spot, so I moved the bait only 50 yards away, into the edge of some underbrush. There was a lot of cover between the bait and a beaver pond and swamp that was about 100 yards away. Because of that simple move of only 50 yards, the bait became one of my best baits and we killed several nice bears off that bait over the next few years. The spot has subsequently been logged off, but I still use the “Beaver Pond Bait” as an example in mind whenever I am choosing specific bait location.
Another overlooked factor in location is the value of water. In fall bear hunting, the weather is generally warm and bears have a thick layer of fat and heavy, black fur. They need to cool off and water is a key to their everyday needs. They are also eating huge volumes of calories each day; they need to drink a lot of water to help with digestion. It’s simple to make the connection that bears will be in and around water every day.
It stands to reason, then, that your baits need to be near a good water source. Your big bear may be lying in a swamp and as the shadows get long, the sun drops behind the trees, he decides to get up and go get something to eat. The determining factor in when he arrives at your bait site: during the daylight or after dark, may be as simple as how far he has to walk to get there. I have found that my baits which are within 100 yards of water are more likely to have daylight activity.
So the keys to getting big bears to your bait sites in the daylight are to choose your locations carefully, work hard at creating an environment and atmosphere that gives them comfort. Then be very careful to avoid doing the things that make the bears uneasy, those things which will cause them to go nocturnal on you. If you follow these strategies, you will have mature bears on your baits during legal hunting hours, and that’s what we are all hoping for.