Checking bait sites is much like running a trapline. Nearby sign can give you plenty of clues as to the size, sex, and color of the bear as well as its feeding habits, breeding status, and general behavior traits. Taken together, they should help you choose one bait station or hunting area over another. Study these next scenarios before your next trip afield, and I think you will see what I mean. Again, keep in mind that almost all book black bears are boars.
The first bait your guide shows you has been placed inside an abandoned logging chute at the end of a 4x4 trail. Visibility is good up and down the old road, giving you plenty of shooting light even under low-light conditions. If there is a big bear on this bait, you will have plenty of time to size him up before you take your shot, even if he comes in late.
The guide tells you the bait has been hammered almost every night for going on two weeks. He guarantees you will see a bear the first time you climb into your stand if you are patient and remain still. You look around as the bait barrel is being replenished and notice there are several trails leading in and out of the area, and bits of food are scattered all over the site. In fact, there is so much of a mess it looks like a tornado touched down nearby.
The second treestand is in the middle of a 2-year-old clearcut. There’s not much ground cover near the bait, but there are 5-inch pad marks along one of the nearby logging roads. It is undoubtedly a book animal, and your hopes soar.
A seasoned bear hunter sat over the bait for several evenings, but the bear would not approach the bait during legal shooting hours, preferring instead to weave in and out of the brush growing along the far edge of the cut. Although the hunter was able to sneak out of his treestand each evening without spooking the bear, the outfitter blames that hunter for not getting a shot because he was too fidgety in the stand.
The third bait is situated at the foot of a narrow ridge that rises out of a large, impenetrable swamp. It is an ideal bedding area for bears, and the mile-long ridge is a natural travel corridor connecting that swamp with several adjacent beech ridges. The spruce and fir trees are so thick here daylight barely reaches the forest floor, making it a scary place to be even in the middle of the day. The trail to the bow stand, however, is well-marked.
The outfitter advises you stay aloft until the very last second of legal shooting light. Getting in and out of the Swamp Bait gives him the jitters, however, so he hands you a lever-action .30-30 “just in case” you run into a bear on the trail. Then he advises you to wear a headnet, plenty of insect repellent, and to carry a spare flashlight. The bait is being hit only once or twice a week, but almost all the bait is taken on each visit. There are no well-defined trails leading to or from the bait.
Which of these three stands would you choose, and how would you hunt it? Well, the End Of The Road sounds like the ideal black bear setup, but it is not unless you have never seen a bear before or all you want to do is take pictures. It is probably being hit every evening by a sow with a couple of cubs. The cubs knock the grass down and scatter food all around like a pack of first graders. To confirm your suspicions, simply check the immediate vicinity for small tracks and droppings in the half-inch-diameter range. Food containers punctured with narrow tooth impressions will also indicate the presence of this year’s cubs.
The bear at the Clearcut Bait is bait-shy due to the lack of adequate cover near the bait, which causes the bear to wait until after dark to visit. This is the outfitter’s fault. He should have put the bait in a more strategic location just off the clearcut, maybe at the top of a ravine, for example, to take full advantage of both available ground cover and local topography. If a bear doesn’t feel safe at the bait, he won’t expose himself and come in to chow down until darkness overtakes the landscape. An experienced outfitter would know that.
Stand three at the Swamp Bait is the best of the lot. Any place that scares you has “massive bruin” written all over it. Big old boars are extremely solitary, except during the mating season, and there’s no better place to be left alone than an impenetrable tangle out in the middle of nowhere. In addition, that ridge is a natural highway in and out of the swamp, which doubles your chances of a sighting. I would hunt this stand in the absence of big bear sign simply because of the topography! Indeed, I have arrowed three book bears from such places, and now my friends and I race to these sights even if fresh sign is scant.
Timing is the key, however. Don’t sit in the stand until you fully expect the bear to show. If he is hitting the bait every second or third night, hunt elsewhere for a night or two. Your best chance of tagging this bear is on the first night you hunt it, so wait for all the conditions to be in your favor before you climb aloft.
Editor’s Note: This feature is condensed from Bill Vaznis’ book, Successful Black Bear Hunting.