Tips for the Best DIY Road-Trip Bear Hunt

If you’re not interested in an expensive guided hunt or crave the satisfaction that comes from doing it yourself, here’s how to pull it off.

Tips for the Best DIY Road-Trip Bear Hunt

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I sat 15 feet up a thick jackpine perched atop a long-running ridge, enjoying the late afternoon sunlight on my face. A hundred yards over my shoulder was a sparkling wilderness lake made even more beautiful by the deep blue sky. The thrill of anticipation made me feel alive as I eagerly analyzed every bit of my surroundings. 

A loon called from the lake behind me. For a moment, I took a deep breath and drank in the atmosphere that draws me back to places such as this over and over again. I cannot get enough of the environs in which bears live and the adrenaline rush that comes from hunting them in these wild places.

A squirrel amused me by freakishly stuffing his distorted cheeks with cashews from the array of trail mix in front of me. My senses snapped back into high alert as a black head with a brown muzzle materialized from the thick brush to the right of the bait. 

That head was soon followed by a 300-pound body. The hyper-cautious bear slowly surveyed his surroundings as it approached the bait, step by silent step. This was definitely the one — the bear for which I had travelled so far and put so much time, expense and energy into. My heart surged as I slowly reached to take my bow off the hanger. 

Just 10 minutes later and 40 yards away, I clawed through thick brush and knelt beside the bear that had consumed my thoughts for weeks. The moment was made powerfully more rewarding by the fact that I was seven hours from home and I had done it all myself. From the site choice, to the baiting and preparation, to the analyzing of trail cam photos, this bear was totally mine. 

I’ve baited and killed a lot of bears in my home state of Minnesota, and I’ve had the pleasure of putting many friends and family members onto bears as well, but lately it’s been getting darn difficult to draw a tag near my home despite an abundance of bears, so I’ve been taking my time and money elsewhere between resident bear tags and have found that being successful in a new area is not as difficult as one might think. 

Done right, in the right location, you can get bears coming to a bait in a hurry. I have found that if the right location is used, a quality bait provided and a good scent strategy employed, I can be ready to shoot a bear within a week, just about anywhere I have gone. 

Choosing The Right Location

Most western states offer over-the-counter (OTC) bear tags. Not all of them allow baiting, but many do, and some, such as Idaho, have really low-cost bear tags and even some zones where you can shoot two bears per year.

Spend some time researching the state laws, speak with the bear biologists in those states about top locations and then get online and research aerial photos in order to find potential bait site locations so you will have a handful of options to look at in person once you arrive. 

Midwestern states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan award tags in a draw system. Most zones in Minnesota take three to five preference points to draw a tag. Minnesota also offers a no-quota zone, most of which is poor quality bear habitat, but tags are OTC and many bears are taken in the no-quota zone each year.

Michigan’s tags are available every two to six years in most areas, but their three seasons and zones are somewhat complicated. Some premium tags in some seasons and zones can take as many as 10 years of applying to accumulate enough preference points. Wisconsin offers tags that can be drawn every other year in Zone C, and can take 10 years or more in Zone B. You’ll need to do your research. 

The northeastern states mostly offer OTC tags and a variety of seasons. Be aware that many of those states have little public land and it can be harder to find a place to hunt. 

Most of the Canadian provinces distribute their tags through outfitters, which all but eliminates DIY hunting of bears. There are a couple exceptions in eastern Canada, and in Ontario, tags are OTC but you must hunt in an active outfitter area. An outfitter must verify your tag by allowing you to hunt in his bear hunting concession area. I have found an outfitter who will sign off on my tag for a fee so I can do a DIY hunt in his bear hunting concession. I have killed several bears and baited bears for two dozen friends and family that way.

Most of us choose an out-of-state hunt close enough to home where we can bait on the weekends or go on a bear hunting road trip for a week or two. That means you’ll need lodging or camping and lots of bait along with your own equipment. I pull a small utility trailer with a 4-wheeler and a chest freezer on these hunts. Pick a place to go, and just go hunting.

Choosing The Right Site

If you’re new to baiting bears you might think that a guy can just toss out a pile of donuts and a bear will walk up just asking to be made into sausage. It’s a heck of a lot more complicated than that.

In a nutshell, you must choose a site and create an environment where a mature bear will feel comfortable approaching it in the daylight. It doesn’t matter how many or how often bears are eating your bait if they won’t come in during the legal shooting hours. 

Because bears don’t like to cross open areas during daylight, you want to choose a site that offers them thick cover in which to approach the bait. Learn where bears like to spend their days, then get a bait in the thick stuff nearby.

Another vitally important aspect to choosing a good site is the proximity to water. Most bear hunting is done during May, June, August and September. Those are warm months for the bears that are walking around with a thick cover of fur and layer of fat. Cool damp areas and water are big parts of their daily routine.

Keep in mind that bears are in a state of hyperphagia, meaning they are eating 20,000 to 25,000 calories a day. It takes a lot of water to aid in digesting all those carbohydrates. Their daily routines involve water, so it stands to reason that the proximity of water will mean the bears will be lying up nearby and are more likely to come to the bait in daylight if they do not have to travel long distances to get there.

Choosing, Using The Right Bait

Bears can be startlingly picky eaters; this is especially true in the late summer when the woods are full of natural foods. If you’re going to get bears to come to your bait with any regularity, you better offer them high quality, carbohydrate-rich foods. They tire of sugars quickly, so it’s best to include some sweets but don’t rely totally on them.

Pastries are one of the best options for bringing the bears in and keeping them for a few days; but if you want them to move in and set up shop, you’ll need some things that offer them what their bodies are created to seek out to fulfill their cravings. It’s hard to beat trail mix or granola for that. 

By far my most successful baits that collect and hold bears are a mixture of pastries, meat scraps and abundant trail mix. I have also used granola when I can’t get trail mix, and that works well, especially if it features a high percentage of sweetened oats. Be aware that some baits are not legal in all areas, so make sure you know the state laws before you put them out. 

The questions of how much bait and how often you supply bait is ruled by what has become my fundamental guideline in bear baiting: Don’t disappoint them. I have tried varying amounts of bait. I have tried baiting every day and baiting just on the weekends. I have reduced the amount of bait in hopes of creating more competition. I have tried just about every trick in the book and I have become convinced in 20 years of doing this all across North America that the No. 1 rule in baiting is that when a bear shows up at the bait, he should be rewarded with something good to eat — no exceptions. 

That means if I am baiting seven hours away from home, I want to put out enough bait so it will last until I come back in four days, a week or whenever I’ll be back. If I am camping and baiting without going home, I will put out enough for two or three days before checking the bait and the trail camera.

I’ll resist the temptation to violate the area by spending my days fishing or whatever. When the bears are consistently coming in during the daylight hours, I will make my move on them, but not before. Once again, this is dictated by state laws. When hunting Wisconsin for example, I’m limited to two 5-gallon pails of bait, so I must check the baits more often. 

Choosing, Using The Right Scent

If you’re on a bear hunting road trip, you have a limited time to make things happen, so you better make the place smell good enough to have the bears come rolling in, tripping over their tongue.

It’s hard to beat the array of great commercial scents for this. I like the fruity and sweet-smelling sprays for fall hunting and the more curiosity based lures for spring. Some of my favorites are raspberry and blueberry for fall hunting. A sow in heat scent can be good in the spring and I’ve had fantastic success with a beaver castor spray. 

My absolute favorite that I use every single time I open a new bait is a concentrate made by Northwoods Bear Products they call Gold Rush. It comes in a 4-ounce bottle and I mix it with used fryer oil. Just one ounce of this powerful stuff makes five gallons of oil smell so incredible it’s hard to describe. I have yet to find anything that beats it for bringing the bears in quickly.

I like to splash the oil around the bait and on the ground so it gets on the bears’ feet. I use the sprays on leaves and brush around the bait, paying special attention to where the bears walk so the sweet smells will get on their fur. I spray it up high as well so the breeze will carry the message far and wide. We need the bears to find the bait quickly, and using good lures along with good location is an important part of the strategy.

If you have an appetite for the thrill of bear hunting and you want the satisfaction of doing it all on your own, a DIY bear hunt away from home can fill all those cravings. Do your homework and plan to put some sweat equity into the job; it’s hard work.

But the rewards and sense of fulfillment that comes from this endeavor is just as great as the heart-pounding excitement and wildness that comes from entering this large predator’s domain and facing him head-on.

But be forewarned; it can be intoxicating and addicting. 



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