When Do Deer Take The Bait?

Love it or hate it, using bait for deer is more popular than ever. But is that a good thing?

When Do Deer Take The Bait?

It’s time to put out those trail cameras near bait to survey what to expect this hunting season. Or maybe you are just setting up some baited stands for the season. But are such baited sites a waste of time? Do we know whether they’ll bring in that buck during daylight hours?

The use of bait has undergone a rapid evolution in the United States. Back in the day, in most of the country there was little or no baiting. Even into the early 1990s baiting wasn’t all that common. A survey done in 1992 in Wisconsin showed that only 17 percent of gun hunters used bait. Since that time, the use of bait to deer hunt, and to get an index of what is out there, has increased. In many states you can’t hunt over bait but you can feed deer and use bait to assess deer numbers as long as it is removed well before the hunting season. But what about baiting to hunt? In a few states the regulations are a bit fuzzy, but it appears that baiting for deer can now be done in 23 states. And pressure to bait for deer in other states keeps growing.

In more recent times, after chronic wasting disease reared its ugly head in Wisconsin and we learned that baiting helped spread that disease, you’d think hunter demands to allow baiting would have tailed off. Yet, that hasn’t happened. Combine the disease negative with the fact that anti-hunters — and a fair number of hunters — question the ethics of using bait to hunt deer and you might again think that demand for baiting would decrease. But it has not.

Many hunters put out corn near a trail camera in August to get an estimate of what is on their property. Of course when they get a picture of a particular buck, they know he was at least there once, but what percent of all the bucks on a hunting property actually come to bait? What percent of does come to bait? Unless you know the answer then you aren’t getting a good sample of the deer on your property?

Two new studies give us some answers. One followed buck and doe movements using GPS collars before, during and after bait was placed at camera sites. Results showed both bucks and does increased use of locations immediately adjacent to bait sites after the bait was placed, but the bucks adjusted their movements to be closer to baits more than does. This indicates that the bait had more influence on bucks. A bit of a surprise there. For those attempting to get an idea of the number of does and bucks on their property, such an approach may not give you the best estimate because it favors bucks.

The second baited camera study pointed out the obvious fact that even if the baited site photos give you an accurate picture of what is out there, it just is a snapshot of what is there in August. By the November gun season, things may have changed. That was one conclusion from this study, but their objective was to see if you needed to bait at all when running a before-season camera survey. They put out a grid of one camera per 50 acres with no corn on a 2,500-acre area during September and followed counts for three months and captured 4,409 images. They ran a similar baited survey for just the month of September and gathered 13,843 images. Clearly the corn attracted deer. Monthly sex ratios on the baited sites ran from 1:2 to 1:5, while the monthly sex ratios from the passive non-baited sites were much more variable. So, the answer is “yes,” you do need to use bait near cameras when running a survey.

You and I both know the results from the above two studies won’t change our interest in putting cameras out in August to see what we have. I’ve got hunting friends who find that checking cameras is almost as much fun as the hunt. It’s fun, even if we realize some of those bucks won’t be there come November.

With so many hunters now hunting bait sites, the amount of food placed out there must be fairly large. A Wisconsin report estimated the amount of bait put out in northern Wisconsin at eight bushels per hunter for a total of 450,000 bushels of corn per year. A study in Michigan showed each hunter placed an average of 40 bushels per season. Regardless of how you look at it, hunters put tons of bait out there each year and that feeds a lot of deer.

It all is interesting, and obviously that much corn has to affect deer behavior, but the big questions relative to hunting are when do deer take the bait and does bait increase hunter success. If you are a regular reader of this column then you know that my response is, “Show me the data.” Indeed, there is data. Some of it is old, but there is data on how bait affects hunter success.

Most studies show baiting or using supplemental food increases nighttime visits. One 1982 Michigan study was done with a captive herd in a fairly large pen and found that a lot of feeding at supplemental food sites was at night. A 1992 Mississippi study showed 90 percent of bait station use by bucks was at night. A 1993 Texas study found that baited stand sites had fewer deer coming during the day as the season progressed. That would explain why baiting appears to be more successful for bowhunters, since they are out there before the gun season. The Texas study also noted older bucks avoided bait sites as the season progressed.

One study noted when small amounts of corn are used competition for the food increased and there was more daytime use. Several studies suggest that bait piles will not cause deer to change their home range. You aren’t going to pull deer long distances to a bait pile.

What about hunter success? A 1984 study in Michigan showed that baiters harvested 2.4 deer per 100 days hunting, while non-baiters harvested 2.2 deer per 100 days hunting. Not much difference there, but one thing is certain: Hunters believe baiting helps them kill deer. In 1993 study in Wisconsin, 92 percent of hunters felt that baiting increased their chance for success. Interestingly the percent was the same for those that baited and those that did not. Believing is one thing, reality is another. That same study showed 50 percent of bait hunters tagged a deer, while 54 percent of hunters who did not use bait tagged a deer.

A 1994 Michigan study found that 44 percent of hunters using bait were successful, while 52 percent of hunters who did not bait were successful. Wisconsin ran a huge mail survey of gun hunters from 1998 to 2001 to look at success for buck and doe harvests over bait. It showed that baiting success and non-baiting success are fairly similar. In 1998, Wisconsin baiter success for does was 35.9 percent, while it was 39.7 percent for non-baiters. Baiter’s success for bucks was 26.7 percent, as opposed to 24.7 percent for non-baiters. In fact, over those four years, baiter success for bucks and for does was pretty consistent with baiters doing just a little better than non-baiters. The year 2001 was typical of the four years with baiter doe harvest success being 27.8 percent and non-baiter success being 25.5 percent. Baiter buck success was 27.5 percent and non-baiter buck success was 23.6 percent.

It seems that bowhunters are more successful with bait than gun hunters. A 2001 Wisconsin survey showed that 40 percent of bowhunters used bait and 60 percent did not. Bowhunting baiters did better, with 45 percent taking a deer, while 31 percent of non-baiters took deer.

It appears that bait seems to increase bowhunter success more than gun hunters, and bow and gun bait hunters seem to do just a little better than non-baiters, though the difference is not huge.

In conclusion, baiting, even with all its negatives, is not going away soon because many hunters want it. If a hunter has control of his area, limits disturbance and human odor, then deer will use bait. Since bowhunting is a low disturbance form of hunting, baiting works better for those hunters than for gun hunters. It also appears that for the same reasons, deer will come to bait during the day more in bow season than gun season.

There isn’t much data on how baiting impacts hunting, but in certain situations baiting reduces hunting. One Michigan study showed that when a bait-ban was implemented in five counties, half of the bowhunters hunted less and 22 percent said they didn’t hunt in that area at all because of the ban. The same was true for gun hunters as 31 percent hunted less in those counties and 12 percent did not hunt at all in the bait-ban counties.

In many parts of the East, areas are dominated by parcels of small-land ownerships. In those areas, baiting impacts hunters. I know of one area I hunted that was adjacent to a small farm where hunters placed 6,000 pounds of corn a year. That definitely impacted my hunting, so much so that I stopped hunting there.

In some situations, deer come to bait during legal shooting hours, and as long as hunters “believe” baiting increases their success, baiting will always occur. Some love it and others do not, and the whole discussion surrounding baiting seems to change every year. The big player in baiting in the future is the spread of chronic wasting disease, and it will be interesting to see how that impacts baiting.


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