Bear Hunting: Better Than You Think
By: Al Christian
A little insight goes a long way to getting you started.
I've been fortunate in taking coyote, deer, moose, and turkey during my years of hunting. My four brothers describe it less charitably as "dumb luck." Happy with my delusions, my thoughts turned to hunting the one big-game species in Ontario that I'd yet to harvest: the black bear. The Ontario government of the time threw a whammy into my dreams with the decision to cancel the spring bear hunt. I was resigned to the fact that my chances of taking a bear would come as a bonus during a fall hunt for moose or deer.
I changed my tune while listening to members at the conservation club I belong to on the Niagara Peninsula. With the fall bear season opening as early as mid August, there was no conflict with the seasons for moose or deer. These guys simply adapted their spring bear-hunt tactics to a new time of year, and with a great deal of success. Their hunting stories gave me renewed enthusiasm for my quest. A good deal of hinting and ultimately shameless begging resulted in an invitation from fellow member Craig Poehlman to go bear hunting in the Powassan area when the season opened the day after Labour Day. He hunts bear with a bow over a bait site.
Whether you hunt with bow or gun, any trip should begin with thorough planning. For the first-time bear hunter, doing as I did and going with someone who has done it before is advisable. Another way is to book a hunt with an outfitter who has bait sites available. The internet and Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine are excellent places to start your search. Once you have some experience, you can go out on your own. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, talk to friends who hunt bear. Check with lodge owners in the area you plan to hunt. Looking on the Internet can reveal a great deal of useful information on areas with good bear density, access, and details for a successful hunting experience. Talk to farmers in the area. Bears can do a lot of damage to grain crops and fruit trees. Farmers might be glad for the chance to limit crop damage. Scout for areas with good berry crops, especially blueberries. This is particularly important in a year where the berry crop is poor. A spot with berries can draw bears from miles.
That's easy; put it where the bears are. This means getting out in the area you plan to hunt and scout. Driving old logging roads is a good way to look for bear tracks and sign. If you're on a lake with shoreline access to hunting areas, you can use a boat to get there. Look for tracks, bear scat, evidence of a bear digging for grubs or rodents, claw marks on trees, etc. One spot we found had a lot of overturned rocks as the only evidence of bears in the area. We followed the trail to a nearby cedar swamp. The abundance of bear tracks and sign alerted us to a good spot for a bait site. Bears were turning over rocks looking for grubs and insects.
The heavy fur coats on bears encourage them to look for cool resting areas during the heat of the day. Proximity of the proposed bait site to a cedar swamp, with its cooling shade, could be an important consideration. Cutting a trail to the bait site can be a lot of work, as shown in Figure 1, but it can be necessary in order to quietly access the site for baiting and hunting.
Another factor in picking a bait site is whether you plan to use a bow or a gun. If using a bow, you have to consider the placement of a tree stand within your kill range. Being bow hunters, our preferred kill range is less than 25 yards.
The other consideration is the direction of the prevailing wind and the direction from which you expect the bear to come from. We picked one bait site on a lake point as shown in Figure 2. Looking at satellite photos, we noticed a series of ponds with a connecting stream that could be a travel corridor for animals. On-site scouting revealed a number of bear trails back in the brush that told us the direction bears would probably come from. The lake point location meant that the prevailing winds would be in our favour most of the time and blow our scent along the shoreline. The location of the tree stand was the only problem.
Using a gun means you can place your shooting site farther from the bait. The only limitation is being able to see the bait site. One such shooting spot for a gun hunter could be a ground blind placed on the other side of a beaver pond from the bait to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction and give a clear sightline to the bait. One productive site was placed just off a railway line that divided two small lakes (Figure 3). During a scouting trip we discovered that bears were using the tracks to travel between the lakes. A bait placed where the scent would blow out over the one lake has produced several bears for us in the last few years, including one shot by my brother, Russ, that we estimated at over 400 pounds.
We've found that bears feel safer if both the bait and access to it is located in cover. This can lead to some heart-stopping moments when a bear suddenly materializes beside the bait, but your success ratio in seeing bears should be higher.
We use plastic 50-gallon barrels to contain the bait, and fasten them to a tree with a wire cable. I've found this out the hard way on that first baiting trip. One barrel was nowhere in sight. It took us an hour to find it 250 yards away in a cedar swamp where the bears had dragged it. We cleared a 10-foot area around the barrel to give us a good view of the bait and only enough to allow us a clear sight line from the shooting location.
Avid bear hunter Dennis Gazzola has an excellent system for preparing the barrel and bait. He modifies the barrel top so that it can be removed by screws for easy fill up. He adds several rocks before screwing down the top. The cable is fastened though the bottom and a small hole is put in the side of the barrel (Figure 4). Care must be taken to make the hole small enough that a bear can't get a paw stuck in the hole. One way is to fasten a small bar across the opening, so that crumbs of food can get out, but a paw can't get in. The rocks make noise as the bear rocks the barrel and they pulverize the bait, so it trickles out the hole. The noise can attract other bears. The small amount of bait available through the hole keeps bears from quickly emptying the barrel. Gazzola finds that with this setup bears stay longer in the area.
How much bait to place in the barrel depends on how often you can check the it. If you can visit every several days, you don't need more than a couple of grocery bags. Because we have to travel a distance, we generally put out the baits one to two weeks ahead of our planned hunt and try to fill them up to keep bears coming back. Sometimes the bears need time to find the bait and then need a reason to come back. We generally only put a grocery bag a day in the barrel during the hunt, to keep up their interest. Keeping the bait site clean of garbage is important. Take it out with you.
We put our tree stands high. With a bear's poor eyesight, we have a better chance to escape detection. Even with relatively poor eyesight, avoid sky lining yourself. If possible, pick a tree where there's a background to break up your silhouette (Figure 5). Keep in mind the distance to the bait and the subsequent shot angle. In addition, the high stand could keep your scent above the bear, if it does approach from downwind. This was the case last year when several bears approached from downwind and didn't scent me. I was able to shoot one, even with a breeze coming from my tree towards the bait.
What to put in the barrel is a matter of convenience and choice. Obviously, it should be something the bears will return for. I've seen many different items used - oats covered in molasses, commercial dry dog food, doughnuts, etc. The bottom line is to experiment until you find something bears in your area will come to. They do tend to have a sweet tooth. I've seen them eat the last doughnut crumb and leave bagels. One friend puts layers of dry dog food in the barrel and covers each layer with strawberry-flavoured jelly powder.
When you've put bait in the barrel, simply place a wooden lid on top weighted down with logs or rocks big enough that only a bear can open the barrel. Other critters will be attracted to the bait, as well. Or you can modify the barrel as described earlier.
Once the barrel is fastened in place, put out the goodies that attract bears. Many hunters will use an attractor bait. One we've used in the past is meat and fat scraps placed in a mesh onion bag. Allow this to ferment in a plastic pail outside for a few days to work up a smell. Then, cap the pail for transportation. Believe me, you don't want the contents to splash anywhere you can smell it!
String a rope or wire between two trees about 10 feet off the ground, keep it close to the barrel, and fasten the attractor bait in the middle of the rope. This will waft an appetizing odour to the bears over a wide area and lead them to the bait site.
Another attractor bait is fried chicken oil. Use a leafy branch or stick to slather it on trees and bushes around the bait. Don't forget to splash some on the ground where the bear will walk in it and track it to where other bears might smell it and follow the trail back to the bait site. Spraying a solution of vanilla extract and anise will do the job, too. We've tried a commercial attractant that smelled like super-concentrated butterscotch. It was so strong it made your eyes water, but the bears loved it.
A common tactic during hunting is the use of a honey burn. Clear a space down to bare earth near the bait barrel and, if possible, put rocks around it. Place a small tin can with some fondue fuel in it. Proper experimentation prior to the hunt will tell you how long you want the flame to last to complete the burn without overdoing it. Above the flame, place another can with an inch of honey in it. Make sure you use a medium can, as the burnt residue expands quite a bit. The sweet smoke seems to be the scent of heaven to a hungry bear.
Don't worry if the smoke is coming towards your tree stand. The smell will help cover your scent. I made up a strap-on burn apparatus that I can put in the tree beside me, so I can put it out when I want to. There are commercial burn sticks that do the same job and they come in a variety of scents. If you plan on using a burn, take extra caution with open flames, and check with the local Ministry of Natural Resources to make sure it's permissible.
Who's Coming to Dinner?
Proper interpretation of bear sign can tell you a lot about both the size and numbers of bears in the area. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the track and the bigger the size of the scat, the bigger the bear. You also want to be aware of small bear tracks and sign, which might indicate the presence of a sow with cubs.
Take a rake in with you on an old sandy logging road near the bait site and smooth out an area to see what size critter is using it on subsequent visits. You can also spread sand around the barrel to see what's visiting the bait.
Attach a trail timer to the logs or rocks on the lid, so you can see what time the bait is being hit. If there are a lot of baits being hit, doesn't make much sense to sit on one being hit in the middle of the night. We us trail cameras by setting them up during the baiting trip to see what has hit the bait when we return to hunt. We can then see the size of bears, whether there's a sow with cub, and what time the bait is being hit (Figure 6).
Whether you use a bow or a gun, you owe it to the animal to practise. Shoot from a tree stand in dim light conditions. Bears usually come out at last light. Also practise shooting from a sitting position. Bears have poor eyesight and won't see you if you stay still. They do have excellent noses and ears. Quietly approach the bait site and from a direction where your scent won't blow over the bait.
The size of the bear sometimes determines the approach to the bait. Small bears, such as yearlings, will be cautious and circle the bait to see if a bigger bear is around. Adult males will usually confidently approach the site. However, really big bears will also circle the bait to see who has visited it. A sow with cubs will generally allow the cubs to approach the bait and wait back to protect them if necessary. A little bit of patience will prevent you from orphaning a cub.
Proper shot placement through the chest cavity should result in a double-lung hit and a clean kill. Any deer calibre from .270 up should suffice. A shotgun with slugs is also good bear medicine. For bowhunting, your deer equipment is good. The broadside double-lung shot is best for the bowhunter, too. Many times you can get this when the animal stands up beside the barrel and reaches in, exposing the chest cavity.
The animal will run off after the shot. Listen carefully for direction and whether the noise stops. Sometimes you can hear the death moan from the bear dying from a proper lung hit. If the shot occurs just before dark, and I'm not sure of a definite kill, I carefully mark the direction with a couple of pieces of trail tape and leave quietly. The next morning, I return with a shotgun loaded with slugs and help to drag it out.
After the Kill
Bear meat is delicious, if properly cared for. By this, I mean that you have to cool it as quickly as possible. When my brothers and I get a bear, we skin it out and butcher it the next morning, package it, and put it on ice. Clean absolutely all fat from the meat. We debone it for ease of transport and space in the coolers. Wash it clean, if you have the facilities to do so. We haven't had any "gamey" meat, if we follow this procedure. I profess to being a fanatic about this - the result is soooo good to eat.
I've had venison and bear roasts together at a dinner for neophyte wild-game diners and they had extra helpings of the bear before the venison. Bear meat mixed with fatty beef or pork makes excellent sausage, either fresh or smoked. Some of the best smoked or pepperoni-style sausage we've ever had was made from bear and fatty beef.
We've used the chart put out years ago. Bears were measured at hunter checkpoints and it's claimed to be accurate within 25 pounds of the measured weight. But, having a gambrel with a built-in weigh scale is a good option. I was fortunate to harvest a bear in 2010 (Figure 7) that weighed 300 pounds on a scale.
The best measurements are obtained by using measuring tapes from a sewing store that follows the body contour. To get an accurate measurement, go around the girth from the centre of the rib cage, not tight against the front legs and or around the belly. Then, measure the length from the nose to the end of the tail skin, not the end of the hair on the tail. Look at the top of the chart to see where your bear fits according to length, then follow it down the left side to see where the girth is. Once you have the two numbers, you can follow them until they intersect and you will see the weight listed.
Ontario bears can be large. The bear shown in Figure 8 was shot by Denis Gazzola in 2009 and weighed 685 pounds. It went over 550 pounds on the first scale, which broke. Needless to say, they went out and bought another one. Nose to tail measurement was 83 inches and chest girth was over 60 inches. Our hunt in August 2008 resulted in four bears for six bow hunters. The August 2009 bear hunt resulted in five bears for six bow hunters. In 2010, our best year ever, each of the six hunters again harvested a bear. We saw over 26 bears on the bait-site trail cameras.
For the people I hunt with, bear hunting is an evening affair. Therefore, good fishing opportunities can be an important consideration when choosing a base of operations. Friends who don't wish to hunt bear might choose to come for the fishing experience and provide excellent companionship in camp, as well as help defray expenses.
Unfortunately, there's still no spring bear hunt. But, bear numbers are up, black-fly populations are generally low in late summer, and the fall hunt doesn't interfere with other big-game seasons, nor does it have to be an all-hunter affair. Come on out and try it - it's better than you think! And, no, I didn't get a bear with Poehlman on that first trip. It wasn't until I hunted with my four brothers near Kirkland Lake that I finally got my first bear with a bow and several since. My brothers still think it's "dumb luck."