Alberta’s Brad Fenson has been hunting black bears in his home province and across western Canada for some 25 years, which include a stint as a bear outfitter, and over that time he’s learned some interesting things about hunting the big bruins. Just some of his hard-won tips involve locating a good bait site—which happens to be a large part of the overall DIY challenge—and for this, Fenson uses a two-point plan.
To begin his search for a hot bait site Fenson uses the “satellite” views on his smartphone’s free ScoutLook Hunting app, and on www.scoutlookweather.com on his home computer, to look for areas sporting the right type of topography. They will almost always be near water.
“I like to set up near waterways in the spring, as the bears always seem to be traveling the creeks and rivers then, and for two reasons,” Fenson explained. “For one, you have a good source of food; the local moose and deer, if there has been any winter kill, you can usually find them in these areas—the waterway valleys. And then you’ll have beavers working many of those same waterways, and the bears are never far from one of their favorite food sources.
“Another factor is bears like to den in the river valleys, primarily on those south-facing slopes, where they will benefit from the rays of the early spring sun,” Fenson continued. “A lot of times you’ll run into them hanging out at their den entrance, just soaking up that sun. So that’s where I typically start, in the river valleys, and near creeks and other waterways where you’ll find beaver dams.”
With so many good spots to choose from, Fenson likes to narrow his choices by hanging several “test baits” [be sure to check your local regs]. In several likely looking areas, Fenson likes to hang a bag of oats, mixed with fryer grease and sugar, and maybe pour in some “liquid smoke” to really kick up the aroma. The bag is hung from a low-lying branch the local bears can reach, and then it’s simply a matter of making the rounds, much like a trapline, to pinpoint the most-promising bear activity. “With this method the bears would tell us if the spot was good enough; if the bait didn’t get hit we simply crossed the spot off the list.”
A Ground Assault Works
Fenson’s long history of hunting bears has also turned up other tips, including the best spot to ambush a bear coming to a bait. It’s not where you think. When it comes to the time-honored tradition of hunting bears “over” bait, from a tree stand, Fenson believes a wiser approach might be better termed hunting “near” the bait. As in, setting up on ground level—in virtual spitting distance of the bait barrel.
“These days I do prefer to hunt from the ground, and over the years I have hunted with several outfitters who believe the same thing,” Fenson says. “The fact of the matter is, shooting from an elevated position changes your entrance and exit hole, and several outfitters I know believe that shooting from the ground definitely reduces wounding rates, and also reduces tracking distance, versus their results from treestands. And that’s with clients using both rifles and bows.
“Personally, I have found that black bears come in easier, and are more ‘fearless’ around the bait, when I am on the ground,” Fenson continued. “Whether it’s in a commercial ground blind, or my favorite, just a makeshift natural blind out of available logs and brush. Natural blinds let you have a nice 360-degree view of the area, while commercial blinds, sometimes they can reduce your vision.
Fenson insists the practice of hunting black bears from the ground (in areas where no grizzlies exist) is quite safe, even when a belly-dragging, jumbo-sized bruin waddles into the setup.
“Over the years, most of the times the big ones come in they seem to have one thing on their minds, they want to get to that bait. It’s the little ones that are curious, and I’ve had several of them pick up my scent and follow it right to the blind; they might end up sticking their nose right in the blind. But I’ve never had one lift a paw or be aggressive at all.”
Some Favorite Baits
“Typically, I like to use oats, and I might mix them with fryer grease or sugar,” Fenson said. “Oats are great because they’re economical—I typically pay anywhere from $3 to $9 per bushel—and they’re also a natural product and readily available at feed stores.
“If bears are coming in late, or the hunting is slow, I like to do a ‘beaver drag;’ I tie a skinned-out beaver to a rope, and attach it to my waist, and walk cutlines, or trails leading to the bait, creating a powerful scent trial. Beavers are one of the black bears’ favorite foods. Bears never miss the scent of a dead beaver, and when hunting is slow, using beavers for bait will usually get the bears hitting regularly again.”
Rigging A Bait Barrel
“When I use oats for bait I will put them in a sealed 45-gallon drum, into which I will drill only two holes, and both holes will be exactly 15/16 inch, and on the same side of the barrel,” Fenson advises. “The holes allow the bears to get at the oats, and through trial and error I’ve found that 15/16-inch is the best-size hole for the type of oats I use. Any larger and the oats will pour out on the ground and that’s not good, because if they get wet and swell the bears won’t touch them. Any smaller and the bears get frustrated trying to get them out. I used to drill one hole on each side of the barrel, but I found that will attract two different bears that will ‘tolerate’ each other as they feed separately, and that uses up bait faster. When only one bear can eat, the bears have to take turns, and quite often you’ll get a dominant bear that will literally camp on the bait, to fend off the competition.”
More Hunting Tips
“When you’re after a big bear you can’t control your scent enough,” Fenson says. “I like to use rubber boots, and always wear gloves while baiting and hunting. Once on the scene you should walk a straight line to your stand, don’t wander around the area, or walk over and look at the bait. Typically when big bears cut your track they will get on ‘high alert’ right now. You don’t have to work as hard to get a young bear, they come in pretty much whenever they get a chance, but you have to do everything right to bag a big bear.
“I like to use a Thermacell (mosquito-repelling unit) because it helps me sit absolutely still. Those big bears, I’ve seen it many times, they will often get near the bait and simply lay down and listen; I’ve also seen them stand up from about 70 yards away and just watch. They might hang out there for an hour or more. If you’re fidgeting when one does that, you’re done. He’s not coming into that bait in daylight.”