By Shawn Perich
Bears came to mind the other day as I passed a pickup truck hauling a trailer loaded with an ATV and bait buckets. The annual pre-season bear baiting has begun. Prospective bear hunters heap everything from grease and grain to candy and jelly donuts at their bait sites, hoping to attract foraging bears to the convenient food source. Then, when the season opens on September 1, they climb into a nearby tree stand and wait for a hungry bear to visit the bait. This is how most folks hunt bears in Minnesota. I tried it once and didn’t care for it. Here’s my story.
About a dozen years ago I remarked to my late father that it would be interesting to hunt bears without using bait, perhaps by finding one feeding on berries in a forest opening. An avid deer hunter, Dad had never expressed interest in going after bears. Yet the next time we spoke on the phone, he mentioned that he’d picked up out applications for the bear hunting lottery. We applied, were issued licenses and the hunt was on.
Neither Dad nor I had ever killed a bear. Since this was likely to be Dad’s only bear hunt, I decided to play the best odds and put out baits. Talking to friends, I learned how to set up an effective bait station. The best place to place bait was in dense, shadowed forest, preferably near a swamp or similar cover where a bear feels secure. A friend suggested a couple of locations. I found some more on my own. Eventually, I settled on five bait sites. Then the work began.
A 250-mile round trip to the feed store in Superior, Wisconsin resulted in a supply of shelled corn, sunflower seeds and molasses. Stirred together, the three ingredients created a sweet smelling, nutritious glop intended to attract and satisfy a hungry bruin. Then I was told it was a good idea to douse your bait with grease, because it soaks into the ground and continues to stink and satisfy bears even after a rain ruins the rest of the bait.
You can get used grease free for the asking from restaurants. Until I asked, I didn’t know many restaurants have a special grease dumpster. When you ask for grease, the folks in the restaurant cheerfully direct you to the grease dumpster. In the midst of the altogether unpleasant task of dumpster diving for my ration of free grease, I ruefully realized only one thing now separated me from my prey–the bear enjoyed it. Then a jug of molasses spilled in the bed of my pickup. Despite repeated washings, I couldn’t get rid of the sickly sweet smell. I didn’t enjoy that, either.
Refreshing my bait stations, which fortunately were located within a few miles of home, became my daily routine. All of the baits were located within 200 yards of where the truck was parked, because that was far enough when you were lugging a couple of five-gallon pails of filled with corn, molasses, grease and sunflower seeds. Since you bait bears in August, it was hot, buggy work, but enjoyable all the same. The anticipation as you approach a bait (has a bear been here?) keeps the task interesting.
Reading bear sign at a bait site was easy. The heavy logs I used to cover the bait were pulled away and the bait was gone. This was in the days before trail cams, so I didn’t know if the bears were big or small. It didn’t matter. With any luck, Dad would see a bear when the season opened. That was good enough for me.
Dad arrived the day before the opener. Together, we went out and checked the baits, and decided where to hunt. The next morning, when the season opened, we stayed home. Bears are most active in the dim light of dawn and dusk, so we planned to head out in late afternoon and sit until dark. At least, that was the plan.
We left for the hunt in my truck, but never made it beyond the driveway. Why? Well, I accidentally side-swiped Dad’s car while backing up. He wasn’t very happy about that. In fact, he was so unhappy that he packed up his stuff and went home. A couple of years later, he explained why he left in a huff to a friend, who then told me. “It wasn’t that he hit the car,” Dad said of me, “It was that he was so damned nonchalant about it.” Perhaps I should have wailed and gnashed my teeth.
After Dad drove off, I went hunting. Given the circumstances, I probably wasn’t in the best mood. And I hadn’t been all that excited about bear hunting to begin with. It was sunny and warm as I sat in the stand, hoping an incoming bear wouldn’t smell my mosquito repellant. Time passed slowly, as it always does in a tree stand. I sat quietly, brushing away the mosquitos that weren’t deterred by the bug dope. A couple of hours passed before I heard the faint sounds of an approaching animal. Moments later, a small bear ambled into view. He headed directly to the bait, as he had no doubt been doing every afternoon. He wasn’t very big, but he was too large to be a cub.
I was faced with a decision. Should I shoot the first bear to step out or should I wait, possibly for days, until I saw a bigger one? I really didn’t enjoy sitting in a tree, so it was an easy decision. The bear went down with one shot from my .243, let out a moan and lay still.
Funny, I’d just killed my first bear, but I didn’t feel anything. There was no surge of adrenalin, no sense of accomplishment and none of the complex emotions that typically accompany taking the life of big game animal. I walked over to the bear and discovered it was smaller than I thought—under 100 pounds. I quickly field-dressed it and headed for the truck. The bear was easy to drag.
Early the next morning I skinned it out. Friends had warned me a skinned bear looks remarkably human, but it still looked like a bear to me. What I didn’t like was the distinctive, sweet smell of bear flesh, which is nothing like the smell of a deer or moose. By the time I finished quartering the bear, I was convinced it wasn’t an animal I’d care to eat. And not just that bear—any bear.
Now, I know plenty of people who hunt and eat Minnesota black bears. To them I wish no ill. All I know is it ain’t for me. It took or month or two, but Dad and I got back on speaking terms. And I never brought up the time years previous when, on a pheasant hunt, he directed me to back me to back my truck into a tree while proclaiming, “There are no trees in North Dakota!” He was, as I recall, damned nonchalant about my shattered tail light. I guess this apple didn’t roll far from the tree.