Bears are the only critters who'll visit your bait site
A cool breeze carried the scent of white pine and burnt bacon as I sat motionless in a portable tree stand not far from the north shore of Lake Superior. Hunting for the ghost-like black bear can be a roller coaster of emotions, changing immediately from boredom to sheer excitement at the snap of a twig in the nearby forest.
And I might have been bored, had it not been for a plethora of red squirrels, chipmunks, snowshoe hares, and a lone flying squirrel that kept me entertained with their antics as they each tried to eat a belly full of bear bait. On two evenings, I nearly laughed out loud as an overweight raccoon gorged itself on small candies in the bait pile, less than ten yards away.
Thus far, the bears had not yet obliged.
That’s not hard to believe. Despite the use of baits, the statewide success rate for bear hunting has averaged 25 percent over the last ten years. The practice of baiting may be controversial, but it is widely considered to be necessary for the effective management of the bear population.
It was the opening week of the 2010 Minnesota bear hunt and I was hunting through Kelly Shepard’s North Shore Outdoors, an outfitting and guiding service for hunters and fishermen. The Grand Marais native has guided bear hunters for more than two decades, and he and his crew maintain numerous bait sites throughout the bear season.
It didn’t take long for me to see that these guys are experts at bear hunting. Several hunters in camp had already taken bears, including two 300-pounders. But despite the outfitters' best efforts, the bears just weren’t cooperating for me.
As I continued to enjoy the evening, it became apparent that the squirrels and chipmunks had stopped their usual chattering. The characters of the evening’s performance had disappeared and the forest was strangely silent. I had a feeling that something was about to happen.
As I carefully reached out to grip the 12-gauge shotgun sitting across my lap, I detected movement below me. A tawny creature slowly crept out of the dense undergrowth directly below my stand and moved along the perimeter of the bait site.
At first glance, it appeared to be a mountain lion. The animal was cat-like and sleek. But as it emerged from the woods, I noticed that it had a short stubby tail, black tufts on the ears, and was about forty inches in length.
In retrospect, I believe that it was probably a very large bobcat. But at the time, I was convinced I’d seen a lynx, one of the rarest creatures in the north woods.
The animal disappeared within a few seconds and I was unable to photograph it. But as soon as it was out of sight, the forest once again became alive. Squirrels and chipmunks began to screech in alarm as they clung to tree branches, flicking their tails in fear.
Later, I related the events of the evening to the other hunters in camp. Outdoorsmen from at least six different states had arrived to partake in the hunt. The youngest in the group was Justin Taylor. The 13-year-old Duluth native came with his dad, Bill, to hunt black bears for the first time, and he certainly wasn’t disappointed.
On the first evening of the hunt, Taylor harvested a fine bear with his .270 Winchester rifle. When I asked the teenager about his hunt, he said that he waited until the bear was looking away to raise his gun. At the shot, the animal started to run off, but dropped quickly, right underneath Taylor’s tree stand.
"So, you just climbed down from your stand and there it was? No tracking involved?" I asked the young hunter.
"Pretty much" he responded.
Retired Army Ranger Mike Koll, also had a successful first evening. The Tomah, Wis., resident told me that numerous bears had come in and he watched one of them for several minutes before deciding that just about any hunter in the camp would not hesitate to harvest a bear of that size. He arrowed the big sow as it hovered around the bait site.
When asked for some words of wisdom about bear hunting, he responded with a grin, "Never pass up today a bear that you’d take at the end of the week."
Those are solid words of advice that I would like to put into practice. Despite having a good guide, I never saw a bear during that hunt. But then, the season is not yet over.