A raw wind sweeps steam from my boiling honey pot over the bog. I train my eyes in that direction, seldom glancing elsewhere. If a bear should follow that unseen trail to my corner of the woods, I want to be ready. I might not last much longer, however, as gale force winds have nearly chilled me to the bone.
The other night, this spot was eerily quiet. The breeze was warm and gentle. It seemed an ideal time to catch a bear slinking through the undergrowth. I scrutinized every sound or bit of movement for the likelihood of a bruin cameo. None ever showed.
Today there is too much noise and far too much movement. Branches wave and trees creak. With every gust, aspen leaves imitate the swell of a stadium crowd. All hope of catching a rustle in the ferns is lost as crows and blue jays cheer extra loudly above the din.
Then, suddenly, it happens.
This all began a week and a half ago, only five days before the Minnesota bear hunting season began. I had snagged a surplus permit in early August, but family obligations and a long-scheduled medical procedure kept me from arriving earlier. Five days wasn’t long to bait for bears. That’s all that could be managed, though.
To complicate things, word came out that natural food this year is abundant. That means bears in Minnesota are less receptive to bait, gorging instead on things like acorns, hazelnuts, chokecherries, and blackberries. When that happens, they’re likely to turn up their noses at even the finest human goodies.
Still, I believe in this spot. It is a fair distance (by land) from roads or cabins. Situated in a patchwork of woods and swamps, it provides excellent seclusion. Moreover, dry land narrows between the swamp and the lake, and any bear traveling through is nearly guaranteed to stumble onto a bait pile.
Unfortunately, predictions about bear appetites came true. Between my brother and me, there were basically no visits to our bait stations by our intended guests. Raccoons, fishers, and a mink? Yes, daily. Bears? Not really.
I say not really because one bear left a front paw print in the buttercream frosting I painted on an aspen tree, right next to the pile of factory-reject cereal, expired pecans and peanuts, and windfall apples. That was exciting in a way, but it didn’t take so much as a taste. That was also incredible, considering how sweet, fatty, and wildly fragrant that stuff is. It just goes to show: you can lead a bear to frosting, but you can’t make him lick.
Or something like that.
But I was prepared with Plan B.
A Winning Strategy?
The last time I had a bear permit, in 2015, my main strategy was to try and call a bear to me. No bait whatsoever. A “whitetail fawn distress” call brought deer, which was proof of concept as far as I was concerned. If deer could be convinced, it should also fool a bear. Plus, bears are known to eat lots of fawns in the spring, which means they’re already on the menu.
I believe it could have worked, if I’d kept at it long enough. But it was unseasonably hot (just like this year), which kept me from going all out. Then my truck broke down on the second day.
Along with calls, I brought a scent-based strategy this time. The age-old “honey pot” technique puts out a ton of scent and can be effective. I should know, since the bear I took in 1992 came straight to a boiling can of honey.
The idea this time was to call from the downwind side of places I believe could hold bears during the day, and cook honey from the upwind side. Maps and satellite photos revealed plenty of spots to try. I even hatched a plan to approach some of them by canoe, provided wind direction would be favorable.
Hunting season arrived with temperatures a good 20 degrees above normal, and high humidity to boot. For the first several days I would hike to two or three spots, then call it quits. It was draining. As I explained to my cousin, I had looked forward to spending all day in the woods, hunting and exploring. But a couple hours at a time was all I could reasonably do. Disappointing, for sure.
Traveling by canoe would have spared some effort. But warm weather comes on south winds, and most or all the spots I would have canoed to would have been ideal for a west wind. Some of those destinations could have been all-day affairs, but they’ll have to wait for another year. Again, disappointing. But that’s hunting.
On the fourth night, I sat in the stand over my bait. It was a warm evening, and I was spent from beating the bushes. The canoe ride across our lake was short and I had nothing better to do.
As expected, the bait looked exactly the same as the last time I’d been there. Perhaps more raccoon prints in the frosting, but that was about all. It didn’t seem worth coming back this season.
The penultimate day was spent again in new-to-me locations, including a real humdinger I’ll have to remember for another time. The kind of place where you feel like you could run into a bear even before you light the honey pot or start calling. Anyway, when thunder rolled in, I rolled out.
Down To The Wire
Between showers that evening, I canoed across the lake to remove my sign from the bait station. Incredibly, all the nuts had been surgically removed. They’d previously gone at least a week without being touched. All the same, I didn’t intend to return.
That night, when I’d planned to put my canoe on the car for the next morning, I had second thoughts. The cool north wind that swept in with the rain wouldn’t be any better for my plans, after all.
I resolved to give my bait one last chance. It was a long shot, but at least I could boil some honey while I was there.
Expecting nothing at all, I showed up the next morning to a bait station that had been cleaned out. All that remained was rotten apples; everything else had been hoovered up sometime in the preceding 14 hours.
My hands began to tremble while I prepared the honey pot.
There was enough material to boil honey twice, plus burn a donut-flavored incense stick that was already half used. I climbed into the stand with more optimism than I had on opening day.
The first honey pot lasted almost half an hour. The incense stick lasted about another 70 minutes. By that time, wind began to wear me down and shivers crept in. When the last honey pot began to throw off some heavy steam, that’s when the twig snapped.
Leave It On The Field
It sounded like it came from the thicket directly downwind of the boiling honey. Could it be a creeping bear?
I fix my gaze there, waiting for some indication. My ears strain for anything else that sounds out of place.
In a moment there is motion from something dark. A branch sways. Ferns quake independent of the wind. Something is down there, and about to reveal itself.
That something turns out to be a robin, probably rounding up some arrowwood berries or chokecherries.
I don’t want to believe that is what all the commotion is about. I don’t want to accept that a songbird is what made my heart stop.
In a few minutes it is apparent there are several robins, and no bear. After all, they wouldn’t be so carefree in the presence of a large mammal. I climb down and extinguish the honey pot, which has turned to char. While the can cools, I take the sign down to slip into my pack.
It all feels like the end of something, but that feeling is not tainted with regret. Maybe it’s too early to tell, but it’s something more like triumph.
This season didn’t end with a bear, but that’s okay. I wasn’t in it for a bear; I was in it for the hunt itself. Hunt I did, and a real hunt is what I had.
And that makes this loser a winner every time.