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The Great Bait Debate

By David Hart

The Great Bait Debate

At exactly 5 p.m., the feeder kicked on and scattered corn onto the dry ground 100 yards from my tripod stand. I propped my gun on the bar in front of me, lowered my head and prepared for the buck that was going to trot out of the north Texas brush. Five minutes passed. And then 10. Twenty minutes passed, and then 30 slipped by without so much as a squirrel hopping in to feed. Eventually, darkness settled over the brush and I climbed out of my stand, stumped that I didn’t see a single whitetail.

It wasn’t the first time I came up empty over bait. On a hunt in the Frio River country west of San Antonio, I spent an evening overlooking a feeder with the expectation of bagging a wild pig. The dried mud beneath the broadcast feeder was stamped with hog and deer tracks, and there wasn’t a single kernel of corn to be found. Like the first time I sat over a broadcast feeder, I figured this was going to be little more than a shooting gallery, a slam-dunk method of bringing home some meat. Again, I didn’t see an animal.

Does It Really Work?

Just as I expected deer to run to the feeder at the sound of corn raining on the hardpan, most hunters assume baiting is an easy way to tag a whitetail. A 1993 survey of Wisconsin hunters found that 92 percent believed that baiting increases success rates. Surprisingly, that percentage was identical for hunters who used bait and those who didn’t. The actual results, however, offer a telling picture.

Does baiting whitetails really work, and is it ethical?A study conducted in South Carolina found that success rates among hunters who used bait was actually lower than for hunters who didn’t. The total deer harvest for the Piedmont region, where bait is not legal, was about 15 deer per square mile. In the Coastal Plain, that number dropped to 11.5 deer harvested per square mile. Deer densities are the same or higher in the Coastal Plain. The time a hunter spent to kill one deer was slightly higher in the region where bait is legal, 8.57 man-days per deer harvest compared to 8.18 man-days per deer harvest in the region where bait is not legal.

It’s not just South Carolina hunters who are scoring less over bait. Numerous other studies have found similar results. A 1984 study of Michigan hunters found that those who used bait enjoyed only a slightly higher success rate than those who didn’t. A similar survey of Wisconsin gun hunters in 1993 found that 50 percent of baiters killed a deer, while 54 percent who didn’t use bait tagged a whitetail. Bowhunters who used bait, however, did have higher success rates. They reported an average success rate of 45 percent, compared to a success rate of 31 percent for those who didn’t rely on bait.

Despite the limited effect of baiting, it’s by far the most popular method of deer hunting in South Carolina’s Coastal Plain, a region that for years was the dominion of deer hounds. Due largely to changing land-use patterns, hunters switched to still-hunting over piles of corn until it became essentially the only way hunters tried to bag a deer. According to surveys conducted by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, about 98 percent of hunters in that region use bait for all or part of their deer hunting. As the practice became more popular, even more people relied on corn, a tactic Charles Ruth calls “defensive baiting.”

“A lot of hunters bait because they feel like they don’t stand a chance without it. All their neighbors are doing it, so they do it in order to compete,” said Ruth, deer project supervisor for the S.C. DNR.

Ruth said baiting is so prevalent throughout much of the region, a deer only has to travel less than a quarter-mile to find a free meal. There is a pile of corn or some other supplemental food source every 425 yards. The prevalence of bait has also altered deer movement.

“We have shifted deer behavior so much that they hardly ever come to bait during daylight hours. Researchers have shown that deer activity is very low during daylight hours in the region where baiting is prevalent,” he noted.

Not only do they travel less during daylight hours, they travel less overall. With so much free, high-quality food just a short walk away, South Carolina whitetails have to spend less time feeding. That, in turn, makes them less vulnerable to hunters. 

The Great Bait Debate
Studies have shown that when deer have a constant supply of bait, hunter success rates actually drop, particularly in areas with high hunting pressure.

What About The Big Boys?

Although Ruth has no scientific data, he has spent years looking at the issue and said there is no evidence that baiting helps hunters tag bigger bucks. He recalled one hunter who, instead of watching over the bait itself, sat back in the woods to cut off bucks as they waited for the cover of darkness to approach the free food. He tagged a few quality bucks over the years.

“Mature bucks typically stay away from the bait until well after dark,” he said. “The vast majority of deer that visited bait stations during legal shooting hours were young bucks and antlerless deer.”

Mitch Lockwood, deer project leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said that’s generally true in Texas as well. However, hunters in Texas do score on mature bucks over bait under specific situations. First, the area has to be under intense management where trophy-class bucks are more common than areas without a management program. Second, the bait station has to have little hunting pressure. And finally, there has to be a low availability of natural forage, a factor that can’t be manipulated.

“I would say that overall, hunter success on mature bucks is higher when they aren’t sitting over a feeder. I don’t have any scientific evidence to back that up, but that’s based on my experience as a hunter and from talking to lots of hunters,” he said.

Ruth agreed that the availability of natural forage can dictate hunter success on quality bucks. Even during the rut, mature male whitetails are less likely to visit bait and the does that utilize that bait during daylight hours. They might lose some survival instincts, he said, but they don’t lose them all. Overall, the buck harvest in the area closed to baiting was nearly 25 percent higher than in the region where bait was legal.

Where Baiting Works

I took my biggest buck ever, a 300-pound 10-pointer, over a pile of barley in Saskatchewan. Over the course of five days, I watched deer after deer stroll in to the barley pile, feed for 20 minutes and then wander off. One day, more than two dozen bucks showed up, parading in and out of the thick woods throughout the day. Most were 11⁄2- and 21⁄2-year-olds, but a few, including the 10-pointer, were mature animals. Saskatchewan is a completely different situation, and baiting is practiced by virtually every outfitter in the province, according to Shawn Burke, a wildlife biologist with Saskatchewan Environment.

“The reason baiting concentrates deer in Saskatchewan is because they don’t have a whole lot of other high-quality foods available that time of year. They could and do certainly survive without bait, but if given a choice, they will certainly utilize a bait station,” said Burke.

Another factor that contributes to hunter success, he added, is the method of baiting used by outfitters. Instead of providing a free meal throughout the fall and winter, outfitters bait specific locations only for a short amount of time. Unlike hunters in regions with higher deer and hunter numbers, Saskatchewan outfitters also tend to keep bait piles far away from each other. Deer have to travel farther, or they simply gather in higher numbers around those isolated bait piles.

Despite baiting by outfitters, Burke said success rates are about the same for resident and non-resident guided hunters. He noted that Saskatchewan residents favor spot-and-stalk hunting while non-resident hunters sit over bait almost exclusively.

“Our provincial neighbors don’t allow bait, and our success rates for all deer hunters are about the same, so it’s fair to say that baiting doesn’t really play a major role in hunter success, at least not from a big picture,” said Burke.

Subscribe Today!The effectiveness of baiting is influenced by a number of factors, not the least of which is how it’s done. In some regions, automatic feeders set to throw grain at specific times are the norm. In others areas, hunters simply dump a bucket of corn on the ground or in a trough. That’s the primary method in South Carolina, said Ruth, and one that doesn’t lend itself to high success rates. The deer can feed at will and don’t have to visit a bait site during daylight hours to get their fill. Lockwood agrees and adds that where timed feeders are used, deer often show up 10 or 15 minutes prior to the feeder going off.

“I would say a timed feeder is a much better way to see more deer,” he said. “They can certainly become conditioned to show up when the feeder goes off. I see it regularly. A feeder can be a very effective management tool when used properly.”

Still, baiting isn’t a slam-dunk tactic to tag a deer, especially a trophy-class buck. It can work under the right conditions, but Lockwood said it’s best only as a management tool to help cull antlerless deer. Even then, it has to be done right or, as hunters in some states have learned, it isn’t any more effective than relying on learned hunting skills.

Editor’s Note: Always check your local regulations before you use bait or any supplemental food for deer. State laws vary, and many states allow baiting in some areas but not others. When in doubt, contact your local game warden.

This article was published in the July, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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