The use of attractants or bait is nothing new in the hunting world. Trying to draw deer to your position by use of piles of corn, apples, mineral licks, commercial products, etc. in an effort to increase your chances of harvesting an otherwise elusive animal seems like a no-brainer. Whatever helps your chances right? However, is it really sportsman-like to “cheat” by using bait? Shouldn’t you rely on your woodsmanship, knowledge about your prey, and hunting skills to accomplish your goal? After all it is still called hunting right? Not killing? This debate can be fierce between the two sides. So much so, in fact, that each state has its own stance on the matter. Some allow you to bait freely, while others have made it illegal to use bait at all or at least during the hunting season. The state of Maryland and Virginia, for example, address baiting deer as follows:
“Baiting deer is legal, except on State-owned or State-controlled properties, or areas where it is specifically prohibited due to Chronic Wasting Disease”
2013-2014 Maryland Guide to Hunting and Trapping
“Supplemental feeding: Hunting over bait is illegal in Virginia, and feeding deer for any reason is illegal from September 1 to the first Saturday in January (4VAC15-40-285). However, feeding of deer is legal in Virginia during the rest of the year. Biologists across the United States and Canada have voiced concerns about the increased risk of disease transmission, negative health impacts, adverse behavioral changes, and habitat degradation associated with supplemental feeding of deer and other wildlife.”
2013 Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
“Bait shall mean any food, grain, or other consumable substance that could serve as a lure or attractant; however, crops grown for normal or accepted agriculture or wildlife management purposes, including food plots, shall not be considered as bait.”
2013 Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
If you are considering the use of bait in your hunting practices, first consider the following:
- Is it legal. As discussed already, each state views baiting differently, so familiarizing yourself with the local regulations will prevent a lot of headaches with the warden service down the road.
- Does the land owner allow it? You do not want to risk losing your hunting privileges over a difference of opinion.
- Are there concerns over disease in your deer herd? If your hunting area is a high risk area for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) or other diseases that can be transferred from animal to animal due to close proximity feeding, then it is not recommended that you bait or supplemental feed deer regardless if state law allows.
- Will it make a difference? It often takes several days, if not longer, for deer to discover your attractant site. Therefore, if you are on a short hunt, you can probably save your money and time fooling with a bait site and spend it in the stand or scouting.
- The time of year and goal of its use. Are you using the attractant as a scouting or management tool or to increase harvest success? Deer find different things attractive at different times of the year. For example: Deer seek out minerals during the spring and summer months but by September turn their attention to food sources.
- Should you bait? Of all the reasons for and against, this is the most important consideration and only you can make this decision. I like to think of the subject of baiting as a sliding scale:
At the far end you have the staunch non-baiters insisting that baiting of any kind will take away the spirit of the hunt, reduce the clever and cunning whitetail to a mindless drone guided only by its stomach and thereby diminish the sense of accomplishment when the opportunity at a big buck, or any deer for that matter, presents itself. They weigh the efforts made by a hunter who spends his time scouting and learning the deer’s habits above that of a hunter who walks to a stand with a bucket of apples. They enjoy all aspects of the hunt from the scenery, sounds, mental escape, excitement and suspense, challenge of wits, and the whole man being one with nature thing.
At the opposite end, pro-baiters argue that baiting is just another way to prevent their freezer from being empty after a long, tough season and they simply need to get something on the ground to help hold them over to next year. “If its legal, why wouldn’t I?” They weigh the success of the hunt/season by the size of deer killed, number of deer killed, and how many pounds of meat they put in their stomachs.
Of course, somewhere in the middle is where most of us, I think, would place ourselves. It may be ok to bait in the off season but not to hunt over it. Baiting deer is ok, but it is important to respect and admire all facets of the hunting experience. What makes #6 so controversial is the fact that it tugs at our inner values and forces us to make a decision as to which way of hunting is the “right” way for ourselves. Because of this, the answers are as varied as the number of hunters who take to the field each season. Everyone has a slight variance on the matter and each are equally right and each are equally wrong depending upon with whom you are speaking at the time. It is not my place to pass judgment on anyone for their choice in this topic, although I have in the past and have been wrong for doing so. I have my opinion, don’t we all, and approach the subject with a certain subdued bias.
Personally I prefer to use attractants only in the off-season on my Maryland hunting grounds in combination with my trail cam set ups. First and foremost, I love seeing deer. Trail cameras are an excellent invention to which I have quickly become addicted. The more deer I can capture on camera the more excited I get. Therefore, attractants allow me to see more deer and better assess the overall health of the herd, number of fawns dropped that spring, sex ratios, number, size and age class of bucks, and favored areas of use. My early season hunting tactics are geared around identifying summer patterns and a hit list of “shooter” bucks, so a good trail cam survey over the summer months is an essential tool for my opening day preparations.
I choose to use a mineral product poured/placed directly onto the ground during the spring and summer months. Whitetail deer actively seek out soils rich in essential minerals and ingest those soils normally. By adding a mineral site, you are simply creating a source location for those minerals to which the deer are naturally drawn. These minerals also promote body health and antler growth, thereby maximizing your herd’s genetic potential. I typically set a site up in early spring and will refresh it around July.
The flipside of this regime is the promotion of close proximity feeding by potentially high numbers of deer. This increases the chances of spreading diseases through the deer herd and at a potentially higher rate. The biggest concern over the years has been the appearance and spreading of CWD. I fully appreciate the concern and check the Maryland DNR publications each season prior to setting out any mineral sites to be sure my region is not under a disease watch and that attractants are not prohibited.
By the end of August, the deer start to shift away from the minerals to a search for calories. Food based attractants work well this time of year and indeed through the late season.
Scents can be used as an attractant during the pre-rut and rut phases of the season but I have had little to no success with this strategy in my own trials. I have created my own mock scrapes in late October which did produce some night time photos but no more or less than I captured at other travel routes. Instead I would suggest attracting the does first and the bucks will follow.
I choose not to hunt over bait because I personally feel that doing so does take a little away from the my hunting experience. I like the challenge of studying the deer and figuring out where they will be without the conditioning of a bait site. In my experience, by the time hunting season opens in mid September or early October, the deer show little to no interest in the summer mineral sites and are more focused on the agricultural crops available or the dropping acorns. In years past, while growing up in Maryland, I had baited throughout the season and found very little effect, especially when the bucks focus changes from feeding patterns to searching for hot does. So I now restrict my use of attractants to the spring and summer where it can be most beneficial to the deer’s dietary needs and provide myself with the most information for my preseason deer inventory. By the time the season opens, it’s up to me to take what I have learned and make it count.
The use of attractants can definitely increase the numbers of deer that you will see in your hunting area when used legally and properly. It is a good idea to ALWAYS check your state and local hunting regulations regarding the use of bait/attractants and if possible locate that agency’s definition of “baiting” BEFORE you begin using attractants for any game animal. Also check for any publications of infectious disease concerns in your area. Like everything else, there is a method to the madness of attracting game and so learning when, how, and what to do will increase your chances of success. But beware that baiting deer comes with certain stigma and at some point in your hunting career you will be asked the question “Do you?” and “Why?” Regardless of your answer, remember the only hunting experience you need to be concerned about is your own.