“To bait or not to bait, that is the question,” my old hunting partner Will Shakespeare used to say. All humor aside, this topic can bring up emotion, argumentative debate, and disrupt friendships. It may be wise to have adult beverages available to calm the discussion, though that could perhaps have the opposite effect.

The point of this essay is to just think about it rationally and have some open thought. What is bait? Webster’s defines it in a lengthy fashion as a verb, “ 1: to persecute by continued attacks, 2: to harass with dogs usually for sport, 3: to furnish [as a hook] with bait, 4: ALLURE, ENTICE, 5: to give food and drink [as an animal].” Then there is the noun, “1: lure for catching animals [as fish], 2: LURE,TEMPTATION syn snare, trap, decoy come-on, enticement.” It does get complicated. We perhaps have our own definitions. Mine is essentially using any method to entice an animal to come to you, as opposed to you going to the animal. This could be food, water, minerals, decoys and calls. Who does not recall that attractive girl in high school using her sweet voice [calling] or perhaps dressing a bit provocatively [decoying,] to lure you into her clutches?

Thousands of years ago our ancestors were surprising birds in rye and grain fields and sitting at waterholes waiting for game to arrive. They fashioned ancient decoys out of reeds to essentially “bait” live birds in to land. What about calling? Whether it is birds or mammals, the purpose is to lure them to you, essentially using the noise to bait them into thinking they are joining other members of their group or perhaps mating partners.

Many of us have sat in blinds near corn fields or other grains awaiting ducks and geese to arrive. We may not be dumping sacks of pure grain in the water [hopefully], as this would seem to bring about an untoward advantage. Most would say that was an unethical act, as well as illegal. If standard bird decoys are ethical, what about those that move by wind or wave? What about electrical powered movement? Where is the ethical line? Now comes the question of the classic Texas hog or deer hunt. Corn comes out of the feeder at appointed times and the animals may or may not show up. This is legal and I suspect the “normal” method of take there. Is there a difference when the bowhunter puts his tree stand above a standing corn or soybean field? The bait is there and the deer may or may not show up.

Obviously with fishing, it is bait or nets most of the time. There is of course bowfishing [even bow alligator fishing of which I have thoroughly enjoyed] which is more spot and stalk. Bait may be the food which the fish desires or lures that remind it of food or to reflexively attack it. You are indeed trying to make them come to you, but by artificial means.

I have had some phenomenal times sitting on trails waiting for antelope to go past, baited by an alfalfa field in the distance. Some of my best photos, memories and game taken have been obtained while using the lure of water on desert animals, be it in Africa or the American west.

Thousands of black bears have been taken in Canada over bait, for in a lot of this country, spot and stalk would be impossible due to the vegetation.

Some may say that it should be “natural”. Two hundred years ago there were no corn or soybean fields, is that natural now? Is fishing bait natural? You are throwing it into the water where it did not exist the day before you arrived and may not naturally live in that body of water. Are the latest calls, decoys and some fish baits “natural”? They certainly look and sound natural, though obviously made of the latest space age materials. Is the only turkey call to be allowed a “natural” wing one? Dog food seems to be a fairly common bear bait and it is certainly not natural and may raise the ire of some. Would it be ok to put the remains from a butcher shop there instead? How close or far should it be from humanity? What about hunting bears, wolves or wolverines over previously killed bears, moose, deer, bison, etc.? A lot of questions but few definitive answers, if it is honestly debated.

Of course, whatever you do needs to be legal, but many times legal may be questionable ethically, and vice versa. I once came upon an elk in the roadside ditch with a broken femur, apparently after a vehicle interaction. It was dark, so it was not legal to shoot it with my bow [which I thought would be somewhat disturbing as well] and it was illegal to dispatch it with my sidearm. My friend and I eventually got ahold of the state police, but I suspect it was hours before they arrived and dispatched it. I still feel the ethical thing would have been to use my pistol. As a teenager, I once belly crawled a long distance and jumped a huge number of ducks from an open spot on a frozen pond and essentially “flock shot”. A pile of birds came down, legal, but in my heart I knew it was wrong. The late Jay Massey once let a Dall sheep walk when he had an easy close shot, as the ram was trapped and had no avenue of escape. Certainly legal, but he just didn’t feel it was right in his heart.

Decades ago, Aldo Leopold summed it up fairly well. “A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than that of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of that fact.”

We all have different hearts and hopefully most of us have an inner “know what’s right” meter. Though as poaching continues to be rampant, I know that “meter” is certainly not universal.

This article is written to hopefully promote friendly discussion and not inflame argumentative passions. Let us all be calm thinkers.