How sweet it is: Minnesota couple lead the nation in bear bait trade

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Lucky 7 Bear Bait supplies hunters with sweets rejected for human consumption. - Tony Kennedy/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

CAMBRIDGE, Minn. — Local bear hunters shoveled candy and nuts into their own 5-gallon buckets and 55-gallon drums this week in the center warehouse at Lucky 7 Bear Bait.

As forklift operators unloaded 2,000-pound totes of jellied fruit snacks from a semitrailer, the do-it-yourself shoppers picked from pallets of circus peanuts, bagged marshmallows, trail mix and pails of cake frosting — strawberry or caramel.

“Good luck. I hope you get one,” co-owner Jen Carlson said to a customer Tuesday, the opening day of Minnesota’s black bear season.

Walk-up sales at the nation’s biggest provider of bulk bear bait are just a fraction of overall operations, but Carlson and her husband, Cory, enjoy their customers’ hunting tales and bear photos as much now as they did 21 years ago. That’s when they ventured into the unusual niche of buying food industry scraps otherwise destined for landfills, incinerators and hog pens.

Today they buy and sell more than 4 million pounds a year of sweets and nuts unfit for human consumption. Half the sales go to bear hunting guides in Canada, where customs agents at every border crossing have grown familiar with Lucky 7’s totes and barrels of mixed bait.

“It sounds crazy but it’s true,” Jen said. “We’ve got it down to a mad science.”

She is in charge of sales and border-crossing logistics, while Cory handles the purchasing of imperfect food products from U.S. manufacturers and a cohort of food brokers. Together, they’ve cultivated deep customer loyalty in the bear-hunting world by keeping prices low, providing an array of sweets and building large stockpiles of trail mix — the most sought-after bear bait. Pivotal, too, is the couple’s deep understanding of trucking.

“We’re in the bait business but trucking is a huge part of it,” Cory said. “We’re also in the bucket business, barrel business and pallet business.”

Bear expert Andy Tri is a wildlife research biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Commercial baits such as those sold by Lucky 7 cut both ways for bruins, he said. It’s obviously risky for bears to make daytime visits to piles of cookie shards and Bavarian cream filling. Hunters cause 80% of bear mortality in Minnesota.

But the extra carbohydrates and protein scattered by hunters at more than 6,700 registered ambush sites provide a significant boost to bear diets, Tri said. Much of the time, the baits are consumed at night when shooting is disallowed. Tracking studies of collared bears in Minnesota indicate that a high percentage of the animals visit the sites at one time or another.

“Bait plays a fairly large role in the annual cycle of a bear,” Tri said.

During years of low natural food production, bait piles can help a female bear carry out a pregnancy or boost the growth of a cub, Tri said. The advantages can include reproduction at a younger age.

In Minnesota, where the population of about 12,000-15,000 black bears is considered stable, DNR wildlife officials use a license lottery system to limit participation in the hunt. Last year, hunters harvested 2,340 bears — a typical amount.

DNR conservation officer Mark Mathy said Minnesota’s tradition of hunting bears over bait revolves around the difficulty of predicting the animals’ movements. Unlike Wisconsin and other states, Minnesota doesn’t allow hunters to chase bears with dogs.

Starting small

Cory Carlson, who grew up in Cambridge and serves with the local fire department, stumbled into the bait business when he was given the opportunity to acquire 10,000 pounds of dirt-cheap licorice scraps. He plopped the candy on a car trailer he owned for derby racing and was amazed how fast bear hunters depleted it.

He and his wife — big-game hunters themselves who honeymooned in Ontario while hunting moose — initially ran the bear bait business out of a shed at their home on the Rum River. Since then, Lucky 7 has expanded into three tightly grouped warehouses along Hwy. 95 west of downtown Cambridge. At peak times, the complex is stacked from floor to ceiling with trail mix, toffee pieces, candy corn, cashews, peanuts, granola, cookie dough and whatever else Cory can find.

“Whether you’re looking for a few boxes or a semi load, we have you covered,” the Carlsons say on their website.

A ton of Lucky 7 trail mix sells for $480 and the Carlsons fill large and small orders throughout the Lower 48 and Alaska. Jen said they’ve built a steady business from as far away as North Carolina, Georgia, Maine and Idaho.

Ironically, Lucky 7 slows down during the Midwest’s fall bear season. By then, demand for bait has subsided. The Carlsons take the time to hunt deer in Kansas, Minnesota and elsewhere. They rekindle their bear bait operations each winter by packing thousands of 55-gallon containers with trail mix and other bait for Canadian customers who run bear hunts in the spring.

“It’s a pretty unique business,” Cory said.

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)