NIMROD, Minn. -- This time of year, Jesse Koskiniemi becomes an elusive creature often inhabiting the deep woods outside of Nimrod, a 65-person community about 55 miles northwest of Brainerd.
If you did spot him, it’s likely he’s on his ATV, which is loaded down with boxes of soft and hard candies, trail mix, peanut butter by the bucket and Jello powder mix packets. You can smell him pass by as he brings with him spray bottles filled with concentrated smells of bacon, caramel and strawberry.
On the first weekend where bear hunters can begin baiting, Koskiniemi was miles from civilization with his son Chase. The two dropped orange slice candies in a pile. Chase used a trowel to wipe peanut butter onto a tree trunk. They took turns spraying scents into the air. Just feet from the bait station was a trail made by bears and a broken branch with bear hair still attached.
"They're probably listening to us right now," Koskiniemi said of the bears he said were likely a couple hundred yards off in the sticks.
You may think it odd, but bears come from miles around to visit the baiting stations Koskiniemi establishes annually in preparation for the bear hunting opener, which starts this year on Tuesday, Sept. 1. In the weeks before the season, this hunter's phone blows up with people asking him how they should plan to bring in a bear to their hunting grounds. In recent years he's become the expert in bear hunting for many Minnesota hunters.
Koskiniemi has been hunting bear in the Nimrod area for 32 years. He’s successfully taken 17 bears in his career and holds the state record for largest black bear, a 600-pounder he shot in 2017 that measured 22 and 10/16 inches, a skull that was 5/16 inches longer than the previous record. That might not seem like much, but most of these record bears are separated by just 1/16 of an inch.
He recalls the hunt for that bear vividly and welcomes anyone to pull up a stump to hear it again.
“The first time I saw this bear, I was out making hay,” Koskiniemi said with the bear rug laid out in front of him on the living room wall. It’s so big the head reaches up onto the 8-foot ceiling and the feet reach down the wall and onto the floor. He said he had to stop the tractor and watch the bruin eating clover in the field amazed at his size.
“I went to work planning to hunt that bear specifically,” he said. He recalls setting out three bait stations aimed at bringing that bear in, each was about 2 to 3 miles apart. Each hunter is allowed to have three baiting stations, each registered with the Minnesota DNR.
The bear began hitting one of his bait stations and kept coming back routinely just as the season began. Expecting the bear to show up before dark, he headed out at about 1:30 in the afternoon not wanting to get busted. Finally as evening set in, he saw the large bear approaching.
“I could see him coming through this tall canary grass,” Koskiniemi said. “I couldn’t tell how big he was, but I knew he was big.”
At 20 yards, the bear stood up and sniffed the air, looking straight at the hunter.
“I’m in a 15-foot ladder stand and I swear he could have sniffed my toes,” Koskiniemi said. The bear was sucking in air through its lips, tasting the atmosphere. It made the hair on the seasoned bear hunter’s neck stand straight. "He stood there for what felt like an eternity."
Bears have one of the best noses in the woods and Koskiniemi knew he had to cover his scent to fool the big bear. He had all his scent cover strategies in place. It was clear the bear still knew something was up. Eventually, the bear let his guard down and he was knocked over by a blow from Koskiniemi's .375 H&H. The rest of the night and morning were devoted to carrying that giant bear out of the woods.
What works for Koskiniemi is his offering to the bears. He doesn’t just give them what they want, he gives them something they can’t get elsewhere. On top of all the scents, he puts out sweets and proteins that the bear won't get in the woods or at most other bait stations.
"I've just learned tricks over the years," Koskiniemi said. "It's little things that make a difference."
What else he has going for him is his location. Where the woods meets the prairie, or where the woods is turned into farmland, is the place where bears can have a place to hide with limited exposure to humans. They also have access to fields of food that keep them fed throughout the non-hibernating months. The abundance of food means these bears grow large. It’s no secret considering the top 10 biggest bears in Minnesota includes five bears shot within the Wadena, Hubbard and Cass county region. All three counties are not far from the area Koskiniemi hunts.
“There's a lot of food here and a lot of good thick dense cover,” Koskiniemi said.
While he has the current state record, it’s not the heaviest bear ever shot in the state. His has the largest recorded skull, and that’s what counts. Koskiniemi knows there are bigger bears out there. That's what keeps him excited about the chance at another hunt.
Getting a license used to be easier, but a tightened quota means it can take about six years to build up enough preference points to get one in his zone. It’s not uncommon to see five to seven bears in an evening around here, though. Koskiniemi feels the number of permits should be expanded, at least in this region, where bear numbers appear strong and bear/human encounters are not uncommon.