Stalking Your Mountain Bear

Stalking Your Mountain Bear

The last several hunting seasons have been good ones for hunters pursuing black bears in the Georgia highlands. Will that trend continue this year? Let's have a closer look.

Georgia hunters in search of a true challenge and something out of the ordinary don't have to travel any farther than the North Georgia mountains. With considerable skill and some amount of luck, hunters wishing to pursue the biggest Georgia game animal of all may find what they are looking for.

The animal in question is the black bear. The northern mountains support the largest Georgia population of this uniquely American species, which once roamed across much of the country. The Ocmulgee River bottoms, in middle Georgia, and the Okefenokee Swamp, in southeastern Georgia, also have black bears present, but the populations are much smaller.

The North American continent contains four bear species: the grizzly, brown bear, polar bear and black bear. However, the black bear is the only one found in the eastern United States, so identifying your target is no problem in Georgia. If it is a bear, it is a black bear. Although individual bears can exhibit considerable range in coat color, from almost blond to jet black, most black bears live up to their name and appear almost black, with perhaps a small splash of white on the chest.

Just seeing a bear evokes an almost primordial response from humans. Although much more afraid of you than you are of them, black bears are amazingly strong and fast predators, and not to be trifled with. Because of the shock we get when we see a bear, judging their size is difficult. Our guesses usually vastly overestimate their actual weight. The average Georgia bear weighs somewhere around 150 pounds, stands 2 to 3 feet high at the shoulder, and is 4 to 5 feet in length.

As you might expect from a species that has been able to successfully eke out a living from the wild for thousands of years, bears utilize their senses to the fullest. A bear's nose is its main tool for finding food, and its main defense to avoid situations it wants no part of. A bear's sense of smell is legendary, and the successful bruin hunter must always keep scent management in mind just as much as if they were pursuing the most wary trophy whitetail buck.

Bears' hearing is generally thought to be average at best, and their reputation for almost comical nearsightedness is not without merit. Both hearing and sight fall far below the level of a bear's sense of smell.

Interestingly, perhaps because of their smaller size, black bears are the only North American bear species that as an adult doesn't mind climbing a tree for food or to escape a threat. Each paw has five toes equipped with stout claws. The claws and the bear's amazing strength make them excellent climbers for such a large animal. The claws also come in handy as excavators for digging up a yellow jacket nest or tearing open a rotten log to reach grubs and other tasty delights.

Photo by Mark & Sue Werner

Although bears are harvested in Georgia every year, there aren't that many true bear hunters. Most bears are taken by hunters in the woods seeking deer and capitalize on the rare event of sighting a bear while hunting. Bears are perhaps the most challenging of Georgia game, though, because of their huge home range, fondness for very rough terrain, varied diet, keen sense of smell, and secretiveness. A Georgia hunter who can consistently harvest a bear has perfected his hunting skills to a degree above the rest.

To get a handle on mountain bear prospects this year, let's talk to Chuck Waters. Chuck is the Department of Natural Resources' Game Management regional supervisor in northwest Georgia, and he has been involved with the state's bear management program for many years.

"We have been tracking the North Georgia bear population for about 25 years now," Chuck said. "The way we do this is to place bait stations with sardines and then track the number of stations that are hit by bears. Our data shows that the general trend continues to be a gradually increasing bear population. In the 2001 study, 48.5 percent of our bait stations were hit, which is down very slightly from our all-time record high of 50.4 percent in 2000, but overall consistent with a gradual increase in the number of bears over the years."

Chuck explained that there is always some variability in the bait station data based on how good the forage is any particular year. If bears have a bumper crop of blackberries to eat when the bait station study is under way, they are less likely to be out roaming around looking for food and attracted to the bait. In a poor forage year, the reverse is true. So general trends are what bear biologists track to try to take into account natural variability.

"Putting a number on exactly how many bears are out there is a hard thing to do," Chuck continued, "but if I had to take a stab at it I would say there are 1,200 to 1,500 bears in North Georgia, another 300 or so in the Middle Georgia population, and probably 700 in the Okefenokee Swamp population."

So where do you go to increase the odds of you and a bear both arriving in the same place at the same time? A good place to start is one of the North Georgia mountain wildlife management areas (WMAs).

"On any of the mountain WMAs you stand a chance of seeing a bear," Chuck said, "but historically there are a few favorites."

Your best bets for a bear encounter are the Cohutta and Chattahoochee WMAs.

"Chattahoochee WMA has always been good for bears. We have had years when there were more bears actually harvested than you would think are there to begin with. A very general rule of thumb is that you can expect one bear for every 1,000 acres. Since Chattahoochee WMA is only 25,000 acres, and harvesting a bear is not an easy task, 25 bears killed on the area in one season suggests there are more there than you might first think," Chuck noted.

"Cohutta WMA is another good bet," Waters stated. "At 95,265 acres, Cohutta has plenty of room for both bears and hunters."

In the 2001 season, hunters harvested 28 bears on the Cohutta WMA, 25 on the Chattahoochee WMA, and 15 on the Dawson Forest WMA. Other mountain WMAs producing 10 or more bears for hunters were Blue Ridge, Chestatee, Coopers Creek and Swallow Creek.

Outside of the WMA system, Chuck recommended hunters investigate Chattahoochee National Forest lands. These lands cover a patchwork of much of North Georgia, and although they aren't managed as intensively for wildlife as the WMAs, they do offer more days of hunting opportunities. Counties that had significant non-WMA bear harvest numbers are Union County, with 16 bears; Rabu

n, with 14; Gilmer and Habersham, with 12 each; plus Murray County, with 10.

When it comes to bear hunting, North Georgia style, Chuck had a few observations.

"Most hunters who get a chance at a bear are actually deer hunting and just happen to be at the right place at the right time. But if you are trying to target a bear, there are a few things you may want to keep in mind. The same basic idea holds true for both bears and deer. Find the food, find the resting areas, figure out the paths of travel between the two, and you are on your way," he said. "With bears, though, you have to be a little more cautious about how much faith you put in any sign you find. Some radio tracking studies have suggested that a bear's home range may be as large as 40,000 acres. That's a big chunk of land. Finding some sign doesn't mean you've found the bear. But if you find that sign near a good food source, with a bedding area nearby, you are on the right track.

"The best place to look for sign is on ridgetops and saddles," Chuck continued. "The path of least resistance is usually the route animals take, which makes a dip in a ridge a really good place to start your scouting."

So what kind of forage do you want to hunt over to kill a bear?

"Early in the bow season, try to find fruit forage like cherries and grapes," Waters advised. "Once the acorns start dropping, though, bears switch almost exclusively to them. Just like with deer hunting, however, an abundance of acorns, while good for the animals, makes things harder on the hunter. In a poor mast year, though, find a good concentration of acorns, and you have found the right place."

Anyone who has closely followed changes in the hunting regulations over the past few years has noticed the regulations becoming more liberal. As the bear population has continued to increase, so have the hunting opportunities. The number of open days is up, and so is the number of counties where bear harvest is allowed. The latter now even includes counties on the northern edge of the metropolitan Atlanta, like Bartow, Cherokee, Forsyth and Hall. Is that expansion of the hunting area a portent for metro Atlanta? Are more filling-station-bear-sighting stories headed our way?

"Seeing a bear is possible anywhere in North Georgia, even well outside what traditionally was considered bear country," Chuck admitted. "Bears have large home ranges, so they cover a lot of ground. Most of the odd sightings, though, are probably young males. A sow cub usually grows up to have a home range similar to her mother's. A male cub, on the other hand, may range far and wide, looking for somewhere to hang his hat where he isn't getting beat up every day by larger males. These migrations tend to loosely follow river corridors, so anywhere along a major North Georgia river, a bear may pass through."

Chuck finished by saying that as the human population increases in North Georgia, so do the chances of sighting a bear. Although usually very secretive and wary, a bear that is being fed or finding easy pickings in backyard trash cans and bird feeders becomes accustomed to humans and begins hanging around more populated areas, leading to more sightings and nuisance bear complaints.

The 2001 harvest figures show that bears are equal opportunity game animals. Archery kills made up 24 percent of the harvest last year, with rifle hunters bagging 68 percent, and muzzleloader enthusiasts getting in on the action to make up the remaining 8 percent of the 224 bears legally taken in Georgia. Sows made up 48 percent of the harvest, with males being the remaining 52 percent. Hunts on WMA lands accounted for 57 percent of the kills last year.

The average sow taken had a live weight of 145 pounds, and the average male weighed 175 pounds live weight. Despite these averages, last year did see two bears harvested that exceeded 500 pounds live weight. The current state-record bear is a 560-pound bruin harvested in 2001, which just edged out the previous record. That one was a 540-pound specimen taken in 2000 on private land just a stone's throw away from Dawson Forest WMA.

A few things to keep in mind before you decide to join the growing number of Georgia bear hunters. Bears live in some of North Georgia's roughest country. If you dread the thought of carrying your hunting gear up that mountain trail, just think about the prospect of 500 pounds of bear lying dead in a mountain valley and your truck several uphill miles away at the trailhead. Before you pull the trigger, have a plan for how you are going to get your trophy out of the woods.

Once you get past that hurdle and have the critter out of the woods, what next? Whether you have always wanted a bearskin rug in front of the fireplace, or think a full body mount would make an excellent addition to your den, talk to the taxidermist who is going to do the work before you dress out the bear. That way, he can tell you exactly what you need to do to ensure that the final product is the trophy mount of which you have always dreamed. What sort of mount you want dictates the best way to dress out the animal.

Better yet, shop around and have a taxidermist in mind before you even step into the woods. Bears are rare enough that mounting one is not an everyday occurrence for most Georgia taxidermists. Make sure you pick somebody experienced and have examined examples of their work in the same pose you have in mind.

Bear meat is thought by most to be good eating and can be prepared in many ways. Take care to remove as much fat as possible when dressing the animal. Marinating the meat is a good idea for most recipes. Any good wild game cookbook should have several options you may want to try for this very special Georgia big game animals.

The hunting regulations regarding bears are not hard to follow. A big game license is required in addition to a hunting license or primitive weapons license. No dogs may be used in the northern zone and baiting is not allowed.

Any bear taken must be reported to the nearest DNR Game Management regional office within 24 hours of harvest. If the bear is killed on a WMA, it must be taken to the check station on the same day it was killed. If the check station is unmanned, record the kill data on the form provided and report the bear within 24 hours to the Game Management regional office.

The statewide season limit is one bear. Killing females with cubs is prohibited, as is killing cubs weighing less than 75 pounds. Consult the Georgia 2002-203 Hunting Seasons & Regulations booklet for more information on open dates for bear hunting in Georgia. The booklet is available wherever hunting licenses are sold, or an online version can be accessed at www.ganet.org/dnr/wild/.

This hunting season, ready yourself for the greatest Georgia big game hunting challenge of all - harvesting a black bear. Although you may not see these creatures of folklore and legend, the bears are in our woodlands and ready to match wits with you this year.



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