Bear-Hunting Prospects For 2007

North Carolina continues to produce some of the best bear hunting in the lower 48 states. Can it get better? (October 2007)

Willie Allen of Outback Outfitters is one of several guides catering to bear hunters in the northeastern part of North Carolina. This bear was taken in Hyde County.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

Mark Jones is the North Carolina Wildlife Commission's bear biologist. While he works with black bear data and checks hunters in the field routinely, one of his most exciting encounters with bears occurred during the spring 2007 wild turkey season. The encounter happened the day before Jones was interviewed for this article and his voice still rose, giving hints of the adrenaline rush he received at seeing bears acting naturally at close range.

"I was turkey hunting and had been calling to a gobbler," Jones said. "I was sitting with the gun ready to shoot and saw this black thing coming through the woods. I said to myself, 'I got you now, old boy.' But whatever it was had four legs instead of two. The bear got really close and once I started really looking around, I saw she had two of last year's cubs with her. They were nearly grown and it was getting to be time for her to chase them off to start her new family. I don't know if she was coming to sounds I made with the turkey call, but after that, I sure didn't hear anything else out of the turkey."

Bears are curious, especially when it comes to squeaky noises like turkey hen calls. In Western states, hunters routinely use predator calls to locate or attract bears. When what Jones expected to see had four legs instead of two and then went on to become 12 legs, his adrenaline started pumping. A sow defending her cubs can make for a ticklish situation, especially if she thinks the makings of her next meal is sitting under the tree your back happens to be leaning against.

"She was definitely on a mission, but something was bothering her," Jones said. "I've heard of people having coyotes and bobcats come up on them while they are calling turkeys. She acted like a turkey hunter and she was looking up in the trees. But it still may have just been coincidence that she happened to be coming that way and not responding to the turkey call. It was really neat to see them up close like that. Eventually, she turned around and went back the way she came from."

Not so long ago, such encounters were extremely rare anywhere in the state. Not only were there no turkeys in the Coastal Plain, black bears were just as rare.

However, the place where Jones was hunting was along the Neuse River floodplain in Craven County. The area currently has one of the highest bear densities in the state and also the nation and happens to be the location of some of the biggest black bears to be found anywhere in the world, as well.

Usually between one and three bears topping 700 pounds are taken by hunters along the coast of North Carolina each season. Last season, Jones didn't hear of any. Biologists visit hunters at the kill site of approximately 25 to 30 percent of all coastal bears annually, thanks to the "Bear Hotline." Hunters can call the commission's Division of Enforcement violations reporting number at (800) 662-7137, the first week of the bear season in each region and the dispatcher relays the information to biologists of the commission's Division of Wildlife Management in the field. The biologists try to get to as many kills as possible to take measurements and weights, then extract a tooth from each bear and the ovaries from the females for obtaining age and reproduction data.

"I heard of a few 600-pound bears being harvested in the coastal counties during the 2006 season," Jones said. "The coastal region traditionally produces the largest bears."

Jones said agriculture is the key to the size and densities of coastal bear populations. Bears use the thick swamps, pocosins and young pine plantations for cover. Their natural foods are grubs, insects and any other small animal that presents the opportunity, even carrion in the form of road kills or game animals wounded and not recovered by hunters or gut piles left in the woods by deer hunters. They are, however, largely vegetarian, feeding on seeds, berries and nuts of many species. Wild blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, acorns, hickory nuts and blackgum or water tupelo drupes make up some of their preferred natural food source, essentially acting as candy to bears.

However, agricultural crops, including milo, corn, soybeans, wheat and rye are what make the difference in the size of coastal bears. Bears feeding on these crops have an advantage over mountain bears.

"In the mountains, if there's a poor mast year, with few acorns, bears have to move around more to find food," Jones said. "Bear hunting in the mountains is mostly done with hounds. If the bears move more, it's easier for the hounds to find their scent trails. On the coast if there's a poor mast year, bears just switch to farm crops. The alternative food is readily available and is high in nutrition. A bear can pack on a lot of weight quickly in a corn field."

Coastal bear hunting is an expensive way of hunting. Leases for bear hunting rights can run from $20 to $80 per acre. Only 6 percent of coastal bears are taken from the commission's game lands. It's not because there are no bears on game lands. It's because compared with the mountains, there is much less public hunting land.

"Croatan Game Land has lots of bears," Jones said. "Sometimes hunters experience good success at Holly Shelter Game Land. Van Swamp is a good spot and Chowan Swamp is another good place."

Jones said a sow bear in good habitat requires 4,000 to 5,000 acres of territory. A boar bear needs at least three times as much room for roaming than a female, since his range typically overlaps that of three females. A boar's home range can be as much as 50,000 acres in the poorer habitats of the mountain region. However, in some areas of the coast with good habitat, including agricultural fields, the home range of a boar bear can be as little as only 3,000 to 5,000 acres.

Besides the differences in home ranges of bears and the types of foods they can find in the western and eastern parts of the state, there are differences in the ways bears are hunted in the two regions. Opportunities for still-hunting bears along the coast are much better than in the mountains because the food sources and the bears are more concentrated. Also, bear-hunting seasons on the coast are more likely to overlap deer-hunting seasons.

"In the mountains, a few bears are killed by hunters incidental to deer hunting," Jones said. "But the seasons don't always overlap in the mountains, so it seems to be more of a haphazard type hunt than a purposeful type of bear hunting. That may change,

with hunters in the mountains getting better at still-hunting bears as the population in the mountains continues to grow, and we may see that happen within the next 10 years. But there are places where it will always be difficult to hunt bears with dogs in the mountains, especially in the areas where we are still seeing bear range expand into the foothills."

The problem with hunting bears with hounds in the foothills areas is that the property is a patchwork of small landholdings interspersed with dwellings. In such areas, it's hard or impossible to get permission for hunting on large areas of contiguous property. However, Jones thinks the foothills still-hunters will figure out how to become successful.

"That's the way it happened on the coast," he said. "In the beginning, there weren't a lot of still-hunters. Now, still-hunters harvest around 30 percent of our coastal bears. Currently, in mountains, around 95 percent of our bear harvest is taken by the use of dogs."

Still-hunters at the coast are successful at using what has become a traditional method of taking bears. These hunters find trails leading to agricultural fields from thick cover and watch them from tree stands. The best time is to catch a bear leaving the field in the early morning to head back to its bedding area. The best conditions are overcast or foggy, which tend to keep the bears in the field longer after feeding all night. Bears are also taken as they feed in the fields. Hunters watch the fields at sunset and in the early morning.

This type of hunt is not necessarily easy, even if a bear is using the field. A bear can smell where a human has been a day later. Perhaps the most important thing a hunter can do is practice scent control to increase his odds for bagging a bear by still-hunting. Wearing rubber boots and watching the wind direction may be the most important ingredients for success following the discovery of fresh bear sign.

To judge the size of a bear, coastal hunters examine tracks and scat. Any track more than 4 inches wide is made by a male bear and big piles of bear stuff laden with corn or soybeans can tell an experienced hunter the size of the bear that left them along the trail.

There are also some unusual methods that have become increasingly successful for the few savvy hunters who practice them. At the coast, hunters use canoes to paddle through swampy areas, with Chowan Swamp Game Land a possibility. Bears feed in the "gum berry" trees, blackgum and water tupelo. They either are spotted while feeding or while sleeping in the trees. Some hunters say they build nests in these large trees and stay in them so they don't have to bed in the watery swamps where there's scant footing.

"I saw a guy four or five years ago who had a lot of damage to his hardwoods," Jones said. "The bears had broken the limbs off his white oaks, and dozens of limbs the size of your arm were broken off and on the ground where the bears could get at the acorns. You don't see that often, but it happens. You can look for this type of feeding sign or you could listen for a bear breaking the tree limbs and be able to hear it from quite a long distance."

Large areas of public land exist in the mountains, consisting mostly of millions of acres of Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. These consist of rugged terrain, with bears inhabiting some of the higher elevations and increasingly moving into the lower elevations.

"There is good bear hunting success in Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties at Nantahala National Forest," Jones said. "These counties are some of the state's most rugged terrain counties. However, there are large tracts of forested land and the core areas of these lands are located on the national forest. Bears eat anything they can find. Up there in the high elevations, they depend greatly on mast. That's why they tend to be smaller at the coast. Mast production, and therefore, bear hunting operate on a boom-and-bust cycle. On the coast, it's not like that. In poor mast years in mountains, we have high bear harvests. At the coast, it's pretty consistent hunting. Some states are the opposite. In the mountains, since 95 percent of our bear harvest comes from the national forests, a mast failure forces bears to move around that year and our hound hunters can find them more easily. In states with higher levels of still-hunting, a good mast year allows still-hunters to zero in on areas where there's a high mast crop and they have better success rates. In Virginia, for example, lots of bear harvests by bowhunters occur during the good mast years."

Clubs and family groups typically hunt the same territories year after year. They release hounds on fresh bear tracks or where their dogs strike hot scent. Hunting the same areas allows the hunters to determine which way a bear may be heading and to know the best trails or forest roads for getting near a treed bear or one bayed on the ground or inside a cave.

The use of tracking collars on hounds is universal statewide. This keeps hunters from losing valuable bear hounds, but reduces the number of record-book bears for the state. For a bear to qualify for a Boone and Crockett listing if it is taken by a dog wearing a tracking collar, the receiver must be turned off for the bear to be considered to have been taken in fair chase. The skull measurement is the determining factor for entry, with the length and width added after a drying period to obtain the score.

For this and other reasons, including the availability of commission personnel with scales of adequate weight capacity, North Carolina hunters consider the trophy quality of a bear to be determined at the scales. Any bear in the mountains weighing 300 pounds or more is considered a good bear in the mountains. At the coast, it takes a 500-pound bear to reach "trophy of a lifetime" status among hunters. Few bears are skinned before being weighed if they are large bears. It takes many hunters to get such heavyweight bears out of the thickets of the eastern areas and rugged terrain of the western regions. Nevertheless, that's part of the fun of a bear hunt -- using combined strengths of the hunting party not only to bag the bear but also to haul it out.

Hunters harvested 1,800 bears in 2006, with 1,075 at the coast and 725 in the mountains.

For hunters who use public lands, some 2006 bear harvests from commission game lands can give them clues on the best places to hunt.

Along the coast, Brunswick County had two bears harvested from game lands, with Brunswick County Game Land the only game land open for hunting bears. In Bladen County, four bears were taken from Bladen Lakes Game Land. In Carteret County, seven bears were taken from game lands; in Craven County, four bears were taken from game lands, and in Jones County, nine bears were taken (the 20 bears from these three counties likely all came from Croatan Game Land). In Gates County, 10 bears came from Chowan Swamp Game Land. In Pender County, six bears were taken from Holly Shelter and Angola Bay game lands. In Washington County, most or all of the seven bears were harvested at Van Swamp Game Land. In Tyrrell County, Buckridge, Lantern Acres likely produced the eight bears taken on game lands.

In the mountains, 51.9 percent bears came from the va

st acreages of public game lands. Top among these counties in the Pisgah National Forest and Nantahala National Forest counties were Avery County, with eight bears harvested, Buncombe, four; Burke, 13; Caldwell, 10; Cherokee, 41; Clay, 30; Graham, 51; Haywood, 38; Jackson, 24; Macon, 72; Madison, 31; McDowell, 18; Mitchell, five; Swain, 22; Transylvania, six and Yancey, three.

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