Carolina's Top Bear Hunting

These time-honored tactics and tips, coupled with new harvest data, will improve your chances of bagging a treasured big-game trophy.

Photo by Vic Attardo

In South Carolina's mountains, there is more than one way to skin a bear. You can still-hunt for bears during the third week in October, or you can register as a member of one of the many dog-hunting parties and hunt during the last week in October. Some bear hunters are strictly still-hunters and some are ardent dog hunters. Some do both.

Regardless of how you intend to hunt bears this year, as a member of one of the many dog-hunting parties, or taking on a bear one-on-one, by stalking or still-hunting, scouting is one of those basic fundamentals that you absolutely must do. There is no way around it. If you don't know where the bears are and what they are feeding on by the time bear season rolls around, you already have two strikes against you. When it comes to bears and bear hunting, experience has shown that it is best to stick with the tried-and-true, basic fundamental methods that bear hunters have used for decades.

Whether you are slipping through the woods on a solo still-hunt or thrashing through the brush behind a pack of Plott and Walker hounds, you only have six days to home in on the place where a bear is using. A bear can cover a lot of territory in 24 hours and he has the whole world at his disposal. He may be here today and way over yonder tomorrow. If you are going to pin down where a bear might be on opening day, you simply must get out there and scout around, preferably well in advance of opening day.

BEAR SCOUTING 101

For most veteran hunters, scouting is not a considered a chore; it is actually one of the most enjoyable aspects of bear hunting. Autumn is a great time of the year to be in the woods in Carolina -- nothing could be finer. Temperatures tend to be near ideal in October, lows typically range in the 30s and 40s, humidity is low and the air is usually crisp and clear.

When those first chilly mornings of October finally arrive, a dyed-in-the-wool bear hunter's fancy turns toward tromping through the mountains looking for bear sign. Deer season can wait. October in the mountains is all about bears. Somewhere up there in those high hills the bears are munching on acorns, roaming from ridge to ridge searching for the best food sources, and leaving plenty of sign of their comings and goings. Time and time again, experience has shown that the key to success in bear hunting is good old-fashioned footwork --getting out there early and finding out where those trails and feeding areas are.

Tony Cantrell, a veteran bear hunter from Oconee County with a Boone and Crockett bear to his credit, begins his scouting well before bear season.

"I usually get started looking for bear sign in September," Cantrell said. "I look for white oak trees being limbed, leaves raked up under the acorn trees, and tracks in the sandbars along the creeks and so on. You might find tracks just about anywhere this time of year. The bears are roaming around looking for the best food sources, and where you find the food, you find the bears."

FIND THE FOOD

Find the food and you'll find the bears. It really is that simple: Black bears have been recorded consuming up to 20,000 calories in a day in the fall of the year. They are storing up fat for the winter and no creature in the woods can put away that many calories and be shy about getting food.

Hence, in October, bears spend most of their waking hours in search of food.

If we have a good acorn crop, they will home right in on the white oak acorns, as these have the least amount of tannin, a bitter acid that limits the nutritional value of the nuts. If the white oak acorns are in short supply, they will key in on red oaks and chestnut oak acorns, in that order of preference. Sometimes, whether there are ample acorns or not, individual bears will focus on hickory nuts.

Any soft mast that is still available, such as muscadines, pokeberries, persimmons and other wild fruits, help round out the smorgasbord. If a bear wanders upon an agricultural field of standing sweet corn, it will often feed to the point that it might start visiting the corn patch as often as twice a day. Sometimes bears will feed in a corn field until they have literally gorged themselves and can't eat another bite, and then just lie down right there in the field until later in the day or during the night, and then start feeding again.

If you can find some woods near a corn field where a bear is feeding, and you can secure permission to hunt, you would be hard-pressed to find a better place. In addition, you will likely be doing the farmer a favor, as bears can be quite destructive in corn fields. They plod around in the middle of the field like a bull in a china shop, knocking down and destroying 10 times more corn than they consume. They tend to feed in a circle among the cornstalks and sometimes it looks like a helicopter landed in the middle of the field.

If you don't have access to an agricultural field where bears are feeding, focus on acorn trees. When Tony Cantrell talks about looking for signs of the bears raking up leaves, he is talking about places in the woods where the bears have keyed in on the choicest acorns. When they find what they like, they will not only eat the freshly fallen acorns on the top of the leaf litter, they will rake up the leaves trying to get at those that are down under the leaves.

It can be an impressive sight, the kind of thing that gets a bear hunter's heart racing. There will likely be lots of bear scat around, some fresh and some a week or two old. If anyone ever asks you if a bear squats in the woods, the correct answer is: Yes they do, often and in great quantity. It is not unusual to find 10 or 15 piles of bear scat under one good acorn tree.

It is next to impossible to predict in any given year whether or not we will have a good acorn crop. The oak trees flower back in late April and early May, but the acorns don't become visible to the naked eye until sometime in mid-September. The DNR conducts a hard mast survey in September of each year, and many bear hunters volunteer to assist in that effort. Some just grab a pair of binoculars and head out in the woods to check for themselves.

Tony Cantrell said that if there is any pattern or rule of thumb to predicting where the bears will be in any given year, it is this: "If there is a good mast crop in North Georgia and North Carolina, and hardly any here, we will likely have few bears on this side. If we have a good mast crop here, then we can hope for a good season. Bears are like anything else. Where the food source is, the bears will be, and they will be there until the food source runs out."

When it comes to food, bears have no finesse and no patience at all. Sometimes, particularly when the acorn crop is thin, bears will go up in the trees and get the acorns before they fall to the ground. They will, in the process, inevitably break some or nearly all of the small limbs in the tree. This is what bear hunters call "lapping" a tree. If you find a number of trees that have been lapped, you've found a place that a bear is using heavily. Scout around and find out how he is coming and going to the area.

Bears are particularly fond of the fruits of the blackgum tree, which happens to have numerous small and somewhat brittle limbs. If a bear has been feeding in a blackgum tree, it will be lapped from top to bottom and you can spot it from some distance away. Sometimes you can tell from the scat that you find in any given area if a bear is feeding on blackgum. The scat will be jam-packed full of little oblong seeds shaped like a football. If you find scat that fits the description, look around for the blackgum trees. The bear that is feeding there likely won't be far way.

DOG HUNTING

Some dog hunters may feel that scouting is not necessary. After all, the dogs will find the bears. Right?

Well, that is true to some extent, but bear hunting with dogs is a team sport. Each member of a dog-hunting party should help out in the overall effort. Just as in still-hunting, it is a race against time. With only six days to hunt, knowing where a bear is feeding, or how it travels to and from a feeding site, is critical. On any given morning, the huntmaster must decide where and how the party will hunt. If the members of his party have not been out scouting, they can't add much to the aspect of the hunt.

ALONG FOR THE RIDE

It is important to point out, however, that not everyone in a bear hunting party even desires to kill a bear, and they can be as vital to the overall effort as those that tromp through the woods behind the dogs. Someone has to stay back at the truck to monitor what's going on, and perhaps deliver men and dogs in short order when the race gets hot. Some even stay back at camp and cook for the dead-tired hunters when they come dragging back into camp at dark. Someone has to take care of the dogs when the hunt is over, and although no one likes the job, somebody has to wash dishes.

But for those who actively hunt, scouting is fundamental. Perhaps the real benefit to scouting for rank-and-file members of a bear hunting party is that you not only learn where the bear sign is, you learn your way around the woods. If the dogs have a bear bayed up over in Pig Pen Gap and you don't know where Pig Pen Gap is, or how to get there in double-quick time, you're not pulling your weight, so to speak.

All members of a bear hunting party who wish to contribute to the overall effort should study maps of the area where they hunt, and spend some time walking logging roads and scouting for bear tracks. Sure, a number of bear hunters are there each year just for the camaraderie and the fellowship and listening to the dogs, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, a bear hunter who knows his way around the woods and has good scouting information to provide the huntmaster is a real asset.

Above everything else, all members of a bear hunting party should keep up with what is going on at any given time. They should know where their party's dogs are and whether they are on a bear or not. Who knows, you may be called on at any moment to be the one to go to the dogs and a treed bear.

For those who are new to the sport, here is how the hunt generally proceeds. Oconee County hunter Tony Cantrell said that every party might hunt a little differently.

"We start by putting a dog down on a track (the track dog), and see if he can go with it. We keep up with the dog along roads and ridgetops, and when the trailing voice begins to get better, we begin to put other dogs in with it. We don't pack too many in until the bear jumps and then we send the rest in.

"The length of the race depends on several things. I have seen some end as quick as 30 minutes and I have seen some last until dark. Then you just have to catch your dogs off the track, and hope that you can start the track again in the morning, or maybe find another track. If you have a good, fast pack and they work together, the bear may tree fairly quickly. If the bear gets a big head start, or maybe it is a big, mean bear, then it may become what we call a walking bear. The dogs will walk it and the bear will take its time and stay in the roughs, and you may have a hard time harvesting that particular bear."

BEARCAST 2005

Skip Still is the DNR's designated bear biologist and he sees good things ahead for bear hunters. Even though the harvest for the previous year, 2004, was down somewhat from the record harvest of 55 bears in 2003, Still keeps his finger on the pulse of bears and bear hunting in all the Southeastern states, and he said the trend is toward increasing bear populations.

"All states reported healthy and abundant bear populations in the Southern Appalachians," Still said. "A total of 792 bears were harvested in the four-state region of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia). This is down 48 percent from last year's harvest of 1,262," Still said.

Still explained that since 1981 the four-state bear harvest has increased by a factor of five. So last year's drop in the harvest may simply be a mere blip on the radar screen.

Sure enough, the bear harvest in any given year will always vary with the vagaries of nature during that season. Bad weather, such as rainy days, variability in the acorn crop, heat, humidity and hunter fatigue, along with other factors, all affect the harvest rate.

Bear hunters know for a fact that the single biggest factor accounting for the record harvest in 2003 was the near total failure of the acorn crop. The bears had to travel more to get to the limited food supplies, and in many cases, multiple bears were concentrated around the few acorn and hickory nuts that were available. Bear hunters should really pay attention to this fact: It is not always the case that a good acorn crop always means good bear hunting. As a matter of fact, exactly the opposite was true in 2003. A near total failure of the acorn crop resulted in the largest bear harvest in recent history.

"We harvested 29 bears last year -- 16 in Pickens County, 10 in Oconee County and three in Greenville County," Still said. "Seven were harvested on the still-hunts and 22 during the dog hunts. There were 14 males and 15 females. Our surveys indicate that more folks hunt in Oconee County, but they are more successful in Pickens County."

After looking at long-term harvest trends, the need to manage an increasing number of hunters concentrating in certain areas, and some problems that developed during last season, the DNR and bear hunters have begun to look at implementing some changes in bear seasons and the rules and regulations.

Still put it this way, "I see no change in bear regulations for the 2005 s

eason, but we are working with the Upstate Bearhunters and Houndsmen Association, and the local legislative delegation, to look at the possibility of an expanded bear season in 2006."

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