South Carolina's Bear Hunting Forecast

After a season that was a boom to some hunters and a bust for others, signs point to a good year in 2009. (October 2009)

Last year's bear season was a story of boom or bust for individual hunters. Most hunters either found sites where several bears were feeding on the spotty acorn crop, or they found nothing at all.

It was opening day of the still-hunt for bears, and things just could not have been better for this long-time bear hunter. I had scouted the entire mountain and could not find one single acorn of any kind, except for the little pocket right where I was sitting. In this little glade near the top of the mountain were four white oak trees that had dropped a fair crop of acorns on the ground. The bears had found them and it looked like at least three, maybe four or five, bears were habitually feeding in there.

The scat ranged from the size of a scoop of ice cream (cubs), to one about the size of a saucer (a yearling), to one as big as a dinner plate (a bragging-sized big bear). They appeared to cover the period of anywhere from one day old to about a week old. Few things in the sport of hunting are a sure thing, but this situation was about as good as it gets. I had not seen anything during the morning hunt, but I was confident that it was just a matter of time.

About 5 p.m., the squirrels started barking about 75 yards out and I knew somebody was heading my way. Shortly, two yearling bears, somewhere between 80 and 100 pounds, came strolling in. They seemed to be more interested in exploring the area than picking up acorns. One climbed a deadfall that was lodged up against another tree, apparently for no other reason than the fact that he thought he could do it.

He quickly climbed back down and the pair started sniffing the ground like two hounds trying to sort out a good track. After snacking on a few white acorns, one of the youngsters reached out and slapped the other on the backside of the head, which started a scuffle, and then they departed as quickly as they had arrived.

I just leaned back against the tree where I was sitting on the ground and thought, Wow! That's the kind of thing that most people would mortgage their house to see. If nothing else happens this evening, this will still be a day in the bear woods to remember.

And nothing else did happen until about 45 minutes later, during the bewitching hour, that time of the evening when the woods fall eerily silent and you can hear an acorn drop at 50 yards. I first noticed a patch of black in the brush out about 60 yards that seemed out of place. I was sure that it had not been there a few minutes earlier when I had carefully scanned the woods out in front of me. While I was trying to recall if I had seen a black stump or maybe a section of dark tree trunk in that direction, the bear came walking in.

It was just what I was looking for, a nice medium-sized bear. Few bear hunters will understand this, but I had a big bear (and I do mean a BIG bear) scouted out a few miles away and yet I chose to hunt this place. I have killed a bunch of bears over the years, and a few big ones. This year I decided before the season started that I wanted a bear that was good to eat, a meat bear. An old bear is good table fare, but a young bear is like veal.

The bear went straight for the acorns and was munching on them pretty good. Unfortunately, it was facing straight toward me, and a straight on shot at a bear is tough. The bear stayed in place, looking straight at me, for several minutes, long enough to rattle my nerves. Finally the bear turned and started walking upslope. This fortunate turn of events gave me a perfect quartering-away shot. A few minutes later, just as it was getting dark, I was dragging my bear out of the woods.

Too bad it can't always be that easy.

Since I had field dressed the bear in the woods so that I would be able to get it out without help, I did not get a live weight on it, but I would guess somewhere in the 140- to 150-pound range.

And I was not alone in my success -- a lot of bear hunters had a good year last year. But it's also true that many hunters came up empty-handed. It was truly a boom-or-bust year.

And there is good reason for that. Last fall, there were large areas in the South Carolina mountains that had no acorns whatsoever -- and no bears. But if you did your scouting and found the few pockets where there were acorns, you were richly rewarded.

This time, it was the drought that caused the spotty hard mast crop. Back in the spring of '08, conditions had been near ideal when the oaks were flowering. And most did, in fact, make acorns. Then around early June, the rain stopped, just as if someone had turned off a faucet. By July, and certainly by August, we were in the middle of an extreme drought of historic proportions. Most of the oak trees aborted their crop of immature acorns to conserve moisture. Some areas, however, had adequate soil moisture for trees to produce a crop and that was the kind of place to be during bear season.

This year is very different and it looks very promising. By April of this year, the drought had eased to the point that the state's Drought Response Committee (of which I am a member) had lowered the drought designation level from extreme to moderate, the next to the lowest level. During the flowering period for the oaks and hickories, which is late April through early May in the South Carolina mountains, conditions were nearly perfect. This may well be a year of bumper crops for white oaks all across the Blue Ridge mountains. One can never know for sure until the acorns are on the ground, but it sure does look good for this year.

Most white oaks have had two years to build up reserves and should be in good shape to produce a bumper crop. Red oaks, on the other hand, are a little different. Their acorns are actually formed the year before they mature. The tiny, immature acorns from last spring would be the ones that normally would mature this summer and drop this fall. The problem is those immature acorns developed during the drought of last summer. Many red oaks aborted those acorns last summer and will not produce this year. But that may not be important if we indeed have a bumper crop of white oak acorns and hickory nuts.

The situation with hickory nuts is also looking very good. Conditions were excellent during the flowering time and there was adequate soil moisture during the time when these oil-rich, nutritious nuts mature.

Of course, there is a downside to abundant hard mast. Specifically, when there is food everywhere, it is more difficult to pin a bear down to an exact location for still-hunting. When there is plenty of food everywhere a bear goes, he is more likely to feed in one place for a few days, and then move on to anot

her.

On a practical level, that means the key for still-hunters this year is going to be to stay on top of your scouting. In other words, make sure the sign is still hot right before opening day. The other problem with abundant mast is that bears may not feed as much during daylight hours. They tend to get sufficient calories during their nocturnal ramblings and just lie up in a thicket during the day. The remedy for this is persistence. Be there at first light and stay late, both morning and evening. It may take more than one sit to score this year. For dog hunters, the acorn situation is not nearly as critical. If there are plenty of bears and plenty of acorns, the dogs will sort it out.

That brings up the question of whether we will have "plenty of bears" to hunt this year. Well, based on the number of sightings and reports of nuisance bears this spring, it looks like we are going to be covered up with bears this season. And there appears to be quite a number of young bears out there. Overall, this year's bear season has all the earmarks of being a year to remember. Time will tell.

Here are two tips for planning your hunt. First, decide early on which area you want to hunt. Look for areas near water with a stand of mature white oaks. The rule I have used for more than 20 years is this -- if you find white oak acorns in the mountains and no sign that a bear is using them, you are in the wrong place. Go somewhere else.

Next, don't be duped by an abundance of old bear sign. If you do not find bear scat that is soft and yellow or light brown, what you've found is not a place to hunt, but rather a place where the bears used to be. Keep scouting until you find rock-solid evidence that a bear is feeding in there on a daily basis.

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