North Carolina's Magnum Bears

Some of the biggest bears on the planet live right here in North Carolina. Here's where to go to get in on high-quality hunting for the state's biggest game animal.

Chris Bantos, while on his stomach in thick brush, shot this 595-pound Jones County bear. The bear, one of the larger bruins taken in North Carolina last year, was 10 feet away from Bantos at the time. Photo by Mike Marsh

Chris Bantos laid flat on his stomach - not the best position to be in when a huge, mad, black bear is inches away. But his redtick hounds were swarming around the bear and there was no way for him to get a clear shot without endangering the dogs. The hounds were baying, the bear was growling and the thick bay restricted his vision to a few feet.

"I had to crawl through the pocosin just to get to the bear because the cover was so thick," Bantos said. "I never got off my belly. I knew the only way to miss the dogs and hit the bear was to shoot at an upward angle. All of a sudden the bear turned in my direction. I don't think he saw me. He just decided to run that way to get away from the dogs."

With the bear running straight at him, Bantos quickly trained the sight on his .44-caliber Magnum revolver and fired. Shot through the neck, the bear dropped instantly. The range was less than 10 feet. Bantos didn't want to speculate on what would have happened had he missed.

"I was using a Holosight on my gun," Bantos said. "In the low light, I don't think I could have lined up the sights fast enough with any other sight. The red dot of the Holosight shows up good against the black fur of a bear."

Chris' wife, Mary Bantos, was listening to the chase, watching from a nearby timber road in case the bear crossed onto adjoining land they could not hunt. The bear was taken within 400 yards of the border of Hoffman State Forest in Jones County.

"We had put a strike dog on top of the dog box in the truck and had two more dogs 'roading' in front of the truck and they hit the scent within 100 yards," Mary said. "We turned out three more dogs and the chase was on. They put a lot of pressure on him and had him bayed in five minutes. Really big bears don't move much in the thick woods. They can't climb, so they just stand their ground and fight. The dogs can't really hurt them, so they just walk along and swat at the dogs until they find a thick place or tree root ball to back up against."

Mary once had a semi-automatic pistol. But it malfunctioned when the action filled with pine needles and twigs while she was trying to get to a treed bear. Now, like her husband, she carries a big revolver when hunting bears.

"I have killed three bears," Mary said. "This one is Chris' 10th. We breed our own redtick hounds for bear hunting. We raised and trained the dogs that were running the bear from the time they were pups. Bear hunting is exciting. But for me it's more about the dogs."

The Bantos were hunting on timberlands that were leased to a hunting club. Other club members were also hunting bears with their dog packs. But it was all right with them if Mary and Chris were hunting on their own. There were lots of bears and plenty of room in which to hunt them.

Other club members helped them get the bear out of the woods by using an ATV and sheer strength of numbers. The N.C. Wildlife Commission's "Bear Hotline" was called. Commission wildlife technician Phil Stone responded. He weighed the huge bear. It was so big it required two scales because each scale had a maximum weight of only 500 pounds.

"This one is 595 pounds," Stone said. "He will be in the top 10 of bears taken by hunters this season."

Stone extracted a tooth and took measurements of the bear. The statistics were added to the commission's bear harvest database. It's not unusual for technicians to get samples and measurements in the field in North Carolina - in fact, that's the goal.

"We get to 50 percent of the coastal bears taken by hunters and about 60 percent of mountain bears," said Mark Jones, the commission's Bear Project leader. "We have one of the best bear databases in the world. The 2003 bear harvest was 1,812 and that was an all-time record. That means we obtained data from over 900 bears. In terms of bear harvest numbers, we are right up there with any of the other traditional bear-hunting states and provinces and our coastal black bears are some of the biggest in the world. There were rumors of another one over 700 pounds taken by a hunter in the Van Swamp area. But we didn't get information from that one. During 2002, we had three bears we know of that weighed over 700 pounds."

During the 2003 hunting season, the coastal bear harvest was 1,095, the second-highest harvest on record for the region. The mountain region had a bear harvest of 717 and that was also the second-highest harvest on record. But the two exceptional harvests combined to make it the best season in history for Tar Heel bear hunters.

Jones credits a poor mast year for the high mountain harvest. Bears tend to move around more and are therefore more likely to be encountered by hunters when food is scarce.

"On the coast, we see a lot of big bears," Jones said. "A trophy bear in the coastal region is one that weighs 500 pounds. The mountains typically produce smaller bears and a trophy bear there is anything above 300 pounds."

The difference in size is created by the habitat. Mountain bears live primarily on forestlands, with hard mast and soft mast their principal foods. The weather in the mountains also leads to a shorter growing season than occurs at the coast. On the coast, bears feed on hard and soft mast as well. But there are also huge agricultural fields that help supplement their wild-growing diet, so neither the bears nor hunters have to depend upon mast production.

But the real key to growing big bears is age. Jones' bear harvest statistics show that bears over 500 pounds have dodged hunters and automobiles for a long time.

"Males reach 500 pounds from 6 3/4 to 14 3/4 years old," Jones said. "Occasionally, one reaches 500 pounds at age 5 3/4. Males tend to die at younger ages than females and they tend to die in their prime. Vehicle collisions, hunting and nuisance situations are the main causes of bear mortality."

He added that male bear mortality rates were higher at older ages, too.

"I have seen one 20-year-old male and two 26-year-old females. Not may males live past age 15."

Coursing bears with hounds is the best way for hunters to get up close and personal with a trophy bear. It is a traditional way of hunting in the mountains and along the coast. On the coast, private lands near refuges are good bets. However, hunter success with big bears is now becoming associated with private lands away from the refuges.

"Our biggest bears used to be associated with some of the huge national wildlife refuges in the northern Coastal Plain," Jones said. "Hunters near the refuges took most of the big bears reported when the bears moved onto surrounding private lands. But that is changing. The bear range is expanding on the coast as well as in the mountains. Still, it's more about the regulations and people's attitudes that grow big bears. When you give bears a chance, they are very adaptable."

Different kinds of sanctuaries are helping bears achieve old age and trophy size in the Coastal Plain. Some landowners do not allow bear hunting, yet they own large acreages. In some areas, bear hunting is not traditional because bears were scarce in the past.

Hunters are taking advantage of these default sanctuaries by leasing land nearby or talking to landowners about problem bears and reaping the rewards. Where once counties near wildlife refuges like Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington were the best bets for big bears, now Beaufort, Craven and Jones counties are producing whoppers as well. The vast Croatan National Forest in those counties is one of the top producers for bear hunters in the coastal region.

"The landscape there is a lot more heavily managed," Jones said. "It's a mixed landscape with more agriculture and pine plantations. It's not traditional bear habitat like the big chunks of pocosin and swamp in the national wildlife refuges. But it is producing some really big bears."

Jones said that some timber companies once prohibited bear hunting on their hunting leases. In some instances, the prohibition has been replaced by a quota system such as the system in place for the hunting leases at Hoffman State Forest. He said that Weyerhaeuser had now abandoned its former permit system that also helped bears grow old.

These liberalizations of bear harvests on big sections of timberland may cause a local decrease in the sizes of the bears harvested over time. But that trend is not yet evident and big bears are still coming from timber company lands.

Another reason coastal bears are growing bigger is because hunters are walking away from small bears that are treed. Each hunter only gets one bear tag. Lots of hunters have now taken a bear and are hunting for a trophy-sized animal. Whereas in the past, any bear was a trophy, some bear hunters now realize that they may be presented with several opportunities over the season and are waiting for a big bear before taking a shot.

Bear hunters are also making a concerted effort to promote ethics and are becoming a well-organized group.

Find any group of bear hunters in the state and they are likely to know other bear hunters from all over - not just from North Carolina, but from other states as well. Bear hunters often spend a great deal of time, money and effort hunting in several areas. They tend to hunt in groups of up to a dozen.

"On the Coastal Plain, bear hunters also have good success by watching the trails leading to agricultural fields," Jones said. "Controlling disturbance is the key for still-hunters. Bears are not tolerant of a lot of human presence. If they are left alone, they will enter and leave the fields at dawn and dusk, giving hunters overlooking trails back in the woods and swamps a chance at getting a shot. Bears feed in the fields at night and spend the day back in the thickets."

One such hunter was Craig Branson of Asheboro. He owns land near Davis in Carteret County. The area is not a traditional bear-hunting area. Branson usually hunts waterfowl and deer on his property.

"A hunter told me he had seen two big Angus bulls feeding in an overgrown field," Branson said. "I decided to hunt there the next day because I knew they had to be bears. There were no cattle in the area."

It took Branson two days of maneuvering with his climbing tree stand to get a shot at one of the bears. He still had to get down from his stand to stalk near enough to the bear to take a shot and it was still a long shot. He wounded the bear and used all but one round of ammunition trying to kill it. He couldn't get across a canal to finish off the bear because the water was too wide and he had to wait while the bear died. He didn't want to use the last round unless the bear tried to move away because he was still over 250 yards from it and did not have a good angle for the shot.

"I could see another bear in the field and he heard the wounded bear crying," Branson said. "He ran right up to the bear, then past it. Then he ran right at me. He swam the canal and passed by close enough that I could have reached out and touched him. It was the most exciting thing I have ever experienced while I have been hunting. He was bigger than the one I shot and really was as big as an Angus bull!"

Once the bear died, Branson got a farmer to lift the bear onto his truck with a backhoe. He then took it to a slaughterhouse to weigh it.

"The scales bottomed out at 600 pounds," Branson said. "He had been scavenging in a fallow field and there wasn't a bit of fat on him. I'm sure he would have weighed over 700 pounds if it had been early in the season instead of the last day of the season."

Branson's story is fairly typical of a Coastal Plains still-hunt, except for the size of the bear and being nearly run over by one that was even bigger.

The fact is that about 95 percent of the bears harvested in the coastal region come from private land. In the mountain region, about 50 percent of the bears are taken from private land. The reason for the low harvest ratio on coastal game lands is that there is more land in private ownership along the coast.

"We added some new game lands along the coast that have bears," Jones said. "Van Swamp Game Land and Buckridge Game Land have lots of bears. But you can add tens of thousands of acres in game land territory and it's not enough to make a difference in the proportion of where bears are harvested on the coast because the majority of the land will still be privately owned."

In the mountain region, 70 percent of the bear harvest once came from public land. There are millions of acres in Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest where hunters can hunt bears and that is where the vast majority of the harvest once occurred.

However, over the past few years, a larger percentage of the harvest has come from private land. That added harvest is the reason for the record-setting trend in the mountain region.

"Private lands now account for 50 percent of the mountain bear harvest," Jones said. "The take-home message is that bears are expanding their range onto private lands. They are coming out of the national forest lands onto adjoining private land in the same way it has occurred with the refuges on the Coastal Plain."

So, what does the future hold for black bears? Can record harvests continue to occur in the future?

"I think the population numbers and the harvest numbers are stabilizing in the coastal region," Jones said. "But in the mountains, the numbers will continue to grow. In the future, it will be a question of how many bears humans will tolerate. We are getting more nuisance bear complaints as subdivisions expand into bear habitat and bears occupy more habitats near human population centers. We still have more available habitat than we have bears, so they should continue to expand their population and range, at least in the short term."

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