Photo courtesy of Deborah Wood
The conversation at hand led me through my hunting memories to a black bear I spied a few years earlier with its nose pushed down deep into a yellow-jacket hive in the sandy soil of a wildlife clearing on Coopers Creek Wildlife Management Area in Union County. Its huge presence — I guessed some 350 pounds or more — weighed on my mind while talking about bear hunting in the North Georgia mountains with Sherman Graham of Hall County. Graham works as a sales associate for Outdoor Traditions in Dawsonville, where he shares his expertise in bear hunting with the sportsmen who use Georgia Highway 400 as their access route into the southern reach of the Appalachian Mountains.
“That was a big bear, for sure, and an example of just how big black bears can grow in Georgia. But I’m guessing it was still smaller than that Boone and Crockett bear you’ve got a picture of,” Graham retorted. “I heard about that bear when it was killed.”
Graham was referring to a photograph of bear hunter John Wood of Blairsville. Wood was no stranger to trophy bear hunting. He had several trophy black-bear skulls measured by Jerry Bearden for submission to the B&C Club record books. Among his other trophies is a White County bear he killed in 1995. The skull measured 21 13/16 inches on the B&C scale and placed second on that club’s all-time list for Georgia black bears.
According to the B&C score sheet that accompanied the photo of his latest trophy, Wood’s black bear was killed in 2003 in Union County, a rugged area of high ridges and deep bottoms dominated by the Blue Ridge — the geographic divide that separates the Tennessee River Valley from the southern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. With a final score of 21 6/16 total inches, the bear exceeds the “awards” minimum score of 20 inches (total skull measurements of length plus width), as well as the “all-time” minimum score of 21 inches. It measured just 1/2 inch short of the highest B&C score for Georgia black bears — 21 14/16 inches.
The weight of Wood’s Union County bear is unknown, but you can bet it tipped the scales to somewhere near the heaviest bear on the big-game record books maintained by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. That list is headed by a 581-pound bruin killed in 2002 in Union County, which topped the previous record of 560 pounds for a bear taken in 2001 in Gilmer County. According to senior wildlife biologist Jay Cantrell of the WRD, only two or three are taken each year that weigh more than 500 pounds. In fact, since bear-kill records were first maintained in 1979, the WRD has listed only 10 bears that have topped the 500-pound benchmark of truly heavyweight animals.
THE LATEST NUMBERS
The key to the North Georgia bear harvest revolves around the rugged and remote mountains, as well as the availability of public lands on which they are found. According to the latest report available from the WRD, some 2,200 bears are estimated in the Georgia population. In the North Georgia counties that support bear, bruin densities fall in the range of one bear for every 500 to 2,500 acres. That figure applies to an area of approximately 1,623,809 acres.
Bear hunting in North Georgia is permitted in 18 counties and on 19 WMAs within the Blue Ridge Mountain, Ridge and Valley, or Upper Piedmont physiographic regions. Those WMAs comprise 398,000 acres of available hunting land. The Chattahoochee National Forest not in WMAs also offers a patchwork of tracts open to bear hunts.
According to Cantrell, North Georgia hunters tally an average of 200-plus bears annually, but the 2004 hunting season saw that number slip considerably. The northern counties accounted for 160 bear kills in 2004, significantly lower than the record harvest of 260 bears in 2003.
“We can only guess that the lower total bear harvest in North Georgia last season was a result of the bumper crop of acorns,” Cantrell offered, “because the decline was consistent with the decline in deer hunters’ success. Bears — and deer, too — just don’t have to move around much when food is abundant.”
A majority of 68 percent of the bears was taken on WMAs during the last three hunting seasons.
NORTH GEORGIA BEAR HUNTING
According to Cantrell, not many sportsmen specifically target bears. Rather, deer hunters check many in, because bear hunting seasons generally run concurrent with the archery, primitive weapons and firearms deer seasons.
“A lot of Georgia hunters are ‘still’-hunters — in other words, deer hunters who hunt from tree stands. Therefore, incidental bear kills are the most likely means of taking bears. We don’t really have the traditional organized groups of bear hunters,” Cantrell explained. “And many who kill their first bear admit they have killed their last bear. It’s a job to get one out of the woods. They don’t drag easy. They’re heavy.”
That is one of the reasons why Graham teams up with David Prickett and his sons, Jeremy and Jody of Hall County.
“We’d much rather have a team of hunters together to help recover our kills. But we also put four of us in the woods at a time for the advantages of scouting bears. We can narrow down the hunting areas quickly by putting each of us on separate mountains or ridges,” Graham pointed out, “and quickly share the location of bear sign by radio contact and noting the location of the sign on our GPS units for future hunts.”
Those GPS units also are valuable aids to avoid getting lost in the rough terrain frequently associated with North Georgia bear hunts. Graham said he always marks the location of his truck before heading off into bear habitat, which consists primarily of large areas of forested land across repeating ridges and valleys. Quality bear habitat is characterized by an overstory of hardwood species, primarily oaks, with pines found on the poorer sites. Understory vegetation is generally sparse except for dense thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron, which are used by bears as escape cover. Huckleberries and blueberries form dense stands on many ridges and provide soft mast during mid- and late summer. Oak mast — especially white oak acorns — is the staple food item during the fall and early winter with other foods being taken as available.
“Scout out the ridges for white oaks, and when you find them, key in on a few trees. Food markings, such as the ragged top of an oak tree, are the most valuable bear sign you can find. As long as they’re not disturbed, bears will come back time and time again until every a
corn is gone. If bears are using the area, you’ll find a trail that will likely lead to a denning area. It’ll look really worn, like a hiker’s trail,” he explained.
Other food sources include corn and sorghum, which are often planted in wildlife clearings and on private farms adjacent to the WMAs. Muscadines, beehives and yellow-jacket hives are also food sources, he concluded.