Photo by Vic Attardo
In a time when tradition gives way to modern marvels, bear hunting in Tennessee is one of those steadfast sports that haven’t changed with time. The only thing that’s changed recently for modern bear hunters is that they have more hunting opportunities than they have had before.
MANAGEMENT VS. EXPECTATIONS
Managing a bear population is no easy task. Enter Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife biologist David Brandenburg. He’s been on the job just over a year looking after the bear situation in Region IV.
Brandenburg said one slight change that will be noticeable on the regulations is the absence of the two-day still-hunt in October in Johnson County. The TWRA recommended the removal of what was termed a nuisance hunt that allowed the overall harvest of 10 to 12 bears over a three-year period. Farmers were complaining about crop damage and, for now, the problem seems to be eradicated.
Brandenburg said predicting how many bears hunters will take or how good a season they can expect is hard to do. Last year, he fully expected a low harvest because of the tremendous acorn crop out there. But it turned out to be an excellent season, with 171 bears harvested. That’s the fourth highest on record for modern bear hunters.
If you’re looking for a barometer, in years when the hard mast is heavy, bears move less. Case in point would be the 1997 record harvest of 370. Brandenburg said that year saw a really poor mast crop, and bears were on the move, particularly outside the haven of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The more bears have to move to get the food they need for the winter, the more sign they leave and the more likely it is for hunters to run into them.
One of the biggest questions bear enthusiasts like to ask is about the trend toward larger bears being taken in the harvest. Brandenburg did say there were some big bears taken last season, but there’s no real trend developing. It’s really just a basic process: If males survive the harvest from season to season and have food, they’ll get bigger.
In his time around Gatlinburg, Brandenburg captured several nuisance bears over 500 pounds in a two-year span. There were rumors last year of a 600-pound-plus bruin being harvested, but it was never confirmed. Brandenburg did note, however, that a 565-pound black male was documented.
The two-week hunt in December may be the traditional stint that most black bear hunters key on with the early hunt in Blount, Cocke and Sevier counties offering additional opportunities, but the mid-November hunt that was added a few years back has made a huge difference to hunters and in the overall harvest.
Last year alone, 60 of the 171 bears harvested were on the two-day November hunt dates that allow the use of dogs. That left 16 bears taken on the early hunt and 87 on the December hunt.
The other good news for future hunts is what Brandenburg discovered about last year’s bear population. He said the females harvested were in really good shape. That means those going to den early and surviving the harvests were fat as well and that led to a good cub year this past spring.
TRADITION MEETS PROGRESS
Brandenburg said the agency estimates Tennessee’s black bear population somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 animals, but they really don’t have a firm hold on that figure.
The one trend that Brandenburg is sure of is the bear harvest over recent years is increasing by 30 to 50 animals every five or so years. The five-year average harvest from 1980 to 1985 was 25 bears. From 1985 to 1990, it was 64 bears. In 1990 to 1995, hunters averaged 98 bears tagged. The same span from 1995 to 2000 saw an average of 120 bears killed. In addition, the most recent time frame from 2000 to 2004 had a five-year average of 170 bears harvested.
“A lot of the increased harvest can be attributed to more bear hunters and more effort along with a strong, growing bear population,” Brandenburg explained. “The bear population is more resilient than managers thought back in 1980.
“These three things account for what we’re seeing today,” Brandenburg said. First came the enforcement of game laws. Next came the protection of the female segment of the bear population. Brandenburg said pioneering research done in the 1980s proved that holding a late-season hunt protected pregnant females because radio collar studies showed they denned early. Before late-season bear hunting was introduced in 1981, 56 percent of the bears taken from 1973 to 1980 were females. From 1981 to 2004, the average number of females in the harvest fell to 37 percent.
The last key step to developing what bear hunters are seeing today was the creation of bear sanctuaries. There were four initially created in 1974 with two more including the Great Smokey Mountains National Park added in 1997. These six sanctuaries give black bears more than 450,000 acres of safe haven.
As for early-season success among the three counties of Blount, Cocke and Sevier, Brandenburg said Cocke County is probably Tennessee’s strongest bear producer. Monroe County is also a strong candidate, but the hunting situation there is different because of the party hunts held in that area. Brandenburg also likes what he sees out of Greene County, calling it a really good bear county. As for a dark horse, he’d have to go with Unicoi County.
Cocke County remains strong from season to season with a harvest almost guaranteed to be among the highest. A lot also has to be said for Monroe and Polk counties as well as Sevier because of their consistent production of good bear harvests. In looking at the 10-year data, Tennessee bear hunters have failed to take at least 100 bears in only one season.
IN THE BEAR WOODS
Like Brandenburg said, we’ve seen a recent trend with more hunters turning to black bear hunting and many of them are a younger breed. For Brad Collins, a young but veteran bear hunter from Greene County, the answers to why are obvious.
“It’s the thrill of big game,” Collins said. “And right now there are more black bears in Tennessee and North Carolina than in recent history.” The 34-year-old Collins, who’s been bear hunting since he was 15, was also quick to credit the success of modern-day bear hunting to regional bear clubs working together, as well as the bear management by the TWRA. Collins said smaller bear clubs have joined larger groups like the Tennessee Bear Hunters Association and the North Carolina Bear Hunters Association, and they work toward educating people ab
out bear hunting and the traditions within the sport.
If there were one thing Collins would like to control about bear hunting, it would be its image. He said the focus should be on the hunt and trying to educate people about the sport. Collins would like to change the negative picture some people paint about bear hunting. For him, education is definitely the key because hunters really appreciate the animals they pursue.
On the subject of hounds, Collins is all about respecting them as well. He feels there are good dogs in every breed. Collins said having a good dog is like having a good job, you have work at it — put your time in.
Bear hunting itself is all about tracking and trailing, and you need a good dog to be at your best. Collins said an old hunter once told him you have to be at least as smart as or smarter than your dog because he learns from you. Bear hunting is a learning experience all the way, and Collins said you have to eyeball a track to see how old it is and then make the decision on whether to let the dog try it. Sometimes the dog’s nose is the deciding factor. In the end, you learn with your dog. And when you drop that tailgate, you’re turning loose not just a dog, but also a hunting partner into that laurel thicket.
Bear hunting can be expensive, from the dogs you breed to the equipment you buy for tracking them. But for Collins, from the start of the race, to the baying, the fighting, and then seeing that 200- to 300-pound (or better) bear treed, it’s a thrilling sport.
Collins said for those thinking about getting into bear hunting you need to know on the front end that it’s a physically demanding sport — not just on you but also your dogs. The two-week bear dog-training season in September is crucial in Collins’ eyes to getting himself and the dogs in shape. He said without the training season, bear hunting would be finished.
The best piece of advice Collins had for beginning bear hunters is to get hooked up with a veteran to learn the ropes. Learning and knowing your hunting area along with bear patterns based on the layout are key ingredients to success. By getting familiar with the territory, you’ll get familiar with bear habits. He said it typically takes four to five years to get bear hunting down pat.