The North Carolina bear hunting population continues to grow, along with the size of the bears and the number of hunters who pursue them.
Billy Rose hunted white-tailed deer for years. He knew the odds for taking a record-book deer in North Carolina were extremely low, but he had not even considered the possibility that he would have chance at a record-book black bear.
“I only hunt bears a couple of times a year,” Rose said. “A friend who plants corn for deer and waterfowl each year in Camden County invited me to hunt. His family killed bears in the past, but had lost interest. I decided to give it a try.”
Rose spotted four bears feeding in fields as he drove the farm at night. He hunted from tree stands fruitlessly two mornings and afternoons.
“The next morning I decided to stalk the bear,” Rose said. “I used cover along ditches to sneak to the field. I shot the bear with a .270 at 175 yards.”
The bear weighed 635 pounds. After drying, the skull scored 21, making the All-Time Boone and Crockett record book.
“The bear was a short distance from Dismal Swamp Refuge,” Rose said. “That may have helped him get so big.”
Rose’s storybook hunt is not unusual. North Carolina’s black bear hunting is the best on the planet.
Bears continue to expand their range. The state has the highest number of acres in bear sanctuaries in the lower 48 states, giving a boost to bear numbers and bear sizes.
“Last year, there were several bears harvested by hunters that weighed over 400 pounds and a couple of bears that weighed over 500 pounds,” said Chris Henline, a North Carolina Wildlife Commission crew leader in mountainous District 8. “I weighed one that was 400 pounds on my scales and I have confidence the weight was accurate.”
The bear Henline weighed was taken in McDowell County near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parkway itself acts as a sanctuary with its right of way off-limits to hunters where it winds through the high mountains. But the bear was taken from Pisgah National Forest, one of the large tracts of public land through which the parkway slices.
“We have lots of other sanctuaries in the region,” Henline said. “The Asheville watershed is a big area where no hunting is allowed. Mount Mitchell State Park and the Mount Mitchell Bear Sanctuary on our game lands also have lots of bears. The biggest bears taken by hunters usually come from areas near the sanctuaries. Last year, there were more big bears taken by hunters than usual because of a poor mast year.”
McDowell, Yancey, Mitchell, Madison and Buncombe counties provide some of the best mountain bear habitat. The rugged mountainous areas are covered with native vegetation. The mountain national forest lands and the private lands are heavily hunted. Bears soon learn where they are safe.
“The hunters know where the cut-offs are,” Henline said. “They check for bear sign where bears have left the sanctuaries. They let out their hounds and the bears will head back to the sanctuaries when the hounds start chasing them. Most of the sanctuaries’ boundaries are roads and the hunters try to head the bears off at the roads before they can get back inside. Dogs can’t read signs and they will follow the bears back in. But it seems the bears can. They know right where to go to escape. Hunters have to leave their guns behind when they enter a sanctuary to catch their dogs. The majority of the time, the bear gets away.”
Poor mast years equal good bear hunting in the mountains. Mountain bears must expand their travel range to find adequate food. While bears on the Coastal Plain may be able to switch to a number of agricultural crops without moving much, mountain bears have a more limited number of options.
“We don’t have many big bears like the coastal region,” Henline said. “This is rugged country and it’s natural habitat. But there are enough big ones to make hunting interesting. A big bear can’t climb a tree and backs up to a hole to make a stand and fight the dogs. When he does, a hunter can lose some dogs. If the dogs are good enough to keep the bear from heading into a sanctuary, a hunter might get a shot.”
The top 10 counties in the mountain region in terms of total bears harvested by hunters were Haywood (78), McDowell (67), Graham (66), Macon (65), Cherokee (61), Madison (57), Yancey (51), Clay (32), Buncombe (31) and Caldwell (26).
The total harvest in the mountain region was 717 bears, of which 405 were taken from game lands and 312 taken from private lands. The percentage of bears taken from private lands has been increasing over the past several seasons.
“Bears are expanding their range onto private lands in the mountains,” said commission bear biologist Mark Jones. “They are moving off the national forest lands and sanctuaries and offering hunters new opportunities.”
As good as the mountain hunting can be, hunters kill more bears in the coastal region, and bear weights are also heavier. The 2003 coastal harvest was 1,042 bears. Most of the bears on the coast are taken from private lands. Just 5 percent of coastal bears came from pubic hunting lands during the 2003 season; 56 percent of the bears in the mountain region came from public hunting lands.
The top 10 bear harvest counties in the coastal region were Hyde (187), Beaufort (154), Tyrrell (94), Jones (83), Camden (66), Washington (63), Bladen (56), Craven (54), Pender (43) and Bertie (38).
David Rowe is the commission’s District 1 wildlife biologist. Some of the biggest bears in the state are taken in District 1.
“Hyde County is where bigger bears have come from in most years,” Rowe said. “There are lots of national wildlife refuges in the northeastern counties. The refuges allow bears to grow older and larger. The area around the 100,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has a lot of bears and hunting territory. In Washington and Tyrrell counties, the area around Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge has lots of big bears.”
Big bears are male bears. Since males have bigger territories than females, they wander more and are therefore more likely to be encountered by hunters outside the refuges.
“A male bear has a territory of around 12,000 acres and a female around 6,000 acres,” Rowe said. “But home range decreases in fall when the blackgum berries are ripe. Blackgum berries are a staple for bears in northeastern swamps. Chowan Swamp Game Land is an area where still-hunters hunt bears by waiting over trails leading through the blackgum swamps. It’s so big and dense that hound hunters can lose their dogs for several days, so they hunt bears without dogs. Some hunters killed a big bear at Chowan Swamp last year and it took eight hours for them to get it out. It’s a tough place to hunt. There’s mud up to your waist.”
The coastal region has produced numerous record-book bears over the last decade. Billy Rose’s record-book bear is a prime example. The large number of bears in tiny Camden County can be traced to the mixture of river drainages, agricultural fields and the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The native habitat is hard enough to penetrate, so many bears escape from hunters to grow large.
Another 635-pound bear was taken in Hyde County by Billy Parish on Nov. 10. Kimberly McCargo, a wildlife technician in District 1, weighed the bear.
“The bear came out of the Pungo Refuge into a field,” McCargo said. “Parish was still-hunting in the morning. He called it in on the Bear Hotline and we went to examine the bear. It was the biggest bear I have seen.”
Dale Davis is a wildlife technician in District 1. He said dealing with large bears is a fact of life in the district.
“Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge and the other refuges hold lots of big bears that spill off onto the surrounding farms,” Davis said. “The farms lease hunting rights to groups. They kill bears at all of the farms.”
Bear vs. vehicle collisions have been on the upswing as well. Last year, Davis had to deal with a bear injured in a vehicle collision.
“I estimated the bear weighed 550 pounds,” Davis said. “He totaled the car. I had to drug the bear and use a hoist to swing it into the truck. There was no way else to move it because it was so big. There are between 30 and 50 bears hit with vehicles each year in the 13 counties in District 1 and that’s only the ones we know about.”
The commission is acquiring more game lands in the region that have good bear hunting opportunities. Van Swamp Game Land in Washington and Beaufort counties and Buckridge Game Land in Tyrrell County are recent acquisitions.
Robert Norville is the commission’s District 2 wildlife biologist. Norville said the biggest bears in the state occur along the Pamlico County-Beaufort County line.
“I remember last year one party brought in a pair of bears that were almost identical and the bears weighed around 450 pounds each,” Norville said. “One we checked at the Pamlico-Beaufort line weighed over 600 pounds. For the largest bears in the state, Hyde and Beaufort counties have been swapping bragging rights during recent seasons.”
During 2003, Beaufort County had one of the highest bear harvests in the state at 154. During the preceding seasons, the Beaufort County bear harvests were 130, 155, 90, 81, 82 and 94.
“Beaufort County is still rural and agricultural and therefore it still has great bear habitat,” Norville said. “There is a lot of pocosin, but there is also good upland habitat. From Chocowinity to Blount’s Creek, there is a mix of habitat types along the creek drains. The creek drains provide escape cover and mast crops.
“Logging roads and field edges provide a lot of soft mast – wild cherry, blackberry, pokeberry, blueberry and Hercules’ club. Bears relish purple berries.
“There are agricultural crops on the uplands. The farmers in the area still rely on the corn, soybeans, wheat rotation, and bears thrive on those crops. Bears are big grazers and feed in wheat fields in winter and also in the harvested corn fields.”
Goose Creek Game Land in Beaufort and Pamlico counties is only 7,902 acres in area. But it yields a couple of bears to hunters each season. Van Swamp produced lots of bears, but the harvest has dropped dramatically. Hunters harvested 24 bears the first season it was open to the public. Then the harvest fell to eight, then to four bears last season.
“There are some nice bears at Croatan National Forest,” Norville said. “It is a huge place to hunt with lots of management in place. A bear sanctuary in Jones, Carteret and Craven counties increases the bear sizes and numbers in the surrounding hunting areas. Our sanctuaries are definitely improving the harvest in both numbers and sizes of bears. Harvest rates drop as you move farther away from the sanctuaries.”
While Croatan does not produce a large harvest, the game land’s long season and huge size, along with good access roads, attract many bear hunters. A bear of 400 to 500 pounds from Croatan is a distinct possibility for visiting hunters. Most hunters use hounds to pursue bears at Croatan.
“Top District 2 bear-hunting counties like Jones and Craven have lots of timberlands and farms,” Norville said. “Jones County has tons of agricultural lands and looks a lot like Beaufort County. It also has lots of habitat along the Trent and White Oak rivers. Hoffman State Forest has really produced some nice bears. It’s not a public hunting area, but they cooperate with the commission and share data and management information. There are lots of flat woods on the uplands in that area of Jones County that provide good bear habitat.”
Norville also said Pamlico County has a lot of low-key hunting on private lands. Bears grow big through shrewd management on the part of farmers and other landowners.
“They don’t advertise what they’re doing,” Norville said. “It’s a mix of farmers and guides who control their bear hunting to produce big bears. Some offer no-kill, no-pay hunts, some offer day hunts for a fee and some have the same group pay them to hunt every year. The hunting is not publicized and it’s tightly controlled and that is helping the area to grow some big bears.”
Farther south in District 2, Pender County continues to produce lots of bears. There is not as much agriculture in the southeastern part of the state, so the bears are typically not as large. But bears exceeding the 400- to 500-pound weight range are not at all rare.
“Pender County produced 43 bears in 2003 and that’s a good harvest,” Norville said. “A lot of deer hunters ask for relief from bears eating deer feed and destroying deer feeders. Most clubs have one or two bear hunters who are glad to help out. They have to time their deer feeding so it doesn’t interfere with bear season, because baiting bears is not legal.”
Pender County has lots of native habitat consisting of pocosins and swamps along with river drainages. Holly Shelter Game Land produces a handful of bears each season.
New additions to Angola Bay Game Land and Holly Shelter Game Land should produce more bears from public lands for bear hunters in Pender County and Duplin County. A recent purchase of around 15,000 acres has increased the public hunting land, tying the two game lands together and creating a contiguous tract of about 87,000 acres in area. A harvest of 10 bears came from Pender County game lands last season, creating a tie with Jones County, which also had a public lands harvest of 10 bears. The two counties had the highest public lands harvest in the coastal region.
“Angola is some tough territory,” Norville said. “It’s so thick, it’s hard to hunt. But it is excellent bear habitat. The new additions have roads that will allow public access to the tract. Holly Shelter has food plots that help attract bears for hunters’ hounds and it also has good roads for access.”
In District 3, some large bears are killed each season. Bladen County is one of the best counties in District 3.
The Cape Fear River and its tributaries offer excellent habitat. The uplands also have lots of mast-bearing trees and there are farms scattered around the county. Timberlands leased to hunters provide some of the best opportunities for bear hunters and there are also some excellent game land opportunities.
Of the 53 bears taken by hunters in the county, three came from game lands. Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land has lots of access roads and excellent bear habitat on its 32,363 acres, making it the top choice for hunters in District 3.