Blockbuster Bruins!

Arkansas' 2004 bear season, the second-best ever, indicates that the hunting for the ursine kind is getting better all the time. Experience the awesome action now!

The 375-pound bruin this hunter poses next to is not an anomaly in Arkansas.
Photo by Keith Sutton


"Dear Mr. Editor, -- Being that this is a rainy day, I thought I would write you about the bear hunt."

So begins "Pete Whetstone's Bear Hunt," the first of 45 letters written by Charles Fenton Mercer Noland for the New York Spirit of the Times. One of Arkansas's earliest and most prolific outdoor writers, Noland moved to Batesville in 1826 and there, under the pen name Pete Whetstone, wrote many stories about his hunting and fishing adventures in Arkansas.

While Noland hunted deer, turkeys, ducks, prairie chickens and quail, his favorite sport was hunting bears. Some of his Batesville friends kept packs of bear dogs, and Noland frequently went along on hunts to areas around the town of Oil Trough, the Devil's Fork of the Little Red River and War Eagle Creek. "Pete Whetstone's Bear Hunt" chronicles one of those hunts, during which a "tremendous bear" was wounded by Whetstone and his hunting companions. Whetstone's dogs continued after the bear and finally cornered it.

"When we overtook them," Noland wrote, "they had him at bay; two dead and three crippled dogs told of the bloody fight they had had. Sam Jones fired; the wound was that time mortal. At the crack of the gun, the dogs again clamped him; with a powerful reach of his paw, he grabbed the old General, and the next moment fastened his big jaws on him; this was more than flesh and blood could stand: I sprung at him with a butcher-knife, and the first lick sent it to the handle. He loosened his jaws and Sam Jones caught the old General by his hind legs and pulled him away. I gave him one more stab, and he fell dead."

Tales like this one by Noland, and those of other writers such as Tom Breese, John Gaskins, William Quesenberry and Thomas Thorpe, made Arkansas nationally famous as an unrivaled bear hunting territory. In fact, the bears of which they wrote became larger-than-life symbols for frontier society. It was no accident, therefore, that Arkansas was unofficially nicknamed "The Bear State" early in its history.

Arkansas offers excellent bear hunting today as well. While black bears nearly became extinct in this state shortly after the turn of the century, concerted efforts by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission have led to a phenomenal rebound in the population in recent years, and savvy hunters willing to devote time to scouting and hunting have an excellent chance of taking a trophy animal.

Rick Eastridge, the AGFC's bear biologist, probably knows more about these bruins than anyone. He's spent thousands of hours working with black bears in the Natural State and elsewhere. We asked if he would answer some questions about last year's season, give a forecast for the 2005 season, and share his insights on where hunting opportunities might be best, as well as provide tactical information that hunters can use to increase their chances for a successful hunt. Here's what he had to say.

Arkansas Sportsman: Last year's bear season was one of the best ever. What factors account for this being such a good season?

Eastridge: Last season's bear harvest was the second highest recorded by the Game and Fish Commission since modern bear hunting began in 1980. Hunters killed 340 bears in 2004. That's second only to the 2001 season when 372 bears were killed.

The 2001 season was the first season that allowed baiting on private land. I think more Arkansas hunters are showing interest in bear hunting, especially with the use of bait on private lands. Hunters are learning how to bait effectively, and learning how to hunt over bait. There was a moderate mast crop last year and that made baiting more effective than it would be during a year of abundant natural foods such as acorns.

Last season also stood out because of the numerous reports of very large bears being killed. Bear hunters are infamous for inflating the size of the bears they see and kill. However, there were a few notable exceptions. One hunter who was hunting north of Russellville killed a bear that reportedly weighed 570 pounds '¦ This is probably the heaviest bear that's been killed in Arkansas in modern bear hunting. Another bear, about 540 pounds, was killed by a hunter in the Ouachitas. I heard several other unconfirmed but believable reports of bears weighing over 300 pounds killed last year.

What are the current bear population estimates for Arkansas?

In Bear Zone 1, the Ozarks, the Game and Fish Commission estimates a population of about 2,000 bears. This population is stable to slightly increasing. In Bear Zone 2, the Ouachitas, we estimate about 1,000 bears. This population is definitely growing and expanding its range. In bear zones 5 and 5A, the Delta, we estimate a population of about 500 bears. We have stabilized this population through harvest and translocation of bears to Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.

What should hunters expect for the upcoming season? Do you think it will be a good one?

I expect us to have another great bear season. Hunters are becoming more interested in pursuing Arkansas bears, and we encourage that participation to reach our bear management goals. Also, more hunters are taking advantage of baiting on private lands and are becoming more proficient at baiting. The one part of the equation we cannot control is natural food abundance. In years of abundant natural foods, especially acorns, bears prefer to feed on these acorns as opposed to visiting bait sites. The opposite occurs in years of poor natural food abundance. In years of abundant natural foods, our public areas can be real hotspots for bear hunting.

On a side note, I'd like to comment about the practice of bear baiting for the purpose of harvesting bears. It has been my experience that:

  • One -- Bear baiting, done correctly, can be a lot of work. Hunters should not expect to throw out some bait a few days prior to the season and expect a bear to show up. We allow hunters to bait bears on private lands up to 30 days before the season begins in order to help the hunter get the bear accustomed to the bait. Sometimes it takes a bear a few weeks to cover its home range and encounter a bait site, so don't give up! Baits should be replenished at least once every three days to keep the bear in the area.

  • Two -- Baiting does not guarantee you'll harvest a bear. Just

    because a hunter sits over a bait pile doesn't mean he doesn't have to "hunt" that bear. Bears are typically very cautious when they approach a bait site. The hunter must stay alert while on the stand.

    Bears are not the lumbering, clumsy beasts they are often portrayed to be. Bears can step very cautiously and silently. I often hear hunters remark that their bear "appeared silently out of nowhere." Bears will often circle a bait site to determine if any danger exists there. Hunters should move cautiously and slowly so they don't alert the bear when preparing for a shot.

    Bears are sensitive to sound and movement, and a rapid movement by an archer, a clumsily cocked muzzleloader or the snap of the safety on a modern rifle can send your bear bolting. If you frighten a mature bear in this way, chances are you'll never see that bear again. The bear will either depart to some other food source or they will visit the bait only at night. So don't neglect the basics of hunting.

    Are there any regulations changes hunters should know about?

    One major change is the addition of a Special Youth Modern Gun Bear Hunt in zones 1 and 2, Nov. 5-6, 2005. The Game and Fish Commission wanted to provide opportunity for youth to harvest a bear with modern gun, and this hunt coincides with the special youth modern gun deer season.

    The opening day of modern gun season for other hunters in zones 1 and 2 will be Nov. 7 this year, with the season running through Nov. 30. In the past, the season ran Nov. 1-30.

    Could you recommend some public hunting lands that offer good bear hunting?

    Ozark National Forest WMA (35 bears), Ouachita National Forest (31 bears), White Rock WMA (17 bears) and Piney Creeks WMA (12 bears) were our top public areas last year. Winona WMA typically produces 5 to 8 bears each year and at least one or two big bears each year.

    Hunters who want to hunt bears on public land must do lots of homework to be successful. However, bear hunting these areas is a bit like deer hunting: They need to key in on the right food sources and terrain.

    Bears become "hyperphagic" in the fall, meaning they eat a lot in preparation for the winter denning period. Bears will expand their range and feed up to 20 hours daily to prepare for winter. They love acorns, but will eat hickory nuts, persimmons and insects as well. Bears don't necessarily wait for the fruit to fall off the trees; they will climb trees to access these foods, so look for broken limbs in fruit-bearing trees, and also look for bear claw marks on the boles of the trees.

    Fresh scat is always a good indicator of bear activity, too. Use the terrain to your advantage. I'd search for bear trails and bear activity along narrow ridges and benches. My favorite hunting spot is a saddle between two ridges.

    By the way: The top five counties for bear harvest last year were Newton (41 bears), Johnson (28 bears), Pope (27 bears), Scott (24 bears) and Desha (23 bears). A public-land hunter might combine the top county information over the last several years (harvest reports are available on the commission's Web site, with the top public area information to help choose a starting place for scouting.

    Do some public areas offer better chances for harvesting a trophy bear?

    Big bears and small bears are available for harvest in all four huntable bear zones. AGFC biologists have caught 300- to 400-pound bears in the Ozarks, Ouachitas and the Delta. Bears that size show up in the harvest each year. You just have to get out there and find them.

    The tough part is these big bears are difficult to pattern, even with baiting. A big bear can be on an Ozark bench eating acorns one day then travel to a bait site 10 miles away the next. You can never tell, and each time you sit on the stand could be the day you see the Big One.

    On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with harvesting a smaller bear, especially from a management standpoint. In terms of a trophy, if a hunter wants a nice bear rug, they often think they want a big bear. Well, a big bear rug from a 300- to 400-pound bear might be 5 1/2 to 6 feet long. A bear rug from a 150-pound bear will be 5 feet long -- not much smaller than the pelt from a 300-, 400-pounder. Also, the fur on the smaller bears is often shinier and fuller than on very large bears, and these often make nicer rugs. Also keep in mind that we have some big bears out there, but they aren't nearly as abundant as smaller bears.

    Do you have any closing advice?

    Yes. Arkansas bear hunters should be prepared for success. Every year I hear stories of hunters killing bears, and they find out it's tough to haul a bear out of the woods. Many don't understand how to properly care for a bear either. As a result, the meat and hide spoil.

    Be prepared with a truck, ATV (if legal), horses, mules or 10 to 12 of your best friends to help get your bear out of the woods in a timely manner. Bears don't have handles, and it can be a real challenge to get them out. October and November can bring hot humid weather to Arkansas, and bears have thick skin, thick fur and thick layers of fat. These factors can spoil meat and fur quickly.

    It's legal to quarter your bear in the field. Quartering helps cool the bear meat and facilitates getting the bear out of the woods. Cooling the meat as soon as possible is the key to great-tasting bear meat. Take your photos in the woods to show your friends; then, skin and quarter the bear quickly. Get the skin to your taxidermist for proper care and preservation. Bear meat makes excellent table fare as long as you care for it properly. Furthermore, it is illegal to discard edible portions of any game.

    Archery/CrossbowZones 1 and 2: Oct 1-Nov. 30, 2005. Zones 3, 4, 5, 5A, 6 and 7: Closed.
    Muzzeloader Zones 1 and 2: Oct. 15-23, 2005. Zones 3, 4, 5, 5A, 6 and 7: Closed.
    Modern GunZones 1 and 2: Nov. 7-30, 2005. Zone 5: Dec. 10-18, 2005. Arkansas lands lying east of the Mississippi River are closed. Zone 5A: Dec. 3-18, 2005. Arkansas lands lying east of the Mississippi River are closed. Zones 3, 4, 6, and 7: Closed.
    Bag Limit: One.Zone Quotas: 200 bears may be taken in Zone 1 by any method; 150 bears may be taken in zone 2 by any method; 35 bears may be taken in Zone 5 by modern gun, and 15 bears may be taken in Zone 5A by modern gun.
    Special Youth

    Modern Gun Bear Hun

    Zones 1 and 2: Nov. 5-6, 2005. Limit one. No dogs. Includes the WMA's in bear zones 1 and 2 but does not include WMAs requiring a deer permit to harvest a bear.

    If you follow Eastridge's advice, if you are patient and do some preseason scouting, and if luck is on your side, this year you could kill a Bear State bruin, one of North America's most magnificent and storied game animals. May luck be with you.

    (Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Hunting Arkansas: The Sportsman's Guide to Natural State Game. To order autographed copies, send a check or money order for $28.25 -- Arkansas residents should add sales tax -- to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002.)

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