Tennessee's Best Bear Hunting

Tennessee's Best Bear Hunting

Over the past few years, Tennessee's bear population has been growing, and the hunting is getting better. (October 2009)

Bear hunter Mike Lundy with the 348-pound black bear he killed while still-hunting last season. Tennessee hunters bagged a record 446 bears last season.

Photo courtesy of Mike Lundy.

There was an air of expectancy in mid-December last year as Mike Lundy arrived at his chosen stand site well before daylight. Having arranged for a few days off during prime bear season, the Statesville native had traveled east and was looking to kill his first bear. He knew a bear refuge was close by to an area he had permission to hunt, and he had spent time scouting the area until he found exactly what he was looking for: a well-used trail marked with bear scat and paw prints, evidence bears had recently been in the area. The landowner had informed him he had seen several black bears on the property, including a monster boar that was estimated at nearly 600 pounds.

After spending the morning and early afternoon in his stand, Lundy glimpsed the dark shape of a 200-pound black bear ambling its way toward his location from across a clearing. His rangefinder put the bear at just under 200 yards as he began to get into position to shoot. As he raised his gun, another bear, head and shoulders larger then the bear coming toward him, stepped into the clearing.

"I immediately refocused on the larger bear and put the cross hairs directly on the shoulder and squeezed," he said.

Though the bear shifted at the last moment, luck was in Lundy's favor: the bullet struck the bear just behind the head and dropped it on the spot. Not believing his good fortune, Lundy climbed from his stand and went to collect the huge female, which weighed 348 pounds and was nearly 5 feet long.

An Expanding Population

"The majority of black bear hunting in Tennessee occurs on the 640,000-acre Cherokee National Forest (CNF) located in 11 East Tennessee counties," noted Tennessee Region IV biologist David Brandenburg. "Through 30 years of intense management, the agency has been able to increase our bear population by an average of 21 percent every year and more then 30 percent each year over the last 10 years."

Brandenburg points to several factors that have worked together to provide such benefits. The establishment of bear sanctuaries back in the 1970s led to the harvest population increasing from a mere 25 bears each year to the record 446 that were harvested in 2008. In addition, season dates were changed to allow the protection of pregnant females shortly after the mating season ended. He also adds that forests that were cut over some 30 years ago have now returned and are in peak condition to provide mast forage, which increased the carrying capacity of the bear habitat.

"We also severely underestimated the black bear's resilience and its ability to adapt and change with its environment," said Brandenburg. "Situations we thought years ago would limit the bear's range have been overcome by these amazingly adaptable animals."

As the bears increased in numbers, the bear population expanded its range. At the same time, human beings were expanding residential development into more remote areas. The result can include conflict.

"We're overwhelmed each year with complaints in the populated areas to the northeast of the Smoky Mountains," Brandenburg said. "People are relocating to this area and just don't have an understanding of how to discourage bears from coming onto their property in search of food.

"I believe the entire Southern Appalachian bear populations across North Georgia, western North Carolina, northern South Carolina, western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and Virginia have all seen substantial if not record harvest numbers over the last few years," he said.

Last year, Tennessee hunters bagged a record 446 bears in all counties and seasons combined. In the past, dog hunters killed 90 to 95 percent of all bears harvested. That appears to be changing. Following an expanded archery-only season across portions of 11 counties, archers accounted for a whopping 79 bears. That number has increased from just 14 in 2006, before the expanded archery opportunities.

Still-Hunting Strategies

Despite the record harvests, Brandenburg maintains that the art of "still-hunting"--stalking or ambushing and hunting without the use of dogs -- has not yet reached its full potential as a bear-harvesting practice in Tennessee. Brandenburg has a few tips for still-hunters.

"Because the highest bear densities in Tennessee likely occur within our bear sanctuaries, a good strategy is to select hunting areas near, or on the fringes of, bear reserves. Highlighting these areas on a good, appropriate-scale map with a Sharpie pen is highly recommended," he said.

"The opportunities to harvest a bear are also better during the midseason compared to the late bear hunting season," Brandenburg said. "As the hunting season progresses, there are fewer bears available due to harvest. Secondly, pregnant females den significantly earlier than other bears, usually around late November to early December, depending on each bear's individual condition. If fall food resources have been good, then it is expected that pregnant females will be in the den by December and unavailable for harvest."

The biologist points out that one major misconception is that hunters are not allowed to still-hunt during dog permitted seasons. In fact, he suggests this may be an opportune time to take a bear by still-hunting.

"I highly recommend still-hunting for bears when dog hunting for bears is ongoing. The key to still-hunting for bears during seasons where dogs are allowed is to hunt areas where dog hunters are unlikely to be," he said.

The idea is that dog hunters tend to hunt areas that can be traversed or at least by vehicles. Bears being hunted with hounds will move to remote sections where they are not harassed by hounds. Thus, dog hunters may indirectly create harvest opportunities for still-hunters. As a cautionary note, it would not be ethical for a still-hunter to harvest a bear that is obviously being pursued or treed by a pack of someone else's hounds.

In contrast to techniques used during archery hunting for bears, strategies for mid- and late-season still-hunters are simple: Just hunt while walking remote trails or CNF roads closed (i.e., gated) to vehicles. Importantly, do not limit yourself to hunting out of a tree stand. Rather just "quietly slip" along closed roads or trails.

This will greatly increase your chances of seeing bears. Brandenburg offe

rs that he regularly sees bears while walking trails as he's conducting annual bait station surveys for bears in Tennessee. CNF roads closed to vehicles are numerous and provide easy access for hunters. Hunt roads with the least human activity and your chances of encountering a bear will increase with each mile walked.

Dog Hunting

Dog hunting for black bears always has been highest percentage form of bear hunting. Dog hunting requires the use of highly trained dogs that are capable of picking up a bear's scent and tracking it through some extremely rugged terrain and baying the bear until the hunter arrives. The sport is steeped in culture and heritage dating back to the beginning of Tennessee's history.

"For dog hunters, we have a division in our bear seasons which allow for a bear harvest and a dog-training season -- no guns or harvest of the bear is allowed. Typically, this dog training takes place in Greene, Cocke and portions of Jefferson and Sevier counties on both private lands and the Cherokee WMA and private lands only in Blount, Carter, Johnson, Sullivan and Unicoi counties," said Brandenburg. "Otherwise, we still have a very lengthy harvest season where dogs are permitted across the bear-hunting region."

One thing is clear: A 30 percent annual increase in the bear population means a good set of dogs can get on a bear track much easier today than they could 30 years ago.

"Running dogs is not something that everyone is cut out for," said Jonesborough bear hunter Jerry Norris. "When that bear goes straight up the ridge and those dogs light out after him, you go straight up that ridge too. You got to be in pretty good shape to chase after those dogs, and that may take you the better part of the day to get them rounded up. In dog hunting, the dog decides when the hunt is over, not you."

More Information

At the time this article went to print, the framework for the 2009 bear-hunting seasons in Tennessee were consistent with the last two years. For information on specific hunting season dates, consult the TWRA's 2009 Tennessee Hunting and Trapping Guide or www.state. tn.us/twra/bearseasons.html. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency publishes a wealth of information on its Web site that can assist bear hunters, including harvest data broken down by county and WMAs. To see this information, go to www. state.tn.us/twra/bearmain.html.

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