North Carolina is rightfully credited with having the world’s biggest black bears, but almost all of those enormous specimens come from the eastern third of the state, which features what is possibly the world’s best habitat for bruins.
But when Grant Godwin of Kernersville killed a bear that likely broke the 500-pound mark on Thanksgiving afternoon, it was news because it came from Stokes County in the Piedmont area of the state — where a bear season is a relatively new thing.
Godwin, a firefighter for the city of Winston-Salem, was deer-hunting with his 12-year-old son, Eli, when a huge bear appeared behind his pop-up ground blind, ambled around it and reappeared about 35 yards on the left edge of a field they were watching. Trying to make sure it wasn’t a big sow bear with cubs that he had in trail-camera photos, Godwin let the boar walk off another 40 yards before drilling it through the shoulder and lungs with his 7mm Magnum.
The next day, after hauling the bear up the side of a steep ravine with ropes and pulleys, Godwin unsuccessfully searched for a set of scales capable of weighing it. He finally found a friend with scales that weighed to 440 pounds. Strung up from the loader of a tractor, with its feet still dragging the ground, the bruin bottomed out the scales.
“They kept going past the 440-pound mark, way around it,” Godwin said. “And its feet were still on the ground.”
At a loss to find another set of scales, Godwin went ahead and field-dressed the bear, then hung it on the scales again. This time, it weighed 436 pounds. Godwin found a weight-conversion chart that instructed him to multiply the field-dressed weight of the bear by 1.18 to get the projected live weight, which he did, coming up with 515 pounds.
According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, 1,014 North Carolina bears weighing at least 500 pounds have been killed and their weights recorded from 1976 through the 2015 season. Only one bear from the Piedmont was on that list, compared to 969 from coastal counties and 44 from mountain counties.
According to Colleen Olfenbuttel, the bear biologist for the Commission, the biggest bear ever taken in a Piedmont county was a 535-pound bear killed in Person County in 2014 — the first year for a bear season in that county. She said a 525-pound bear was taken in the Piedmont in 2016.
Through the 2016 season, hunters had taken 19 bears in Stokes County, which — like most Piedmont counties — first had a bear season in 2012. The northern portion of the county, where Godwin was hunting, contains some mountainous land, while the southern portion is largely rolling, Piedmont topography. It has produced a number of trophy whitetails over the past 15 years, including two Boone & Crockett Club specimens, and has been among the top counties in North Carolina in terms of turkey harvests.
Godwin had two trail-camera photos of the big bear: one from this past summer and another from earlier in the fall. He had a number of trail-camera photos of a big sow with cubs. So when the bear showed up at 5:25 on Thanksgiving afternoon, he assumed it was the big sow and waited for the cubs to show up.
“We were in a ground blind, a pop-up, and we were deer-hunting,” said Godwin, who did have a special bear tag. “I knew there were bear in the area, but we were deer-hunting.
“My son had a bleat call, and he was blowing it. About 10 minutes after he quit, we heard something come up out of a ravine behind us and stop. You could hear it. I couldn’t see, because I had the back window of the blind closed, but my son, he looked out the side window and said, ‘Dad, there’s a huge bear behind us.’”
The bear was about 5 yards behind the blind, and it circled to the left, back into the woods, before appearing on the left edge of the hay field they were watching, 35 yards away.
“He was broadside, and he stopped for about three or four minutes,” Godwin said. “I though it might be the big sow, waiting for her cubs, so I didn’t shoot. Then, it started to walk off. At 75 yards, it was fixing to go over a knoll where I couldn’t see it.
“My son really wanted me to shoot it. So I ‘wuffed’ at him, and he turned his head and looked back. I ‘wuffed’ again, and he turned broadside. I shot, and he took off into the woods. We trailed him as far as we could to where I wasn’t comfortable taking my son into the laurel thickets, so we left. I came back the next morning, picked up the trail where it left off, and found him 60 yards away.
“When I got to him, I thought, ‘Oh my God, how am I gonna get him out of here.’ It was so steep, I couldn’t get my 4-wheeler down to him. I took a rope and some 4-to-1 pulleys and pulled him back up. He was probably 250 feet down in a ravine. Then, i got the rope hooked to my truck and pulled him up the last little ways.
“I had my 4-wheeler on the trailer, and once I got him out of the ravine, I tied him to the 4-wheeler and pulled him up into the trailer.”