Loaded for Bear

Bears are attracted to new things in their environment, such as trail cameras.

Eastern N.C. grows the biggest black bears in North America.

North Carolina sportsmen have one of North America’s top big game hunting opportunities hiding right under their noses. The Tarheel State claims the North American record for big black bear. An 880-pound bruin from Craven County (1998) holds that record. Six hundred to 700-pound bears are taken regularly.

Rick Krastanoff of Crystal City, Mo., was one of the lucky hunters who scored a bear in 2005. Krastanoff has pursued black bears in Alberta, Canada, but recorded his first successful hunt with Cutawhiskie Creek Outfitters in eastern North Carolina.

“My heart almost jumped out of my chest. It was the thrill of a lifetime,” he said. “That was my first bear, and I had chased them for a while, including two trips to Canada.

“North Carolina bears are obviously bigger than the ones in Canada.”

Krastanoff’s 300-pound bruin was one of 1,662 bears taken in North Carolina during the 2005 season. That’s a typical annual harvest. The 2004 harvest was 1,497, and one of the best years was 2003 when 1,812 bears were harvested.

There are around 11,000 black bears in North Carolina, spread across 10 million acres, according to black bear project leader Mark Jones of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.

Because of the 880-pound record, eastern North Carolina has developed a reputation for trophy black bears. Six hundred pounders aren’t unusual and bears in the 700-pound range are sighted each year, Jones said. Hyde County (153) and Beufort County (143) were the leading bear producers of 2005.

North Carolina’s bear comeback is a great success story. After being hunted almost to extinction in the early 1900s, the state established a system of sanctuaries that helped stabilize the population. Today bear hunting is allowed at 20 of the state’s public hunting areas.

Coastal North Carolina bears are larger on average than mountain bears. During the 2003-2004 season, North Carolina produced 48 bears in excess of 500 pounds at the coast but only six bears weighing more than 500 pounds in the mountains.

“The extensive agricultural crops scattered through our coastal bear range help the eastern North Carolina bears grow so large,” Jones said. “If I had to pick the best crop, it’s corn. But bears also love wheat and soybeans.”

While North Carolina doesn’t allow baiting, planting food plots is legal.

Krastanoff hunted with Cutawhiskie Creek Outfitters of Ahoskie. The Missouri hunter spent 36 hours sitting in a blind but he enjoyed the satisfaction of taking a bear while still-hunting.

Cutawhiskie Creek outfitters uses a combination of planted plots and Conservation Reserve Program land to attract bears to 4,500 acres of land near Ahoskie.

“We plant a lot of wildlife food plots,” said Clay McPherson of Cutawhiskie Creek Outfitters. “Bears love sweet corn, field corn and turnips. Native pokeberries are also abundant along Cutawhiskie Creek,”

Habitat is also important to Mike Noles who operates Conman’s Guide Service in Washington County, a few miles south of Ahoskie but still in the state’s northeastern quadrant.

“Habitat management has helped us increase the bear population on our land by 100 percent,” Noles said.

As bear hunting grew in popularity, Noles learned more about managing habitat. To find out what foods bears prefer, he placed a trail camera near his wildlife plots. The idea worked well until a bear tried to eat his camera.

“Bears are attracted to new things in their environment and especially something with moving parts,” Noles said. “My last photo was the inside of a bear’s mouth.”

Fortunately, Noles’ habitat management works better than the trail camera. The land-owner is having excellent success in attracting big bruins and reports a 70-percent hunter-success rate. Noles owns land near Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and leases several thousand acres of farm land.

“We do most of our management near the swamps,” he said. “We leave standing corn and milo along areas of thick cover. But the bears’ favorite foods are native berries and persimmons. If you have wild mast, it creates food sources in the bears’ home areas.”

Noles mows competing vegetation and fertilizes to encourage wild grapes, pokeberry and wild blueberries. He also keeps the ground clean under mature persimmon trees and transplants sprouts from their seeds. By transplanting seedlings, Noles now has 200 persimmon trees scattered around his farm.

“Bears really love persimmons and berries,” he said. “We also attract bears that are pressured by dog hunting at other land. The bears come here where no one bothers them and they stay. We only still-hunt at my farms.”

In addition to the thrill of taking a trophy, a hint of danger makes bear hunting a real outdoor adventure.

“There’s something mysterious about hunting an animal that can hunt you back,” said Gary Knight of Greensboro’s Polecat Creek Outfitters. “During the time I guided for bears, I was amazed at how many grown adults don’t want to walk to a bear stand alone.”

Knight isn’t guiding for bears this year because of a full schedule with whitetail and waterfowl hunting. But he still recalls one of his first encounters with a bear.

“I was walking down a road with my bow during deer season and a big sow with two cubs walked out of the woods in front of me,” he said. “The hair on the back of neck stood up, and I was thinking about what to do when she must have smelled me and went back in the woods.”

Black bears are usually not aggressive. When confronted by a bear, the standard advice is to stand one’s ground and try to appear as “large” as possible and never turn and run. A fleeing human sparks a bear’s predatory instinct.

Climbing a tree isn’t recommended either, as black bears are excellent climbers.

Experts advise slowly backing away from the animal. If the bear approaches, make loud noises, throw rocks and look as tall as possible by holding a backpack or other equipment overhead. If a black bear actually attacks, experts recommend fighting back.

Although attacks are unusual, in April of 2006 a 400-pound bear killed a six-year-old girl in the Cherokee National Forest near the North Carolina/Tennessee border. The bear also mauled the girl’s mother and brother. This was the second fatal bear attack in the Smoky Mountain area during the past four years.

While eastern North Carolina has become famous for big black bears, the WRC’s Jones said the state’s western mountains offer thousands of acres of public hunting.

North Carolina’s national forests offer vast areas of public hunting. Graham County is the leading bear producer among western counties with 86 bears harvested and 79 of those came from public-hunting areas.

Krastanoff already had scheduled his 2006 hunt for the trophy bears area of coastal North Carolina. Before leaving in 2005, he saw a huge bear near Cutawhiskie Creek and swore the animal weighed well over 600 pounds.

Guide Clay McPherson also has trail camera photos of a big bruin roaming that area.

“This bear is in the 700-pound range,” he said. “I’d like to see someone get him this year.”

Krastanoff said he hopes to be that lucky hunter. He’s coming back to Cutawhiskie Creek and this time he’s bringing his 17-year-old son. The father and son plan to hunt black bears with bows.

“North Carolina bear hunting is awesome. There are some monster bears down there,” Krastanoff said.