Outback Bears

Eastern N.C.’s black bears are numerous and seem to be getting bigger each winter. Bears that exceed 500 pounds are common and 600 pounders are not that rare.

Hunting Eastern N.C. bruins can be a hit-or-miss game, but when a hunter connects, he often smacks one over the wall.

North Carolina has become legendary for world-class black bear hunting. The reputation largely has been earned in the eastern counties. While black bears in the mountainous western counties certainly attain hefty weights, a typical trophy bear in the mountains will top 300 pounds, while its eastern counterpart must pass 500 pounds to achieve trophy status among the state’s top bear hunters.

The difference is found in the food supply. While western bears must depend upon a chancy mast crop to put on winter weight, eastern bears have access to a variety of food sources. Blueberries, blackberries, gum berries, wild grapes, persimmons and other soft mast crops are abundant. Oaks and other nut trees provide hard mast.

But the biggest difference in food sources has been created by modern farming practices. Once farmers didn’t want bears anywhere near their fields. Who could blame them? Four acres of ground could be prepared in one day with an ox plow. The bear could eat the resulting crop in a week — or kill the ox in one night.

Nowadays bears are prized as a resource. Bear hunts are so expensive that lease prices are soaring. Farmers leave crops to attract bears for lease money and guides plant crops and leave them standing to attract bears during the eastern seasons.

In the mountains, the terrain and rocky soils yield little in the way of the grain crops bears prefer. But in the east, such crops are bountiful and therefore they are the mainstay of the fall and winter diets of bears.

Bears can be dangerous if wounded. But I found something potentially more dangerous while still-hunting bears from one of Willie Allen’s bear stands.

Allen owns Outback Outfitters, specializing in bear and swan hunts. The stand was fashioned of welded steel plate, with a roof, sides and a pressed-metal grating welded to the bottom. Mosquitoes whined a hellish symphony as they arose in a swarm from the ditch the stand straddled.

The stand’s legs were set astride the ditch to prevent them from blocking access by farm equipment.

Hundreds of acres of harvested fields and fields planted with winter wheat extended behind the spot, attracting flocks of Canada geese. In front of the stand acres of standing corn spread like a yellowish-brown quilt across the landcape.

The stand was 25-feet high to enable a hunter to see down into the standing maize planted at the edge of Gull Rock Game Land in Hyde County. Gull Rock has a designated bear sanctuary, but another section is open to hunting.

Jumping spiders climbed around inside the stand. Web parachutes carried dozens of them into the stand from the trees 100 yards away.

I’d been up since long before daylight, and nodded off while watching the spider peek inside the rifle barrel. When I checked the bore of my rifle before reloading it for the afternoon hunt, I discovered several spiders had entered barrel. It was so packed with them I had to use a cleaning rod to pound them out. Had I taken a shot with the spiders inside, the result could have been an exploded barrel.

Hunters watched with binoculars in stands to my right and left. The metal grew warm as the sun climbed. After a few fruitless hours, Allen came to retrieve his hunters. Chris St. Pierre had come from New Hampshire to hunt deer and bear.

“I can shoot a couple of deer here before our season comes in back home,” he said. “It takes the pressure off get a deer during our season. We have bears, but not bears around bigger and there are more of them here.”

Allen’s hunters usually average 50 to 90 percent opportunities to bag bears from his stands. During the 2003 season, all of his hunters had chances at bears. One hunter passed up several while waiting out a huge bear.

“He was so big he stepped across a 10-foot ditch,” Allen said. “A 500-pound bear couldn’t even come close to doing that. This hunter saw the big bear, and we estimated he would weigh over 1,000 pounds from his sign.

“He saw several bears that would top 500 pounds but didn’t get another chance again at the big one. We have some big bears, but that one topped them all.”

Some years are great, some not so great.

I’d been overlooking the same field where the big bear had been spotted the previous season. No bears in sight.

Grabbing a nap could have hidden a bear from my sight. But one of the other hunters would have seen a bear if one had been hungry enough to leave the safety of the nearby swamps for the field.

The eastern bear season has several 2006 segments. The first, for Bladen, Carteret, Cumberland (south of N.C. 24, east of the Cape Fear River), Duplin, New Hanover, Onslow, Pender and Sampson counties, runs Nov. 13-Jan. 1. For Brunswick and Columbus counties, bear season this year is Dec. 4-23. It’s Nov. 13-18 in Beaufort and Hertford counties. Halifax, Martin and Northampton in the northeast have a short three-day season, Dev. 11-13. In Craven, Dare, Hyde, Jones, Pamlico, Tyrrell and Washington counties, it’s Dec. 11-23, as well as in Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Gates and Pasquotank counties.

The first season is usually the best time to go because the bears haven’t been tipped off by human activity, including hoards of hunters with hounds. The second segment usually takes more time in the stand for a still hunter to bag a bear.

While my hunting was unsuccessful, Tony Coley of Goldsboro bagged a 210-pound female during opening day of the first segment.

Allen had warned his hunters the bears weren’t moving. Perhaps it was too hot; perhaps the bears had found a better food source than the standing corn near his stands; maybe the moon phase was wrong or the wind was blowing from the wrong direction. But chances are good the bears were just being bears — shy and elusive.

“We were driving along a road on the way to the stand,” Coley said. “The bear came out of the edge of a cornfield. I got out of the truck and shot her from about 50 yards away.”

The bear was a nice first bear. Coley used a scoped 30-06 rifle. He learned the important thing is to be in bear territory, constantly looking and hunting.

The northeastern season is short so hunters make every hour of daylight count. They scan fields for bears and look for bear sign near their stands. Even archery hunters can get in on the action.

“The odds for success increase with the amount of time spent in the field, or on the way to the field,” Allen said. “I had a bow hunter who paid to lease one of my fields for the entire first segment of the 2003 season. He moved his stands every day and hunted from the trees at the edge of the field. He saw lots of bears, but none was close enough to get a shot. But he still said he had the hunt of his life.”

Allen leases thousands of acres of land in the prime bear territory of northeastern North Carolina. During four days of the two segments of the 2004 season, I hunted with Allen in Hyde and Washington counties.

At every stand where he placed me, I saw sign in the form of scat and footprints that told of bears of bragging-rights size. Trees were gnawed and clawed along the trails, testifying to the size of bears marking their territories. All of his stands overlooked sign made by bears that would top 500 pounds.

When hunting at Hyde County, Allen strongly suggests his clients spend the nights at Thomasina’s Bed and Breakfast in Belhaven. When he hunts at Washington County, he urges them to stay at Vanceboro’s Victorian Inn in Vanceboro.

“The rooms are comfortable, and they can accommodate groups of hunters,” Allen said. “It’s not easy to find a place to eat at the hours bear hunters have to keep to be successful.

“Becky Daniels at the Victorian Inn and Thomasina Baynor at Tomasina’s are great cooks. When you’re hunting from dawn to dusk every day a lot of the effects of having no sleep are offset by good accommodations and excellent food like you get at the nearby bed-and-breakfast inns. They also save driving time. To be successful at bear hunting, you have to eat and sleep like a bear.”

One of Allen’s guides is Ed Paul. At 67, Paul is retired, except for his job as a hunting guide, and he knows a lot about bears. During the second segment of 2004, he whispered instructions in the pre-dawn to a hunter and his wife from Missouri.

I headed down another pathway to a designated tree stand. The beam of a flashlight illuminated a small cornfield. The air was heavy with the humidity and the scent of bear. Bear tracks padded both ways on the soggy, black organic earth trail where I was walking. But the vegetation was so dense at either side of the trail, there was no way to avoid walking the same trails as the bears.

The cornfield was a shambles. Marauding bears had knocked down stalks row by row. Ears of corn were piled in of bare earth where bears had wallowed out comfortable beds to laying down while eating their fill.

When it comes to eating corn, bears are akin to pigs in their feeding habits. But they mostly eat during the night to avoid detection by humans.

Hunting them near trails leading to and from the fields at dawn and dusk is much like still-hunting deer. Bears don’t see as well as deer, but their sense of hearing and smell may be better than those of whitetails.

Bear hunters must be quiet and pay attention to the wind, doing anything possible to minimize the impact of their scent. Wearing high-topped rubber boots is almost mandatory for walking the soggy soils and jumping ditches. They are definitely required for minimizing a hunter’s scent trail.

Daylight came.

Deer furtively sneaked from the field to the thick Carolina bay, but no bears materialized. However, the huntress from Missouri had heard a huge animal moving around behind her that never came out into the open.

A check of the trail showed the sign of a huge bear. Paul was afraid to even venture a guess as to the weight of the bear. But he nodded his head when asked if he was sure it would weigh over 500 pounds.

“Oh, he’ll easily top that,” he said.

There are “hog bears” and “dog bears” in bear hunter’s parlance. A dog bear that weighs 250 pounds in midsummer can fatten to more than 500 pounds, becoming a hog bear by late fall or early winter.

While females (sow bears) seek dens to give birth before the onset of cold weather, the males stay active for a longer period of time, often through the winter. Late seasons in the mountains and southern coastal plain help take advantage of this near-hibernation period protect female bears from high harvest levels. But during the earlier seasons of the upper coastal plain, females still roam.

Female bears seldom top 200 to 300 pounds and leave smaller tracks than male bears. The track of a female bear is never greater than 4 inches wide and the track of a large male bear is greater than 4 ½ inches wide.

While my early season hunts with Allen were unsuccessful, I was on an archery swan hunt with him when Hugh Watson, a taxidermist and friend of Allen’s who also helps him guide hunters, called on a cell phone to say bears were leaving sign beneath the stands I had hunted earlier in the season overlooking the cornfields.

After the lack of luck with bears I had experienced earlier, I decided to stay and try for a swan with a bow. Watson climbed into a stand that afternoon and killed a large bear.

He went to a neighbor’s house and picked up a 10-year-old youngster who had never killed a bear. They climbed the same stand and the youth took his first bear.

“It can be feast or famine with bears,” Allen said. “They can shut down, then suddenly move all at once.

“The key is to keep up your intensity throughout the season. If you want to take a bear by still hunting, persistence is the key to success.”

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About Mike Marsh 344 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.