When you think of oversize black bears, offshore Canadian locations such as Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands – or perhaps coastal Alaska – usually come to mind. But Tom Harrison, whom I first met at the SCI Sportsmen’s Prayer Breakfast, showed me some photos of bears from North Carolina that started to change my way of thinking.
Tom, in a partnership with several other landowners known as Mattamuskeet Ventures, owns 16,000 acres in eastern North Carolina. The property is adjacent to the vast Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Mattamuskeet, famous for its massive waterfowl populations.
Most of the partnership’s land has been sequestered in a conservation reserve, though a block of 4,000 acres is still an agricultural enterprise. This terrific combination of location, high-quality, year-round food and cover, genetically superior bears and an excellent management regimen has led to some awesome bear hunting. Mattamuskeet Ventures sells no hunts or hunting rights, but by God’s providence, Tom invited me to hunt with him.
Past hunters there have included Craig Boddington, who took a 487-pound black bear; Jim Zumbo, who scored on a bruin weighing 420 pounds; and Will Graham, a minister and frequent lodge guest who is the grandson of the evangelist Billy Graham. I had met Will before, and he was slated to be my roommate on this trip. The lodge was a comfortable six-bedroom house near the farm’s operational nerve center.
Eastern North Carolina has a split bear-hunting season – the first part is a single week in November. Mattamuskeet took six bears during that season in 2006, with an average of just under 400 pounds, smaller than usual because an enthusiastic youngster was allowed to shoot a 275-pound bear. I was hunting the second season, the middle two weeks of December. I had set my standard at 400 pounds and was determined not take anything lighter.
Tom sat with me on a tripod stand on opening day as a deep pink dawn crept in from the east, slowly revealing the frosty terrain. We were beside a road, scanning a harvested cornfield some 300 yards away. A strip of fallow land covered with early succession weeds separated it from us.
Quite a few bears are taken there from stands, or by spot-and-stalk as the big bruins feed in the rich farmland. However, since hunting over bait piles is illegal, most bears are taken by using hounds. Eastern North Carolina is a prime destination for houndsmen in December, and more than a dozen dog enthusiasts were here on this farm alone, including a sizable contingent from the mountains of northern Georgia. I got along with them well because I am a product of those same mountains and felt a sense of kinship.
Each day in late afternoon, a drag device was pulled along all the roads so that tracks made during the night would stand out the next morning. From the size of the tracks and how deep they were, experts could determine roughly the size of a bear. All the houndsmen were combing the roads for fresh sign even as Tom and I waited on the stand.
One of the houndsmen advised us to move on down the road, where a big bear was observed in a field at dawn. It fled into dense woods when the vehicle surprised it. Preparations were already being made to put hounds into the woods, and I was stationed on the road with my old Remington Model 700 in .30-06, a veteran of some 70 guided North American hunts. I had brought the rifle out of retirement just for this hunt.
A spirited chase ensued in the woods in front of me. The music of the trailing hounds filled the air and chilled me with nostalgic thoughts of raccoon and cougar hunts long ago. The pursuit consumed a couple of hours. It ended when a sub-adult bear plunged noisily into the canal and swam out, then safely crossed the road into another block of timbered land.
The next day dawned crystal clear, and we started out watching another likely field. Again, we saw nothing except deer, so it appeared we would have to go in after our bear with the help of those dedicated houndsmen. We found a good track entering another swamp farther down the road, and we spent most of the day trying to keep up with the hounds.
The dogs finally barked “treed” deep in the swamp, and we moved as close to them as possible on the road before plunging into an awful tangle. The underbrush was so thick that we had to crawl in many places. The ground had a spongy, peat-like consistency, with deep, hidden holes of wet muck that surprised the unwary. I repeatedly sank almost to the tops of my rubber boots, but we pressed onward, drawn by the rhythmic baying up ahead. Sweat drenched my clothes, and my tired legs struggled to get over or under each successive barricade. To my disappointment, the tree held a “ghost bear,” though we could never have discerned this from the passion of the hounds. We caught the dogs and then retreated back to the road, weary from our foray.
A heavy rain that night lasted until dawn, washing out all hopes of finding a track the dogs could work. Fog shrouded the fields so thickly that we could see scarcely 50 yards. Since stand hunting was out of the question, Tom and I joined the dog men early, looking for tracks. Those we found had been thoroughly rained on, and the dogs showed little interest in such faint scent. We spotted a few tracks made by bears in the 300-pound range, which the dogs could possibly have followed, but Tom and I adamantly stood our ground on the 400-pound class bear we were seeking. The day turned out to be a total washout, but Tom and I enjoyed a great lunch at a dockside restaurant and I even got in a nap that afternoon. Once more we spent the last hour and a half of the day watching a likely road, but nothing showed except the ubiquitous deer.
Another big track entered the same section we had hunted two days before, a block adjacent to the national wildlife refuge. We hurried to position ourselves to cut off escape, and we actually saw a big bear well in front of us cross the road from the farm into the refuge. Two logs spanned the deep canal there, and the bear’s wet track was easily visible on one of them. Where its feet hit the mud on the NWR side, the track was deep and measured five inches wide. We knew this was a really good bear. We sat at the bridge and waited while the hounds were running, but nothing else crossed.
One of the houndsmen reported that a big bear had almost run him over on a road that ran between two blocks of farm property, and entered the tract we were watching. My inclination was to wait right there, but it wasn’t to be. The hounds had soon run so deeply into the swamp that they were barely audible. One of the houndsmen, Steve Crisp, was listening intently.
“They’re bayed on the ground,” he said flatly. Then he added: “No, the bear broke and they’re running again.”
Steve repeated this litany several times and finally declared that the hounds were barking “treed.” I was only marginally interested after my Herculean effort two days before to reach an empty tree. The biggest bears seldom climb trees, so most are killed by cutting them off at a crossing. If they come to bay on the ground, they often won’t stay put long enough for the hunter to approach for a shot, though this is the only way to do it when a bear comes to bay repeatedly. This bear had stopped at least four times, but now a dozen minutes passed with no change in the dogs’ position. The rhythm and tone of the barking dogs, as well as their unchanging location, indicated that the bear had gone up a tree.
We drove to a place where we could best hear the tumult, then plunged into country even rougher than we’d experienced before. Wax myrtle and vines were intertwined so thickly that we had no choice but to either go over or under them. Water was pooled everywhere.
Fifty yards or so from the hounds, we still could see nothing in any tree, though visibility was severely limited. Jay Eakes, the farm manager, had me chamber a round just in case. We parted the last bushes separating us from the dogs. The pack formed a multicolored swirl around a huge tree.
It was sitting on a limb 30 feet off the ground, and it was truly a big one. Bears of that size usually won’t tree, and we realized that it might yet bail out. There was no doubt this was a taker, but it surely wouldn’t tree again if it jumped. The best we could hope for in that case would be to have it come to bay on the ground and shoot it at 10 feet or so. For the moment, it was hugging the massive trunk while pandemonium reigned on the ground. The deafening barking of a dozen plotts, walkers and redticks drowned out all attempts at communication.
“We’re going to try and get the dogs back,” Jay yelled. I nodded in agreement, replying that I’d shoot only if it appeared the bear was about to leave. I positioned myself against a convenient tree and placed the crosshairs on the massive neck. If I was forced to shoot prematurely, I wanted to make certain the animal would be dead when it hit the ground.
Jay and a couple of the houndsmen had just reached the tree and began attaching leads to the dogs when I was forced to make a critical decision. The bruin pushed back from the tree, turned its head in the opposite direction and crouched slightly. It was about to jump, and I could wait no longer. My shot had to kill the bear or a disaster could occur.
I shouted twice, then once more, to Jay that I was going to shoot, but had no time to judge whether the houndsmen had even heard me. I touched the trigger as the animal leaped, and the bear crumpled and came crashing down. It was stone dead, killed by a 200-grain Nosler propelled by one of Steve Comus’s handloads. The hunt was over and all were safe, including the dogs. I breathed a huge sigh of relief before letting elation set in.
The animal now sprawled on the ground was the reason I’d wanted to hunt North Carolina. Guesses about its weight started immediately, the drift being that it was in the 500-pound class, give or take a little. After photos, the houndsmen used an innovative winch powered by a chain saw motor to get the animal to a waiting truck. The process was tedious because we were a third of a mile into the woods, and it took until almost dark. Back at the skinning shed, the scales tipped to exactly 525 pounds. This was the black bear of a lifetime.
I couldn’t thank my friend Tom Harrison enough for allowing me to experience this adventure. Taxidermist Jim Edwards drove down immediately from Colerain, North Carolina, and did the skinning. The meat was prepared for distribution to all.
And I was now ready to head for Georgia. I didn’t have to kill a bear to have a great time on this trip, but I got that wonderful bonus. I was a most happy and satisfied hunter, and my heart overflowed with thanksgiving as I motored homeward.– J.Y. Jones