Chasing Black Bears Back East
July 13, 2018
They capture our heart, our psyche, our spirit. The white-tailed deer is a wonderful game animal. Small game and waterfowl are blessings given to us on this earth. Bears are different. An eastern whitetail hunter, sitting in a treestand, may hardly notice when does and small bucks pass by. If a bear wanders through, he will remember it the rest of his life.
Bears appear throughout folklore and mythology. The Greeks gave us Callisto, who was transformed into a bear and then became the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Native American folklore is rife with stories of bears, which they saw as keepers of dreams because bears sleep through the winter. The Big Dipper constellation was seen as a bear in Native American and Hebrew tradition.
Part of this fascination is that bears are predators and certainly big enough to consider humans as prey. The black bear is listed as an omnivore, so part of what it eats is meat. While not in the size class of grizzlies and coastal brown bears, the black bear can be an incredibly powerful predator. I was surprised to learn that most predatory bear attacks in Alaska are committed by black bears, not grizzly, brown, or polar bears. This type of attack is rarer in the eastern United States, but it happens. We are hunting an animal that could be hunting us. Early settlers in America found bears in abundance and hunted them for the meat, hides, and fat. Bear grease has been used for everything from fuel for lamps to waterproofing, medicine, hair grooming, and a cure for baldness. Early American heroes like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett acquired much of their fame through their encounters with bears. Settlers and farmers had no patience with any form of predator, and the other apex predators, wolves and cougars, soon disappeared from most of their range east of the Mississippi. Bears hung on.
Modern conservation practices pulled bruins from the brink of disappearing in some areas, and we now have huntable populations of black bears in states where they have not roamed for more than 100 years. Closing seasons until female bears hibernate (sows generally retire before boars), closing seasons altogether, and even relocating wild bears have led to soaring bear numbers. Several state game agencies in the East now grapple with an overabundance of black bears around cities and towns. Bears are intelligent, adaptable, and incredibly strong. Once they develop a taste for your pizza, other dinner scraps in the garbage can, or the pet food in the garage, they are going to tear something up — count on it.
This may be the best time to be a bear hunter since Daniel Boone. Your grandad can't tell you the bear hunting was better in his day, because it wasn't. From the trackless woods of Maine to the canebrake swamps of the Deep South, there are a lot of bears and a lot of places and ways to hunt them. Here are a few.
Hunting bears with hounds may be like bluegrass music: You either love it or you hate it. Certainly a lot of bear hunters do love it. Houndsmen in the southern Appalachian Mountains have a tradition dating back 200 years, and it doesn't seem to be fading. In my home state of West Virginia, nobody ever thought you would see the day where more people would own hounds for bears than hounds for raccoons. The bear population is thriving, and so is bear hunting with hounds.
To the uninitiated, it's difficult to describe the passion and dedication these hunters show for their sport. To many hound hunters, this is a lifestyle, not just another hunting season. Breeding, raising, and training hounds for bear hunting is a year-round job, and more than a few bear hunters have stories of quitting good jobs rather than miss part of bear season.
One breed of hound used for bear hunting originated in the mountains of North Carolina when Johannes Plott, a German immigrant, brought five Hanoverian hounds from Germany in 1750 and used them for bear hunting. Johannes passed the breed on to his son, Henry, and the Plott family closely guarded their development for many years. Plott hounds are famous for possessing grit: the courage and desire to fight and mix it up with a bear at close quarters. This trait is important in all bear hounds as the dogs must be capable of tracking and pushing the bear to either climb a tree or bay and hold the bear on the ground until the hunter can arrive and either take the shot or pull his dogs off the bear.
Much of the hound hunting for bears in the East is done in the rugged mountainous country of the Appalachians, Virginia, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and Tennessee. This type of hunting is not for the faint of heart or for those not in good physical condition. The areas hunted, often vast tracts of national forests or coal and timber company holdings, have some roadways so you may follow the chase, but the difficult part comes when the hounds tree or bay the bear. This usually happens far from any trail or roadway, and an arduous hike to the bear is usually required.
Bear hunting with hounds requires a lot of land. When hounds start on the trail of a bear nobody really knows how far or where it will go. You might have a bear treed in an hour or you could be looking for the hounds the next day. Most hunts start with hunters cruising a backroad in bear country with a "strike" dog riding an open platform on the truck. These dogs have super noses, and their owners know they will not give voice unless they detect the scent of a bear, nothing else.
If the strike dog barks the hunter will stop and give the hound a chance to work the track. If the track seems good enough and the hound indicates by his voice the track is getting warmer, the hunters will release more hounds to help with the tracking. Once the pack gets close, many bears will eventually tree, but large older male bears may refuse to climb and stay on the ground fighting the dogs. This is where the hunters sometimes lose valuable hounds.
Several states in the East offer good bear hunting. As noted, the central Appalachian states may be the place to look for a hound hunt, although Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine also allow hunting with hounds. Eastern North Carolina poses a different scenario than the mountains. It is pool table flat and dotted with water and swamps. Huge agricultural areas grow corn, peanuts, soybeans, and other crops that bears gorge on. The result is some huge black bears moving out into the fields to feed and then moving back into the swamps for cover. One reason bears get so large here is the weather is mild in the winter and the bears don't den up. The enormous amount of fat they put on to sustain them through a long winter is never used, and the bears just keep eating. Hound chases here may offer shots at bears as they cross open areas and treed or bayed bears may have to be followed into the hellish swamps and tangles. Bring your hip boots.
Like hound hunting, baiting has fans and haters. Detractors say this gives hunters an unfair advantage over the bear while advocates tell you it is not an easy proposition, requires a lot of work and planning, and is not a guarantee of a shot at a trophy bear. Those who bait bears also declare this is the best way to get a good look at a bear to determine if this is the one you want to take.
In short, bear baiting is more difficult than it seems. Lugging large quantities of corn, meat, used cooking grease, fish guts, or stale pastries to backwoods locations can be difficult and messy.
It is very important to check your local laws and regulations on baiting. These vary around the country and sometimes even within your state. Know how you are allowed to bait and what you are allowed to use. For example, some areas allow the use of natural bait, such as corn and apples, but not manmade enticements like cookies or donuts. Some states allow baiting on private land but prohibit it on public land.
Besides what to use for bait, the aspect of where to bait is a big consideration. Simply wandering into the middle of bear country and dumping out a load of bear goodies may result in attracting zero bears. There is much homework to be done here. Using topographical maps and aids like Google Earth, you are looking for natural corridors where bears would travel. Remember that a bear is never going to be far from the grocery store. Creek beds and low gaps between food sources and cover are good places to start. If you are in agricultural country, any area between crop lands and dense hardwoods is also good. Besides bear tracks, you are looking for droppings and claw marks on trees: the bear's way of marking his territory.
One escape from this work is to hire an outfitter to do it all for you and have a baited stand ready when you arrive. Most hunters want to be in a treestand watching a bait site because it gets them off the ground and makes it harder for the bear to get wind of them. Bears are known to climb into treestands — it is a pretty common occurrence — and your outfitter should make you aware of this possibility. Some hunters will elect to stay on the ground, but while you can be successful in a ground blind, be advised it is very possible to have a close encounter.
Still Hunting & Stump Sitting
Still hunting for bears may be the purest form of hunting them. No dogs, no bait, just you and the bear. As you may suspect, it is also usually the least productive. You can increase your chances of acquiring a bear rug by doing a lot of homework in the form of preseason scouting and knowing your area. As with any animal, it is all about food and cover. Black bears need places to feed and places to hide.
Find the food sources and you will know if there are bears in the area. A lot of food and a lot of fresh bear sign means bears are present. Set up a stand and concentrate your efforts there. In the mountains of the East this may be a white oak flat. White oak acorns are highly sought after by deer and bear, and if these trees produce acorns in any number you should see sign of bears using the area.
Another good bet in the Appalachians is an old strip mine bench. These areas often grow into brushy areas and become game havens. Early in the fall look for pokeberries, and if bears are feeding on these dark purple berries, it will be readily evident from their droppings. The same thing is true if a lot of wild grapes are present. And it goes without saying that if there is an apple tree around a bear will not leave it alone till the last apple is gone.
Whether Michigan, North Carolina, or Tennessee, if you're going to still hunt or stump sit, find the food and the bear sign and stay there.