North Carolina’s Coastal Giants

coastalgiantsbearincornfieldThe sub-zero, bone-chilling gale was so unusual for coastal North Carolina. We were seeing just a small fraction of the number of black bears that I had previously seen while scouting, and I couldn‚Äôt help but be slightly disheartened as we silently padded down the dirt road separating the swamp from the cornfield. ¬†Was this the end of Rebecca‚Äôs hunt? If so, it would be a long and disappointing hour and a half drive back to school for my 13-year-old daughter.¬† Then I spotted a bear‚Äîor at least a patch of black in some standing corn.¬†I focused my Leica 10×50 range finding binoculars on the object, and could see in the low light that it was a bear laying down a mere 66 yards away.¬† I immediately motioned for everyone behind me to sit down where we were, (movement is what really scares game more than shapes or colors, so I didn‚Äôt want us to take another step as we were already in range).¬† All we needed was better light to see if this was one of North Carolina‚Äôs coastal giants!

Mention black bear hunting today and most hunters envision hunting over bait in the Canadian interior or stalking coastal bears of British Columbia or Alaska. In the lower 48, most hunters think of hunting with hounds in the Rocky Mountain West or still-hunting in Pennsylvania. Black bear hunting isn’t often associated with the Southeastern USA, except maybe in the Smokey Mountains. But lurking in the coastal swamps not far from the North Carolina Outer Banks are the biggest black bears on the planet. The last two world record black bears were taken in eastern North Carolina, with the current record tipping the scales at an incredible 880 pounds.

coastalgiantsbearbroadsideNot only are coastal black bear huge, they are abundant. The reason for the lack of familiarity with these coastal giants may be because there are few commercial hunting guides. Most of the best hunting is on private land and leases. However, there were 76 bears taken on North Carolina public lands in 2010. The total harvest for the state that year was 984, with one quarter of the total harvest coming from two Inner Banks counties—Beaufort and Hyde. According to North Carolina’s State Bear Biologist, Colleen Olfenbuttel, Hyde County has the highest black bear density in North America.

Most visitors are surprised to learn that much of eastern North Carolina is sparsely populated and not developed. Instead, huge tracts of timber, expansive farms, and massive swamps dominate the landscape. All of those are punctuated within land sounds reaching deep into the interior of the state, making it a paradise for hunters and fishermen. The reason coastal black bears of North Carolina are so enormous is because of a perfect combination of mild winters, abundant high protein crops, nearly impenetrable swamps, and good management.

What follows here is a remarkable still-hunting story of one such coastal giant that is the largest black bear known to be taken by a youth or by a woman.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to photograph coastal black bears year around for many years and learn their habits. They are magnificent animals that thrill me every time I get close to one.  I had scouted during the preseason and photographed some really big bears on a friend’s property, and more or less picked out the bear I hoped my 13-year-old daughter, Rebecca, might have an opportunity to hunt when the second half of bear season opened in December of 2010.

After scouting, I devised a hunting plan. Sections of corn had been left standing near the edge of a swamp for the bears and would later be flooded for a duck hunting impoundment. The bears felt safe, hidden in the standing corn and often lingered well past daylight feeding. Sometimes there were as many as 10 to12 bears seen coming out of this large field after shooting light. I knew which section of the corn a particular bear preferred, and felt pretty confident I could put Rebecca on him if the wind was not blowing into the field and we could get into position while it was still dark and without spooking all the bears out of the field.

As the Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”  When the day came to go bear hunting, arctic weather had blown into eastern North Carolina with 25-degree temperatures and 25mph winds, making it feel like minus 12degrees—Not good for bear hunting.

Just as we got to the corner of the field, we saw two smaller bears slip out of it and into the safety of the swamp. Then we saw nothing.  We continued to move along the edge of the field silently, but saw no more bears. Then, in the graphite-gray light of predawn, I spotted what looked like a bear lying down in the adjacent standing cornfield and waited patiently for better light. Finally the bear got up, but it was difficult to judge its size in the tall corn, plus it didn’t offer a clear shot.  Then the bear lay back down.  As a matter of fact, he got up, took a few steps, and lay down again, eight or ten times over the next 20 minutes.  It was as if he knew we were there, and would just lay back down to feed some more, hoping we would move along.

coastalgiantsrebeccabearAs any bear guide or experienced bear hunter will tell you, bears are the most difficult big game animals to judge. I could see he had a big head but couldn’t tell much else. Finally, I saw enough that I decided Rebecca should shoot this bear if given the opportunity. Each time the bear stood up, Rebecca leaned into her Kimber Model 84M rifle that was resting on a tripod, but the bear wouldn’t offer a shot.  Finally, the bear decided to take a few more steps into an opening where the corn had been flattened by feeding bears. He wanted to get a better look at us to see exactly what he was dealing within the road between him and his bed in the swamp.  As he stood facing us, he offered a clear frontal shot and I told Rebecca to shoot.

With the report of the gun and the smack of the 180-grain bullet from her Kimber .308, the bear doubled over and tried to turn tail to run. Rebecca’s first shot was a killing shot, but with bears, my routine is keep shooting until they quit moving—they can absorb a lot of lead. Rebecca pumped two more bullets into the bear as he ran through the corn stalks, but it didn’t go more than about 25 yards.

I have seen a lot of dead bears in my 20 years of bear hunting, but have never walked up on a dead bear that didn’t seem to shrink a bit. This one grew, the closer I got to him.  As a matter of fact, he grew a lot.  He was huge!  We all agreed that bear was more than 600 pounds.  What an incredible bear!

We quickly posed for pictures before Mike got his tractor and loaded the bear into my pickup truck.  I had to get it weighed and registered quickly, and then get Rebecca to school before noon so she would be eligible to play in her basketball game that night. Mike went with us as we took the bear to a hunting club called Mattamuskeet Ventures in Hyde County. I have taken Craig Boddington, Jim Zumbo, Dr. JY Jones, college football coach Skip Holtz and others bear hunting there in the past.

We hooked the bear up to the scales and I drove the truck out from under it.  As the bear dropped off the tailgate to hang suspended from the scales, our jaws also dropped.  The half-dozen of us standing around the scales were looking at the first dead bear any of us had ever seen weighing more than 700pounds.  It was 708 pounds to be exact.  Rebecca’s face lit up with the realization of the actual weight of the bear.  She shot her first bear when she was 8 years old on Mattamuskeet Ventures, and that one weighed 400pounds. Four hundred pounds is a good bear anywhere, but 708 pounds astounded us all.

In retrospect, I quickly admitted to my friends that I took Rebecca bear hunting according to my plan.  I had worked out all the details, but the Lord had another plan.  Therefore, I cannot take any credit, as this was another lesson in trust. I put my trust in Him and don’t try to do everything on my own.  It was another reminder of my favorite Bible verse, Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good for those that love the Lord.”

Rebecca made it to school on time and won her basketball game that afternoon in a nail-biter against one of the best teams in the conference. It was definitely her day!–Tom Harrison

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