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Black Bear Hunting in South Carolina

Black Bear Hunting in the Southeastern Appalachian Mountains

     by Bonnie Farner of Appalachia Adventures

     With thousands of acres of prime game lands in southwestern North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee it is no surprise to find a keen interest in hunting bears here in the mountains of Appalachia. The Tusquitee Ranger District found in the Nantahala National Forest, alone contains 158,579 acres with elevations ranging from 1,200 to 5,499 feet.

     The Nantahala National Forest lies in the mountains of Western North Carolina and offers a half million acres of forest land for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and other outdoor recreation.

     The Tellico Ranger District (Cherokee National Forest) in southeastern Tennessee contains 123,372 acres of public hunting lands. Most of the area is mountainous and elevation ranges from 1,000 to 4,321 feet. Elevation in the Tellico Ranger District ranges from 900 feet near Tellico Plains to 5,472 feet in the Haw Knob.

     Since it is illegal to hunt bears over bait in North Carolina or Tennessee, hunting bears with trained dogs is the preferred method of hunting. There are several successful ways you can hunt bears with dogs. Having a well trained pack of dogs is definitely required. Most of the locals who hunt here use Tree Walkers, Plotts, Black and Tans, and Red Bones and cross breeds between these types of dogs. The best bear dog I've ever seen was a cross-bred dog, best described as "just a hound."

     One method that many local hunters prefer requires a good "strike" dog and truck that is rigged with a platform that the dog can ride on as well as a dog box containing the rest of the pack. Most of the trucks have CB units in them as it sometimes helps to have a hunting buddy or two in other trucks on the hunt with you.

     One of the hunters usually tracks the bear race while the others try to head off the bear before it crosses another road in the area. It is not unusual for the locals to have their own colorful "secret code" to relay to their buddies where the bear is headed so as to avert any other folks in the area from turning on their bear. I've heard everything on the CB from "Racer just put a white-tail in the lake" to "Levi's gone trout fishing over in the Cove", none of which remotely refers to either deer or fishing.

     The strike dog rides on the outside of the truck on platform and the hunter drives up and down the roads until the dog starts barking indicating that he has scented the game. The hunter can then release the dogs to follow the trail. It requires seeing and hearing which way the pack is going and trying to drive to the area that the bear may cross and intercepting it. This often requires quite a lot of fast paced driving up and down country roads (with "Dueling Banjos", of course, playing on the radio) or until the dogs tree the bear. Driving on backwoods, dirt country roads in the mountains here requires excellent driver skills. You have to be on constant look out for other vehicles and/or dogs on the road, which is more often rough riding at best. If you love lots of excitement this is the type of hunting for you.

     Many dogs are equipped with radar tracking collars and can be tracked to see which way they are going if they get out of hearing range. Some collars even have a "tree switch" that lets the hunter know if they are treed or just running.

     If you don't have a good strike dog you can also drive up and down the mountain roads looking to see where a bear has come down or climbed up a bank. A skilled hunter can tell the difference between fresh sign and some that's old, but the dogs will alert you to a fresh track.

     Another method is leading two or three good trail dogs into an area where a bear has been sighted, bedded down or feeding and turning them on a fresh track. This requires getting out and walking in the woods in mountainous terrain and requires moderate physical condition and stamina on the hunter's part. Most of the local hunters in our area use at least 5 or 6 dogs to a pack, but have a couple of good lead dogs for starting the race. A good dog will immediately let you know if it's a fresh track and the rest of the pack can be turned loose on the bear. The blood pumping, adrenalin rushing race is then on and it's a matter of trying to keep up with the pack of dogs until they either tree or stop the bear. The larger, older bears tend to walk along and fight the dogs on the ground, whereas a younger, smaller bear will climb a tree to escape the dogs. Running after a pack of dogs in wooded mountainous terrain definitely requires wearing very comfortable boots. This is also a very successful way to hunt our bears.

     Spot and stalk hunting or still hunting is another method you can use for hunting black bears in North Carolina and Tennessee, but for the most part proves difficult due to the bears range habits. The territory is densely wooded, mountainous and may contain areas that have been clear cut in prior years. Neither state allows hunting over bait so the hunter just has to get out into an area where bears are likely to be located and start looking around for fresh bear sign.

     Time and length of travel on a good bear race varies. The bear will try to get away from the dogs and will try to seek a good cover area. He will try to put as much territory between him and the dogs as possible but if they're too hot on his trail he may try to climb up a tree or back up against a fallen log or rock bluff to fight.

     You can hunt with a bow, handgun (check with the local regulations), shotgun using slugs, and a rifle. Preferred rifles are 30/30, .35, SKS, 308, 30.06, 45.70, etc. using 150 gr. and above shells. Scopes will probably not be required as most shots can be taken as close as 40-50 yards.

     Knowing more about black bears, their habits, what they eat, and the territory is a pre-requisite to a successful bear hunt. Pre-scouting an area to look for bear sign is also necessary. The following is some information about the bears found in North Carolina and Tennessee.

     Black bears are found in the southern Appalachian Mountains of Southeastern Tennessee and southwestern North Carolina and along the coastal bays and swamps in Western North Carolina.

     Ideal habitat consists of old forests with hardwoods containing a variety of mast producing trees and shrubs. Bears require extensive, rugged country with dense thickets such as mountain laurel, rhododendron, rock outcroppings, and swamps with lots of room to travel widely.

     Black bears are omnivorous. Their diet mainly consists of hard and soft mast, insects, animal matter and succulent plants. The amount and types of food eaten by bears varies according to seasonal activities and food availability in each season. It is not unusual to see bears migrate to lower elevations in search of food when there has been a poor mast crop in the higher elevations. The Smokey Mountains contain a good population of black bears and there are several bear preserves in both North Carolina and Tennessee. When the mast is poor in those areas they will seek out food supplies in the surrounding areas within the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina.

Food:

August through November - Pre-denning Season

Hard Mast (acorns, preferably White Oak), Black gum, Holly Berries, Black Cherry, Dogwood Berries, Sassafras, Persimmons, Insects, (yellow jacket larvae) Animals, Poke Berries, Gooseberry, and Green briar.

December through March - Denning Season (Due to the mild winters here in the South, Some bears may be active throughout the denning season).
Hard Mast (acorns), Green briar, Corn, Gall-berries

April through May - Post Denning Season

Arrow Arum, Green briar, Grasses, Pokeberry, Wild Strawberry, Squaw Root, Tree Cambium, Insects, Animals.

June through July - Breeding Season Blackberry, Huckleberry, Blueberry, Service Berry, Viburnum, Insects, Animals

Bears Require Cover

Bears have a great sense of smell and hearing but their vision is less acute. They will often bed down in dense cover in the daytime and move about mostly at sunrise and sunset when they're near areas of human activity. They will also use trees as resting places as this offers them some protection for humans and dogs who may be in the area.

Bears Require Escape Cover

Mountain Black Bears will seek out mountainsides containing mountain laurel, rhododendron, grape vines, greenbrier thickets, rugged terrain such as steep, rocky mountain slopes and areas that contain little human habitation.

Coastal bears will seek out dense briar thickets, swamps, cane brakes, bays, streams and standing water.

Water

Bears will seek out a water supply daily preferably with two or more sources of permanent open water per square mile of range.

Home Range

Home ranges for bears range from one bear per square mile to one bear per seven square miles. In the southeastern U.S. the home range of some bears can be from 6 to 19 square miles for a female and anywhere from 18 to 160 miles for a male. Ranges must have food, water, cover and den sites. The mountainous land within the Nantahala National Forest and the Cherokee National Forest offer excellent habitat for sustaining good populations of bears as all of the elements can generally be found there.

Male bears are territorial and will mark their boundaries by clawing or biting as far up on a tree as they can reach. In the southern Appalachian mountains bears tend to mark trees along ridges and old logging roads. A larger, older male bear will often run a smaller male off and claim the area as his own.

This article was written by Bonnie Farner of Apppalachia Adventures.

Appalachia Adventures offers hunters of all ages and experience an opportunity to hire an affordable, experienced guide to hunt free range, fair chase the old-fashioned way within the bountiful Nantahala Game Lands in North Carolina and the Tellico Ranger District in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. There are thousands of acres of prime hunting lands in both North Carolina and Tennessee

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