Bear Populations, Harvest On The Rise

Another season with high harvest is under way. Time to find your bear.

Nick Carter | October 29, 2010

Gary Sutton, of Clarkesville, poses with the hide of a 480-lb. bear he killed last year in White County. Gary said this time of year the bears will be high on the ridges.

Kill a Georgia Mountain Bear

Since the late 70s, when WRD began managing the bear harvest, the idea has been to grow the state’s bear populations to sustainable levels. Mission accomplished — especially in the north Georgia mountains, where nuisance bear complaints were at record levels last year, according to Adam Hammond, WRD’s Bear Committee chairman.

Adam said all three of the state’s populations — in and around the Okefenokee in southeast Georgia, in middle Georgia around the Ocmulgee River corridor, and in the north Georgia mountains — are at sustainable levels and growing.

Several years ago populations in north Georgia reached a point where WRD’s focus began shifting toward an increased harvest to try and keep populations in check, Adam said. WRD has expanded hunter opportunity, and it has tried to manage hunts to increase harvest, but the population is still growing, and bears are showing up in places they once weren’t.

As a result, WRD is considering raising the bear limit in north Georgia from one bear to two. The state legislature adjusted the framework for the bear bag limit during the last legislative session to make that change possible, and Adam said an increased bag limit is definitely on the table.

“It’s very possible that down the road we could see an increase in the bag limit to two,” said Adam. “I can’t tell you when, but we are discussing that.”

For now, the limit is one, and the season for the 29 north Georgia counties open for bear hunting runs through Dec. 29. Adam said so far this season the harvest is on track to be a large one, but not another record breaker, as has been the case about every other year in recent history. With an abundant acorn crop, bears should be a little more spread out this season, but maybe a little help from a seasoned bear hunter will inspire GON readers to hit the woods and kill a few more bears.

Gary Sutton, of Clarkesville, knows his way around both public and private lands in the northeast Georgia mountains. He mainly hunts national forest land on high ridges along the Appalachian Trail in Habersham County, and he killed his best bear ever last year — but he didn’t intend to.

A friend of Gary’s from Pennsylvania came down last year during the muzzleloader week, and Gary took him to kill a bear on a high oak ridge in White County.

“He wanted to kill one with his in-line muzzleloader, and that thing misfired on him. He pulled the trigger, and the muzzleloader spewed just like a firecracker fuse. It fired just enough to push that ball right out the barrel, and it fell on the ground.

“So I shot the thing, and buddy I tell you what, that’s when the leaves were falling. It was just as colorful… all them beautiful leaves just a’ blowin’ and on the ground. That was a scene to see, just like big northern country right here in Georgia, in White County.”

Gary’s .50-caliber smokepole may have finished the job on that bear, a monster 480-pounder, but knowing where a big bear was likely to be was what put it in range in the first place. Gary said archery season and muzzleloader week, when the acorns have started falling but hunters have not yet hit the woods in numbers, is the easiest time to kill a big bear.

That statement is backed up by last year’s archery harvest. Adam said more than one-third of the bears killed last year were taken with either bows or crossbows. The majority of those were taken before firearms were allowed in the woods.

However, that leaves about two-thirds of last year’s harvest to muzzleloaders and rifles. You can kill a good one later in the season; you just have to work a little harder.

Regardless of the time of year, a good food source is the ticket. Early in the season, Gary said bears will be down low, eating in corn fields, apple orchards and working on the remaining soft mast, but once the acorns mature, they’ll move to the high ridgelines.

“Once the hunters start shooting, they’ll get scarce in the open woods,” he said. “They’re going to migrate those ridges up high, where the country is rougher.”

A bear can move great distances seeking out food sources and avoiding hunting pressure, but once it finds what it’s looking for, it’ll settle in, and it might stay in one area for the rest of the winter if the food source holds and the bear isn’t pushed out by hunting pressure. Gary said hunting a big bear is a lot like hunting an old, early season buck before the rut changes its patterns.

“Bears like those rough secluded places, those laurel thickets,” he said. “Most people will go around those laurel thickets, and that’s where a bear will spend his days and his nights.

“They’ll feed in those white oaks and red oaks until they’re full, and then they’ll go lay up.

“Get on a food source, and get off the beaten path a little bit where there’s not so many people traveling… They’ll be using there every day.”

You may have to do a lot of walking in steep terrain to find an area bears have been using, but once you find it there is no doubt. Gary said southern-facing oak-filled ridges that get more sun typically produce the best acorn crops, and they’re also warmer during the day, which draws bears.

Areas where bears have been feeding will be littered with broken branches either hanging in the trees or on the ground where the bears have been climbing to get acorns. In a good feeding area, Gary said you have to watch where you step to avoid stepping in scat. He likes to set up on a travel route between a thick area and a food source to ambush a bear. Unlike a heavily traveled deer trail, in which the dirt is cut and chewed up by hooves, a bear trail will be packed smooth.

Gary likes to travel light, preferring to use the terrain to find an elevated position over a bear trail or feeding area. He’ll carry a cushion to insulate him from the frozen ground, and he’ll sometimes cut brush for concealment. But being spotted by a bear is not the main concern.

“Their eyesight is not good. You can walk up on a bear, and they won’t know what you are really until they smell you or see you up close,” he said. “They’ll walk to you if they haven’t sensed danger. And some of those younger bears, they’ll come to you just see what you are because they’re curious. What they’ll do is circle downwind of you and see what it is.

“Them things have a better smell than an old buck deer. You’ve just got to get with the wind so it’s blowing from them to you.”

Gary wears his rubber boots and a scent-eliminating suit when he’s scouting and hunting.

One last thing Gary mentioned is that bears will hole up when the weather gets really cold or the wind is blowing. If it drops into the 20s or lower and the wind is blowing, you won’t find any game at all on the high ridges.

“During that cold weather when the wind is blowing real hard, all game gets into that cover out of the wind,” he said. “When it’s like that, they’ll take to those holes where they can get out of that wind and all because it’s so frigid.”

In extremely cold weather, bears will not move nearly as much. In Georgia, they don’t hibernate like they do up North, but they will hunker down in a hollow to keep from expending too much energy. So, the window is closing on your opportunity to kill a Georgia bear this season, but with so many bears in the woods, it shouldn’t be too hard to cross paths with one if you’re willing to walk.

Our cover model Ashley Rector, 15, of LaFayette, killed her Cohutta WMA bear with a crossbow on opening day of archery season. Estimated at 450-500 pounds, it was the first she’s seen that she deemed big enough to kill. There have been at least 32 bears taken at Cohutta WMA this year. There is a check-in gun hunt there Dec. 1-5.

Buck Moore, of Lenox, shot this 275-lb. Union County bear with his bow on Sept. 12.

John Groves, 13, killed this bear Oct. 2 on the Coopers Creek WMA adult/child hunt. His uncle, Joey Swanson, said they let the kids drag the bear 1/2 mile out of the woods so they could “remember the experience.” From left are: Stephen Swanson, 13; John; Conner Swanson, 4; and Deacon Groves, 10. They are all from Blairsville.

Southern Zone Experiences Hot and Dry But Better Than Average Season

Greg Nelms, the DNR bear biologist for the Southern Zone, said it was another better than typical year for bear hunters in the five southeast Georgia counties open to bear hunting. But he also said the idea of a typical year may need to be re-evaluated, as the historical figure of about 60 bears a year appears to be trending heavily upward.

“In the last five or six years it has jumped,” Greg said. “If you average the 10 years before that, we were right at around 55 or 60 bears a year. We’re trending up over a five-year period. It was pretty flat for a lot of years, then we started trending up since 2005.”

Greg was still compiling the data at presstime, but he said 93 bears had been killed and reported this year while leaving open the possibility that a few more bears might turn up. There is still a three-day hunt at Dixon Memorial WMA in Waycross Nov. 4-6, and Greg said a few bears could be killed then.

“I’ve heard the hunters say there were a lot of bears out and about this year,” said Greg. “And there were several bow-kills, more than in the past.”

While 93 may appear to be a big number compared to a typical harvest of 55 or 60 bears, it is less dramatic an increase considering the average of about 84 bears per year from 2005-2009.

Of course that statistic includes the record-high 137 bears killed in 2007 when three bears heavier than 500 pounds were killed and the state record was broken twice. Greg said the 2007 season was an anomaly caused by increasing hunter effort over the last decade coupled with habitat conditions that brought bears into the sights of hunters. A massive wildfire and a failed mast crop combined to get the bears moving in 2007.

Here’s another big south Georgia bear. Bill Murray, of Homerville, killed this 435-pounder with a borrowed rifle in Echols County on his first-ever bear hunt the first weekend of the season.

There were not any 500-pounders killed this year. There was a 450-lb. male killed by William Brown, of Callahan, Fla., on Sept. 30 in Clinch County. And two 435-pounders were also killed, one in Clinch County and one in Charlton County.

Greg said a lot of bears and the best bears taken each year typically come from the southern ends of Clinch and Echols counties. He said this is likely the result of bears moving north from Florida, which doesn’t have an open season on bears. Charlton County is also noted as a good place to kill big bears, and regardless of what county you’re in, land near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the best place to hunt.

“Almost all of our bears come from around the refuge perimeter,” Greg said. “The refuge is the core of our population.”

Greg thinks hunter effort may have more to do with this year’s numbers than any other factors.

“Most years the first three-day hunt tells the story. If we see a lot of bears those first the days, it’ll pretty much carry through the whole season,” said Greg. “This year it started with a bang and declined from there. Just like with any hunting season, a lot of the guys put in a lot of time and effort early on and then it dropped off.”

Forty-one bears were killed in the first three days of the season, and Greg said if the harvest had remained steady, as it does most years, it would have equated to 120 bears or more. But that wasn’t the case.

Another factor that may have impacted dog hunters was hot, dry weather, which makes it harder for dogs to pick up and track a bear’s scent.

The South Zone is open to dog hunting, but it is limited to three weekend hunts in late September and early October in Brantley, Charlton, Clinch, Echols and Ware counties. There is also a Dixon Memorial WMA hunt Nov. 4-6.

Bo Petty, of Schlatterville, said he’s been trying for 10 years to kill a mature black bear with his bow. He made it happen Sept. 23. This 400-pounder crept out of a Brantley County swamp, and Bo stuck him.


Joe Dobbins, of Dublin, decided to sit in a stand the evening of Sept. 24 before a dog hunt that was scheduled the next day. He arrowed this 435-lb. Charlton County beast.

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