Cohutta Hunting Adventure Leads To Lifelong Friendship

Mike Bickers | August 29, 2023

The Cohutta Wilderness hunts produced some wild game, but more so it produced fellowship, memories and new lifelong friendships.

Sometime in the mid-90s, I read a magazine article about the Cohutta Wilderness in north Georgia. Having lived in Georgia for several years, I was shocked that I was not aware of such a place—37,000 acres of mountain wilderness where no wheeled vehicles or carts are allowed within its boundaries. I was intrigued by this and soon thereafter made an exploratory trip with my young son in tow. It happened to be the early part of archery season when I visited. Upon arrival that morning at Betty’s Gap, a popular hiking and hunting trailhead for the Conasauga River trail, I stopped and talked with a hunter who was more than happy to share information about the area with me. He suggested that I travel a little farther down the road to the East Cowpen trail, stating it was a popular area, but somewhat less crowded than the Conasauga River trail. Of course, I questioned this because hunters are often quick to send you somewhere far away from their favorite hunting areas. After all, who needs more competition near their honey hole, right?

I packed my truck with camping and hunting gear and headed back to Cohutta the following Friday morning. My plan was to go to the trailhead that the hunter had suggested, hike in that afternoon to get my bearings, and select a spot to hunt the next morning. I set up camp at a small, unimproved campsite at the top of Three Forks Mountain, about a quarter mile from the trailhead. Early that afternoon I started hiking up the East Cowpen trail, eventually turning northeast at a fork onto the Rough Ridge trail. I planned to hike 30 to 45 minutes from the trailhead and then start looking for a place to hunt, cognizant of the fact that anything I harvested must be dragged out by me, alone.

Along the way, farther down Rough Ridge trail, I passed a tent that was set up adjacent to the main trail. The tent appeared to be occupied, and I continued past. A hundred yards or so past the tent, I heard something in the brush off to my right. I stood very still and soon a young bear appeared on the trail just ahead of me. Now on the trail, he proceeded to walk down the trail away from me and then disappeared, unaware of my presence. This was the first time I had ever encountered a bear in the woods. It was quite exhilarating.

Farther down the trail, I came across a large tree that had fallen across the trail. It had been cut cleanly on either side of the trail to allow passage. I felt this might be a good landmark that I could find in the dark the next morning. So, maybe this was the spot I was looking for.

The terrain on the right side of the trail was a steep drop-off. To the left, the terrain appeared to be more of a gradual slope, and thus I proceeded down the slope to the left. It was fairly open with lots of hardwood trees, and considerable ground cover 1 to 2 feet tall. I continued down and soon heard rushing water. I came across a large creek. Looking at my map, I identified it as Rough Creek. I learned later that the headwaters of Rough Creek started near the area where the tent was, not far from the top of Cowpen Mountain.

I planned to hunt on the ground the next morning and decided to return to my campsite. When I got back to the tent alongside the trail, I met the guy who was camping there. He was alone and appeared to be a hiker, not a hunter. I explained to him that I saw a young bear just down the trail, just so he could be aware of that. He didn’t seem to be concerned and I went on my way.

The next morning, I started my hike early, well before light. I proceeded to my spot and decided to find a nice tree to sit against for my morning hunt, somewhere between the trail and the creek. Later that morning, after moving somewhat closer to the trail and finding another tree, I was scanning the woods and turned around slowly to look behind me down the slope toward the creek. A huge bear was walking directly toward me. His head was massive, and he was only 30 yards or so away. Bears move very quietly due to the pads on their feet, so I never heard him approach. I was fully camouflaged, including a face net. I had cut the thumb and index fingers out of my camouflaged gloves and proceeded to give him the queen mother wave with my hand, hoping my bare fingers would stand out to him. I wanted him to notice me from a distance, and hopefully run away, which he did. He paused for what seemed like an eternity, staring intently, then turned around in slow motion, and in an instant ran back down the mountain faster than I could have ever imagined. A very exciting first hunt in the Cohutta Wilderness, indeed!

Most of the hunters I’ve encountered over the years in Cohutta are hunting black bears, which are plentiful, and I’m fine with that. I, on the other hand, had no interest in shooting a bear but instead was mainly there for the hunting experience. The prospect of walking on ground where possibly no man had walked before intrigued me. Observing bears was also of interest, and over the years I was able to film many of them using a compact VHS video camera, as mobile phone cameras did not exist. Of course, I hoped to see and harvest a nice mountain buck, but I knew the odds of that were slim, based on the statistics I had read. I did encounter one very large, very black Russian boar, which I hunted and observed on several occasions, but I was never able to close the deal. It appeared to be 24 inches from the top of his back to his breastbone, far different from your typical feral hog. He was truly a trophy boar.

Fast forward two years and I decided that hunting from a portable climbing tree stand in bear country would be far better than hunting on the ground. I cringed at the thought of lugging a stand on my back while hiking 2-plus miles in the mountains to get to my spot. So, I decided it would be a good idea to take my wife and son, along with our mixed breed Labrador Retriever, on a camping trip to Cohutta over the Labor Day weekend, where I could hang my stand on a tree prior to bow season. I also thought it would be good if my wife could see where I had been going for the previous two years, hunting and camping alone, so she wouldn’t worry so much about me in the future. Although I got my stand strapped to a tree as planned, several things happened on this trip that were not so good.

First, the bugs were bad at the campsite during daylight hours. We were quite miserable. She kept questioning why we weren’t camping at the beautiful Lake Conasauga campground we had observed while driving in. My wife had noticed the teeth marks in the bear-proof steel trash bins near the East Cowpen parking area and didn’t sleep a wink that night, knowing any minute a bear would be ripping through the side of our nylon tent. The next day, my wife, son and dog hiked with me to my hunting spot to hang my stand. I asked them to wait on the trail and I would be back shortly. Well, shortly turned out to be an hour or so later as I had to find that perfect tree. They did not enjoy being alone on the trail in bear country. Fortunately, (or not, as I learned later), I found a tree to hang my stand on that had bear claw marks on it where I believed a bear was probably marking its territory. During the hike back, my dog wandered off the trail a bit. I was calling her to come on as my wife and son were hurriedly making their way back to the safety of our truck. As I backtracked trying to get the dog, I realized she had just uncovered a yellow jacket nest, and I observed a cloud of yellow jackets pouring out of the ground, following my dog who was now running toward me. We quickly caught up to my son and I told him to run! As we were running, finally catching up to my wife, he yells “Dad, what are we running from?” We all escaped the yellow jackets unharmed, which is more than I can say for my dog.

For the next three years I followed a similar pattern and headed to Cohutta on the third weekend of archery season. I chose this time each year since the weather would be cooler, and perhaps there would be fewer hunters in the woods than the previous two weekends. Upon arrival at my primitive campsite on top of Three Forks Mountain on a Friday afternoon, I realized someone was camping in my spot. It was a group of guys with a couple of vehicles. I stopped and walked up to one of them (David), introduced myself and asked if they would mind if I pitched a tent and camped in this spot alongside them. He couldn’t have been more pleasant, saying, “Absolutely, we would love to have you join us here.”

I proceeded to set up my tent and hang a tarp that I tied overhead to some trees for rain cover. The weather in Cohutta can be challenging at times— and rain and drizzle seems to be a common occurrence. I built a small fire and cooked a steak that evening over the open fire. The main fire pit with large rocks all around was near where my new associates were camped, but I was fine with where I was. Shortly after finishing my dinner, David came over, and having remembered my name, he asked me to come join them by their campfire, which I gladly did.

We spent time getting to know one another, talking about our experiences at Cohutta, where each of us lived, what we did for a living. David was a dairy farmer who lived near Madison. The other guys, Donald his son Clint, were also dairy farmers from Macon, and they were all longtime friends. David was cooking up a batch of chili, using a package containing dried beans and seasoning that he was cooking from scratch. He filled a cast iron pot full of water and hung it over the fire. I remember him reading the directions out loud about the seasoning mix that would be added to the dried beans in the pot of water. He said add 1/3 of the mix for mild, 2/3 for hot, and all the seasoning mix if you really want to feel the burn. He dumped the entire packet of seasoning mix into the water, and we all laughed.

It seemed like the beans were taking forever to cook and soften. At some point, David declared we were eating them now, ready or not. We all crunched on a bowl of chili and went to our tents, knowing we would be getting up very early to make the trek to our respective hunting spots. David and his crew were heading to an area known as Airplane Ridge. I would be proceeding to my spot off Rough Ridge trail.

The next morning, I left camp about an hour and a half before sunrise and drove the quarter mile or so to the parking area for East Cowpen trail. I proceeded up the trail and took a right at the fork on Rough Ridge trail. I passed the area where I had originally encountered the guy camping near the trail on my first trip and felt I was nearing the homestretch getting to my spot where I had hung my tree stand. As I was walking down the trail, with my green penlight pointing toward the ground, I heard some serious commotion off the trail to my right. When you are in bear country, you do not want to encounter anything in the dark, as I’m sure everyone will agree. I heard branches breaking and all kinds of strange noises. I froze, and seconds later I heard what I can only describe as a loud woofing sound. Now, I have never heard a bear make noise, other than on TV. However, I knew this was a bear that I had startled, and it was telling me to go away, or I would be eaten… something like that. I never shined my light toward the sound, I simply started walking backward down the trail. As I was walking backward, I quickly knocked an arrow on my compound bow, connected my mechanical release and positioned my penlight in my left hand such that I could shine and shoot if it came after me. I continued to walk backward for about 100 yards, and after that I turned and walked another hundred yards or so back down the trail.

I listened to the bear for nearly 20 minutes, at times thinking it was coming toward me, a very eerie sound in the dark wilderness. Soon, the sun started coming up, and I could see enough to proceed down the trail without my light. The woofing sound had stopped, and I had a strong desire to get to the safety of my tree stand where I could climb 15 or so feet. So, I decided to take on the persona of a hiker and hike quickly past the bear (or bears) and get to my spot. I was walking hard and fast, making plenty of noise. My eyes were searching for any sign of a bear as I approached the area where I encountered them. As I passed, I saw a very young cub just off the trail to the right, clinging to the side of a tree about 20 feet up. I then realized I had stumbled upon a mother bear and her young cub. A very dangerous situation, especially in the dark. No sign of mama bear. Onward to my tree stand, another 200 yards or so, and then down to the left toward Rough Creek.

I got to the tree where my stand was hung. I had placed it up as high as I could reach in the tree from the ground. As I approached, I realized that all the padding and cloth webbing had been ripped to shreds. Apparently, I had selected the wrong tree. Those claw marks, which I had mistaken for territory markers, were marks from bears climbing the tree to get to the acorns above. I learned this on a subsequent hunt when I hunted from a similarly marked tree, and a bear tried to climb the tree I was in. Not good. It’s impossible to shoot a bear climbing your tree with a compound bow.

After the morning excitement and hunt, I returned to the campsite and exchanged stories with my new campsite friends. David shared with me that he, Donald and Clint went up to Airplane Ridge to hunt. They got to a spot where David was going to hunt, and then Donald went off to the left and Clint off to the right to find spots for themselves. Clint unfortunately experienced some gastrointestinal issues resulting from the hot chili served the night before. David laughed as he told the story of Clint walking back by his stand two or three times over the course of the morning to address his issues, thankfully far away from their hunting area.

Later that day we began discussing our plans for the evening hunt. David was describing how bears climb high in the oak trees to break the branches off. They then go back down to the ground and eat the acorns off the fallen branches. This was a foreign concept to me at the time. He said if you ever find a spot with a lot of fresh broken oak branches on the ground, it’s likely a bear will return to this tree. I told him I knew of such a spot just off the trail near where I was going that evening, and he was welcome to come with me and put up a stand there, which he did.

Sure enough, David shot a bear there that evening, using his compound bow. That was the start of a long friendship with David Moss. We all returned to camp that evening, ate a nice dinner and proceeded back up the trail to find and retrieve David’s bear. Unfortunately, after David shot, the bear ran straight down the mountain on the right side of the trail. It was an unbelievably steep drop. Following the blood trail, we were all walking close together, at times moving from tree to tree to avoid rolling down the mountain. It was past 10 p.m. by this time, and Donald kept stopping us saying “Did you hear that, I just heard something growl.” Of course, we all thought he was kidding, but at the same time there was this small doubt in your mind that maybe he was telling the truth. We found the bear down where the mountain leveled off. Thankfully the bear was only half the size David had described. Nonetheless, we realized there was no way we could get that bear back up to the top the way we came, and we would need to find another way out. We were fortunate enough to find a route around the base of the mountain and found our way back to the main trail and on back to the camp. Regardless of how many people you have in your group, it’s tough to carry a 150-lb. bear two or so miles through the mountains. We cut two saplings and trimmed off the branches to use as a stretcher or travois. We interlaced rope between the poles and tied-off the bear. It was a brutal exercise that crippled all of us as we took turns carrying or dragging the bear, two men at a time for dragging or all four of us for carrying.

The next year, following the same scenario, I arrived at the campsite on Friday afternoon. No sign of David and crew. I got up the next morning and went to my spot to hunt. Upon returning to my truck, there was a note under the windshield wiper. It was from David, and it said, “Mike, we are camped at the large campsite,” which I knew to be within walking distance of the parking area. He asked that I stop by to say hi, which I did. We met up and camped at the large campsite together for another couple of years. We had numerous adventures, and I had the opportunity to meet many of David’s other friends and family, including his son David, a friend of theirs from Macon named “Goat,” and numerous other wonderful people. They were all like family to me.

Several more bears were harvested over the years, along with a nice wild hog that Donald collected. We had to trail the hog quite a ways, though Donald claimed he hit it right behind the shoulder. It was hit behind the shoulder all right, way behind the shoulder. We did a lot of dragging as a result of our successes. I remember one morning when David killed another bear, hunting near me on Rough Ridge. He had seen six or so in total. That same morning, I saw 13 bears. One of the bears I saw tried to climb my tree just before daylight. Another was a sow with a cub that made me very nervous, even though I was 15 feet up a tree. The cub came frolicking up to a spot near my tree. Mama was walking slowly behind her. Suddenly, the sow got wind of me and went on full alert. She woofed, which sent the cub quickly back in the direction they came from, no questions asked. She then scanned the area thoroughly and ran about 30 yards away and stopped. She turned around and again scanned the area, before running off. Glad I wasn’t hunting on the ground.

One evening, as we were sitting around the campfire enjoying jokes and telling lies, David mentioned to me that he and his brother shared a 100-acre hunting lease in Morgan County and that his brother did not intend to renew the coming year. He said he was looking for someone he could trust and that shared his trophy deer management mentality to share this 100-acre lease with him. He asked me if I would be interested, knowing I had property just down the road in Greene County. I assured him I was interested.

That next summer, my wife, son and I met David and toured the lease property. It was a beautiful piece of property, and we shook hands to seal the deal. Later that summer, David helped me put up a few wooden ladder stands I had built in preparation for deer season. We hunted together as much as we could over the next several years, each of us harvesting some nice bucks. I became part of his family, preferring to sleep on his sofa when I was there hunting or visiting. We cooked a low country boil with his family and friends at least once or twice every deer season.

Somewhere along the way, David and I both bought Harley’s. We rode together a lot, making several trips through the mountains together and a couple of trips down to Panama City for the Thunder Beach motorcycle rally. We had talked about getting motorcycles for years before it finally happened, both of us having owned motorcycles in our younger days. I once spoke of getting a Honda Goldwing. David’s face curled up, he began to stutter, and he told me, “Mike, if you buy a Honda, the only way I will ride with you is if we meet in Tennessee somewhere and ride from there. I can’t have anyone see me riding with someone on a Honda.”

The author and Davis Moss circa 2009.

We shared a lot of fun and often exciting times together for many years. Unfortunately, David passed away from a heart attack in May of 2022 while tending to the large vegetable garden I helped him plant the week before. He was like a brother to me, and I miss him dearly. However, I have so many fond memories to reflect on when I think about him, like I am while writing this story. I feel he is still here with me, and I have a smile on my face.

Hunting is a unique sport that many people don’t understand or appreciate. Not everyone wants to wake up at the crack of dawn, gather gear, head off into the darkness and walk long distances through the woods to wherever they are hunting. For afternoon hunts, you return in the dark. Sometimes you are freezing cold, sometimes soaked to the bone, and sometimes you are roasting hot after walking to your stand on an unusually warm November afternoon. Mostly, hunting is done solo, and you may spend hours at a time staring off into the woods or the field you are hunting over, sometimes seeing nothing. You have lots of time to think and solve all the world’s problems. Some think of this as boring, but those who embrace the sport enjoy watching all the wild creatures wake up each morning and go to their nest or roost in the evening. Few hunters are there truly just to kill something. I for one don’t enjoy killing anything. Killing, however, is part of the process, just like the process that puts fried chicken on your table. I process, eat and enjoy all wild game I harvest, and I do my best to make sure my shots are clean and sure, hoping for an instant kill. I enjoy the preparation and the anticipation. I enjoy peering through the woods, looking for any sign of movement. I enjoy spotting a buck, trying to count the antlers to determine if it’s a shooter, one worthy of my wall. I enjoy anticipating the path it will take and getting positioned for a shot in my stand or from the ground, hoping it doesn’t see, smell, or hear me as I pull back the hammer on my Marlin 30-30. I enjoy outsmarting turkeys in the spring and enjoy when they outsmart me, which is most times.

Hunting brought David Moss and I together those many years ago. We had a kindred spirit and a mutual love and respect for the sport. Hopefully many of you who have taken the time to read this entire article have had the opportunity to share similar experiences with someone. Perhaps, you’ll share your love of the sport with your friends and children, so they too can enjoy this great sport and the many blessings and friendships that result.

David Moss’s living room in 2009 showing the bear he shot the first year he met the author in Cohutta, a nice 8-pointer he mounted on a pedestal he designed and built, and two full-body mounted wild turkeys in a glass case. Numerous other trophy bucks, another bear and a wild boar lined his walls.

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