North And South Georgia Bear Hunters Racking Up Record Kills

State record broken twice in the south Georgia swamps. Harvest numbers off the charts in the north Georgia mountains.

Nick Carter | November 1, 2011

Tyler “Bo” Wood, of Lake Butler, Fla., made the finishing shots on the new state record black bear, a 600-pounder killed on a Clinch County dog hunt Oct. 6. His son Colton, 2, helped show the bear off for photos.

From dense, tangled vegetation of the southeastern swamps to high mountain oak ridges, it’s already a record-breaking year for bear hunting in Georgia. On archery hunts alone, north Georgia hunters are killing more bears than they ever have. And dog hunters in south Georgia have broken the state record for live weight… twice.

In south Georgia, the last time the Okefenokee burned, in 2007, it was a record year for black bear harvest. This year, with summer wildfires again scorching the swamp, the 574-lb. state record from 2007 fell on Sept. 29. And then another new record was set on Oct. 6.

And those record bears, a 598-pounder and a 600-pounder, are just two of five weighing heavier than 500 pounds this year. The live-weights were off the charts for the nine-day season in five southeast Georgia counties.

Also off the charts are the bear harvest numbers for north Georgia. In the north Georgia mountains, hunters are killing an unbelievable number of bears. The rough tally from archery season alone shows hunters are on track to kill about 82 percent more bears than any season on record.

With just one WMA hunt remaining for the south Georgia season, the book is about closed for this year’s record-breaking season. But north Georgia bears are now under the gun… literally. It’ll be interesting to see just how much the new two-bear limit will help curb the booming mountain population.

State Record Broken… Twice

After first-time bear hunter Andy Brinkley, of   Moultrie, killed a 598-lb. black bear during a Clinch County dog hunt Sept. 29, he held the state record. But he didn’t hold it long.

Seven days later, on Oct. 6, at another Clinch County club, Tyler “Bo” Wood, of Lake Butler, Fla., finished off a bear that outweighed Andy’s by just 2 pounds. Bo’s 600-lb. boar is the heaviest bear ever killed by a hunter in Georgia.

Not only was Bo’s bear big. It was mean.

The hunt started out like any other. The dogs got on a track and pushed the big bear about 600 yards into a dense thicket. Bo had his five blueticks in the race, and Mark Wainright, of Kingsland, and Daniel Williamson poured in their Plott hounds for a total of about 10 dogs in the fray when the bear bayed.

“He was in a bad mood. He was big and didn’t want to move,” said Bo. “He wouldn’t climb. He held his ground.”

By the time Bo, Mark and Daniel’s wife Katy crawled the 200 yards into the thicket where the dogs had the bear bayed, the big boar had done some damage. One of Bo’s dogs was dead and two others had suffered serious injuries, leaving eight dogs on the bear.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” Bo said. “But every time we put ’em out we got a chance that he might kill ’em.”

Bo had crawled to within a few yards of the bear. The woods were so thick he was on his knees trying to sort out dog from bear for a shot with his Marlin .30-30 when the bear rushed. From a distance of about 2 feet, Bo was looking the bear in the face when it finally pulled up and backed off.

“I think he was more rushing the dogs than me. Whenever he rushed, I was hollering for the dogs to move out of my way,” Bo said. “It wasn’t really scary. It was the reason I do it, the adrenaline rush.”

South Georgia bear hunters are a pretty tight-knit community, and Bo had heard about the opening-day bear attack on Mitch Canaday (see page 16). Bo called Mitch’s experience a “freak accident,” and said even with the 600-pounder right in his face, it never crossed his mind he might have his own freak accident.

“Usually they ain’t as mean as him. They’re usually scared of you and don’t rush,” said Bo. “This one was probably one of the five meanest ones I’ve ever dealt with.”

An instant later, the bear rushed again. This time Bo had his rifle ready. He pulled the trigger with the bear just 3 inches from the muzzle.

“It took one shot to kill it, but we always give ’em another one just to make sure,” Bo said.

In about six seasons of bear dogging, he’s seen “dead” bears get up before. Once he watched a bear he thought was dead wake up and grab a dog.

The hunters at the club have a tradition of guessing the bear’s weight before they take them to the check-in station for an official weigh-in. Bo guessed 500 pounds. Mark won the wager with a guess of 550 pounds. None of them realized they had brought down Georgia’s new 600-lb. state record until they put the bear on the scales in Fargo.

Now that he knows it, Bo is having a three-quarter mount of the bear made so it will be forever rushing out of his wall.

South Georgia Wildfires and Peanut Butter

In 2007, fires raged through southeast Georgia’s Okefenokee swamp. With a failed mast crop that year, bears from deep within the swamp were forced by hunger and fires to roam out of the safety of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge as well as across the border from Florida and onto a multitude of hunting clubs just in time for the south Georgia bear season.

The record-breaking 2007 season saw the state record for live weight fall twice. Both bears, a 574-pounder and a 570-pounder, came from the swamps of Clinch County. Also in 2007, a record was set for total harvest at 137 bears.

Hagen Ray Zachry, 13, of Ware County, killed his first bear on opening day of the south Georgia bear season, Sept. 29. The Ware County bear weighed 175 pounds.

This year saw similar conditions in the swamp. Wildfires, which were still burning at presstime, have torched more than 480 square-miles of swamps and forests. And although there was not a mast failure this year, bears were obviously on the move. So far, 126 bears (87 boars and 39 sows) have been killed, making it the second-highest south Georgia harvest on record behind the 2007 season.

Greg Nelms, WRD’s south Georgia bear biologist, said even with the last hunt of the season scheduled Nov. 10-12 at Dixon Memorial WMA, this year’s harvest will not likely top the 2007 harvest. He said hunters usually check in two or three bears from that hunt.

But total harvest is not the big story from south Georgia this year. Big bears are.

Before this season, there were only six bears heavier than 500 pounds on record for south Georgia hunts, four of those were killed in 2007. This season, five bears heavier than 500 pounds were killed.

Greg said it’s obvious wildfires and their impact on food sources make more and bigger bears available to hunters. It seems these bigger bears are also older than the average bear.

“If it turns out like 2007, most of these will be older than average bears,” said Greg. “In 2007, they were 11 to 14 years old, when the average for harvested males is 5 to 6 (years old). So I think they will have above average weight to start with. When times get tough in the swamp when the fires start in the spring, I think they come out to find something to eat and bulk up on what they find, whether it was put there for them or not.”

The phrase “put there for them” leads into the factor some think created the heavyweights we saw this season. Well-fed bears are heavy bears, and hunters have been feeding bears doughnuts and honeybuns for years, both to keep them on the property and to pack on the pounds. The change this year? Choosy bears choose Jif.

“This is just my opinion. There aren’t any studies to prove it, but I think it’s peanut butter,” said Mark Pool, a WRD wildlife technician. “Instead of using honeybuns in their barrels, they’re using peanut butter. They’re just packing the protein into them.”

Greg stopped just short of saying supplemental feed is the reason bears were bigger this year.

“I doubt it has to do solely with natural sources, because I think we would have had these big weights before in extremely good mast years,” he said.  “There has to be something very different about these fire years.  The average weight for older adult males is around 350 pounds. Above average is 400-plus, so you can see that is within striking distance of 500.”

Another interesting tidbit Greg has noticed during high-harvest years is the percentage of the harvest taken by still hunters may rise by a point or two. Dog hunting typically makes up about 70 percent of the total harvest, but word of bears hitting the ground brings out more hunters.

“In these big harvest years we tend to get a few more still hunters, most of which have never bear hunted before,” Greg said. “(They) just heard there were a few bears around on their club and got out there before deer season to see if they could get one.”

Both of the new state records, the 598-pounder and the 600-pounder, were killed by dog hunters in Clinch County.

North Georgia Archers In The White Oaks

“We’re off to a wiz-banger of a start,” said Adam Hammond, WRD’s Bear Committee chairman.

That may be an understatement.

Whether it’s because of increased hunter interest, the new two-bear limit or just easy-to-pattern bears, the harvest so far this year has been incredibly high.

Stephen Davenport, of White County, took this 407-lb., Rabun County bear Sept. 18, 2011.

The highest recorded bear harvest for north Georgia was in 2009, when the official legal harvest was 418 bears. That year, 141 were killed during archery season.

Four days prior to this year’s Oct. 22 gun-season opener, Adam gave a rough total for this year’s archery harvest. It is astounding. With bows or crossbows, hunters have killed 256 north Georgia bears so far this season. That’s 82 percent higher than the archery harvest during the 2009 record year. It’s also about 61 percent of the total harvest from 2009.

“We’re off to a big start,” said Adam. “Of course we don’t know what’s going to happen with the rest of the season.”

Adam said he can’t pin down the reason for the high harvest yet. He said he feels there has been increased interest in bear hunting as well as an increased interest in archery hunting. He also said some people have already filled their two-bear limit. The bear limit in north Georgia went from one to two this year and has probably resulted in a few more bears being harvested.

Another factor could be the bears have been easy to hunt this year. Reports from the woods indicate patterning a bear has been no problem. Adam said if you find a white oak with lots of bear sign, all you have to do is sit down and wait on the bears to come back.

On Cohutta WMA, where hunters had killed 60 bears in 37 days of archery hunts and four days of gun hunts at presstime, the talk is of high mountain ridges.

“At 3,000 feet and higher, there are tons of white oaks producing,” said Adam. “The sign has been amazing on Cohutta — big white oaks with all the tree limbs broken off, just piles of scat under the trees.”

Adam said the white oaks may be beginning to play out, but there are still plenty of red oak acorns to carry the bears through the winter.

“Find the white oaks that haven’t played out,” he said. “There are going to be ridge tops or little pockets around that still have white oaks. There will be bears around them.”

While there have been a lot of bears killed, Adam said there have not been a lot of big bears killed. He’s heard of a couple 400-pounders killed on national forest land, and there was a  525-pounder killed with a crossbow at Smithgall Woods State Park in White County. But most of the bears Adam has seen have been 200 pounds or lighter.

Could this be due to increased interest bringing new less-selective bear hunters into the woods?

Remember that bears must weigh at least 75 pounds to be legally harvested, and killing sows with cubs is prohibited. The north Georgia bear season ends Dec. 4., and there is plenty of national forest land to hunt in the 29 counties where bear hunting is allowed. There is also a Nov. 30 – Dec. 4 gun bear hunt on Cohutta.

If you want to kill a bear, now’s the time to do it.

Bill Millican, of Marietta, was thankful this 320-lb. Blue Ridge WMA bear was headed toward the truck when it ran 150 yards down a steep gorge after being arrowed Oct. 10. Bill made the 15-yard shot from the ground with his compound bow.

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