Of Bears, Dogs—And Friendships

The south Ga. bear hunting bear runs deep.

Daryl Gay | October 31, 2023


There’s no accounting for the bug that bites you. Or when it happens. For some, it’s a process of growing into whatever activity they eventually fall for and become consumed. Others are suddenly smitten. Like Don Butts.

His parents didn’t see it coming during a vacation trip to the Great Smoky Mountains all those years ago. But Don knew.

“My parents took me on a trip to the Smokies when I was little and would indulge me with looking for bears in fields and pastures as we drove along,” Butts recalls. “One year we were right outside an old country store and there were trucks and dog boxes and hounds and I talked dad into stopping. When we got inside, the whole store was bears: mounted, claws, pictures on the walls… I told my dad I wanted to go bear hunting, and he told some old-timers gathered around in there. They appeared pretty dubious, and told dad, “He needs to be a little older before we take him.

“I told this one old man that ‘One day I’ll do what you do,’ and he said ‘Until you get big, you better leave them bears alone.’”

Will six foot six do? After all, his CB handle these days isn’t Tall Man for nothing!

At 71 years of age, that memory remains vivid in Butts’ mind.

“I meant what I said,” he said. “I never got over my desire to hunt bears. I always loved hounds and years later got into coon hunting. You get busy with life, and Georgia didn’t have a bear season until the 1970s. Even then, the area that could be hunted was small, and it was really hard to get in with the hunters around the (Okefenokee) swamp back then.”

Neither of those facts has changed 50 years later. I’ve written about Okefenokee bears in GON for 34 years now, and if there is a more misunderstood hunt on the planet, I’m sure I don’t know what it is. My guesstimate is that maybe a third of a percentage point —or less—of hunters in our state have ever taken part or even knew there was such a thing. Folks tend to look at me like I just rode in on a train from Jupiter when I casually mention it. I’ve taken folks on an invite who couldn’t wait to try it, then near-begged to get out of the swamp and wouldn’t be dragged back. That’s the norm, by the way, not the exception.

It can be boring standing beside a narrow dirt road, waiting and waiting; or you can find yourself so deep in the bamboo, briars, black water and mud, heart pounding almost through the top of your skull, that you feel that the next slogging step will bring on a heart attack. Gotta get to that tree, though, where the dogs are yammering like crazy, or maybe fighting him on the ground. It’s muddy, bloody, brutal, dangerous—and it gets into your bloodstream worse than malaria. That’s what happened to Don Butts. And me.

As he says, “It was fate, I guess. It kicked in when I moved to a new home in Albany, across the street from a fella named Ace Darden. We became friends, and he mentioned he hunted bears down there in the Okefenokee. Ace talked to the guy who ran the club and I got a chance to go with him. That was in 1998.”

Fate indeed.

That guy who ran the club happened to be named William Jackson Carter, and if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you’re likely familiar with “Jackie.” Nine years earlier, he got me started, too, on the east side of the swamp between Waycross and Folkston. Race Pond, to be exact.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to hunt with some very good bear hunters,” Don says, “the best of which was Jackie Carter. (Jackie’s cousin) Wiley Carter was also a good one, as was Ace.”

I couldn’t agree more and will toss in a few others from over the decades: Alton Carter, Larry Carter, Kenneth Carter, Quintin Carter, Zach Carter… Notice a recurring theme? This side of the swamp is also where I met another very good bear hunter: Don Butts.

Don Butts with a 295-lb. bear from 2014 in Clinch County. Don has shot a number of bears over the years and says he has never killed one weighing less than 250 pounds.

And life kept happening…

“I’ve bought and sold land most of my adult life,” Butts says, “and in 2006 I got a chance to buy some land near Homerville on the west side. I also leased 500 acres from private owners and met up with the Bear Branch Hunting Club. They asked me if I was going to be a still hunter or a dog hunter, and when I said dogs, they asked me to join the club, and I did.

“I killed my first bear in Bear Branch after passing up a lot of little bears on the other side of the swamp. On my second hunt with Jackie, I passed up a little bear that turned out to weigh 92 pounds; I know because the next hunter up the track killed him. He was within 20 yards of me, but I put the safety back on as soon as I got a look at him. On another hunt, I had about an 80- to 90-lb. bear almost run between my legs one time. I had to get out of his way or he’d have run over me. But I’ve never killed one under 250 pounds.”

Each bear harvested must by law be taken to DNR check stations (in Waycross or Fargo) to be weighed, tooth samples taken, etc. The hunter will receive a letter from the Wildlife Resources Division biologist who checked the bear, detailing weight, sex, age and even numbering the animal. The smallest bear I’ve seen taken with Jackie was 88 pounds—one of three running in circles in the same block of swamp— and the largest was 601, killed by Quintin’s wife Leta. Shows the amazing disparity within the Okefenokee; you just never know.

Don and I rode a heap of miles together on the Waycross side of the swamp before he crossed to Bear Branch, and you get to know a lot about a man during those hours. Our outlooks on a bear hunt run the same track, and we became good friends over the years. You seldom lose touch with fellow bear hunters, simply because there are so few of us. He knew that Jackie Carter was like a brother to me, and that I would spend as many of the days during the 12-day season that I was able to hunt in Race Pond. And then…

Jackie’s death in July of 2017 changed everything. The bottom dropped out of bear hunting. As big a part of my life as this thing had become, it was over.

Don Butts and the author can agree that this type of hunting is, obviously, about bears. And friendship. And dogs. Especially dogs.

Don Butts called after Jackie’s passing and prior to bear season.

“I didn’t know if you had a place to bear hunt, or if you even wanted to go back to Trail Ridge. I’d love to have you come hunt with me.”

Trail Ridge runs behind Jackie’s house, on the edge of the Okefenokee, and we’ve run many a bear up and down it. Understand?

Get this, too: as ludicrous as it may sound, actually KILLING a bear is likely the last thing I want to do on a bear hunt. It’s one and done; kill a bear and you get to kinda stand around and watch for the rest of the season. But the night before making a trip several years ago to Homerville to accompany Don, I made up my mind: I’m shooting today.

Did, too; looking at him as I type…

A man doesn’t forget phone calls like that. Runs deep.

The Okefenokee is bear-hunting home for Don and me, but we’ve also taken our little jaunts to Canada. Ontario, to be exact, although that’s about all the trips had in common. Here’s a tidbit to show you what a small piece of real estate Ontario is: I crossed into its western side, headed for Thunder Bay, through Duluth, Minnesota; Don was just across the line from New York!

My trip was the spring of 1988, Don’s the fall of 2001—five days after planes hit the Twin Towers! I saw bears, but nothing big enough to haul home; he can best describe how his hunt went.

“This was the first time I ever went out of the country, and with all that had just happened. We didn’t know if we were going to get to go or if we were going to get to come back! We drove to Madoc, Ontario, east of Toronto, just over the line. I went with Jackie, Wiley and Raymond Skinner (another boon companion of ours). Jackie’s friend was acting as our guide since we had to have one, and I remember we had to buy a license for each dog! It was $7 Canadian but was really cheap with the exchange rate. We got everything into the place we were staying, turned out the dogs and within 15 minutes of leaving the house, the dogs struck a bear. I went down one side of a little ridge and Jackie down the other and the bear treed where Jackie was. The bear tried to come down after the dogs, Jackie went to shooting with that .44 lever-action he had, and it sounded like a dove shoot! We had about a 200-lb. bear on the ground no more than 20 minutes after we got to the place and wound up getting one more. One of the highlights up there was a game supper we had one night. Jackie had taken some gator tail, and we had that, as well as elk, antelope and moose! That was some feed and some trip.”

If only these south Georgia dirt roads could share stories of all the great dog runs during Georgia’s unique south Georgia bear season.

This type of hunting is, obviously, about bears. And friendship. And dogs.

Especially dogs.

“I love the hounds,” Butts smiles. “Always have. Running bear or deer or coons, it doesn’t matter; I just love hearing a dog run. I’ve helped a lot of kids and others get bears. It’s kind of anticlimactic for me to kill one anymore, but I will kill a big one. It’s not about numbers shooting; I’d rather have numbers treeing than shooting. I feel like most people are scared of bears; they just don’t understand it. They say ‘You’re gonna get killed,’ and you CAN, but we don’t exactly go out there and grab a hold of one.”

I’ve had some close calls, but in all my years I know of only one serious bear attack on a hunter, and that one would never have happened if Jackie Carter’s inviolable rule had been heeded: no matter how dead that bear is, walk up and shoot him through the base of the neck.

Years ago on the west side, a big female that was wounded and thought dead jumped up and grabbed a hunter’s arm and took him down. If not for a second hunter rolling it off and finally putting its lights out, things would have been a lot worse. As it was, a helicopter flight across the Swamp to a Jacksonville hospital and grueling recovery was required.

Don and I have learned the hard way that you never know how many more swamp trips lie ahead. But he’s already looking to next September.

“I just want to be able to run dogs and bear hunt,” he says. “Some people will disagree with this, but I kinda wish DNR would maybe lower the season a little so that the bears could expand their territory and more people would have the opportunity to hunt them. I would love for Florida to let us run down there. Their bear hunters come up here; we have several in our club. They have a closed season, but they also have a bear problem. It would help if they would just let us run, even if we didn’t kill anything.

“We need to put a little fear into the bears so that they wouldn’t be walking up and down the streets of Orlando. My son sent me a picture his girlfriend took of a 300-pounder walking around her car in an Orlando suburb. Anti-hunters want us to make pets out of them, but it doesn’t work that way. Every animal is unique in that it has different survival skills. They don’t think like we do and don’t have the ability to reason. They just do what is necessary to survive, and folks can very easily get hurt—bear hunter or not.”

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.