The Bear Hunter

Careful scouting has made Jeff Sanford one of Georgia’s most successful bear hunters. Here’s how he goes about it.

Brad Bailey | September 1, 2002

“Bow season is the best time to hunt bears,” said 37-year-old Jeff Sanford, of Ranger. Jeff ought to know — in the past 10 seasons he has killed seven bears in north Georgia. Five of those bears have been bow kills, including a 335-lb. Cohutta WMA bear that exceeded the Pope & Young minimum skull measurements.

“I enjoy bear hunting,” said Jeff. “And it is so much easier in bow season. Sign is easier to find. When they start hitting white oaks and climbing trees, there is a lot of sign in a small area. You know where they are. By the time gun season comes in and the acorns start to drop, you don’t know where a bear is. There are so many acorns that he could be anywhere.” The twin keys to Jeff’s success are hunting high elevations and hunting white oaks.

“I have friends who go to the mountains to hunt bears, and they never have any luck, and it’s because they are hunting the hollows. Don’t hunt the hollows. Hunt up high. The wind is always swirling around the hollows, and the bears are going to smell you their nose is so good.”

Another advantage to hunting high is that gravity makes getting a bear out of the woods easier.

Jeff begins his scouting in mid August. According to Cohutta area manager Ronnie Holcomb, Jeff walks for miles on the WMA before the season comes in. Jeff walks the highest ridges and uses binoculars to search out white-oak trees with acorns.

“The acorns mature first on top and they drop first, but they don’t have to drop — the bears will climb up after them.”

How high will a bear climb for acorns?

“Plumb to the top of a tree,” says Jeff.

“Later in the season after the leaves are down you can see which trees the bears have been in,” said Jeff. “The tops will all be dangling down with the limbs broken off and dead leaves hanging off.

“I was scouting on Rich Mountain one year and heard limbs popping. It was a real calm day, and it sounded like a .22 rifle going off. I got closer and saw a tree about 50 yards away swaying back and forth. There were two pretty small bears in it. They would get a limb with their paw and pull it back and break it. Then they would eat the acorns and let the limb drop to the ground. I watched them for a few minutes, and then one of them saw me, and they came down that tree like firemen coming down a pole. They hit the ground and ran off. When I went up for a closer look, the tree was just about wore out they had climbed it so many times.”

Jeff looks for broken limbs, bear droppings and claw marks on tree trunks to find specific trees bears are using.

“In a group of trees there will usually be a certain tree that a bear will walk past other trees to get to,” said Jeff. “I don’t know why; the acorns in that tree must taste a little better.”

Claw marks on the trunk can be an indicator of the size of the bear. “If you see a good claw mark, you can tell how big the bear is. If the front paw is as wide as your hand, that’s about six inches, and it is a pretty good bear.”

Feeding bears will usually come back to the same tree or group of trees as long as there are acorns available.

“I like to see a lot of bark on the ground under a tree,” said Jeff. “That means the bear has been using it a lot.” White oaks are critical to Jeff’s hunting style, and so is cover.

“I like to stay close to thick stuff,” he said. “I like to have either a clearcut or a laurel thicket pretty close by.”

A big isolated white oak in thick cover is a bonus. “I found one big white oak on Sumac Creek in Cohutta that’s in a thicket, and that’s where I killed the Pope & Young bear. When that tree has acorns, it’s a honeyhole, but it doesn’t produce every year. I killed that bear in 1997, and it hasn’t had acorns since. I check it every year.”

Jeff said that there are some red-oak trees in the same area, but that the bears don’t seem to go for them. “They want white oaks. It’s a waste of time to hunt anything but white oaks.”

Jeff says that evenings are, by far, better than mornings for bear hunting. His strategy is to catch the bear coming from bedding areas in thick cover late in the day as they head out to feed. “Bears like to feed best in the evening. I don’t see many in the morning, because I think the bears are already there feeding and I run them off. In the evening, the closer you are to the bedding area, the better your chances of seeing the bear before dark. If you are too far from the bedding area, they might not arrive until after dark.”

Attention to the wind direction is also important. “If they smell you, you are never going to see them,” he said.

Jeff was hunting in a Scent-Lok suit one year — and about to burn up on a warm afternoon.

“I finally took the hood off,” he said. “At about 5 p.m. I heard something behind me, and here came a bear. It was about 75 yards out coming straight at me, and the wind was blowing straight in its face. When it got to 50 yards it stopped like it had hit a brick wall and turned and ran off.”

Vanilla extract is Jeff’s a cover scent. He carries it in a spray bottle and sprays anything he touches as he prepares to climb a tree.

You aren’t likely to find bears using areas close to roads. “I usually hunt 1 1/2 to two miles from the road,” said Jeff. “I don’t even start scouting until I am well off the road. You don’t see many people back there.”

Jeff’s two bear-hunting areas, he does not hunt the Wilderness portion of Cohutta. “There is a trail on every ridge, and there are hikers in there all year,” he said.

Studying topo maps is how Jeff finds remote areas to hunt. He is also looking for broad-topped ridges, rather than hog-backed ridges. “I scout out the ridges looking for thickets, and then I look for white oaks,” he said.

Once he has located white oaks that bears are using, Jeff hangs a stand 18 to 20 feet high about 20 yards downwind from the tree the bear is using. Usually he spots the trail the bear is using to come to the tree. “Most of the time they come in from the same direction,” he said. “And it is always a trail from the thick stuff.”

To avoid feeding the bears, Jeff uses bare-metal stands and carries a cushion into the woods to sit on. If a bear finds a stand left in the woods, it will eat the foam and cloth off of it. “I have had bears climb up to my stands a bunch,” said Jeff. “I guess they are just curious.”

Jeff shoots a Mathews bow and Muzzy three-blade, 100-grain broad heads. He aims just behind the bear’s shoulder, and only one of five bears he has killed with a bow has run out of sight before going down.

The meat is good to eat, he say and he has bear meat cut into roasts, tenderloins, steaks and grinds the rest, much as you would treat venison.

“I like to eat it, but you have to trim all the fat off it before you cook it,” he said. “People who don’t like bear meat probably cooked the fat.”

Jeff said he usually sees eight or 10 bears every season. “One year I saw 30, although I was seeing some of the same bears over and over. I had one sow and two cubs that used to come by each weekend. (Killing sows with cubs under 75 pounds is illegal).

A sow with cubs gave Jeff a scare one year.

“I was watching an old sow with two cubs and the sow came right to the tree I was in and stood up sniffing. I thought ‘Oh, oh, what’s she going to do.’ One of the cubs made a sound and I looked away, and then I felt the tree shake. I looked down again, and the sow was climbing the tree.

“I stomped on the bottom of my stand and hollered at her, and she stopped and looked up at me with those beady eyes. Then she backed down and sat on the ground like a dog looking up at me. I started talking to her, and she finally got up and wandered off.”

Black cherry is another tree that Jeff watches for while he is scouting for bears.

“Last year I killed a bear under a black cherry tree on Rich Mountain. I found the place while I was turkey hunting in 1994. The ridge is solid white oaks — huge trees — with two big black cherry trees. It is a gold mine. Last fall, on the third weekend of the season I went in there and the black cherry was tore up. I was hanging my stand at 3 p.m. and here came a bear with me hanging on the side of the tree and my bow on the ground. I just froze. The bear only fed a few minutes and then left, and I was able to set up. An hour and a half later, another bear came out of a laurel thicket, and I killed it.”

Jeff’s fifth bow bear, and his seventh bear overall, was a 250-lb. sow, In a nutshell, Jeff’s bear-hunting strategy is to get off the roads, hunt high-elevation ridge tops, and find white oaks that bears are using.

“Scouting is the key,” said Jeff.“ A lot of people would like to kill a bear, but they don’t want to work for it. You can’t just come up here and walk around and kill one, they aren’t that easy. I hunt all season for one shot.”


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