Spot & Stalk
Jun 30 2023
The Beginning Of A Passion
By William Barber
In 2017, I spent an unhealthy amount of time watching Steven Rinella, Clay Newcomb and the show "The Hunting Public." The combination of these shows convinced me of two things: first, I had a passion for bears, and secondly, I could shoot a monster bear in my home state of North Carolina on public land. This confidence helped me convince my dad and a close friend from Ohio to join me in an adventure of a lifetime. Plans were carefully developed, and there we were on the opening weekend of the coastal bear season. We saw lots of bears and had multiple shot opportunities, but failed to capitalize. Disheartened and deflated, I went back to the drawing board. After chatting with many successful houndsmen we were convinced to try again in 2018.
Fast forward to an unsuccessful first day of the 2018 season, I was eating my dinner in a local restaurant. While sitting there, I overheard a local hunter talking about the great opening day they just had. He even showed me a picture, in which I immediately recognized a friend and fellow veteran. The conversation continued and resulted in an invite to visit the "skinning shed" where I was re-united with an old friend named Chris Milligan. Stories were shared, and success was in the air, they took six bears in one day and Chris had joined the 500lb club. The smile on his face said it all, he and his son Davin had done what very few hunters have an opportunity to do, and took down a real trophy animal. We discussed the possibility of club openings and the merits of public vs private land especially as it pertains to North Carolina baiting laws. Public land hunting without bait or hounds in eastern North Carolina is a hefty endeavor and will humble even the best hunters.
Growth and Experience
In 2019, I received a phone call from Chris, and he told me about an opening in his bear club, so I immediately accepted the offer. Chris explained the setup was a combination of hound hunting and still hunting, with each style complimenting the other. This meant you could experience the treeing/baying of a bear with hounds or the excitement of having a bear slipping away from hounds but passing within a few yards of a hunter. We spent the next few months discussing and planning, until opening day. I showed up a day early because Chris is a leader for a non-profit organization that promotes Combat Veterans connecting in a healthy way to the great outdoors. Chris was preparing a bear stew from the previous year’s harvest and welcoming all of the bear hunting club, including the land owner, houndsmen, and local bear experts. After many hours of storytelling and socializing, we all finally went to bed for an early opening day start.
The opening day was epic, 5 black bears were harvested and both of the “Combat Warriors” tagged out. Many others were sighted by other hunters. After the shooting was done the real work began. All hands were needed to drag bears and get them to the skinning shed. Once everyone gathered around for pictures, the next 8 hours were spent telling the day's stories from the perspective of each hunter, while cleaning the bounty of the hunt and celebrating the opportunities nature provided. This also allowed the state biologist to come by as part of the NC bear cooperator program. They weighed, took tooth samples, and hair samples to help them monitor the health of the bear population. It was here that I learned just how much work went into each hunting season.
As soon as the previous season ended, the houndsmen began looking for new pups and developing training plans for their pack. They spent all spring and summer making sure their dogs got the attention they deserved, and were able to chase bears year-round. The land owner worked to improve internal road systems, and manage agreements with neighboring properties. Then local bear hunters and the houndsmen began baiting weeks before season came in to ensure there were plenty of bears hanging around for the hounds to chase. All of these activities seemed overwhelming, and really highlighted the amount of physical labor and effort that goes into creating a successful hunt.
A Day to Remember
On 12 November 2021, I packed my bags and headed for the same eastern Carolina hideaway I had for the last two bear seasons. When I showed up Chris asked me to stir the bear stew that had been cooking all day, and boy did it smell and taste delicious. As many of the bear hunters arrived they ate, complimented the cook, then immediately began discussing the next day events. My friend from Ohio even returned to get a good shot at a Carolina bear. As the evening wound down we were all so full of excitement we could barely sleep.
At 0430 the alarm rings, everyone in the camper moved and started getting ready for the events of the day. We joked around with excitement as we gathered our things and headed to the pre-determined meeting area. Some hunters choose to be close to the hounds for their opportunity, and some choose to surround the block to catch bears slipping away from the newfound human presence. As a returning hunter who knew some of the major crossing points, I was asked to help get folks to their sitting areas. Soon we were off!
Chris and I quickly placed hunters at their crossing, and off I went to my spot. When I got there, I looked up and caught a glimpse of a large bear sliding into a 20-foot-wide canal, avoiding the chaos that was about to ensue. I then moved to a tree roughly 5 yards from where the bear entered the water and got ready for the excitement. I tried to document my first encounter and the excitement of the 2021 bear season in a short video to my close friends but as I finished up, a good bear came running down the trail. I estimated him to be approximately 400lbs, but I was adamant I was going to take one of the monster bears we had on camera. I reluctantly allowed him to slide out of the hunt just a few yards from me.
After reflecting on the moment, and feeling some regret for not taking a good mature bear, I looked up to see a giant bear. He was hesitant to come in range, and drifted off towards another trail where we had no hunters. I sat and pondered how I missed yet another opportunity at a good mature bear. Then I heard what sounded like a horse galloping through the woods. I looked up to see the biggest bear I had laid eyes on barreling down the trail that came within five yards of me. I raised my rifle, steadied it on his vitals, and allowed him to get within 7 yards before I squeezed the trigger. The Henry 45-70 barked, sending the giant bear tumbling. A quick follow up shot pinned him down and then reality set in. I had taken the largest bear I had ever seen. As I walked up to see him, I couldn’t fathom how big he was. I tried to collect my thoughts and take a video for my friends, so they could see the raw emotion from a successful hunt. It was then I realized I had harvested the first bear of the hunt. A few minutes later, I hear other shots and reports on my handheld radio that other hunters in our group were successful.
I felt that my stand was special, so I went back to fetch my Ohio friend and asked him to come stand with me on my trail. Within 15 minutes of getting back to the heavily used trail my buddy caught movement, so I start filming. Within seconds a good mature coastal black bear comes walking into view. I watch and video as my buddy aims and fires, anchoring the bear firmly to the ground. I eagerly announce on the radio we have two bears down now. We both inspect the bears we just harvested and reality starts to set in, there is over 800lbs of bears sitting on the ground within ten yards of each other. We were so excited about our success that we talked and celebrated loudly, in hopes of turning any other bears back into the hunting area to maximize possibilities for other hunters.
We listened to the events of the morning unfold on a two-way radio. We heard one hunter took a good treed bear. The land owner had turned his dogs loose, and they were chasing a mean bear. This bear refused to climb a tree but every time the dogs got close to him he would swipe with his paw. He wounded a couple of the dogs, and severely injured one of the land owners’ dogs. The land owner took it personally and made a split-second decision to make a move on the bear, and ended up taking down the mean bear that weighed in over 400lbs.
A quick count using handheld radios suggested we had five bears down. The decision was made to wind down the hunt. One of the unsuccessful hunters (Damon) came down to where me and my buddy from Ohio were sitting. We began telling the stories again. The excitement on our faces said it all. As the rest of the hunters were heading our direction to help get our bears out of the woods, another bear emerged. Damon quickly grabbed my Henry 45-70, propped the gun on the dead bear near us, and took aim. The rifle reports and the bear fell hard, a quick follow up shot neutralized the bear immediately. I quickly pulled out my phone to capture the moment and the emotion of the hunt. Standing in one spot I could see over 1,100 pounds of black bear and three happy hunters. I thought to myself, this is what hunting is all about.
Once we retrieved all of the bears and made it back for weights and pictures, it all started hitting me at once. Fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, and longtime friends all gathered to tell their stories, share their experiences, and pass on their knowledge of bear hunting. I witnessed first-hand the flame that was lit inside my fellow hunters and you could see who was going to be addicted for life. I took it all in, and realized this is where opportunity meets tradition. As I type this article, I am rendering bear fat not only for myself, but also to share with those who helped me along in my journey.
I'm not sure I could ever find or combine the right words to thank everyone appropriately, but I will take a shot with this list: Chris Milligan and Jason Hocutt, along with Combat Warriors Inc. for having an amazing organization and introducing Combat Veterans to the world of bear hunting. Phil & Camala Ferguson (Stormy Ridge Outfitters) for having one of the best bear hunting properties in the country, along with their very own pack of outstanding bear dogs. Jimmy Henderson and Justin Key for not only having some of the best bear dogs I have ever witnessed, but also having a way of dealing with people, and passing on education and tradition. Lastly, I would like to thank the Eakes family for their local knowledge and ability to make things happen. The logistics of a large bear hunt like this can be a nightmare, but they make it seem simple.
Regardless of where you are in life as a hunter, take the time to stop and reflect on the things that make it possible and worthwhile: Opportunity, fellowship, and tradition.