A “perfect storm” resulted in a perfect 2013 black bear season for many South Carolina hunters. The result was an all-time record harvest of 127 bears during the recent Upstate season.
A poor acorn crop at the higher elevations and an overlapping bear and deer season combined to enable hunters to eclipse the previous best – 92 bears in 2009 – by 35 animals. Oconee County hunters led the way with 49 bears taken, followed by Pickens County with 45 and Greenville County with 33.
“One thing that happened this year that made it a perfect storm was there were very few acorns in the mountains,” said biologist Richard Morton of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. “This year was one of the worst acorn crops we’ve ever seen.
“As a result, many bears left the mountains, moving down low for alternate food sources such as bird feeders, corn fields, apple orchards and bee hives, and that played into the hands of still hunters sitting on private land.”
A record 70 bears were harvested during the six-day still hunt, more than doubling the previous record of 31. Morton said that it marked the first time the harvest during the still hunt had exceeded the kill during the six-day party hunt with dogs.
Many hunters also likely benefitted from a new regulation that allows for baiting of deer in the mountains. Although it’s illegal to hunt bears over bait, it’s likely that bait pulled bears into areas they might not normally be.
“Bears prefer native foods,” said Tammy Wactor, another SCDNR biologist. “But with a shortage of native foods, the bears were concentrated. And it’s easier to take them during the still hunt if they’re concentrated.”
Also, because the bear and deer seasons overlapped for the first time in Game Zone 1 – the upper portions of Greenville, Pickens and Oconee counties – considerably more hunters were in the woods than during a typical bear season. And deer hunters were allowed to take a bear while deer hunting as long as they had bear tags in their possession.
Such was the case with Heath Smith, who was deer hunting with two friends near Landrum in Greenville County on Oct. 21 when he spotted a large bear strolling into a nearby field just minutes before dusk. To his left were five deer; to his right was the bear.
He squeezed the trigger on his Savage .30-06 without hesitation, shooting the bear at 170 yards.
“We were kind of speechless when we walked up on it,” said Smith, a 25-year-old building contractor from Easley. “It was so big we didn’t know what to think.”
The boar (male) bear weighed in at 609 pounds, breaking the previous state record by 15 pounds. Smith plans to have the bear’s skull measured after a mandatory 60-day drying period in hopes that it may qualify as the first Boone & Crockett bear in South Carolina.
In the meantime he’ll be content with the 400 pounds of bear meat that forced him to purchase an additional freezer.
“I guess the bad thing is it’s probably all downhill from here when it comes to bear hunting,” Smith said.
There were several other huge bears taken during the season, including a 589-pound bruin shot by Westminster’s Cody Crunkleton during the six-day dog hunt in Oconee County.
Seventy of the 127 bears killed were boar, or male, bears, which should result in some new territories being opened up and available for younger bears. There also were several “nuisance” bears harvested, Morton said.
With an expanding bear population numbering well over 1,000 animals in the Upstate, this year’s harvest may only serve to temporarily keep the numbers in check, but Morton said that the SCDNR will be closely monitoring the bear population. A DNA study that is expected to reveal some firm data about Upstate bears is expected to be completed next spring.
"It may take two, three or four years to figure out what the impact of this (harvest) will be,” Morton said.
A coastal bear season also is scheduled to run Dec. 1-15 for 30 hunters in Georgetown, Horry and Williamsburg counties.