In 2011, female hunters downed some impressive animals, but absolutely none bigger - or more surprising - than the black bear that a tiny South Carolina school teacher took on Dec. 23.
That's when Vilena Locklear Hunt dispatched a 742-pound Beaufort County bruin, the largest bruin ever killed by a female hunter in North Carolina.
And she did it the hard way, just as tough male bear hunters have for years, scrambling through an almost impenetrable thicket of canebrake briars, roots and tightly-packed tree limbs that ripped at her face, hands and clothing, then crawling on the ground the last few feet until she came face to face with a male black bear six times her size and only 10 feet from her.
Hunt, a 30-year-old resident of North Augusta, S.C., who teaches at Scholfield Middle School in Aiken, S.C., said the hunting trip was a present from her husband, Myran Hunt.
"My in-laws offered to keep the kids for that week," she said.
Myran Hunt got his wife interested in hunting in 2010, taking her on deer-hunting and turkey-hunting.
"I just went and sat with him," she said. "I started out (learning to) shoot (shotguns and rifles), then we went still hunting."
Myran Hunt arranged the hunt with bear hunter Justin King, who has several hunting leases and owns a pack of bear dogs.
"Justin had one dog, Mattie, who rode in the front seat with him," Vilena Hunt said. "She was his cold-trail dog. She'd find an old trail, then follow it. If she hit a fresh trail, Justin could tell by her barking, and he'd release his other dogs. He had six in all, Walkers and Redbones."
After turning loose the dogs at two places earlier that morning with no results, at 10:30 a.m. King decided to try a third block of woods. Mattie immediately struck a bear's trail, and King released his other dogs.
"They ran the bear for two hours," Vilena Hunt said.
King then could tell by his hounds' barking the bear had stopped to face his tormentors and hadn't climbed a tree.
"Justin said that meant it was a bear too big to climb," she said.
King, who'd circled the block of woods and walked to the melee, called the Hunts on a walkie-talkie and told Vilena Hunt she should walk to him - which she did. But the going was tough.
"It was weird," she said. "Everything in those woods had a thick overlay of briars and vines; they were wrapped around everything."
Hunt said that when she reached king, he told her they had to be quiet or the bear would hear them and start running again.
"Then, he took off crazy fast, and I couldn't keep up with him. Even my hair, in a ponytail, was getting caught in the briars," said Hunt, who was wearing blue jeans and a North Face jacket – decidedly not brush-buster clothes.
"The last few feet, I had to get down on my hands and knees to get through," she said. "Then we were in a little opening and all I could see was this black stuff."
That's when nerves almost got the better of the Hunt.
"I was scared," she said. "That was a really big bear."
King told her to shoot - and quickly.
"He said, 'It's pretty close in here, and that's a big bear, and if you don't shoot, something's gonna die,' " Hunt said.
The bear started to walk, so Hunt threw up her .35-caliber lever-action rifle.
"But in going through the thickets, the lever got uncocked," she said. "I couldn't pull the trigger, so I snapped (the lever) up and shot the bear in the neck, where Justin told me."
The bruin ran 20 yards, stopped and both Hunt and King shot again, putting the bear down for good.
It took Hunt, her husband, King and Derrick Walters, King's partner, 4 1/2 hours - using a four-wheeler - to drag the bear out of the wet pocosin.
"We didn't waste any of the meat," Vilena Hunt said. "We've got four kids and my husband's son, who stays with us each summer, so we cut up all that bear meat."
Hunt said the bear's head is so massive -- it's almost certainly a Boone & Crockett Club record-book qualifier – she'd like to have a shoulder mount, then perhaps make a rug out of the pelt.
"The fur was very soft and beautiful," she said.
Hunt's trophy supplants a 708-pound bear killed in Dare County by 14-year-old Rebecca Harrison in 2010 as the largest ever taken in North Carolina by a female hunter. Last Nov. 14, Heather Shepherd of Raleigh downed a 677 1/2-pound Hyde County bruin that is the second-largest North Carolina bear taken by a female hunter who was hunting with bear dogs.
Hunt said she didn't know about going bear hunting again, "but I'd like to get a nice trophy deer and a turkey gobbler."