With the inventions of GPS, trail cameras and hand-held devices that use satellite imagery to keep track of dogs, bear hunting in eastern North Carolina has changed nearly as much as every aspect of life in America.
But bear hunters? Well, they have adapted to electronic improvements to keep track of their dogs, but at the core, they’re a different breed.
Owners of bird dogs admire their pointers and setters, take them to competitions and breed and sell them for 10s of thousands of dollars. But most dogs are high strung and often don’t make good pets. Not so for bear dogs.
Hunters rarely become as attached to other hunting breeds as they do bear dogs, especially Plott hounds, which can one moment be sleeping peacefully in front of a fireplace, allowing a baby to crawl over them and pull their ears and the next day chase, bay and rage at an animal that can eviscerate or kill them with one paw swipe.
Plott owners form a fraternity unlike any other in the canine hunting community. Offer a Plott owner a large cash sum for his favorite hound, and unless he’s in dire family financial straits, he’ll just smile, shake his head and walk away. No amount of lucre can separate Plott owners from these stalwart dogs. Such a loss would create a hole in the life of the owner and his family. Selling a Plott would be similar to putting a favorite son or daughter on the auction block.
“And bear-chasing or puppies from great blood lines aren’t cheap,” said hunter Greg Culpepper of Linville Falls.
Puppy prices can range from $300 to $400, and trained dogs can bring as much as $6,000.
An owner knows he has a quality hound on his hands if a 4 ½ -month-old dog chases and trees a bear. The best Plott pups have been known to tree bears after only 3 ½ months. That can’t be said of bird dogs, retrievers or even beagles that require extensive training.
Culpepper has kept the bear-hound fraternity abreast of proposed changes in wildlife laws. In appreciation, they’ve invited him to hunts at more places than he can count; he’s one of the few to crack open the door to one of North Carolina’s most-revered bear clubs. Veteran bear hunters know he cares for them and their traditions.
For example, Eddie Frizzell is a friend and 15-year member of the Southern Dismal Hunt Club.
“I was a guest hunter the first three years of the club’s existence,” said Frizzell, who’s also been an officer of the N.C. Bear Hunters Association.
“Eddie’s female Plott hound, Sara Lee, was killed by a 610-pound male black bear,” said Culpepper, who killed the bear moments later in 2007. “Eddie left the camp to take Sara Lee and bury her at home.
“That’s the difference in bear-dog hunters and other types of dog hunters; their dogs are like their children.”
He offered another, more telling example.
“Another hunter had bought two dogs that were half-brothers,” Culpepper said. “One dog killed (the other), and they’d cost the hunter $4,000 apiece. He shot the surviving dog after saying he wouldn’t keep a dog that’d kill another dog.”
Why didn’t the hunter return the dog to its original owner and get his money back?
“He said, no, if he did that, the aggressive dog would just kill somebody else’s dog,” Culpepper said. “He wouldn’t have that on his conscience.”
Two years ago, about 30 members of the Southern Dismal Hunt Club and their guests spent the last few days of bear season in northern Beaufort County. They head-quartered at a converted garage, with campers parked around the building and dog pens and boxes set against the edge of a swamp were filled with well-fed, sleeping hounds.
Frizzell slipped out of bed an hour-and-a half before daylight and was busily cooking breakfast for the crew, some of whom slept upstairs on small beds or the floor.
At the same time, three female hunters, including Mary Beth Parker and sisters Abby and Ann McElveen of Anderson, S.C., awoke in Parker’s travel trailer and donned brush-buster hunting clothes and full-length waders, in case they had to track a bear through a swamp. President of the Outdoor Dream Foundation, Parker had driven from the Palmetto State with the sisters to let them experience their wish — an eastern North Carolina bear hunt.
Darrell Williams of Swannanoa had brought his sixth-grade daughter, Christian, the only other female at the club where a half-dozen small boys who accompanied their fathers also were excited to be at the camp and learn the bear-hunting culture.
Pinpoints of light twinkled in a black sky, and a heavy blanket of frost covered the ground Dec. 27 as the thermometer had dipped into the low 20s by 4 a.m. As soon as the sun rose, the frost turned to water droplets, which would provide good scent trails for the hounds.
Upstairs, hunters pulled on thermals, shoes and hunting garb, carrying jackets and hats down a winding staircase, following the aroma of sizzling bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, coffee, grits and cathead biscuits.
“The problem with hunting now is most of the big bears already have been taken at this lease,” said Culpepper, one of several bear hunters from western North Carolina invited to hunt with the club. They travel east each year to meet old friends and hunt for the largest black bears in the world.
The club had 30,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser property at its disposal. Weyerhaeuser, a timber harvesting company, leases thousands of acres in North Carolina to hunters.
The allures of eastern bear hunting are many — male bears are larger than western bruins, and, instead of having to walk up and down leg-sapping mountains, the terrain is fairly flat, although it’s covered in thickets that often require machetes to chop paths to bears and hounds. But more than anything, Plott owners live to give their hounds the challenge of the chase. A roaring bear race is music to their ears.
Frizzell’s son, Travis, a former Lenoir Rhyne football player, had dropped a 585-pound bear a couple of days earlier during the 12-day second section of Beaufort County’s December season.
“We don’t shoot small bears,” Culpepper said. “If a bear can climb a tree, it’s too small to take.”
The Southern Dismal club shares the Weyerhaeuser property with deer hunters, although they get along well. Bear hunters don’t mind whitetail chasers because the fewer deer, the less chance a rookie hound will chase one, causing hunters to waste time trying to pull other dogs off a false trail. The hunters also reduce that likelihood because the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission allows the use of “natural” foods as bait.
The Weyerhaeuser land is sectioned by rutted logging roads, and every few hundred yards, hunters have chopped paths from the road’s edge into replanted pines. They clear small openings at the pines’ edge and place 50-gallon barrels containing bait and attach trail cameras to nearby trees.
“(Some hunters) ride before daylight to each place with a barrel to see if it’s been tipped over,” Culpepper said. “Then they check trail cameras to see the size of the bear or bears that attacked the barrels.”
The digital photos allow hunters to see if a big male, cubs or a sow with cubs have visited the spot. The club doesn’t turn loose dogs on female or cub bear trails.
“With the size of this lease, it saves a lot of time,” Culpepper said. “If they see a good-size bear on a trail camera, that’s where they’ll drop off a couple of strike dogs.”
Each dog owner fits his hounds with orange, radio-tracking collars. With hounds pursuing a bear, some owners use a small antennae to pick up signals from the dogs’ collars to show the general direction they’re running. Some hunters have GPS collars; the owner uses a small, hand-held device that shows the exact location of each dog on an LCD screen.
When the strike and trail dogs howl on a hot bear trail, other dog owners drive their trucks to the nearest spot of the chase, stop, open dog boxes and literally toss their hounds across 10- to 12-foot ditches excavated to drain wooded sections. The club has a few pole-and-plank bridges scattered around each woodlot for hunters to cross when following hounds. They often battle their way through heavy thickets to reach bayed or treed bears.
Plott hounds are fearless, but not as large as one would expect. Their normal weight is 30 to 35 pounds, but their quickness helps them avoid paw swipes that can split their sides and jaws that can crush skulls.
Many hunters carry needles and thread to sew up injured dogs with sliced-open sides and bellies, so reaching bears that have decided to stand and fight is crucial.
“Weapons of choice include .30-30 lever-action rifles with no scopes,” Culpepper said. “Hunters often have to crawl on hands and knees into thickets where bears and dogs are fighting, so scopes are useless. You have to get close enough you won’t hit the dogs. That means no buckshot.”
Hunters often make kill shots as close as 6 feet from a raging bear, which needless to say, is dangerous.
“No other hunting is as dangerous,” Culpepper said. “Yes, bear hunters and their dogs are different.”