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Black Bear Boom

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If I hadn't seen the tracks in the mud, I never would have believed I was in bear country. The cornfield was huge, about a half mile on each side. My buddy Gary West assured me there were plenty of bears in this North Carolina farmland, but I was still having trouble believing it. We waited in the brush near the edge of the field, about 200 yards apart, and finally gave up around noon. Before we headed to the truck, we checked out more places in and around the field. No question about it, bear tracks were everywhere.

I had wanted to hunt North Carolina bears ever since I heard about the monsters that live in the coastal region. A few years ago, a bear that weighed more than 850 pounds was taken, and 500-pounders are common. The food and climate in this Eastern state are ideal for bruins, offering plenty of high-quality forage and mild winters in which bears can gorge themselves without needing to den up for several months as they do in colder regions.

The field we hunted was owned by Gary's friend, and though we hung in for a couple of days, we didn't see a bear. Nearby shots indicated that other hunters were having better luck, and occasionally we heard hounds in the woods where a bear chase was going on. Later we met up with some wildlife officials who were willing to let us tag along as they measured, weighed and took tissue samples from bears taken by hunters. The bruins we saw were huge, far bigger than most of the bears I'd seen in the Rockies and western Canada.

Some were taken with hounds, others by watching from blinds. A group of veterinary students from North Carolina State had a field hospital set up to care for dogs injured by bears. The service was free, though hunters could make a donation. One of the professors told me that the hospital was popular among students and served another purpose besides patching up ailing dogs.

"Some of our students who are unfamiliar with hunting think that hound owners aren't compassionate," she said, "but when you see an adult man sitting on the steps of the hospital sobbing as his beloved dog is being put back together, you get a different perspective. It's good for the students to experience this."

I went home with plenty of respect for North Carolina's bears, excited about a return to the East. That opportunity came just a few weeks later, when I hunted West Virginia with my friend Chris Ellis, who works for West Virginia Tourism, and Larry Case, a wildlife officer with the state agency. Chris and Dave were along to watch, and as it turned out, so was I. The hunter in our party was Karen Lutto, a publicist from Virginia who has several hunting-oriented clients. Karen had never killed a bear, and we decided it only made sense to put her in the hot seat first.

A large group of houndsmen had volunteered to help, but our initial efforts were stymied by blowing snow. We were drinking coffee in a café, waiting for the blizzard to die down, when a man burst in and announced that one of the dog owners had located a fresh track. We sprang to action, and after trailing the hounds in the forest and making our way through jungles of thick laurels, we caught up to the dogs. They had just treed the bruin, which was about 40 feet up. Karen made a perfect shot with a Remington 7mm Mag. short-action topped with a Kahles scope. The 6-foot-plus boar was fat and had a lush, thick pelt.

RISING NUMBERS

Eastern black bears are undergoing an unbelievable population boom. Consider this: Years ago Maine's annual bear harvest was 2,000 or so; after 1999 it jumped to more than 3,000 and hasn't fallen below that figure. In the four-state region of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, there was a population of 14,450 bears in 1993. By 2003, the population in that area had grown to 37,000.

The bear explosion has not gone unnoticed. Bruins can become pests real quick and can inflict serious injuries on humans. Recently, a bear killed a baby in New York state. Reacting to this surge in bear numbers, wildlife officials up and down the seaboard are enacting less restrictive laws and longer seasons. In New Jersey, a bear season was established in 2003, despite a well-funded effort by anti-hunters to block it. Unfortunately, last year Bradley Campbell, New Jersey's Commissioner of Environmental Protection, decided he didn't want any more bears killed by hunters (even though it was okay for government agents to kill nuisance bears). He stopped the hunt, and after his move was challenged the New Jersey Supreme Court backed him up.

In Maryland, another hard-fought battle was won by hunters, and a season was held last fall. The first day of the hunt was so successful that wildlife officials ended the hunt early, fearing the quota would be exceeded the next day. Twenty bears were taken the first day; the quota was 30. Maryland expects to continue bear hunting. Maine hunters won another tough battle when they defeated a referendum last November that would have outlawed bear hunting with hounds and over bait. It was a close vote, and even though the opposition was well funded by out-of-state anti-hunting groups, in this case, biology and sound wildlife management prevailed over politics.

Bear hunting in the East has come a long way since I hunted bears in New York 40 years ago. The bruins are expanding their range and numbers by leaps and bounds, and I'm certain it will only get better. I, for one, am delighted about that, and I can't wait to head back for one of those North Carolina giants. How sweet it is.

HUNT OF THE MONTH

Prairie Dogs

WHERE: Southern Wyoming

TOP SPOT: Try the country near Medicine Bow on Hwy. 30 west of Laramie.

SKINNY: The area south of town has the most dogs, with plenty of large ranches and parcels of BLM acreage. Many landowners will give permission to hunt. There is no closed season and no limit, and no hunting license is required.

Hot Eastern Bear-Hunting States

MAINE This state is tops in the East in terms of bears harvested. Wildlife Management Districts with the best odds of success are 3, 6, 10, 11 and 12. Seasons vary, but the general statewide season is August 29 through Nov 26. Residents pay $22 for a license, $28 for a bear permit. Nonresidents pay $88 for a license, $68 for a bear permit. (Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; 207-287-5202; state.me.us)

NEW YORK This state has three distinct bear regions. In the Adirondacks, top counties are Essex, Herkimer and Hamilton; the season is Oct. 23 through Dec. 5. In the Catskills, the best counties are Sullivan and Ulster; the season is Nov. 27 through Dec. 14. Top counties in the Allegany region are Allegany, Steuben and Cattaraugus; the season is Nov. 29 through Dec. 14. Resident license is $19; nonresident license is $110; bear tag is $30. (New York Department of Environmental Conservation; 518-402-8545; dec.state.ny.us)

PENNSYLVANIA The most consistent counties are Lycoming, Clinton and Pike. The statewide season is Nov. 22 through 24. Resident license is $20; bear tag is $16. Nonresidents pay $101 for a license, $36 for a bear tag. (Pennsylvania Game Commission; 717-787-3633; pgc.state.pa.us)

VIRGINIA Top counties are Rockingham and Page. Seasons vary but generally run Dec. 6 through 18; Nov. 22 through Jan. 1. Residents pay $12 for a license, $12 for a bear tag. Nonresidents pay $80 for a license, $60 for a bear tag. (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries; 804-367-9231; dgif.state.va.us)

WEST VIRGINIA Best counties are Randolph, Greenbrier and Pocahontas. Seasons vary, depending on whether dogs are being used. Hound-hunting seasons are Dec. 6 through 31 in most counties. Where hounds are prohibited, seasons generally run Dec. 6 through 11. Residents pay $11; nonresidents pay $100 for a hunting license, $150 for a bear tag. (West Virginia Division of Natural Resources; 304-558-2771; wvdnr.gov)

NORTH CAROLINA The top coastal counties are Hyde and Beaufort; in the mountains, Haywood, McDowell, Graham, Macon, Cherokee and Madison are best. Season dates vary according to county. Residents pay $15 for a license, $10 for a bear tag. Nonresidents pay $60 for a hunting license, $125 for a bear tag. (North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission; 919-733-3391; ncwildlife.org)

*Dates based on 2004 seasons; changes may occur after press time.

For more on hunting, go to outdoorlife.com/hunting

For information on Jim Zumbo's books, go to www.jimzumbo.com.

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