Now that every county in the state has a bear season, a hunter taking a bear is no longer a rare event. However, huge black bears are not so common and hunters consider any bear weighing more than 500 pounds as the trophy of a lifetime.
Bear hunting circles are tighter-knit than those who are not familiar with hound hunting would ever suspect. It seems nearly every bear hunter knows every other bear hunter with various groups taking advantage of nine different seasons by traveling all across the state.
Among these bear-hunting groups, Hyde County is known as “Bear Central.” It has the perfect combination of thick pocosin vegetation that is lush with berries in the summer and agricultural crops that help bears pack on the pounds in the fall and winter.
One fortunate hunter, George Ken “Bubba” Lee” took a black bear that weighed 545 pounds in the county on Nov. 15. While a bear that size is certainly noteworthy, the feat is nothing short of astounding for a hunter who has lost both legs above the knee.
“I have Factor V Leiden disorder, a blood clot disorder that I am on blood thinners for,” said Lee, 47, who lives in Willard and worked as a machinist and welder before becoming disabled. “I woke up one night in 2012 and my right leg was burning from the knee down. I went into the hospital and they amputated my leg after I went through multiple surgeries as they tried to save it. I was having regular checkups and almost a year later had the same thing happen to the other leg when I noticed the big toe was yellow. They amputated that leg a couple of weeks later. It could affect other parts of my body too. My blood won’t stop clotting, but I refuse to let anything beat me.”
Lee has been hunting various types of game with Keith Daniels since they were children. Daniels has bear hounds and now hunts black bears almost exclusively. Daniels battled Stage III cancer for two years. Recently, his doctors gave him the good news that he is cancer-free. He said the life-changing event was the catalyst that compelled him to put a hunt together for his childhood friend.
“We played baseball and football when we went to high school together,” said Daniels, 47, who lives in Currie and owns a trucking company. I have been bear hunting since I was 9 years old. I enjoy trying to figure out what a bear will do and training my dogs from the time they are pups until they are grown.”
Lee had never taken a bear. One day, he expressed the desire to harvest a bear in front of Daniels’ hounds.
“I spoke with some friends I have been hunting with for 10 years,” Daniels said. “We hunt at the coast and in the mountains together. We put a hunt together we thought might work.”
The hunters met in Hyde County. Lee can move from his vehicle to his Polaris ATV to get around the woods. The hunters helped him get aboard the ATV. Then they set out to find some bear tracks. After finding fresh tracks, they released two trail dogs. The first dog trailed what turned out to be a sow with two cubs. The second dog was Daniels’ trail dog, Rusty, a red-ticked hound. He opened up on the scent of a big black bear.
“When we knew he was on the bear, we sent other dogs in until there were about 15 dogs in the pack,” Daniels said. “Two of us were beside Bubba’s Polaris, helping him to get ready to shoot. Five more were pushing the Polaris along a forest road. All of the other hunters were in the thicket with the dogs and the bear.”
The ATV was in neutral so the sound of its engine would not alert the bear, causing it to move off in the opposite direction. The road was not much more than miles of muddy ruts, but the hunters slipped and slid onward and persevered. The hounds brought the bear to bay in a blow-down, where it would not budge. It was ignoring the hounds, which were howling so loud the clamor was a solid roar. Another crew of seven or eight hunters had clawed their way through the thick jungle. They began shouting and throwing branches at the bear, in what amounted to a coastal North Carolina version of an Indian tiger hunt where beaters drive the quarry into the open where the hunter can see it. The chase went on that way for more than two hours, with the bear moving slowly ahead of the hunters and their hounds.
“I had a radio so I could keep track of the hunters,” Lee said. “I could hear them hollering at the bear and they kept saying it was a big bear. Then they shouted, ‘Here he comes!’ The other hunters were pushing the Polaris along, trying to keep me in a position where I could shoot the bear if he crossed a big canal beside the road.”
A dog dashed into the road first. Then Daniels saw the bear splash into the canal and told Lee to get ready. When the bear materialized, dripping wet, Lee waited for several dogs swarming the bear to move out of the way. While it seemed forever, it was only a couple of seconds before the bear was running, creating a fleeting opportunity before escaping into an even denser forest on the other side of the road.
“I shot him through the shoulders with Keith’s .45-70 Marlin Guide’s Rifle,” Lee said. “He was dead on the run and fell back into the canal with the dogs piling on top of him. Another hunter shot him again to make sure he was dead.”
Lee said since it was his first bear, he will have it mounted by a taxidermist. He would have been happy with any bear, but never in his wildest dreams expected to take one that weighed more than a quarter-ton.
“For one time in my life, I was kind of speechless,” Lee said. “It was the hunt of a lifetime for me. For Keith to do something like that for me was unbelievable. He just came up asked me and I was more than willing to go.”