Highs, Lows of Raven's First Bear Hunt

The author finds himself amid a flurry of emotions and surprises during a Tennessee hunt with experienced bear hunters and a fellow novice.

Highs, Lows of Raven's First Bear Hunt

"Shoot the bear... Steph, shoot the $&%# bear!"

At 20 paces and in a full-blown charge, bears get bigger … real fast. I didn't care if the round hit or not, I just wanted the bear off our trail.

"I can't find it in the scope," was her unexpectedly cool response.

Never in my life did I expect my first black bear hunt to unfold as it did, but by gosh that's what makes life worth living! 

Six months prior I found myself in my standard gray tweed suit jacket standing before the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission, recommending an expansion in the Tennessee bear seasons. As Chief of Wildlife for the state of Tennessee it was part of my day job. Fortunately for me, season-setting meetings only came around but once a year. After all, I don't find myself too comfortable in a suit and tie. I'm more of a camo and hiking boots kind of guy.

Later that evening I was contemplating the day’s events and couldn't help but fret about the irony of the situation. There I was, bragging about the success story of the Tennessee bear program while justifying the need to increase the harvest, yet, "bear hunting" was probably the only form of hunting I had never tried.

Truth be told, it never interested me, not because I had something against killing a bear but rather because it sounded far too easy. I hunt for food. But I also enjoy the challenge. Tennessee, like much of the south, prides its bear hunting history on using dogs. Being a lifelong archery hunter, especially for deer, I concluded that using dogs to hunt big game, just wasn't very sportsman-like. In my mind, I equated it to shooting fish in a barrel. You turn dogs loose, they tree a bear, you walk up to the tree, shoot, then pose for your photos. It just didn't seem like much of a hunt.

In hindsight, it was my naivety, no one else’s.

Not long after the seasons were approved I was relaying my plight of never having bear hunted to a good buddy of mine, Robert Brewer, a wildlife professor and seasoned bear hunter from east Tennessee. "Well, we gotta change that," was his immediate response.

A few weeks later, Brewer and his crew were drawn for a party dog-hunt on the Cherokee National Forest and my name was added to the list of sign-ons. I was going on my first bear hunt.

The Hunt

Green Cove isn’t much of a town. It is one of those places you look up on Google maps and you find it in a sea of forest green and you keep zooming in waiting to bring the town in focus, yet it never does, for there is no “town” to bring into focus.

It was perfect, smack dab in the heart of bear country.

It was also, the rendezvous point for the hunt crew, 75 folks in all, most of them still-hunters with a scattering of dog men. I would find out later those were the guys who really knew what they were doing.

The plan was to meet the evening before the hunt and go over our assignments. Having never done this before I didn't know what exactly that meant but I was all ears. However, the instructions would have to wait. I arrived two hours before the meeting and decided to kill time by touring Green Cove. I did … and I still had an hour and fifty minutes to kill. Oh well, I figured I best do one last check of my gear. At one point, I wondered if I should buy extra batteries for my flashlight. Nah, they were still pretty fresh and it was highly doubtful Green Cove could help me out.

If only I knew someone in the hunting party I would mingle, but alas, I didn’t. And for those who know me, I’m not the most social type when amongst strangers. Fortunately, shortly before the meeting convened, Robert arrived along with his teenage daughter Heather in tow. Sadly enough, she was even considered a seasoned veteran among the group compared to me.

That evening, Leonard, our hunt leader, doled out our hunting assignments. He was good too. He laid out our hunt area on a large coffee table-sized map and showed where each pack of dogs would be released at the crack of dawn the next day. And he was a stickler for safety. He demanded all the still-hunters be paired at the bare minimum, for the safety of the hunters and dogs.

That's when it dawned on me. Who was I going to hunt with? I got the feeling Robert would prefer to hunt with his daughter over me. Can you believe the nerve of some people? No worries, since I was the inexperienced one in the group, I was sure I would get paired with one of the old-timers. Someone experienced with years of bear hunting under their belt and with a cool nickname like "Puddin'" or "Moonshine," or something comforting like that.

No... I was paired with Stephanne. She was another green, wet-behind the ears, first-time, newbie bear hunter. I had met her a few times before through work but I had never bear-hunted with her, which wasn't  surprising given it was both our first times. Oh well, maybe I could call her something cool.

"Umm, hi… can I call you Ravenclaw?" was my awkward introduction.

"No ... Steph will do," her squinting sideways glance told me never to ask her that again.

Morning sure couldn't come fast enough.

Early, Dark Morning

Eearly the next day, minus the “bright” since sunrise was still hours away, we were given clear-as-mud instructions. Follow the Benton-McKay trail about two miles, when it comes to a "Y" veer to the left, follow the trail another mile, cross the stream above the falls, keep walking and as soon as you break out of the laurels, head off trail and begin climbing to the top of the mountain. Once there, sit tight and keep an ear on the radio so you know what the dogs are doing, and the dogmen will keep you informed.

Simple enough.

Thankfully, we had about two hours to beat the breaking dawn.

After a long days’ work, hound and human hunters relax. (Photo: Daryl Ratajczak)
After a long days’ work, hound and human hunters relax. (Photo: Daryl Ratajczak)

One dead flashlight, five knee-deep stream crossings, a lost scope cover, and a fair amount of cursing later, we arrived at our destination at the tail end of Chinkapin Ridge. We were hunkered down about 300 yards from the peak of Sugar Mountain. See, even the mountains around here had really cool names.

Though the great ball of fire in the sky was rising fast and offered perceived warmth, the temperature was a cool 38 degrees with no plans of rising, at least anytime soon. My partner and I, both soaked from the stream crossings, lasted about two hours.

I don't know if it was my teeth or hers that were making the most noise but the chattering was definitely in unison. Unfortunately, it was also the only chatter going on. The radio waves were as talkative as a pouting mime, which meant it was a pretty darn slow "bear day" on Sugar mountain. And boy was it cold.

"Raven  ... err I mean Steph ... would you mind if I start a fire?"

The crackle and smoke from the small fire warned every creature on the mountain of our intrusion but we didn't care. At least I didn't. I was now dry and warm. Then it happened.

A distant canine-like bawl. Then another. Then a beautiful chorus of howls, barks and bawls all moving in unison as if hot on the trail of a Smoky Mountain bear. I quickly doused the fire.

"What do we do now?"

It was a question we both had so I grabbed the walkie-talkie and began calling for Robert. While trying to raise Robert on the radio, my partner advised me that the dogs sounded as if they were heading in our direction. When I finally reached him, I relayed this information to Robert. He calmly advised that we hold tight.

With widened eyes, my partner says, "Dude … they are REALLY coming our way!'" I guess if she had a nickname it was only fair I had one too.

We grabbed our Remingtons, hers a scoped .30-06 and mine, an open-site 12-gauge, and moved uphill about 50-yards to gain a better vantage point. A well-worn game trail led west in the direction of the baying hounds. They were definitely coming our way. We could now pick out the distinct barks and howls of individual dogs. Our eyes were straining to see the pack, which would be cresting a nearby ridge within a minute’s span.

Then, there he was.

Wait, Where's It Going?

Leading the pack by about 45 seconds, it was exactly what we came for. A full-grown black bear running at breakneck speed. The only problem? It was on the exact trail in which we stood. He crested the closest ridge at about 80 yards, head and shoulders bobbing in full gallop, heading directly at us. Instincts took over, nicknames be damned.

Steph dropped to one knee in front of me and immediately shouldered her gun.

Sixty yards. “Shoot the bear Steph.”

Forty yards. “Steph... shoot the $&%# bear.”

Thirty yards. “I can't find it in the scope.”

Twenty yards. “Still can't find it... take it!”

Ten yards.

I raised the gun, not even fully shouldering it, and racked the first shell clean from my gun.

“Don’t do that again, dumbass!” screamed from my brain.

I had two shells left.

I then let loose with the first shot. Missed, but I cared not. All I was aiming for, literally, was to get him off the trail to keep us from getting barreled over. It worked. The bear veered at five yards just as I was letting the second slug fly. Second miss.

Picture, if you will, a bear getting saucer-eyed at two yards as he turns his head to stare at us in disbelief passing by at about 30 miles an hour. I imagine our eyes were equally "saucered."

He was gone before I took another breath, the whole scenario lasting no more than eight seconds. It was wilder than any bull-ride I've ever imagined.

Steph and I stared at each other in disbelief, neither of us the least bit cold anymore.

"You okay?" I finally broke the silence.

“WHAT?!?” she yelled, shaking out her ears. Then it dawned on me how close she was when I let loose with the shotgun. TWICE.

I said, a bit louder this time, “You okay?”

"Helz yeah I am! That was freaking wild!"

As we both stared in disbelief, wondering if that really just happened,  we were reminded of the reality of the situation as a pack of blue-ticks and curs came bounding our way, bawling louder and more feverishly than ever. Having heard the gunshots, the dogs immediately bayed on a huge white oak thinking the two orange humanoids finally got the bear to tree. What an utter disappointment we must have been for them.

Like a seasoned pro, my partner handed me her gun, ran to the dogs, and began ushering them to stay hot on the bear’s trail. I don’t know what she said, but it worked. The bawling and barking resumed in earnest as they continued their pursuit down the draw and quickly disappeared out of sight.

I smiled as I handed the gun back. Puddin' an' Moonshine ain't got nothin' on Raven. But hey, bears get big real fast when they are running straight at you. Ask Ravenwing or Ravenclaw or Ravenwhatever if you don’t believe me.

Originally from Buffalo, New York, Daryl Ratajczak is a career wildlife biologist, having received his degree in Wildlife Management in 1992 from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. Not long after receiving his degree, Daryl moved to East Tennessee to begin working with black bears in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That experience helped him secure a position with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency; a few years later he became the Big Game Program Coordinator for the state of Tennessee overseeing the deer, bear and elk programs. In 2011, Daryl was promoted to the Chief of Wildlife and Forestry position overseeing the state’s entire wildlife program. He recently headed west to fulfill a life-long dream of living and working in the Rockies and is now living out his dream as a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.


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