The Blue Ridge Mountains are home to an abundance of wildlife, including the black bear. The men who live here carry on the tradition of “the hunt” just as generations did before them. Not only did hunting serve as a means of providing meat for the family table, but the challenge of pitting oneself against a large wild animal and the harsh elements of nature was instinctively in their blood. Today’s men and women who hunt black bear aren’t as hard-pressed to bring home meat like their forefathers, but the challenge of the hunt remains as keen as ever.
Bear hunting is the largest group-participation sport in the mountains, while deer, squirrel, and bird hunters seem to enjoy the solitary aspect of those particular sports. Bear hunters thrive on each other’s friendships, gearing up year after year for the one activity that bonds them together like a tight weld. These individuals are a tough lot, seemingly oblivious to foul winter weather, blistered feet, and frozen hands. They are easily recognized by the six or more Bluetick, Redbone, Plot, Black and Tan, and Walker hounds they keep in their backyards.
Around the middle of November, talk is high around woodstoves at country stores about how many bears will be taken in the upcoming season and how large they’ll be, according to the year’s mast supply. Mast is a general term for nature’s own food supply such as berries, acorns, walnut and hickory nuts that bears eat in the fall to put on fat needed to get them through a winter’s hibernation.
In our area, there are a multitude of hunt clubs and individuals who hunt together season after season. Wherever they congregate, the names of old-time bear hunters are sure to pop up in conversation. Men like Maxie Campbell, Raymond Allen, Pete Falls, Wicky Stevens, Romey Fitzgerald, Ryland Jordan, Icem Lawhorne, and Wallace and Boyd Coffey will always be remembered as the hardcore hunters who were out there no matter the weather. Boyd Coffey of Love always said you had to be part dog to be a good bear hunter. He enjoyed being in the woods, watching and listening to his dogs, and enjoying the companionship of other men in his hunting party. His group hunted Cedar Cliffs and Big Levels on the west side of the mountain and to the east, Davis Creek, Wintergreen, Three Ridges and the Priest.
A person who owns a good pack of hunting dogs is many times the “driver,” the one who turns the track dog loose and, when a bear is struck, is responsible for letting the other dogs off their tethers for the chase. They follow the dogs, hoping they will drive the bear up a tree or near to where other people are on stands. If a bear is taken, whoever made the kill gets to keep the hide and the meat is divided among the hunting party.
A good bear dog is essential to the hunt. Blue and Red Ticks, Walkers, Plotts, and Redbones are some of the best breeds, but a cross-breed of the different types seems to work as well, if not better. One man said his Redbone/Airedale cross was the best dog he ever owned.
A big part of the sport is rounding up the dogs after the hunt. If the hunt takes place in the vicinity where the hunters live, the dogs will usually find their way back home by themselves. If the hunt takes place farther away, they seem to know instinctively if they come out to a road, they will be picked up by their owners. Boyd Coffey would blow a conch shell horn to call in his dogs, and if they were within hearing distance they would always come to the distinctive sound.
On an average chase, drivers will walk upwards of 15 to 20 miles through thickets and up rocky slopes sometimes in zero-degree weather. All this while lugging a backpack filled with drinking water, a lunch, and a loaded rifle. It is not a sport for the weak or fainthearted.
I’ve heard from non-hunters concerning how unfair they think it is to hunt with dogs. Let me assure you that the bear definitely has the advantage. Not only does the bruin know the rough territory where the hunt takes place but physically, he outweighs the average bear dog four to one and isn’t timid about using his teeth and razor-sharp claws on a dog that ventures too close. Many’s the animal that bears the scars of a hunt or loses its life in the process.
Bear and racoon hunters have the advantage of keeping their dogs in top condition and primed for the hunt because of early chase seasons and the actual length of both seasons. They have the advantage by running the same dogs on two separate game animals, whereas bird hunters can only use their dogs for quail or grouse, which is a shorter season. In our area, rifle season for bear is a little over a month long with an extra two months for chase season, in which the dogs can be run but hunting is prohibited.
There are those who say they don’t like bear meat because it’s greasy and tough. If that’s the case, the one telling it is either misinformed, fixing it the wrong way or isn’t trimming off the excess fat before cooking. The meat is flavorful and tender if cooked the right way and our family, if blessed with a roast from one of the hunters, look forward to barbequed bear meat at Christmas. An added bonus is the flavorful white lard, which after rendering can be used in cooking and there’s nothing better for waterproofing leather boots.
There have been a lot of changes in hunting bear since the early days when men like Maxie Campbell, Boyd Coffey, Wicky Stevens, and Raymond Allen hunted the old way; newer techniques, better equipment, more communication between the hunters, and the rise of the bear population itself. But as long as there are hearty men and women, the tradition of bear hunting will not cease to exist in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.