A recent post on this site reflected on the dramatic comeback of black bears, our state’s largest game animals, and some of the factors that brought that about. The reestablishment of bruins in our geographical backyard is one of the great success stories in wildlife management. Today, bears inhabit our Coastal Plain as well as the Mountain Region in large numbers and offer unique sport for outdoorsmen in this part of the country as well as some who travel from far away.
Unlike most other hunters, however, those who pursue black bears must be cognizant of the fact that their quarry can in the right – or wrong – situation, turn the tables on them and inflict serious injury. East of the Mississippi River, wild boar hogs are the only other game animals that present such a challenge. In addition, bears are generally found in some of the densest, most forbidding cover around. They are masters at using eastern North Carolina’s pocosins or the rugged ridges of our mountain counties to their advantage. The typical bear hunt is often like a 10K foot race run through cat briars, merkle bushes, titi, green briars and other nearly impenetrable vegetation, as well as mud and water that might be waist-deep or more. If it goes the way it’s supposed to, it ends with the hunter standing nose-to-snout with an ill tempered critter that can easily top a quarter of a ton in weight.
It stands to reason, then, that the men who hunt bears tend to be hard-going, no-nonsense types. Some people might be surprised, though, to find out that the greatest threat to bear hunters is not one of the big bruins attacking, but rather the bizarre and unexpected things that often occur as part of the sport. Those occurrences are not always life threatening, but certainly get the hunters’ attention.
Ray Ball, a lanky bear hunter from Sevierville, Tenn. told me once about the time he was hunting with a group in the western part of our state and his Plott hounds treed a big boar bear on the side of a steep hill. Ball failed to notice that the sycamore the animal was in was leaning in the hunter’s direction. The way he described it was, “That was a big ‘ol bear, ’bout 400 pounds or so, and looked like he was in a bad mood so when he decided he was comin’ out’n that tree, I figured I better do sump’in.” What Ball did was pull his .44 magnum pistol out and shoot the bear. That’s when things sped up.
“That bear come out’n that tree and, before I could move, fell ‘whump,’ right on my feet. He rolled up against my legs, knocked me down and rolled right on top a’ me. Then here come the dogs – jumped right in on top of the whole business, barking and fight’n and carry’n on and the bear fight’n ’em. It was like one of ’em pile-ups you see on a football field except ever’body had teeth and claws.”
When asked how he managed to survive the melee, Ball explained, “The only thing that saved me was that we was on the side of a hill and the bear kept right on rollin’ – rolled right off me and took the dogs with him – left me lying there flat o’ my back looking up at the sky, thinkin’ ‘Good Gawd A’mighty!”
That wasn’t the only time Ray Ball had a problem with things falling out of trees while bear hunting. On another outing, one of his inexperienced dogs treed an opossum. Another hunter announced that he wanted the ‘possum and was going to shoot it out of the tree. Ball didn’t want his pup getting the idea that he was anything other than a bear dog and asked the man to wait until he could leash the young hound. Before he could get his hands on the animal, though, a shot rang out. Instinctively, Ball looked up and there was the ‘possum – about a foot from his face.
“You ain’t ever lived til you been smacked in the face by a ‘possum that just fell 20 feet out of a tree,” Ball observed. “Late that evenin’ I was still spitten’ out ‘possum hair.”
Ray Ball’s sidekick, Coy Parton, another Tennessean who happens to be Dolly Parton’s first cousin, had a bear hunting mishap that came about, not because of anything his quarry did but because of a tactical error by the hunter. His dogs were trailing a bear and finally brought it to bay on the opposite side of a small river from Parton. Never hesitating, the lanky man waded right in – boots, overalls, and all. Holding his single-shot shotgun over his head with one hand, he dog paddled with the other and finally came out on the far side. He reached the spot where the hounds had a large bear cornered and, waiting for an opening in the brawl, jumped in and shot. The buckshot failed to finish the bear off so Parton shoved another shell into the gun’s chamber and pulled the trigger again but all he heard was “click.” His extra shells had gotten wet crossing the river! He frantically pulled back the hammer and clicked the trigger until, finally, on the third try, the gun fired.
A year or so later, Parton found himself in the same area and, once again, his dogs treed across the stream. Having learned from his previous experience, he pulled two 12 gauge shells from his pocket and crammed them in his mouth, one on each side. His shells weren’t going to get soaked this time.
Parton waded into the river but didn’t realize until he was about halfway across that the water was deep and faster than he remembered. He started to struggle and “take on water.” Unable to get a good breath, he clawed with his free hand at the shotgun shells in his cheeks. They finally popped out – and brought his false teeth with them!
Ray Ball said that he and the other hunters could tell something wasn’t just right when Parton came walking into camp a little while later, dripping wet and carrying his shotgun by the barrel.
“Coy, what in the world happened to you?” Ball asked. Parton responded with something the others couldn’t understand.
“Coy, where in the world are your teeth?” Ball asked.
“Ina bod’um o de rivu,”Parton mumbled.
Sometimes bears are the least of their troubles for bear hunters.