by Bryce Towsley - Tuesday, November 3, 2015
“The good news is that we have a lot of bears this year,” said Stephan Patton. “The bad news is that you picked the worst year in the history of north Georgia to hunt bears."
The news was no surprise to me; I have a talent for that kind of thing.
Stephan knows his bear hunting, and when he explained that the acorn crop was setting a modern-day record and the bears could lie in their beds and eat their bellies full without moving, there was not much optimism in his voice.
In the mountains of north Georgia, the key to hunting bears, or deer for that matter, is movement—theirs, not yours. Trying to sneak up on a bear on dry leaves and in thick vegetation will be about as successful as convincing Bernie Sanders that capitalism is the best economic option. You need the game to be on the move. If the bears are living and eating in a few square feet, hunting is going to be tough. It was a great time to be a bear and a poor time to be a bear hunter, but with plane tickets and a rental car booked, we were committed.
The idea for this hunt started when my sister, Rae, bought a vacation home in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia. Her nephew, Kevin Mittleman, has read my American Hunter articles for years and wanted to meet me. Rae suggested we use her place to do a hunt together, and I could find no flaws in that idea.
As a gun and hunting writer I am fortunate to hunt in a lot of places. I am not complaining; it’s the best job in the world. But like anything it has a downside. Most of those hunts are controlled by somebody else. Often it’s the law saying that you need a guide, other times it’s just the best option for a traveling hunter. I love hunting new places and for a wide range of game, but in the end I am a do-it-yourself kind of guy. At times I just want to be cut loose from the world and explore on my own. Any true hunter understands that, right? So every now and then I try to book a hunt that’s all me. No guides, no handlers, just me and maybe a few friends. It’s about the hunt, the adventure and the satisfaction of doing it on my own more than the trophy quality. I was looking forward to this hunt, and that news from Stephan hit me like a bucket of cold water hits a sleeping drunk.
In the old days, before heading to new territory to hunt, a smart hunter would get maps and aerial photos. We would write letters and make calls trying to find information about available land and opportunities. Today, we Google. That’s how I found Stephan.
He works for Noontootla Creek Farms, a bird-hunting and trout-fishing preserve an hour from where we were staying. When I Googled “hunting in north Georgia,” Stephan’s website popped up. I figured somebody there might know something about big-game hunting in the area, so I “cold called.” Stephan answered and I made a new friend.
It turns out Stephan is a hardcore, primitive archery hunter and he loves to hunt black bears. I told him I really wanted to hunt deer, but if bear season was open at the same time it would be perfect. He explained that the deer hunting is pretty limited and the deer are a bit on the small side, but that the bear hunting is excellent. Okay, when in Rome and all that, so bears it was! As long as I am hunting I am happy. Our conversation took place sometime in early spring 2014, before anybody realized the abundance of the acorn crop. When I called Stephan a few days before the hunt he delivered the bad news.
That’s the thing about hunting: You need to play the hand that’s dealt and rise to the challenge. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. But every time you are hunting, and that’s always better than mowing the lawn.
The Internet is a wonderful invention for hunters. With little time and effort, I was also able to track down information on the national forest in the area, so we had places to hunt, and I bought my licenses online. To be honest, I’ve never spent a lot of time researching a place before a hunt. I can claim with truth that
I am too busy, but I also like the thrill of discovery when I get there. I prefer the “boots on the ground” approach, and exploring new places is one of the great pleasures in a DIY hunt. I love to put some miles behind me, both with the vehicle and on foot, exploring and discovering. I “scout” while I hunt, and in any new place I typically spend the first few days learning the lay of the land. But I am not so stuck on stupid as to ignore the fact that it always helps to have some local inside information to speed up the process.
Stephan guided us partway up a mountain the first day on some old trails and logging roads. Then he said his goodbyes and headed to work, leaving Kevin and me on our own to explore. We split up, and when I got back to the truck at dark I was carrying a heavy load on my shoulders and was pretty dejected.
This north Georgia country was as steep as elk country. Getting around meant climbing lung-busting slopes, or coming down them with your toes jammed into your boots and your knees screaming in protest. The vegetation was very thick and with the leaves still on, even in November, visibility was measured in feet.
The most discouraging thing, though, was the lack of big-game sign. I did get one quick glimpse of a bear, so fleeting I doubted that I even saw it. Beyond that, there was nothing much that was encouraging. The dry ground was covered with nuts and leaves and didn’t show tracks well. With the game not moving and the brush too thick in most places to leave the trails, there were few visible droppings or other signs. I know from experience that when the acorns start falling deer and bears will abandon all other food sources. I was just having trouble convincing my glass-half-empty mind. It’s easy to know something intellectually, but often harder to believe it when you are hunting.
The next morning, sleep and coffee had revived my spirits, and I was walking a trail in a new place and trying to find a place to sit. With the leaves still on the trees, visibility was shallow and I found that I was just looking for places where I could see for a bit of distance, rather than more specific things like game trails or sign. I always say the key to success in hunting thick country is not in seeing lots of acres, but in seeing the right acre. I know looking for an open spot is amateurish and poor strategy. But it was the best strategy I could figure right then. I finally found a ravine dropping below the trail where I could see for a few yards. The only flat spot was the trail cut into the side of the mountain, so I plopped down beside a log.
I was frustrated and mad at myself for not having a better approach. I sat and sulked, my caffeinated good mood abandoned. About the time I was sure nothing would show, three does came trotting up the trail. They got so close before they stopped I thought I could smell their breath, and I realized that sitting on the trail was not such a good idea. To get by me they would need to pass close enough to touch. I knew they had seen me, yet they were focused on something in the brush above the trail. I could hear some sticks breaking up there and I thought maybe it was the buck circling around me. Clearly the does wanted nothing to do with whatever was there. Several times they started that way, but something stopped them. Finally they turned and ran back the way they came.
I was puzzled, as there were no other hunters in the area I was aware of. They didn’t react like it was a man, yet it was clear they didn’t want to follow whatever it was, either. Sometimes, when the rut is starting the does will act like this before they are ready to breed and a buck is harassing them, but I thought their body language told a different story. I was a bit puzzled about what had them spooked, but forgot about it soon enough as the day wore on. It turned out I should have paid more attention.
The next day we hunted back at the first location, and about 20 minutes into my hike up the mountain I heard something running toward me. A small whitetail buck broke cover and crossed the trail so fast I didn’t have time to react.
At least I had seen legal game. My freezer was empty, and with Georgia’s generous bag limits I had long ago decided that I would shoot the first legal deer I could. The second buck had to have four points on a side by law, but the first one just had to have antlers. This guy qualified and must have known that as he was gone before I could react.
I spent the rest of the day walking the trails, stopping here and there to sit for a while, exploring and enjoying my day. Close to dark I was working down the trail, not far from where I had seen the deer. I was going slow and trying to be quiet when I spotted a little movement through the brush below the trail, near a small stream. I froze and waited about six months before I could see it was a deer with antlers. The next opening that showed a clear path to hair had a 200-grain Barnes TSX passing through it.
He was not a large buck, but he made the trip a success. A few days later we cooked his backstraps until they were just bloody rare in the center, like fine roast beef. Rae, Kevin, his dad, Larry, and I finished both backstraps in one sitting!
We were allowed to shoot antlerless deer on Saturday, and with the idea of more acorn-fed backstraps in my head, I headed back to where I had seen those three does. Instead of sitting on the trail, I found a spot 20 yards above it where a tree had tipped over. The root ball made a perfect natural blind, and the hole it left was flat enough to sit in without skidding down the hill. There was even a rock that made a pretty good seat. I had to climb with both hands, both feet and my belt buckle digging in to reach it, but once there I knew I was camping for the day. I had just started to unpack my kit when I heard something coming fast through the brush above me—exactly where whatever had spooked the does had passed a few days earlier. Thinking it might be that same buck, I picked up my rifle and got ready.
A bear came on the run until it hit my scent stream and stopped instantly. I had one small opening through the thick brush, so I planted a Barnes TSX in its ribs.
The next few seconds got pretty exciting. I knew that the steep terrain left few options for a wounded bear to escape, but anytime you have a bear that’s very close and running right at you it is an exciting experience. The next shot turned the bear a little and it passed by me at about 5 yards. I shot again as it dove into the ravine and once more before it was out of sight. Then I saw it tumbling down the steep slope until it settled against a tree.
Once the adrenaline levels dropped enough to trust myself with a sharp knife, I dressed the bear and propped it open to cool. Then I went for help. It took several of us with lots of rope a few hours to get the bear back to the skinny trail and out to a four-wheeler. Some things you just can’t do by yourself; anybody who has ever dragged a bear through the woods knows one of them well.
Part of a DIY hunt is dealing with the game. I skinned and butchered the deer and bear on the deck of Rae’s house. Hemingway considered that slave labor, but I disagree. I enjoy doing it as it makes me feel much more connected with the hunt and game. It’s a huge part of hunting for me, and I feel a bit cheated when I have an animal processed by a butcher shop.
I think it’s a sin to hunt Georgia and not shoot a few quail if you have the option. So we booked a half-day bird hunt at Noontootla Creek Farms. We were guided by a Georgia gentleman named Carter. (No, not that one, although they have fished together.) Carter Morris and his dog, Chuck, were an absolute pleasure to hunt with. Kevin had never hunted quail, but after a rocky start he caught on fast. His first quail was a bucket-list check-off, but he didn’t stop there and his total for the day was enough for a feast! We both had plenty of shooting as there were a lot of birds, and Chuck knew how to find them.
While we were hunting, Carter showed us a stretch of stream that was full of big rainbow trout. We stood on the bank and watched them for some time. Kevin and I are going back to hunt this year, and I decided I am taking a fly rod!
We ate the last of the bear meat recently at an annual family gathering. I marinated the steaks in teriyaki for hours and cooked them on the grill. It was a huge hit with the carnivores in the socially mixed crowd. In fact I even saw a couple of “I don’t eat red meat, but I’ll take a little bite to be polite” types grabbing seconds and thirds when they thought nobody was watching.
While they were enjoying a great meal, I was reliving the hunt. On a hot and muggy 4th of July, that made all the difference.
Birds and Broadheads
For an excellent quail-hunting adventure or outstanding small-stream trout fishing for big rainbows, contact Stephan Patton at Noontootla Creek Farms. His operation also offers sporting clays and accommodations for hunters, including a farmhouse for rent.
An avid primitive archer who several years ago took a 566-pound north Georgia bear with his recurve at 9 yards, Stephan has his own line of broadheads. The solid-steel, two-blade Badger Broadheads have single-bevel cutting edges that make them as deadly as they are traditional.
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