It had been a long summer for Leta Carter. The 30-year-old south Georgia mother of three from Folkston was as excited as one of her children awaiting Christmas.
“I thought about it all summer and had been counting down the days. I almost couldn’t wait to get the opportunity to kill my first bear,” Leta said.
Little did she or anyone else on this hunt know that her first one would be an absolute giant of a bear—possibly the heaviest ever killed in Georgia.
When you think of an Okefenokee Swamp bear hunter, shy, bright-eyed Leta Carter is not the first image that comes to mind. Her husband Quintin? Yeah, big Quintin looks like a bear hunter.
He’s the nephew of legendary Okefenokee hunter and trapper Jackie Carter, son of Jackie’s brother Tommy. I started hunting with Jackie the year before Quintin was born and could name you another dozen head of bear hunting Carters if space allowed.
Point is, it’s in Quintin’s blood. And, now, in Leta’s.
“I got to go in with Quintin a few times before but never to shoot,” Leta recalled. “He had told me back during the summer that I would get my chance, and I looked forward to it more and more every day.”
Perhaps a word concerning the order of business of a south Georgia bear hunt is in order here. This is not the sitting-over-bait or spot-and-stalk hunt you see on TV. Unless you physically enter it—usually on your knees or belly, it’s almost impossible to realize the near-solid wall of thorn-and briar-studded vegetation that comprises the Okefenokee. You do not stroll nonchalantly around looking for a bear to shoot. Most times, in fact, you stand and wait for what can be hours at a time resulting in a handful of seconds of eardrum-pounding adrenaline rush unlike anything else out there.
That’s exactly the way it would be for Leta.
Okefenokee hunters use some of the toughest hounds on the planet and train them throughout the summer months on bears in the swamp—running only, not shooting. Shooting may, or may not, come during south Georgia’s three separate three-day seasons in September and October.
The hunt starts like this: as soon as it’s light enough to see, hunters ease down dirt roads surrounding blocks of swamp land. These roads have been brushed clean by branches dragged behind pick-ups the night before.
If a bear’s tracks are spotted going into one side of a block, hunters on the other three sides are contacted to see if it has exited—or is still somewhere within that tract of land.
If so, and if the tracks show that it is a shooter, hunters take stands along the edges of the roads, and dogs are loosed.
Hopefully from there, the chase is on. The bear may run, he may walk while stopping and fighting dogs, he may tree—or do all three over the course of what can turn into a win-or-lose, daylight-to-dark affair.
He may also slip back into the protection of the swamp’s federally managed areas, where no hunter is allowed to go. The challenge is to somehow, somewhere, head him off. If the dogs bay the bear up or tree him, bringing the race and chase to a halt, however briefly, comes the time to “go in.” Leta had learned that over the summer runs.
“She’s been to several on the tree and several on the ground during the summer while we were keeping the dogs ready,” Quintin said, “so she knew what it was all about. But none of us were ready for what this turned out to be.”
Seasons run Thursday through Saturday for three weekends, and Leta’s opportunity came on Friday of the first one.
Hunting with the Cowhouse Island Club—which also runs deer and hogs with dogs—Leta heard the dogs jump the bear on Trail Ridge near Race Pond, between Waycross and Folkston.
“I remember sitting on top of the dog box listening to the dogs, which sounded like music to my ears,” Leta recalled. “I kept asking Quintin ‘Is it time to go in yet? Is he treed yet?’”
“The dogs jumped him, lost him, then got back on him again over about an hour and a half,” Quintin said. “He went around and around in that (roughly 500-acre) block and never left it. We finally got word that it was treed, so I started Leta in.”
It’s hard enough to get around in the swamp under normal circumstances, whatever they may be, but she was feeling anything but normal.
“I knew it was finally my time, and I was soooo excited,” she laughed. “I could just feel the adrenaline pumping in my ears, and my heart was pounding. And we hadn’t even seen the bear yet!”
That was an important point, because none of the hunters had managed a good look at the treed animal. When a bear trees, the initial thought is that it’s not going to be one even in the area code of massive. Really big bears don’t climb because they don’t have to. If a dog gets within grabbing, tooth or claw distance, he’s a dead dog. This one, however, was a huge exception.
“We probably had 20 dogs on him, and that’s the only way we got him treed,” Quintin said. “Later though, on the last Saturday of the season, we had a 290-lb. bear beat up every dog we had. He sent them all to the truck. This one didn’t catch the first dog.”
Leta arrived amidst bedlam at the base of the tree. Handlers were doing their best to snap lead chains onto frantic dogs and pull them back as a huge black bulk looked down from above. The most dangerous time for a dog is when an angry, wounded bear is loose in their midst, and their owners knew that the bear was about to come down—either alive and healthy, wounded or dead.
“When I saw him up the tree I thought ‘This is it, it’s real, and it’s game time,” she remarked. “I made my shot, and it knocked him out of the tree.”
Which proved very interesting for her husband.
“She shot him once with 12-gauge 00, and he hit the dirt about 5 feet in front of me and Leta,” Quintin laughed. “He looked dead at me and started trying to get up.”
There’s a few inviolable rules concerning bear hunting with dogs. At the top of the list is that one always—ALWAYS—shoots a downed bear in the neck or head, regardless of how dead one believes that bear to be. Quintin wasn’t about to make any mistakes with this one.
“He didn’t get his feet under him before I shot him with a .44-magnum rifle, and another hunter, Danny McInvale, shot him with a pistol,” said Quintin. “Right about then is when everybody realized that this was the biggest bear any of us had ever seen.
“Nobody on the hunt had any idea from the beginning that we were chasing one of this size. And especially when it treed, I just thought it would be a good-sized bear for Leta to go in on and get her first bear. Over the nine days, we killed four bears. There were three women and one guy, and it was everybody’s first bear. But we didn’t see this coming.”
Getting the bear out of the swamp, as always, was an ordeal in itself. It required one hunter out front cutting a trail with a machete and a tag-team dragging effort by several more for more than 100 yards. That was as close as an ATV could get.
From where he fell to the truck was over an hour. Another hour was spent taking pictures and hauling the bear to the DNR check station in Waycross. And here’s where things get somewhat muddled.
DNR Ranger Jim Gillis was working the weigh scale in Waycross, just helping out, although it’s not part of his normal law-enforcement duties.
“When we got the bear up, the scale was flipping back and forth and finally settled on 601 pounds,” Gillis said. “Everybody was excited, but we didn’t know what the state-record weight was.”
It turns out the state-record weight is 600 pounds, a bear killed by a Florida hunter on the western side of the Okefenokee.
“On top of the scale was a 2014 certified validation sticker. I noticed that, but none of us had any idea what steps to take to certify the bear as any kind of record. So I called Greg.”
As in Greg Morris, DNR’s area biologist, who will shed a lot of light on the question of records.
Obviously, Gillis was as excited as the hunters—except maybe Leta—and was going above and beyond to see the bear get its due. He even called DNR headquarters in Social Circle seeking information, as well as the scale company. He then accompanied the Carters to a second set of scales to help document all that went on.
“Social Circle told me to get it to another set of certified scales, get a printout of the weight and have at least one witness.”
In your spare time this week, look around your area to see if you can locate a set of certified scales capable of weighing a 600-lb. bear!
Fortunately, Quintin Carter did. But there are scales, and there are scales.
“I have some kinfolk who have a pecan operation and knew they had scales that would go that high, so we took it over there,” Quintin said. “Back at the DNR station, we had weighed it, took it down and took pictures for probably 45 minutes, then hung it back up, and it was still 601 on the scale.
“The second scale was a flat one, and the bear was hanging off on both sides of it. We never could get it to settle on a weight; it kept jumping from 599 to 600. So I guess they put it at 599 pounds.”
Either way, it could have been something of a moot point, according to Morris.
“DNR Game Management doesn’t really have a record program for bear and deer or other mammals,” he related. “With us, it’s more data collection and listing so that we are able to keep tabs on populations and their well-being. The Fisheries side does keep records and likely will have certified scales available if you catch a 24-lb. bass or other species. But that’s a lot different than a bear or deer.”
All of which makes perfect sense. DNR can print out a list of the heaviest bears, but it’s not in the record business. By the way, Morris related, “I can tell you that of the top-five heaviest bears on our list, every one was weighed on a third-party scale.”
None of this record-bear business, however, bothers Leta Carter in the least.
“I started smiling the minute that bear was down for good,” said Leta. “I woke up smiling the next morning, and I still smile every time I think about the hunt.”
That’s one happy south Georgia bear hunter.