They grow them really big in south Georgia, and we are not talking about football players, sweet potatoes or watermelons. We are talking about trophy bears, bruins in the 400-plus-lb. range.
Hunters who trek to Canada or out West in search of trophy bears might be surprised to learn they could avoid expensive travel and high out-of-state license fees by simply taking a car ride to south Georgia to hunt a property like Bear Run Lodge in Council.
The lodge, which sits on private property near the western edge of the Okefenokee swamp, is a 430,000-acre mecca for biting critters like bears and gators. Normally, a black bear is about as dangerous as your average biscuit-eating, front-porch-sitting, Labrador retriever. But get one that is used to being fed by humans, a sow with cubs or one that is wounded, and you’re talking about a bear that is potentially dangerous and could make a grown man get goose bumps.
Just ask Rob Walthour, owner of Savage Creek Taxidermy in Chickamauga, who tried to track down a wounded bear.
A couple of years ago, Rob decided he would help Micah “Bogator” Steedley, 14, and part owner of the Bear Run Lodge, track down a wounded bear shot in the late afternoon. By the time the trackers got the dogs to the last known site of the wounded bear, it was pitch-black dark and — of course — the bear had headed for the most remote section of a swamp.
Micah seemed absolutely fearless as the two headed into the swamp following the howling dog, recalled Rob. Micah led the way armed with a shotgun loaded with buckshot and a flashlight. As they slogged against the tannic water that was knee to waist deep, briars, vines and bushes ate away at their clothes and skin. Rob said he thought he, too, was probably leaving a blood trail.
Rob said he was impressed with Micah’s confidence and his maturity as a woodsman. After hours in the swamp, Micah stepped out on a firm logging trail and knew exactly where they were and the way to the truck. Micah who Rob said had “no jump-back blood” was building his reputation as a tough bear hunter who loved and respected the swamp.
Unfortunately, the young man died in a 4-wheeler accident on June 5, 2010. Now, a memorial bear and sitting benches adorn the front of the lodge in memory of Micah “Bogator” Steedley. Micah’s father, Jamie Steedley, and grandfather, J.T. Steedley now carry on the bear-hunting traditions at Bear Run Lodge, and their roots into the area run deep.
J.T., pushing 80 years of age, grew up working for the Langdale Timber Company and helped plan and build many of the local roads. He also helped establish the wild turkey population as a DNR deputy game warden. He well remembers when Council had several hundred residents with a booming timber and turpentine industry. He raised his family by hunting and fishing, and remembers some troublesome big bears. He tells of a certain bear that would kill full-size cows that were nursing and then eat the cow’s utter for the milk, nothing else.
Today, Council is just a dot on the map, with the nearest store in nearby Folkston. But the area is blessed with wonderful natural resources and abundant wild-game populations that include some of the largest bears in the state, if not in the country.
These descendants of the “Utter Eater” are a part of the healthy area population of black bears that boasts the top-two heaviest on record in Georgia, a 570-pounder and a 574-pounder. The state-record for B&C skull measurement of 23 inches also came from the area.
In regards to hunting methods, there are two main methods south Georgia bear hunters use, either stand hunting or running them with hounds. At Bear Run, all the hunting is done from stands that overlook dirt logging roads, open patches of grass or food plots where bears have been known to wander.
Because of the vastness of the wilderness, over 30,000 acres of private property, not counting the bordering Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Florida’s Osceola National Forest to the south (where bear hunting is not allowed), Bear Run practices supplemental feeding within state guidelines to pull bears into the general area. So the hunting most often involves long periods of stand time looking for a bear before it smells or sees you, and the most productive time to be in the stand is the last hour before dark, when the bears leave their cool retreats in the swamp and venture out in search of food.
Morning hunting for bears is usually a losing gamble, as most bears have bedded down well before first light. That’s why Jamie and guide Charles Walthour recommend hunters try to bag a wild hog during the morning hours, then switch to bear hunting in the afternoon. Ninety-five percent of their bear kills come in the evening hours, said Charles.
He and Jamie like to get hunters settled into the lodge as soon as they arrive, then the next item on the agenda is to get the hunter’s rifle sighted in at the range. The sight-in is mandatory, as every effort is made to make sure when a hunter gets a shot he can make it count.
Another point Jamie and Charles stressed is to use enough gun. It takes a lot of bullet energy to knock a big bear down and keep him down, and a wounded bear can run for miles. So Jamie likes hunters to use large deer calibers with heavy loads, like the .30-06 with 180-grain bullets as good bear medicine.
Charles said bears are tough, so hunters get “extra credit” for putting one or two extra rounds into the bear to ensure it does not get up and run off. He suggests that if the bear is still moving, keep shooting, because a wounded bear is very hard to find in the swamp as the water makes the scent trail hard for dogs to follow.
Hunter Kyle Stewart, an ex-marine sniper who survived a roadside bomb in Iraq and a run-in with Lyme disease that put him in a wheel chair for a month after his return to the United States, visited Bear Run Lodge during the fall 2010 hunt. He described a bear as a “tank with fur” and talked about his recent exciting hunt.
“If you have never hunted bears, I am here to tell you that a 200-lb. south Georgia bear can sneak through the woods like a ninja,” he said. “Believe it or not, I had no clue the bear I harvested was even there until I felt him pushing on my stand. No kidding!
“It was getting close to the end of legal shooting light when I heard the sound of leaves crunching just feet behind my stand. As I turned to investigate what was making the sound, I felt the tree I was sitting in starting to shake. I looked up into the tree’s canopy and expected to find a couple of raccoons shaking the tree as they were waking up for their nightly activities. Finding the tree to be empty, I looked down toward the ground the second time the tree shook only to find a 215-lb. bear standing on his rear legs pushing on my ladder stand!
“Believe me when I tell you that I have seen some scary things in my day as former active-duty U.S. Marine, but I can honestly say that being surprised by a curious bear shoving my tree stand ranks at the top of heart-pounding experiences.
“Although I couldn’t pull myself together quickly enough to shoot the bear at the bottom of my stand, I was fortunate enough to deliver a fatal shot before he ran back into the swamp. Lesson learned here… be ready for anything on a bear hunt.”
But Kyle didn’t hoard all the fun, and every bear hunter had a good story to tell.
Sometimes it is hard to beat beginners luck, just ask Bill Murray, a pharmacist from Homerville. Using a borrowed rifle on his first bear hunt ever, Bill set up on the ground looking at a small, grassy opening in some pines trees. As the sun went down, a huge bear ambled by. As it entered the field, it stood up on its rear legs, sniffing the air, probably getting a nose full of Bill.
But Bill was ready and leveled his .30-06 at the bear to let loose a 180-grain round that hit it the center of the neck. When we arrived after dark to track down the bear, we did not have to go far. The hounds found the bear piled up only 75 yards away, dead as a rock.
The huge bear looked like a black Angus steer lying on the pinestraw, and it took six men to drag out the 435-lb. male bear. Later at the check station, Bill learned that his bear tied the second largest bear taken in 2010, a trophy of a lifetime.
I was also lucky enough to get in on some action. On my first day, I saw a slew of wild pigs and scored on a160-lb. boar hog. Then, after many long, hot hours on several stands, the magic hour finally happened. My ladder stand had a bad squeak when I shifted to the right, and I am right handed, so I practiced taking a left-handed shot to keep the stand quiet should a bear appear from that direction.
Good thing I did. As the sun went down, a good-sized bear appeared from the bush on my right at a range of 100 yards. As light was fading, it ambled by at 50 yards, and I put a 139-grain Hornady Super Performance round into the boiler room. The bear hit the ground with a thud. I jacked another round into my 7mm-08 Remington, but the 220-lb. bear never even moved. So I collected my first Georgia bear, a cherished memory I will never forget.
The chances of killing a bear at Bear Run Lodge are very good, with 10 hunters out of 18 taking home a bear during the 2010 season. That makes a 55 percent success ratio, outstanding for a three-day bear hunt anywhere.
If you want to try south Georgia bear hunting at its finest, give the folks at Bear Run Lodge a call at (912) 637-5508. Or check them out at <www.bearrunhunts.com>. In September, maybe you’ll find a huge south Georgia bruin in your sights.
South Georgia Bear Season
Southern Zone bear season is open for dog or still hunting in Brantley, Charlton, Clinch, Echols and Ware counties. Killing of cubs less than 75 pounds or females with cubs is prohibited. Any bears killed must be checked and tagged at a Forestry Commission Office.
Dates: Sept. 29-Oct. 1
Will Fires Affect South Georgia Bear Hunting?
Huge fires burning through the Okefenokee Swamp in 2007 helped make that year a record breaker for bear hunters in south Georgia, as bears were forced to move off the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and many times into the crosshairs on bordering private lands. This summer fires are again rampaging through the swamp, but biologists are not certain how this will affect bear movement next month.
A lightning strike on April 28 set off the Honey Prairie Fire in the southwest portion of the refuge, and since then approximately 300,000 acres of the 402,000-acre refuge have burned, according to Art Webster, supervising ranger at the refuge. The massive fire has been fought by firefighters from all across the country.
Because of a prolonged drought, the water levels in the Okefenokee Swamp are lower now than they were prior to the fires of 2007. Officials predict the fire will continue burning in the swamp, playing its ecological role in keeping the prairies open, until the area sees some heavy rainfall.
Fara Aicher, a wildlife biologist at the refuge, said that between Okefenokee and the Osceola National Forest in Florida, there are approximately 800 bears in the area. She said it is reasonable to assume that with the fires within the refuge some bears might wander into nearby lands seeking food and shelter, providing more contact with hunters during the south Georgia bear season.
But will this provide more successful hunting and an increased harvest as was the case after the 2007 fires?
Greg Nelms, a WRD bear biologist from Waycross, said the 2007 fires came at a time when there was already a food shortage in the swamp, and the fires made the situation worse for bears, which were forced to go on the move. This year, Nelms said there was adequate food in the swamp, and bear nuisance complaints have been fairly normal. Thus, he said it would be hard to predict increased bear movement and any change in hunter success until the season is over.
As of July 16, the fires were about 70 percent contained, and some much needed rain was falling in the area. Jamie Steedley, owner of Bear Run Hunting Lodge, said the fires have not affected any of their hunting lands. He is starting to see some good bear movement and is hoping for a great hunting season this fall.
For updated information on the fires, call (912) 496-2566 or view <www.fws.gov.okefenokee>.