“When I heard the commotion, I spun around. I had thought the bear was dead, but he was on me before I could move. All I could see was a mouth full of teeth, right in my face. He wadded me up like he would a dog, and we went down together.”
In that instant began Mitch Canaday’s fight for life beside a lonely woods road deep within a hot, dusty Clinch County portion of the Okefenokee Swamp. Had it not been for a lightning-fast reflex and the heroic actions of a fellow hunter, Mitch may well have lost.
It was Oct. 1, the first Saturday of south Georgia’s nine-day bear season, when Mitch, 54, of Macclenny, Fla., and others were hunting bear with dogs near Suwannoochee Creek, according to a DNR report. Mitch was driving and walking, trying to get ahead of his pack of Plott hounds and their quarry, what turned out to be a 350-lb. boar bear.
Little did the hunter know that before the morning was over, he would be racing out of the swamp en route to a meeting with a Life Flight helicopter and a trip to Shands Jacksonville Medical Center in Jacksonville, Fla.
Among the 10 or so hunters along with Mitch in the swamp that Saturday were Edward Selph, 35, on his first-ever bear hunt, and Wiley Feagle, 34, already an old hand at hunting with dogs in the Okefenokee.
“I’ve been a deer hunter and a hog hunter, but for the last 25 years I ain’t done nothing but run these old Plotts after bears,” Mitch said from his hospital room. “I don’t even carry a gun any more. I’ve killed enough bears and don’t plan on ever killing another one. I just love to be a part of the race. On that morning, the dogs had bayed this bear a couple of times, but he always broke. They started walking him out of the block they were in, and I jumped in the truck to go around and get ahead of them. When I went by the boy with the shotgun, I asked him if he wanted to kill a bear. When he said he did, I told him to hustle on down the woods road and showed him where the bear would be coming out.”
Holding the 12-gauge loaded with 3 1/2-inch shells of 00 buck shot was Edward Selph, who had no idea what a whirlwind he was about to step into.
“I ran 50 to 75 yards down the road with (Mitch) and saw the bear coming through the brush 25 to 30 yards away,” said Edward. “I shot him the first time coming into the road and the second as he went out the other side. When I shot the second time, he kind of wadded up in some head-high saplings and sat down on his butt, facing us. That’s when the dogs got on him, and they went to fighting again.”
Knowing what was apt to happen to his beloved dogs, Mitch reacted instantly.
“You’ve got to finish him,” he told Edward. “He’s going to eat my dogs up.”
The pair left the road and went in shoulder to shoulder the few feet to where the battle was raging.
“We walked up to within 10 feet of the bear, but dogs were all around him, and I couldn’t shoot,” Edward said. “Mitch took my gun and asked if it was ready to shoot. When I told him it was, he edged up and shot the bear in the head.”
“I’ve never used a shotgun in my life,” Mitch said later. “I’ve never been a big fan of shotguns. The bear went down, and I thought it was dead. That’s when I turned and handed (Edward) the gun and started looking at the hounds to see if anything was hurt.”
But the bear was not dead, despite absorbing three loads of 00 buckshot, including one to the head. The first two had gone in behind the shoulder, slowing the animal but not enough to keep it from sorting out Mitch.
“In the blink of an eye, he was on me,” Mitch said. “I’ve been in on some hairy moments over the years, but nothing this bad. All I had time to do was throw my hand up in front of my face.”
In the instant Mitch’s back was turned, Edward saw exactly what happened.
“One of the dogs had circled around and come back in, and it jumped in and bit the bear on the back,” Edward said. “That’s when it boiled up and came straight at Mitch. It ran over him and was so close that the barrel of the shotgun I was holding hit it in the back when it came by. I whirled around because I thought it was running off again. But that’s when I saw it had Mitch down.
“I stepped to his side and realized there was no way to shoot. I grabbed the bear along the middle of the back and jerked him off, just like I would catching a boar hog.”
As the bear scrambled to recover, Edward shot it in the neck and killed it.
“Some people have said that I saved Mitch’s life, but it wasn’t something I had time to think about. It just happened so fast that that’s all I could think of, I guess. I grabbed it just like I would a hog with a catch dog on it. There had to be a lot of adrenaline flowing.”
Edward, by the way, is 5-foot-6, 190 pounds.
From that point, things only got worse for Mitch.
“When I got out from under the bear, my right hand was just hanging on by meat and bone,” Mitch said. “That’s what really scared me, that I thought I was going to lose my hand. I tried to pin it up to my chest with my other hand and hold it in place.”
There were also puncture wounds on his chest requiring five stitches and another on his groin, but Mitch noticed neither at the time. He scrambled to his feet, hurried into the road and hollered to fellow club member Wiley Feagle, “It’s bad, boys; we’ve got to go.”
And go Wiley did.
“We hit the truck and must have driven 10 miles down them old dirt roads getting out,” Wiley said. “I was going to Homerville, but EMS called and said they were going to Life Flight him out, so we went to meet them on the highway. Ol’ Mitch is tough, but I knew he was hurting. He was calm and mostly quiet, and I think that’s the only thing that kept him from passing out, because he had lost a lot of blood.
“I’m just glad he was on a woods road when it happened, because he would have really caught (heck) if he had been down in the swamp.”
Mitch had his fourth surgery on the hand Oct. 11, with surgeons hoping he will regain 80 percent usage of it.
“I can feel my fingers, and that’s a good sign,” Mitch said. “The bear got me right behind the wrist and shattered the arm. It took three surgeries just to get it ready to try and fix it on the fourth.”
Even in his pain, Mitch had kind words for the quarry that has meant so much to him over the years.
“The old bear was just protecting itself,” he said. “He had been wounded by buckshot and bit by the dogs. It was an accident, that’s all it was. We don’t want people thinking they’re going to be attacked by black bears. Bears want less to do with people than people do with bears.”