The first period of black bear hunting in Wilkes and other western counties opens on Monday, Oct. 12, and runs through Nov. 21. The second session is Dec. 14-Jan. 1.
There is a daily and season limit of one bear in North Carolina. Bear may be taken with bow and arrow, crossbow, rifle or muzzleloader.
Bear hunting success in Wilkes will depend as usual on the supply of the annual mast crop, or acorns from oak trees, explained Jon Miller, a Dead End Game Calls, Vortex Optics and Connecticut Valley Arms pro staffer and a professional guide and taxidermist. Miller lives in Morganton and is a native of Millers Creek.
“If we have a big mast crop, bears will key on that more than bait sites,” said Miller. “Success depends on how hard they’re keying on acorns and bait. Last year, the mast crop was huge.”
Miller said that bears, like deer, focus on acorns as their primary food source because one of the highest protein sources in nature and their bodies crave that protein to put on fat that gets them through winter hibernation. “It’s nature’s way for bears to crave what they need more than what you’d think they’d like better (because of taste).”
In Wilkes, using unprocessed food such as corn and apples as bear bait is legal during the first hunting period, from Oct. 12 to Nov. 21. It is unlawful to take a bear while the animal is in the act of consuming unprocessed foods.
It is also illegal to use a bear bait attractant, such as a scent spray or power, or processed food products like sugar, honey and peanut butter, or grease, meat, bones or blood.
Miller said the bear population is healthy and growing every year. Last year in Wilkes, he said a trail camera captured a group of nine adult bears. “We’ve got a lot of bears. They’re in Statesville (Iredell County) now and they had never been there before. They’ve spread all over.”
In the adjoining counties of Alexander, Iredell and Yadkin, bear season starts later on Nov. 21 and runs through Jan. 1.
When hunting bear, Miller said it’s critical to remember that “bears 100% live by their nose—they can smell farther than you can imagine. Be very cautious of the wind and scent control if you’re still hunting.”
The best bear hunting in Wilkes should be close to the Blue Ridge Parkway and rockier outcrops, said Miller. “They love that rough terrain. There’s bears in the Brushies now but the higher population seems to be in rougher parts of the county like Leatherwood (in western Wilkes).
Miller said that bear hunters who use dogs prefer bigger tracks of land. Dog hunting is popular around and underneath the parkway and near the Wilkes-Watauga and Wilkes-Alleghany county lines, he said.
Hunting bears with dogs is allowed in Wilkes during both sessions of the season. Use of dogs to hunt bear is prohibited in several Piedmont counties, however.
It is unlawful to take a cub weighing less than 75 pounds or a female bear (sow) with cubs.
Miller said he never harvests a sow, nor does he take a boar (male bear) under 200 pounds. Most bears harvested in Wilkes are in the 400-pound range, and seldom do they top 500 pounds. “Mountain bears don’t get as big as coastal bears.”
The N.C. Wildlife Commission reports that the largest bear taken in North Carolina since 1969 was an 880-pound, nearly 11-year-old male taken in coastal Craven County in 1996. Most of the state’s biggest bear are harvested in the coastal region.
Bear hunting is allowed in the Buffalo Cove Game Land area of Wilkes and Caldwell counties off N.C. 268 East but is prohibited in the county’s three other game lands (Rendezvous Mountain State Forest in Purlear, Kerr Scott near Wilkesboro and Thurmond Chatham in Wilkes and Alleghany counties).
Bears may not be taken in the Thurmond Chatham Bear Sanctuary, which is comprised of 6,520 acres east of N.C. 18, west of Stone Mountain State Park, north of Longbottom Road and south of the Wilkes-Alleghany county line except for a small section south of the Blue Ridge Parkway just west of Stone Mountain.
In Wilkes, bear may be taken from any unpaved road, an exception to the county’s prohibition on hunting animals with a firearm from a public road.
Reporting bear harvests is required in North Carolina. Hunters should carry their Big Game Harvest Report Card with them while bear hunting for validating and registering a harvest. An authorization number is given during the registration process and is required for a hunter to legally possess a bear or other big-game animal.
According to the N.C. Wildlife Commission, there were 28 bear harvested in Wilkes in 2019, 17 of which were male and four of which were taken through the use of dogs. That total was second among adjoining counties, trailing only Caldwell’s harvest of 49.
Among counties in the Mountain Bear Management Unit, McDowell led the way last year with 109 registered bear kills, followed by Yancey (107) and Haywood (104).
Since 1996, the largest bear harvest in Wilkes was 62 in 2018.