“Can you eat bear meat?” was the question I was repeatedly asked whenever I mentioned an upcoming bear hunting trip to East Tennessee. After some discussion and planning, my friend “L” and I had settled on a very short window of time to meet up and squeeze in a mini adventure. And, yes, you most certainly can eat bear meat and, depending on the diet, it can make for quite excellent table fare.
Bear hunting in Tennessee can be a bit problematic. While we have a small, but growing bear population, hunting is restricted to just a handful of counties along the North Carolina border. The vast majority of these bears are hunted with the assistance of dogs and many seasoned Tennessee bear hunters consider the notion of still hunting bears (not the incidental killing of bear while out deer hunting) to be an exercise in futility. While we do have a large tract of public land to hunt bears (Cherokee National Forest), the terrain can be very difficult and, due to logging and fires, the woods and undergrowth can be extremely dense.
Since bears are still in a delicate stage of reestablishment in Tennessee, the state game agency (TWRA) keeps tight reigns on the bear harvest and requires that all bears taken by hunters (bag limit is 1 bear per hunter per year) be manually checked in whole, with the sex organs still attached. The bear may be gutted, but no further butchering, skinning or quartering is permitted (see Tennessee bear regulations here). Not having hunted bear before, I had not paid much attention to the specific regulations and, though we had a game plan together to enter by canoe, camp, gain altitude and spot and stalk for bears, our initial plan was entirely contingent upon quartering and packing out the bear meat. (as I later learned, it is customary for East Tennessee locals to hunt bears in large parties so that there are ample strong backs to recover the bear from the mountains).
All harvested bears must be checked out at an official checking station. Bears may not be checked in via the Internet or with the TWRA mobile application. Bears may be whole or field dressed, but must weigh 75 pounds or greater when checked in. The reproductive sex organs shall remain attached to each bear harvested at least until the bear has been officially checked out at an official bear checking station.
After noticing this regulation just a few weeks before our trip and, after a few email exchanges with a very helpful TWRA officer, we came to the conclusion that, in the event of killing a bear, we would use a combination of muscle, gravity, short roping technique and a canoe to get the bear back to the truck. The plan seemed simple enough while exchanging emails and text messages.
The trip started out with a stop in rural West Tennessee for a morning of November Muzzleloader season deer hunting. If you are a dedicated deer hunter, you hunt every chance you get during the month of November. Period. I was driving East, this property was on my way out, therefore I stopped and hunted it.
I set up on the point of a treeline that intersects with a ridge and is surrounded by a sea of weeds ranging from a few feet high to over 10 feet in height and I was able to successfully kill a 10 point buck as he strolled by between the treeline and the weeds to return to his bedding area (still a little early for rutting activity in Southwest Tennessee).
[pictured left: a small spike following the same path as the buck I had killed just moments earlier].
In an attempt to avoid contaminating the immediate area with human scent, I intended to drive my truck around the field to pick up the deer and skin and quarter him away from where I might hunt again in the near future. This plan, however, was derailed when I managed to bottom out my truck on a berm and have 4 wheels dangling in the air. While waiting for a tow from a friend, I set to work gutting, skinning and quartering this deer where he lay in the tall weeds. The meat was promptly placed in cooler and headed East with me. (the deer was checked in using Tennessee’s new mobile app for checking in big game animals).
Driving three quarters of the way across Tennessee, I met up with my hunting partner “L” and his homemade boat rack. We loaded my canoe alongside his Kayak and headed into the mountains.
While making the 318 hair pin turns on the road known as “The Dragon”, we stopped at a vantage point to scout out the area we intended to hunt. Our plan was to use the powerline trail as a means of navigation and for observation from long distance. In a sea of mountains and woods, it is at least a change in features we could focus around.
That evening, I did a bit of an exploratory climb up the side of the mountain and managed to stalk within 20 yards of some turkeys. I found a decent route to the top and estimated our climb time at 1 hour. I returned to the tent where we remained for the next 11 hours or so due to the rain.
In the dark, rain and haze, it took us 3 hours as what I had observed the night before was a false summit. The upper third of the mountain was unexpectedly thick, extremely dense and, in places, so steep that I had to kick footholds in the dirt to continue vertical progress. After 3 hours of climbing, we finally made the summit and the rain had, for the most part quit, but we were left with about 50 yards of visibility.
After changing our sweaty base layers for dry ones (an old telephone line switch box was used to stash our wet gear), we promptly split up, each with a plan. L focused more on the thick woods (where he found some reasonably recent sign) and I focused more on the open terrain, thinking I might catch a bear moving in and out of the pine thickets and brush (I found very little sign). The haze started burning off a bit as the morning passed and I got some great views as I worked several miles of a recently maintenanced powerline trail (access to the trail by vehicle is not permitted), meandering up and down the hills. I managed to jump some grouse and woodcock along the way.
We met back up at our scheduled time of 2 PM, and spent about an hour and a half picking our way back down the mountain through a pine thicket and rock filled, potentially ankle breaking drainage. We broke camp, paddled out, drove back out The Dragon and L dropped me of back in Crossville at an old friend’s house where I gorged myself on 5,000 calories worth of leftovers from a Thanksgiving party and relaxed in the hot tub for a few hours. Sunday was a crisp, cold day and all of my soak and wet gear, which I had left outside, was frozen solid. I drank coffee while relaxing in the hot tub with icicles in my hair, then drove back across the state, noting the amount of rut-crazy, roadkill deer on the interstate between Nashville and the Tennessee River, got home, trimmed some of my venison up and stuck it in the fridge with a fan for airflow where it will remain for several days until I have the time to fully butcher it. Conclusion: It was an adventurous trip with little chance of success. GIven the terrain we were hunting and the bear regulations requiring hunters to bring bear out whole (not quartered), it would have been impossible, repeat, impossible for us to have gotten a bear off that mountain. Our original discussion of short roping a bear down a rope length at a time, or even rolling it, would have not been possible due to the thickness and undergrowth of the woods. It would have easily taken a half a dozen grown men a full day to get a bear off that mountain. While I understand that TWRA has to keep tight reigns on the bear harvest, the TWRA website states:
The art of “still hunting” (i.e., stalking or ambushing and hunting without the use of dogs) has not yet reached its full potential for harvesting bears in Tennessee.
This statement was essentially our inspiration for this trip. My suggestion, whatever that’s worth? If TWRA wishes to move forward with encouraging the still hunting of bears in the National Forest, there will have to be a provision for backcountry bear hunting and recovering bears from the woods that have been quartered. Otherwise, there is simply no reasonable method of recovery without necessarily large hunting parties. In order to still hunt bears, a hunter needs to be able to go where the bears are and the hunter needs to be able to get the bear out of the woods in a reasonable amount of effort of a hunting party size of 1-3 people. Other Tennessee bear hunters have complained about going to considerable effort to recover bears, taking them to one of the very limited check stations that, apparently, will not check in bears after 8 PM and then, the person checking the bear not even examine (or even lay eyes on) the animal.
There must be some kind of reasonable compromise and consideration on the regulations if still hunting of bears in Tennessee is going to move forward. If not, I do not anticipate many hunters heading out into the woods without dogs, specifically looking for bears. I am not implying that I won’t try this style of hunting again, but I would personally be more willing to go after bears in an aggressive manner if I knew that I could cover adequate terrain and be able to deal with a recovery. Dragging a bear for miles across this terrain is not feasible without a large party and unnecessary effort. Game carts are, for the most part, useless in this terrain. Even our idea of using a canoe and gravity was not feasible. I’m not complaining, I’m merely pointing out what I perceive as a flaw in the system, if in fact, the still hunting of bears in Tennessee is to reach its full potential.