Arkansas Bear Hunting
by Danny Caywood
The good news is that I've finally found bear sign. The bad news is the only way out of here is up.
This doesn’t look inviting and the heat coming off my chigger-ridden hide only makes it seem worse. The problem here is going to be trying to find a way back into this jumble of massive boulders and jungle. It will be necessary to come back to it quickly and quietly so as to not wander around when it's time to hunt. The ripped up logs, fresh bed and huge, steaming piles of bear scat motivate me highly. The bear that left this sign has just left, while I was literally crawling in through the jungle of undergrowth on my hands and knees.
It was quite warm, which is typical of early fall in northern Arkansas. I was on one of my many scouting trips and after about 3 months of searching, this was the first fresh bear sign I had found. One of the scratching trees he had marked was scarred about a foot higher than I could reach and I'm 6' 2”. This was a big bear I had finally found. His tracks were about 5 inches across, so he was at least a 400 lb. bear.
I was very relieved that I had actually found this bear sign but...an ominous, intimidating bluff line runs all the way around the mountain I was heading up onto. To get access to this bear lair, it will be necessary to crawl up it and find a place that will allow a view down into this bear hideaway. Looking through the thick greenery, there appears to be a crevice beside a massive rock that I can wedge my foot in and allow me to pull myself up. It seems that I have found one of the only places where the bluff can be climbed. Carefully placing my English Game gun on the boulder, I grab the top and pull myself up. Peeking over the top, a fresh bear track lay right where I am preparing to place my hand. He was using this same trail to get up and down the bluff. At the time, I actually considered this quite good luck to find.
This rugged beautiful place lays in Johnson county on the Gene Rush Wildlife Management area. These rugged, beautiful bluffs lie sprawling in the Ozark mountains 45 miles southwest of Harrison, Arkansas. This area is known to harbor some huge black bears, along with the normal deer and turkey populations. Taking a black bear would be one of the legs of the Arkansas slam: turkey, deer, elk and bear. Being a problem flintlock hunter only adds to the challenge. A flintlock fowling piece had collected quite a number of turkeys while a round-ball rifle had helped put lots of venison in the freezer over the years. All that was needed were an elk and a bear. Unfortunately, elk tags in Arkansas are very hard to come by, with only a very limited number issued in a statewide lottery. The bull elk tag and a successful hunt were in store for me the next year, but at this time, I could hunt bears without any special tag, other than a hunting license.
It is past the middle of October and the oppressive heat has made the hunt for a bear even more difficult than usual. Black bears are not populous and a bear density of one bear per 5 square miles is considered pretty high. Of course, when they hide in thick, rough cover and only come out at night, that density seems even slimmer. In a lifetime of hunting and driving highways and roads, I had never even seen a bear. Baiting was not legal at this time, so you just had to go out and hunt them, in their lairs. I would soon find out just how reclusive they were.
The beginning of bear season was a week before the Arkansas muzzle-loading deer season began, so I headed out early on a Friday to set up camp for 3 or 4 days of bear chasing.
Camp was just a tarp with a few tables set up for cooking and convenience. The area I was hunting was 19 miles off the pavement and about 5 miles from where I'd set up this rudimentary camp. This was my 6th year of bear hunting and I'd yet to even see a bear. I knew the odds going in, so I just enjoyed my time in the woods and I got plenty of it.
I would enter the rugged spot where I'd previously found the bear sign, from above, in an attempt to remain undetected. It was about a mile from the road and down two steep narrow benches to a bluff overlooking the bear lair. I would go in before daylight and stay all day until dark.
I was carrying my left hand, .54 caliber English Game gun so at least I had a light, powerful gun for the exhaustive trips in and out. The season for bear began before the deer season and though I hunted clear through both seasons, I saw nary a bear hair!
I'm sure he was on to me though since he had left me a “present”, exactly where I was perched on the bluff. I can tell you that this only heightened the anticipation each time I heard any sound. The worst things about this spot was that I was on a high bluff, the bench behind me was only about 20 yards wide and if he did manage to get in behind me, I would have very little warning and no where to go if he came at me...except over the bluff! I guess the saving grace was that I'd have a 20 yard shot if I got “lucky”.
I continued hunting there, unsuccessfully, through the modern rifle deer season until the bear quota was reached and then went back to deer hunting. Six seasons of hard hunting with no bear sightings was making memories, but not much else. That bluff where I found the first bear track and all the rugged country I'd hunted convinced me that bear hunting was going to be a rough adventure here in Arkansas.
As luck would have it, a friend of mine owned some land in a very rugged part of Arkansas south of Jasper, near the community of Deer. And I do mean rugged. He found out I had been hunting for bears for years with no luck and offered to let me hunt on his land, since there was a nuisance bear creating problems. He wanted nothing to do with bear hunting, so we considered that we were doing each other a favor!
I made numerous trips in to scout and since it was private land, I was able to legally attempt to bait and hopefully attract one of these crafty, spooky bruins in. I set up a barrel and a game camera. The first year, I had no luck, no bear sightings and no activity.
I continued baiting the next year and on my second trip in to the site, ran a bear off! He was so fast that he shocked me with the speed he had. I checked my game camera, which had been damaged by the bear, and had pictures of him trying to bite the camera. He was a big bear, but I couldn't really gauge his size. There were 2 bears on the pictures, a small one and a very large one.
I continued baiting the site and had feeding activity and a few more pictures, but he didn't like that camera at all, trying to tear the cable off and leaving it disturbed each time I went in! I finally mounted on the case some very sharp drywall screws pointing outward so he couldn't destroy it. Apparently once I did this, he was getting poked in the mouth and it angered him. I just didn't know it at the time.
As the season approached, I prepared a stand and then kept my entries to a minimum, just enough to keep fresh bait there and keep my scent and presence as secret as possible.
I had been hunting with my English Game gun all these years but suddenly came up with a different idea; Why not use the David Crockett rifle to hunt this bear? This flintlock is an exact copy of David's first rifle and though it's only .48 caliber, I felt like it would be sufficient. So I took the shop gun, molded balls for it and sighted it in at 50 yards, placing a group about ½ inch to the right. It was so close, I didn't even bother nudging the sights.
Finally the black powder deer/bear season opened and I traveled to the tiny cabin my buddy allowed me to camp in while hunting for his nuisance. On the way in, I had to pull aside as a truck approached down the narrow, rough road. A salty looking cowboy stopped and asked where I was going? I told him I was going in to my friend's property to hunt a nuisance bear. He peered at me suspiciously from under his cowboy hat and warned me about the bear; “He's not afraid of humans, he's big and has a very bad attitude." I asked him if he'd ever seen him and he quickly replied that he had. He said that recently the bear had taken to hating everything plastic and destroyed anything that had any plastic component in it. He had taken a roll of electric wire and chewed all the coating off of it and destroyed all the buckets and any tools with plastic handles. This was sure good news to hear since it was apparently my plastic camera case sticking him in the face that brought on the rage...and no doubt my human scent which he would associate with the pain!!
So the hunt fall hunt began! Each trip in to and away from the stand was an exercise in extreme caution. The weather had been dry and warm...for weeks. The leaf litter was so dry you could literally hear walking sticks making their way through the woods.
On the third evening of my hunt, it was again warm, dry and extremely calm. I had been sitting there with darkness quickly falling when I decided it was about time to get down. I'm not the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but I could see no sense walking through totally dark woods when there could be an angry bear lurking nearby. As I was about to make a move, I looked to my right and there was huge black form about 25 yards away?!? The bear had moved in totally silently and I had no clue he was anywhere near. He was standing amid the thick undergrowth, but I could tell he was on full alert with his nose in the air. He slowly dropped down to all fours and crept forward circling in front of me. Even though I'm left handed, I couldn't get a clear shot since it was so thick. He would go a few yards, stand and sniff the air carefully. As I watched him move, I was amazed that he made no sound? The leaf litter was so thick and dry that it seemed impossible for a huge creature to move silently, but he did.
He continued his circling in front of me and finally reached a tiny clearing back to my left. He had made it almost all the way around me from right to left and never made a sound. I'd like to tell you how calm, cool and collected I was at this point, but there's no since wasting ink.
Here is a huge bear no more than 25 yards from me and I know he's an angry, large bear. And in my hands, I have a fairly small caliber, single shot flintlock to deal with him! The only saving grace is that he was moving in slowly, but he was on full guard. He finally cleared the thickest brush and set his left front foot down so I could see clearly where his shoulder was. The front sight on the Crockett Rifle is sterling silver so it glowed very nicely in the falling light. I had already cocked the gun when I first spotted him,so I settled the blade right behind his shoulder, touched the hair trigger and dropped the flint on him.
The gun flashed brightly as the shot made it's short path to him. There was an instant rush away from the spot and after only 3 or 4 seconds, complete silence? I was waiting for the infamous death bawl which bears so often give as an indicator that the game is over with. There was only silence. Not good...
It was dark when I first saw him and it was even darker now, since it had taken him several minutes to give me a shot. I didn't bother to reload since all I really had in my hands was a 9 pound club. I slowly approached the spot where the bear had been standing and could find no sign of a hit.
Using a little wisdom, I went back to my car and waited for a while before making an effort to trail him. I grabbed a flashlight and quietly went in, searching for any sign of blood but found none. I walked a few yards swinging back and forth trying to find blood but again, found nothing. I returned to the scene of the shot and knelt down scouring the ground for any sign. I saw what looked like a spider's web on the ground, which looked out of place? I reached down and it turned out to be long, thin, shiny bear hair! I had actually hit him! I walked quite a ways down the ridge scouring for blood but with no sign, decided to call it quits and return in the morning.
I drove home, cleaned the rifle and replayed the events in my mind repeatedly. It was a long night waiting for dawn, but finally the sun blessed me on my drive back to see if I could find him.
I had only gone about 30 yards from the shot location and encountered a double tree blowdown where the trees were crossed over one another.. .and there lay the bear. He had just made it over the trees and was mostly hidden from view. The night before I had walked just feet from him but couldn't see him over the downed trees. As I walked over to him I was shocked to see that it was the big boar that had been the nuisance bear. His rear end was up to my knees and his head seemed as big as basketball.
As I looked around at the beautiful fall morning, with leaves turning colors, sun slanting through the trees and a huge bear laying there, I knew that one of my goals had finally been accomplished. My goal was to take all of Arkansas' big game with a flintlock and I knew that this would be one of the most difficult to achieve...and he was down.
I estimated him at close to 400 lbs., took some pictures and then set about field dressing him. I had always heard about how big bears smell so bad, but he didn't smell at all?
I got him dressed out and with much trouble got him loaded on my trailer and set off to a game check station. The local onlookers at the station crowded around the old boar and marveled at his beauty and size. They were even more amazed to learn he'd been taken with a flintlock rifle with 2 round balls. Did I forget to mention that?
Well, we've all heard the old saying about being loaded for bear? What that means is that the old timers who were typically using smaller bore guns would increase the powder charge and then put 2 balls down. This increased the power of the load significantly and I can tell you from my own experience, the Crockett Rifle put down that old boar in less than 5 seconds and he had no breath left for a death bawl.
I felt like David was watching over me and grinning proud that one of his legacies had lived again!
David Crockett Rifle and Arkansas bear.
Back to Caywood Chronicles.
This is the bear as I found him on that beautiful fall morning. I had him pelted, but lost him in the house fire, unfortunately. I'll keep on trying to see if I can get lucky one more time. Old David may still be watching and be willing to hand me some more good luck!