BLOOD, SWEAT, AND BEDLAM
Field & Stream|Volume 125 - Issue 3, 2020
A pack of hunters and hounds set out on a frenzied chase in the famed black bear swamps of North Carolina
T. Edward Nickens

AFTER THE SHOT, THE WORLD WENT STRANGELY SILENT.

I heard nothing. Before I pulled the trigger, there was bedlam everywhere: The dogs bayed and snarled in a hellish clamor as the bear, 20 yards away, popped his teeth and smashed brush. There was a single howling yelp as a clawed paw found a hound and sent it cartwheeling. Before the shot, I couldn’t hear myself think.

The bear stood, facing away, swatting at the five dogs fanned out in front of him. I was gasping for breath in the thicket. Blood from brier gashes dripped into my right eye. The fight had been going on for 10 minutes already. It couldn’t last much longer. I stepped to my left, searching for an open shot, and that meager movement caught the bear’s attention. He swiveled his head and found me. Our eyes locked just as the dogs behind him moved, giving me a clear shot. I raised my lever-action and fired at the base of the bear’s skull in the exact moment he charged the dogs and bolted, vanishing into the tangled timber behind.

For a long few seconds, I heard nothing. Whether it was the muzzle blast or the adrenaline, I couldn’t say. I shook my head to clear my ears, and then I began to hear my heart pounding. The woods crackled with static.

Reed Sheffield was on the radio, headed my way. “I don’t know,” he said into the radio. “He might have missed. Get some more dogs on him.” He pushed past me, barely slowing, and crashed into the brush. “Come on, Eddie!” he hollered over his shoulder. “Come on!” Then I heard the dogs. They were back on the bear. Reed was already out of sight. “Come on, Eddie! Can you make it?”

Covering the last 50 yards to the bear had been brutal. I was gassed. My legs quivered, and my shirt was soaked with sweat. When I pulled the trigger, the bruin was on the move, but still the shot felt good. I was convinced I had hit him. I took off running.

I can make it.

LAND OF GIANTS

In November 1998, Coy Parton, Dolly Parton’s cousin, trucked his bear dogs from the east Tennessee mountains to North Carolina’s coastal plain, and he set those Plott hounds loose in woods where you can almost smell the ocean. They cold-trailed a massive set of tracks for nearly 2 miles, then jumped the bear in a thicket of canebrake and pine timber. The bruin turned and fought, then broke and ran. One hunter whiffed a shot, and the bear bolted again. When the boar was bayed up in a block of woods surrounded by fields, Parton waded in and killed him with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with 00 buck. The bear was so large, it had to be hauled to a fertilizer company to find scales stout enough for the job. The animal weighed 880 pounds and still stands as the heaviest black bear ever taken in North America.

Parton’s feat announced to the hunting world an astonishing fact: Eastern North Carolina’s tangled swamp thickets and massive industrial timberlands had turned into the home of the planet’s largest black bears. Six-hundred-pound bears are now a benchmark for trophy status there. Hunters have taken nearly two dozen black bears over 700 pounds. And there’s a pile of lesser giants as well. According to the state wildlife agency, the 3,200-square-mile Albemarle- Pamlico Peninsula holds the world’s densest population of black bears: as many as 8,000. It’s not uncommon to see a dozen feeding like deer in a wheatfield.

Not surprisingly, such a trove has attracted a passionate following. Hunters from Canada haul their dog packs to the land of grits and collard greens after northern seasons close. Big money has arrived too: Fully outfitted four-day hunts reach $10,000. And at a time when hunting with hounds has been vilified in many parts of the country, the tradition in this remote, removed region is still strong.

To check out the scene, I planned a four-day swing through Tar Heel bear country, hunting mostly with a father-and-son pair who have deep roots in both hunting and bear-dog training. Ralph Sheffield is 62 years old— stout and sturdy and jovial. He’s kept bear dogs since 1975. His son, Reed, 28, is wiry and youthful, studious one moment (he holds a master’s degree in business management from England’s Northumbria University) yet predatory when a pack of his dogs bays a bear. They live just outside of Vanceboro, deep in the swampy wilds between the Neuse and Pamlico rivers—about 5 miles from where Parton killed his world-record bear.

Together, the Sheffields have amassed their own impressive kills. Ralph has taken 13 black bears better than 600 pounds, including a 721-pound behemoth in 1996. Reed killed his first bear when he was 10 and has already put 660- and 695- pounders on the ground. “And that’s just the bears we’ve killed ourselves,” Ralph tells me. “I don’t know how many 500- and 600-pound bears we’ve had killed in front of our dogs. Thirty to 40, easy.”

Already this year, hunters with the Sheffields have taken 16 black bears. Seven were by first-time bear hunters—a statistic that gives them great pride. They’d love for me to be their eighth.

RELEASE THE HOUNDS

Reed held up along a wall of gallberry and listened for movement in the woods. We’d been fighting through the brush for 15 minutes since I had shot. Twice more the dogs had bayed the bear, and both times the bear broke and ran. “You sure you hit him?” Reed asked.

I quickly replayed the scene in my mind, then nodded. Suddenly the dogs’ barking quickened.

“They stopped him again,” Reed said. He held an electronic dog tracker in his hand, but his eyes bored into the tangle of brambles. “They’re looking at him.”

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