Sunday, December 18, 2011

Big bear interrupts deer hunt

Alvin Gillespie will have to wait at least another month before he learns where this monster bear sits in the record books.

Courtesy of Alvin Gillespie

Alvin Gillespie will have to wait at least another month before he learns where this monster bear sits in the record books.

Mark Taylor Mark Taylor is outdoors editor at The Roanoke Times.



Mark Taylor

Outdoors coverage

The Wild Life blog

When Alvin Gillespie headed out for a deer hunt during Virginia's early muzzleloader season, he had no idea he would end up making a kill that would create some of the loudest buzz of the fall hunting season.

About 9:20 a.m. on Nov. 12, Gillespie was sitting in his deer stand on his land near Eagle Rock in Botetourt County when a giant black bear showed up.

Gillespie said he has passed on several bears in recent years, including a big one last year.

But, like a growing number of rural - and suburban - landowners, his attitude has changed recently.

"In the last year, bears are getting into things on the property, and we decided to take a couple out," Gillespie reported in an email that outlined some of the details of the hunt.

When the bear stepped into a shooting lane at a range of 60 yards, Gillespie pulled the trigger on his .45-caliber Thompson/Center Omega.

"He went 10 or 12 yards," reported Gillespie, once one of the state's top competitive shotgunners.

That's when the work started.

Gillespie had to fetch his tractor to get the bear out of the woods. The huge bruin filled up the bucket on the full-sized tractor's front-end loader.

All bears must be checked in person at authorized check stations, so Gillespie and buddies loaded the bear up and headed to a country store to weigh the animal.

The store's scale bottomed out.

The bear was also too big for scales at two other check stations.

Eventually, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries conservation police officers gave Gillespie the go-ahead to record an estimated weight on the bear's check card.

Some experienced bear hunters at one of the stations had guessed the bear's weight at between 425 and 500 pounds.

It didn't take long for pictures of the bear, one of which I posted on my Wild Life blog in mid-November, to start making the rounds.

So have terms like "new state record."

There have been heavier bears killed in Virginia. But, for record purposes, a bear's skull is measured.

The measurement can't be made until after a 60-day drying period.

Just how Gillespie's bear fares in the all-time record books won't be known for at least another month, but there is no doubt it will be among the biggest killed in Virginia this season.

Plenty of other good bears have been tagged this season, including several pushing 400 pounds.

At the Hunter's Den in New Castle, Ellen Horn said the biggest bear she has checked weighed 378 pounds, field dressed.

Horn said she hasn't checked as many bears as usual, but attributes the drop in part to her new business approach.

In years past Horn would often return to her shop after hours to check bears for hunters who couldn't get there before her normal 6 p.m. closing time.

This year she said she's not doing that, so hunters who get out of the woods late are having to go elsewhere.

Horn said that she does think that bowhunters and gun hunters had just a so-so season, but she attributed that to the large acorn crop in Craig County.

Food is so plentiful, she said, that bears are widely scattered and not concentrated around specific food sources, as they can be in spotty mast years.

At Sky Mart No. 9 on Bradshaw Road in Catawba, Vish Rana said the store has checked 18 bears, which is about average for this point in the season.

Rana said the kill has been pretty evenly divided among bowhunters, muzzleloader and rifle hunters, and bear hunters who use hounds.

The largest bear checked in at the store weighed 394 pounds before it was field dressed.

At H and H Outdoors in Buchanan, an even bigger bear hit the scales.

The 423-pounder was killed during bow season - but not by a hunter.

"Somebody hit it with a truck up on Route 43," said store owner Wes Hensley. "It was a monster."

The biggest hunter-killed bear at the store registered 205 pounds, Hensley said.

The store has checked in 16 bears so far, well behind pace to meet the 35 checked last year and 36 the year before.

While hunters might not be finding larger bears in numbers they did the past couple of years, those who have been hunting with hounds since the season opened on Dec. 5 are still finding good action.

"It's just a lot of small bears," Hensley said.

Even though most are technically large enough to kill legally, the hunters are passing them up.

"If you killed every legal bear you treed, you wouldn't have nothing left for the next generation," Hensley said.

The season runs though Jan. 7, and action should remain good in part because bears haven't felt a serious urge to den due to the mild weather and decent amount of food, such as acorns, still available in many areas.

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