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.”
A wall of woven briers and bay bushes cut visibility to a mere few feet. The ground was a peaty muck, sucking at every step. Native Americans call these coastal thickets pocosins, which translates loosely to “swamp on a hill.” Pushing through them felt like climbing a mountain. I was close to heaving with the exertion of moving forward. No one in their right mind would try to get through this mess, I thought to myself.
“Doesn’t look so bad,” Reed said. “If we’re gonna go, we gotta go now and go hard. Next time he runs, he might not stop.”
I peered into the woods, looking in vain for a gap. Up ahead, a dog yelped. Another paw swipe had connected. Reed plunged into the brush. I hesitated for a half second, then leaped in behind him.
This was my third day tagging along with the Sheffield crew, and since dawn the dogs had already run three bears. Just yesterday, we’d left the Sheffields’ place in the black dark and driven nearly two hours to the marshy peninsula of Carteret County. We’d passed crabbers readying their boats for a day on the water and tourists driving to the Outer Banks ferry. A long-time hunting pal of the Sheffields, Greg Miller, had shot a nice boar, a bit over 400 pounds, when it broke from the brush after a 45-minute chase.
I’d had my own close call on that piece of ground. It was a perfect example of eastern North Carolina’s bounty of bear country—5,400 acres of private lands that border the 15,000-acre Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge. Across a narrow bay was an 11,000-acre Marine Corps bombing range. It was a vast, nearly roadless tangle of salt marsh, pocosin swamp, and longleaf pine forest. Ralph checked a bait barrel he’d sweetened with peanuts a few days earlier. The baits help suck bears out of the pinewoods and pocosins, and they give the dogs a place to start the chase. Last year, the Sheffield party killed 10 bears off this one patch of ground. A week earlier, a bear took off on a 6-mile, straight-line run, dragging the dogs along.
Ralph huffed up a steep creek bank, nodding. “Good track,” he said. “Big track.”
Reed slid out of his truck, jangling with lead chains and electronic collars. The dogs caught the bear scent and filled their boxes with pleading howls.
“Look at these vicious animals,” Ralph said as the dogs licked his hands like a bunch of puppies, begging to be picked for the chase. Spook and Bo got the nod, as the others whined in protest. Reed attached their collars, and they launched off the truck, disappearing into the pines and bay bushes in an instant.
The Sheffields typically dribble their dogs out slowly, starting with a pair on a fresh track. “Too many dogs on an old trail can mess it up, and you have to be strategic,” Ralph said. And too many hunters moving in too quickly can break up the chase or push the bear too far. “It’s kind of like a football game,” Ralph continued. “You get both the cornerbacks and the linebackers chasing the wide receivers, it makes ‘em think more. More dogs can slow a bear down. But first you got to figure out the game.”
What struck me about all of these hunts is how dynamic and fluid each chase can be. During the bear hunt, the dog pack can break up and coalesce time and again, and it’s just as challenging to keep track of the hunters. If there are deer hunters at the club, they might join in on the bear hunt. A long chase might draw a few more folks to the woods, while some hunters have to bail for work or home. Folks move in and out, some connected by radios but others just following the sound of the dogs. With hunters spread across miles of woods, and the chase stringing out for an hour or two or five, everyone holds fast to their own strand of the narrative, from their own vantage point, following the bear and the dogs and the plot however they can, and wherever it goes. There’s never a single story being written.
When Spook and Bo bawled in unison, Reed cocked his head.
“I’ll bet you a dollar they’re looking at that bear,” Reed said. “Let’s go.”
We jumped in his truck and spun sand along the two-track, scattering wild turkeys into the woods. Reed stopped the truck and stuck his head out the window. “Still trailing,” he murmured as he stomped on the gas. He kept his head out the window, hound dog style, as we bounced and skidded down a sandy two-track. Suddenly, he slid to a stop.
“Listen,” he said. “Listen.”
The dogs had opened up again. They were close. Reed put a finger to his lips and eased out the door, leaving it open. I did the same. We stepped carefully through the low pocosins 30 feet off the two-track. The dogs went silent, but the brush 80 yards in front of us rustled and swayed. Reed pointed. I nodded and eased the hammer back on the .30/30, muffling the click with the palm of my hand. Each heartbeat thumped like a toilet flush. I snugged the rifle into my shoulder and saw a smudge of black.
But then the dogs bawled, so close that I knew it couldn’t be the bear. I lowered the muzzle just as Smoke and Rusty shuffled into the open. Smoke looked at me, tail wagging, and gave me a great, boisterous where’d-he-go? bark. I lowered the rifle hammer and let the shivers work their way down my arms.
That was three days ago. Now, I plunged through the brush, trying to keep Reed in sight, as the dogs’ bedlam rose. Sweat poured off my brow, but the shivers had returned.
“Come on, Eddie! Come on!”
When Ralph Sheffield first started bear hunting, in 1973, eastern North Carolina’s rough coastal swamp-woods were even rougher. Commercial timber harvest had yet to open up the woods with logging roads and skidder trails. His favorite haunt, the famed Holly Shelter Game Land, was 70,000 acres of thicket hell.
“When you left the road, the next road in front of you was 4½ miles away,” he told me. At the time, he was a 16-year-old powerlifter, tough as nails. “I could roll,” he said. “I was just hard muscle and speed, and I had no fear. And that’s what it took. Many times, I spent the night beside the bear I’d just killed, waiting for the sun to come up so I’d know which way to walk out.”
At the time, bear hunting with hounds in eastern North Carolina was a bit of a patchwork endeavor. Few hunters owned even a single dog. A pack was simply pulled together from whatever hounds showed up for a hunt. Hunters were divvied up by physical abilities. Some were the dog men, handling the pack. Older gentlemen were put on the ground crew, tasked with getting the dead bears out of the woods. Anyone could shoot, but a few, such as Ralph, were known as the killers—tough and strong enough to push through towering thickets of briers and brush to get to bayed-up bears. After his first couple of hunting seasons, Ralph’s mentors gave him a pair of bear dogs—a Plott hound named Stud and a Plott-Walker mix called Boney.
“For the first time, I owned something,” he said. “There hasn’t been a day since that I didn’t have a pack of my own.”
On the evening before our first hunt, I met the Sheffields at their dog kennels behind Ralph’s house. Despite their wide-ranging hunting habits, Ralph and Reed rarely spend a night away from home. “Family men,” Ralph told me. Reed had recently married and was building a home on a piece of land behind his parents’ house, where the woods give way to the Neuse River lowlands.
Still, the Sheffield kennels serve as a de facto bear camp for the loose group of hunters who move in and out of their clan. Between them, the father and son hold memberships in eight different hunt clubs across hundreds of square miles of the coastal plain. The smallest is a few thousand acres. The largest, up near the Virginia state line, is better than 30,000 acres. “We roam pretty far,” Reed says. “We take this kind of serious, you know.”
There might not be a grand lodge on their property—much less a bunkhouse for a couple of buddies—but standing there in the kennels, as the dogs watched their masters’ every step, I sensed a sort of gravitas to this place. Whatever happens out in the woods, whatever happens in the thick of the fight, starts here.
Today, the Sheffields keep about 15 adult dogs at a time, mostly Plott hounds and English coonhounds and a mix between the two, plus some treeing Walkers. They breed for the long term and pair dogs carefully.
“We want ’em hard and tough, but we want ‘em smart,” Ralph told me. “I like a dog that’s got grit but isn’t overly aggressive. Some hunters are proud of their vet bill, but that’s not the line we breed. We don’t get a dog killed but every couple years, if that.”
Part of the thinking behind breeding dogs this way is the sheer intensity of the Sheffields’ approach to hunting. They train the dogs nearly year-round, running across a vast mosaic of public and private lands. Then, come hunting season, there’s barely time for a nap. “When you take three weeks of vacation and hunt every day,” Ralph explained, “you’ve got to have strong dogs—and a lot of them.”
With the dogs whining in the background, we leaned against the pickup trucks to plan the next day’s hunt. It would be my first time bear hunting, and Ralph was adamant that I only pull the trigger when it felt right. “I’m not going to tell you when to shoot,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you what a big bear is.”
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He asked me if I noticed the whitetail in his living room. It was a small 5-pointer, and it caught my eye given Ralph’s reputation for quarter-ton big game.
“Let me tell you what I think makes a trophy animal,” he said. In 1963, the day before deer season opened in Georgia, his stepfather, a man he called Papa Jim, bought a Montgomery Ward 12-gauge shotgun and a box of No. 1 buckshot at the Fort Benning PX. The next day he killed a little buck with it—his first deer ever—and never fired the gun again. It sat in Papa Jim’s closet for decades, but the story of its one-shot kill was a bit of a family legend.
“About five years ago,” Ralph said, “Papa Jim shows up with that shotgun and gives it to me for my birthday. And the first day of deer season that year, I walked out to hunt and that little buck on my wall was the first deer that showed up. On the very first day I owned the shotgun. I carried No. 1 buckshot—just like happened to him.”
He held my gaze. “You understand what I’m saying? I once killed a 14-pointer in West Virginia that won a county big-buck contest. But that’s not the deer on my wall. Big don’t have anything to do with trophy. It’s all about the animal’s story.”
“We got to get there, Eddie!” Reed shouted. “Come on!”
My legs burning and briers tearing at my face and neck, I lowered my head and bulldogged through a shrub jungle of bamboo brier and fetterbush. Wrist-thick pond pines grew tight as bristles on a brush. I fell into a 6-foot-deep V-ditch carved into the peat and grabbed a thorny stalk of devil’s walking stick to pull myself out.
Up ahead—100 yards or 500, it was difficult to tell which—the baying of the dogs grew more frenetic. Once again, they’d turned the bear. Pulled by the sound of the hounds, Reed vanished. I threaded my rifle through the crosshatched saplings and sank to my knees in a dark muck of peat. I clawed at the ground, dragging myself clear with my elbows. I’ve got to get there. I want my bear.
The gunshot caught me by surprise.
For just a moment, the world seemed stunned into silence. Reed was no longer hollering from the woods. The dogs held their breath. But, again, the interlude lasted but a split second. Soon the hounds traded their chops and bawls for a guttural din. It expanded into a possessive, growling snarl. I slowed my pace so I could catch my breath. I knew what I was going to find.
The black bear was dead in a 20-foot-tall thicket of river cane, the reeds beat down in a wide circle, with the swarm of dogs going crazy over the mound of black hide. A couple of hunters dragged the hounds off by the collars, snapping their heavy leather-and-chain leads around a nearby tree.
“He was all but dead when they caught him,” one hunter said graciously. “I just finished him off.”
I heard the whine of an ATV, then more shouts as the various factions of the hunting party converged from all directions. Machetes whacked at shrubs and vines, clearing a trail for the drag out to the road. At any moment, other hunters would push through the cane, angling for a look at the bear, wanting to hear the story. I gazed down at the still black form. I didn’t have long before the entire party was around.
I handed off my rifle and knelt by the bear. It took both hands and all of my strength to turn the animal over. In an instant, I found what I was looking for: a deep gash across the base of the neck, the vertebrae smashed, a sheen of dark blood. I traced a finger across the bullet’s path, felt the torn flesh and jagged bone. He couldn’t have gone much farther. How he got this far was a wonder.
The group closed in. Everyone wanted a look. A bear hunt like this, with hounds and trucks, a long chase with fits and starts, is a community affair. Everyone played a role. Now we’ll share the story like we’ll share the meat, passing it along time and again. But backing away to give them room, I touched my fingers to my forehead, to leave a bloody smudge. From my bear.