Bear Of A Lifetime!

A 717LB North Carolina Giant

Throughout our lives, I believe we all have sets of experiences that so greatly exceed our expectations that we find ourselves woefully short of enough time or diction to accurately describe them. Their impact is monumental to our lives in many ways. Such was the morning of December 10, 2022 for me. 


The story starts with me reaching out to the Combat Warrior Bear Hunt organizer, Chris Milligan, after the first 2021 hunt. The Combat Warrior event, in close cooperation and fraternity with Stormy Ridge Outfitters, has been pairing combat veterans and bear hunters since opening day 2018 (with the exception of COVID impacts on the 2020 season).  Each year since the inception, the Combat Warriors Bear Hunt network grew with the interest of combat veterans outpacing the ability for Combat Warriors, Inc. to sponsor more hunters; but that hasn’t stopped multiple Marines from paying their dues to be a part of this phenomenal hunting experience, complete with comradery and a sense of brotherly understanding.  Unfortunately, the events were booked for the year and for the first hunt of 2022. 


Luckily, on a random mid-November day, Chris reached out to let me know of an opening in the December portion of the North Carolina season. Every day between Chris’ text and my arrival in Engelhard, NC, I studied bear anatomy, memorized the North Carolina regulations, watched and re-watched applicable episodes of MeatEater, listened to nearly every episode (again) of Bear Grease, and generally attempted to prostrate myself on the altar of greater learning. I found everyone I knew who had ever hunted bears and plied them with rifle and caliber combinations, effective shot placement, questions on what animals were “shooters” and what were not, and random tips or lessons learned. In a strangely comfortable way, the preparation—a balance of focused effort and nervous excitement—felt very similar to my first deployment. Although I have purchased North Carolina bear tags and even applied to and received special tags for bear hunting in public game lands, this felt completely different. 


I met with the hunting party and hosts for dinner on Friday night at Martelle’s in Englehard, North Carolina. The fact that I arrived nearly a half hour early betrayed my anticipation of the entire event. I departed early from dinner to go check and recheck my gear, download OnX map data, and toss and turn in an otherwise very comfortable hotel room before waking up to recheck gear, rifle, and cartridges again. 

The hunting party met in small groups and clusters on the dirt roads throughout the private land owned by Phil “Rabbit” Ferguson before daybreak on the crisp, but not cold morning. Those early hours have always been my favorite time of day as the dark hours transition to early light, what Roosevelt referred to as “the wild surroundings, the grand beauty of the scenery”, and Steve Rinella once referred to as watching a jazz band warm up before the show. Chris and my guide, volunteer Billy Barber, joined another Combat Warrior hunter, Scott Johnson, and I—retired Marines all for the morning walk in just after legal shooting light. 


At a separate nearby location, Rabbit and Jimmy Henderson set the hounds loose on fresh scent. Rabbit has been hunting bears his whole life and over the decades has acquired and cultivated his bear haven in Hyde County. Rabbit, along with friends and family, have hunted as a club over the years and take on guests for a nominal fee to compensate for the cost of baiting, maintaining, and owning such a large tract of land. They adopted the name Stormy Ridge Outfitters (an appropriate name that reflects Rabbit’s North Carolina mountain roots and his profession). Rabbit is assisted every year by the entirety of his family and good friends, Jimmy Henderson and Justin Key, who hail from western Virginia. This trio each have their own pack of hounds to rotate through and pack in on the bears, ensuring success year after year.


Seemingly within seconds of the hounds finding the trail, the radios came alive in staccato bursts of shorthand, nicknames for locations and cardinal directions from familiar places on well-known trails. With this soundtrack setting a cadence, Chris and Scott moved to a predetermined position. About 200 yards away, Billy and I did the same, slightly deeper and hand-railing a large drainage canal. Just as the sound of the hounds added to the chorus of the radio chatter, Billy spotted the bear about 50 yards away in a mix of oak, gum, cypress, and loblolly pines and it was moving from right to left. Without any hounds on his immediate trail, the bear was moving at a leisurely pace and paused to look in our direction for a split second. I settled in my Marlin Model 336 30-30 on the bear’s shoulder and was surprised at the difficulty of finding a point of aim on the deep black fur. After transitioning from iron sights through my open scope rings to my 3-9X scope set on its lowest setting, I rested the crosshairs on center of the center, then forward a little and worked for the smoothest trigger pull possible. The 175-grain bullet hit slightly forward of my intended point, but put the boar immediately down on his right side without another step. Both Billy and I quickly closed the distance to the bear to ensure a clean and respectful end. Almost simultaneously, the hounds pushed another bear right to Chris and Scott. Within 15 minutes, two bears were harvested by our collection of hunters and all hounds were safe and accounted for.


Only when standing next to the bear did I get an understanding of his size. His thick black hair, scarred face, and sheer size were immediately objects of my awe and disbelief. In hindsight, I believe it was a true gift to have just Billy and me sit quietly with the bear until the rest of the hunting party could start to filter in to assist with extraction. Perhaps because of our similar, if not shared background, Billy and I just understood that moment and didn’t talk much. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall a single sentence that didn’t focus on that exact instant; we were completely in the present, and we were sharing a moment with the most magnificent specimen that either of us had ever seen. I believe the bear had been down for less than three minutes when I first heard him utter, “Bear of a lifetime.”


Extraction started in earnest about an hour afterwards with friends and family arriving in groups of twos and threes to first look, then assist in whatever way possible. With the aid of some heavy equipment, a little woodsman ingenuity, and a lot of helping hands, we got the boar back to the cleaning station. It was in the movement from the truck to the cleaning station that we put the bear on a scale for the first time and saw 717 pounds, a best for all involved but an unbelievable number for me on my first real bear hunt.


The mentorship of Stormy Ridge Outfitters, particularly their years of experience, was of immense importance during the cleaning and processing stage. Thus far, I have rendered approximately eight gallons of bear grease, a few hundred pounds of bear now resides in my freezer as both ground meat and steaks, and the hide is in transition to become a full body mount. I truly believe that the full body mount will demonstrate the majesty, the strength, and, by extension, my respect for this bear, particularly to guests and visitors to my house that have never seen a bear up close. Maybe that’s the best way to encourage non-hunters to hunt or reinforce the many positive aspects of our interactions with these phenomenal resources. As Fred Bear once said, “If you are not working to protect hunting, then you are working to destroy it.”