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Danny Smith of Phelps, carved his name into Kentucky’s hunting annals Dec. 18, when he claimed the state’s first legally harvested black bear in the modern era.
Smith took the 265-pound male bear in Pike County about five hours into his hunt. He owned the state’s record for the largest bear for about a day, until Billy Joe Dixon, Cumberland, took a 280-pound male on the second day.
Smith, a lifetime Pike County resident and long-time coyote and deer hunter, was hunting coyotes last Friday when he came across “a lot of bear sign in the snow near a stand of Autumn Olive.” That prompted him to go buy his bear hunting license.
He hit the woods Saturday morning, but failed to find more bear sign. So he moved to an area where he had seen bear activity and picked up a fresh trail.
He followed it for more than a mile around a mountaintop. When the track he was following approached the location where he had first found the track, he backed off and began watching the area.
He used binoculars to scour the area and finally spotted the bear about 240 yards away. He made the shot just before 2 p.m. with his Savage .270 rifle.
“I’ve hunted a lot of coyotes and deer, but this bear season is the best thing Kentucky could have,” Smith said. “This is the first time I have ever hunted them, but I am hooked for life.”
Kentucky’s first black bear season last year was tough on bear hunters after a winter storm dumped nearly 2 feet of snow across Pike, Harlan and Letcher counties and kept the hunters off the mountains. They were the only three counties open to bear hunting, and no bears were taken in that first season.
Dixon, 35, a lifetime resident of Cumberland, took the only other bear claimed this season about noon Dec. 19 on the Harlan County mine property where he works.
Like Smith, he took advantage of the fresh snowfall to track the bear.
He found a track crossing the road as he was climbing the mountain, followed the track, and then caught a glimpse of the bear heading down the mountain. He hurried down the mountain, set up in an area where he suspected the bear might show up, and soon made a 50-yard shot with his .308 rifle.
Then he tied the present with the past. He called upon his 84-year-old grandfather, Bill Dixon, Hiram, to help him skin his trophy. That’s when he learned that his grandfather, while a young boy, was also present when another bear was taken on Pine Mountain, long before the days of regulated bear hunting in Kentucky.
“Bears are good opportunity for Kentucky,” Dixon said. “For those who don’t work in the mines, there’s not a lot to do. With our elk, deer and now bear, we have some real tourism opportunities.”
“Some people are simply not comfortable walking the mountains in snow-covered conditions to hunt bears,” said Steven Dobey, bear program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Kentucky’s initial bear seasons have been held in December in order to gauge hunter participation and success rates, while concentrating the harvest on male bears. Most female bears in Kentucky enter dens by mid-November.
“This year’s hunt shows that mature bears can be harvested late in the season,” Dobey said. “Likewise, beginning with a late-season hunt allows us the maneuverability to move the season earlier in future years.”