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Oregon’s Biggest Bear


Oregon’s # 1 Black Bear

Few people, places or things attain the venerated position or title of #1.  To reach this locale, it is required to become or to obtain – the biggest or the best in a given sphere.  In a world where second place is described as “first loser”, having the biggest, the most or being the best is the driving force behind a multitude of human endeavors.  Hunting is no exception.  Every year thousands of our brethren enter the field with a single-minded determination to harvest the biggest or the best Mother Nature can provide.  When it comes to black bear hunting in Oregon, one man can retire his boots and rifle.  In 1988 John Carnate took Oregon’s biggest black bear ever.  His record-book-bear stands alone today, and with the ever-diminishing natural resources of the 21st century, John’s record may stand forever.

I’ve known John Carnate for about twelve years, and although I had heard the story of his taking a huge bear, I had never been to his home and seen the proof.  The Record Book of Oregon’s Big Game Animals included John and his bear in their second edition, and I had seen their article and photos.  John’s bear has an official Boone and Crocket score of 22-5/16 inches

Boone and Crockett lists the largest black bear skull ever recorded as 23-10/16 inches.  This skull was found along a creek in Sanpate County, Utah in 1975.  In 1993, Robert J. Shuttleworth of Hayward, California, connected with the largest black bear ever legally taken by a hunter.  Its skull measures 23-3/16″.  By comparison, the largest Grizzly, Brown and Polar bear skulls listed by Boone and Crockett are; Grizzly bear 27-2/16″ (a three way tie – bears taken in 1970, 1982, and 1991), Brown bear 30-12/16 “(taken in 1952) and Polar bear 29-15/16” (taken in 1963).  When you take into consideration that the overall measurements from the skull of the largest grizzly ever taken is less than five inches larger than the skull of John’s black bear, it clearly puts his prize into perspective.  John’s bear was huge.

John has never been bear hunting, not once.  In spite of that, he has taken two bears and both were extremely large.  His second bear, taken in 1989, had a skull, which measured an incredible 19-5/16 inches.  Each of these bears was taken “incidentally” while he pursued hoofed game.

During the 1980’s, John and his family lived on the “Wolf Creek Ranch”, where John was the ranch manager.  Resting above the beautiful Umpqua River, this little chunk of paradise is located approximately fourteen miles west of Sutherlin, Oregon and about twenty miles northwest of Roseburg.  To the west, the ranch is bordered by the Pacific Coast Range Mountains.  With no private residences or other ranches for at least thirty miles, the landscape between the Wolf Creek Ranch and the ocean is truly wild.  At any given moment, the ranch is likely to hold more deer, elk and wild turkeys than bovines. 

In November of 1988, John simply walked from home to hunt elk.  On two evenings, he had seen what he believed to be a large bear.  On each occasion he’d observed the bear in thick timber while he walked along an ancient skid road.  Like most Oregon hunters, John had purchased a bear tag when he acquired his fall elk and deer tags.  But on these evenings, he hadn’t shot the bear for two reasons.  John didn’t want to hinder his chances of spotting an elk and he simply wasn’t bear hunting.  John told me he thought the bear had something wrong with it because it looked much taller and thinner than other bears he’d seen in the mountains.  He said he knew black bears should be extremely heavy this late in the fall, but the thin bear he’d caught glimpses of simply looked “different”.

On November 12th John found himself seeking elk on yet another evening, again treading slowly through tall trees on the same grass covered antique logging road.  It was late in the day, with sunset coming quickly in the shaded timber.  As he rounded a curve, John observed the same tall-thin bear descend a hillside and step into the roadway in front of him.  As he gained his footing on the flat surface of the road, the bear looked to his right and saw the hunter.  John said each of them froze in position, man and bear – waiting for the other to make a move.

John told me he couldn’t believe the size of the bear.  Reiterating that he was not a bear hunter, and in fact had never shot one; he said he knew the animal in front of him was huge.  At the same time he sensed the bear was probably old, telling me, “The bear’s appearance was just odd, he looked too gangly for late fall.”  It suddenly occurred to John that he had a bear tag in his pocket.  He raised his Model 99 Savage .308 rifle and fired, striking the bear hard.  The bruin’s legs collapsed and he came to rest in his tracks.

John told me when he arrived at the bear’s side he was overwhelmed at the length and width of it’s body.  The old boar measured nearly seven and a half feet (7.5′) from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail.  His teeth were worn, old, broken and missing, stained brown from decades of use.  John said field dressing the animal was a difficult task due to its extreme weight, in spite of the bear being shockingly thin.  Once the torso was vacated of entrails, John walked home to enlist the help of a friend.  The two men removed the bear to John’s residence on the ranch and completed the task of removing the hide. 

John did not have a workable camera at his residence, but was unconcerned.  He would get photos of the hide the following day.  His great fortune took an unexpected dive during the night.  John and his friend had spread the huge hide over wooden rails before parting company.  During the night John’s two Labrador retrievers were somehow able to reach the hide and pulled it to the ground.  The dogs tore the hide into several small pieces, dashing all hopes of photographs and tanning.  John retained the bear’s skull.

In 1997 John and his family were attending an outdoor show at the Douglas County fair grounds in Roseburg, Oregon.  He watched while Larry Griffith, an official scorer for the Boone and Crockett record books carefully measured some deer and elk racks.  Striking up a discussion with Mr. Griffith, John told him he had a really big bear skull at home.  Explaining the size of the bruin, Larry convinced John to bring the skull to the show for him to have a look. 

John told me Larry Griffith was shocked when he returned with the skull.  Larry told him it was by far the largest he had ever seen and immediately began taking measurements.  Once completed, Larry told John Carnate that his bear was one of the biggest ever recorded in the United States.  The skull’s length is 13-12/16″, with a width of 8-9/16″. 

David Morris, publisher of the Record Book of Oregon’s Big Game Animals was in attendance at this outdoor show, and he was summoned to look at the skull.  When Mr. Morris completed his measurements, he announced the bear had the largest skull ever recorded in Oregon and said it was officially Oregon’s #1 black bear.  John told me you could have knocked him senseless with a feather.  The story of John’s huge bear was published in the next edition of the Record Book of Oregon’s Big Game Animals, (http://www.huntingrecords.com/).  David Morris and Larry Griffith estimated the bear was thirty years old.

While deer hunting in the fall of 1989, John Carnate took his second and last bear.  That bear’s skull measured 19-5/16″, which secured its place in the record books of Oregon as well. 

John’s story can bring all of us hope.  It clearly shows the importance of choosing the right location for your hunt, and proves that still-hunting can work successfully – even for trophy-sized bears.  John was utilizing skills practiced by every deer and elk hunter, namely walking as slowly and quietly as possible, away from other hunters, and being in the field (timber) at the correct time of day. 

Okay – beyond that, it probably shows a splashing of just plain good luck.  I know one thing for certain, John Carnate can go “deer and elk” hunting with me anytime he would like.  If he tags along, I think I’ll take my bear gun.


March 14, 2008 - Posted by | Bears, Cats and Claws

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