Week 24. Levi Pitcock: Double Spur Outfitters
“I say it every year, but I’ve never seen it like this,” Levi says of blacks bears in northwest Virginia. Black bears have done so well in the area that the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries called for “aggressive reduction” in the 2017 management proposal with a goal of cutting the population by 25% in the northwest part of the state. Levi and his guides are happy to oblige.
Levi runs Double Spur Outfitters in Star Tannery, Virginia, which backs up against George Washington National Forest. He calls “nasty, gnarly ground … where laurel grows over your head.” It’s excellent denning territory for bears with abundant acorns and berries, and there’s easy access to the Shenandoah Valley cornfields.
The Valley also provides for excellent turkey and whitetail hunting, and the Blue Ridge foothills hold some classic trout streams — when not guiding for bear, Double Spur offers guide services for it all. Altogether, they have access to 22,000 acres of private and National Forest land and own four miles of trout water on Cedar Creek.
I caught up with Levi a recent July afternoon to hear about his 52-week season chasing bear, turkey, whitetail and trout, and also to learn a little bit more about a year in the life the Virginia black bear.
Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
You and your guides at Double Spur hunt for bear, whitetail, and turkey, and also manage a trout stream. What kind of terrain do you manage that makes that possible?
We’re based in Star Tannery, Virginia in the foothills of the George Washington National Forest, directly west of the Blue Ridge. To the East of the Blue Ridge are valleys and cornfields, and to the West are mountains with big oaks trees three feet in diameter that make for great habitat for bear. Behind us is a lot of National Forest land, and three mountain ranges that don’t have any roads going through, so they don’t get a lot of traffic. It’s nasty, gnarly ground getting up into those mountains and it’s the kind of place where laurel grows over your head, and people don’t really like to hike it. Bears come in from all over to den up there and feed on those acorns. They’re not residents or local, but they come but they come down to this area.
If you were to track a black bear for a year, what would its life look like?
They den up around the New Year’s in any kinds of holes in the rocks or trees they can find. If a bear can get its head in there, it can rest its body in there. I’ve seen bears with hounds where you can’t even get a football in there but somehow they can work their way in. They’ll look for any cover. Or they might find two logs and grab a piece of laurel and start covering it up and den up in there.
It’s not like you see in the cartoons when you can go and lift their eyelids up -- out West it’s like that, but not here. They’ll go in there for a few days but then may come out of the dens if it’s warm for a couple of days and eat a little bit.
That lasts pretty much lasts till the weather breaks in about late March. After that, they’ll start traveling and looking for food. They’ll start eating the green grass first, and then move into the berries.
By July or August, it’s breeding season for bears — that’s kind of like the rut for bears.
In the fall, when the corn looks milky white, the bears come down to the cornfields and start destroying everyone’s corn. Then the acorns start dropping beginning in October, and they’ll start eating acorns.
Then it’s hunting season…
Then it’s hunting season! They’ll get bounced around and will move around looking for food. This time of year [in the fall], they’re getting ready to den up and are active 20 hours a day. They’re finding and scavenging for as much food as possible, and packing on the pounds. It really gets exciting when a bear is so close in the brush that you can hear him eating acorns, and you have to wait for a clear shot.
Then one day in January, they eat this stilt grass, and that kind of acts like a bore cleaner in a muzzleloader — it pushes everything out and then plugs up the system. After that, they don’t eat anymore and are ready to den up again.
What are your primary bear hunting methods?
We hunt mountain berry patches, white oak flats, and known bear crossings, and hunt archery and muzzleloader, and also late in the season with hounds.
During the season, we’re following bears every day and constantly changing up tactics. Last year for example, they were all in the cornfields early in the season, and then the acorns starting dropping by the end of October, which they feasted on for a couple of weeks. And then, a hell of a wind storm came through one night and knocked all the acorns off overnight. After that, the bears were gone for two days. No one saw one. So after two days, we said ‘we gotta go find them.’
We found them in a small 60-yard stand of berries on the side of a mountain -- real hard to get to -- and they were up there for six days. Then they went back down to the cornfields because all the berries dried up. It usually doesn’t happen like that but you never know when a storm is going to come in with 60 mph winds and drop all the acorns. We had to abandon 30 ladder stands and deploy climbing stands on the side of the mountain. So there is a lot of thinking on the fly and adjusting.
And while you’re guiding bear hunts, you’re also managing whitetail hunts and a trout stream?
Yes, we raise our own fish and will release them in the fall in late September, and trout fishing picks up generally around the first of October. We raise them at 54 degrees, so we need it to get to about that temperature before we stock them, and then we'll stock them every week. We have wild browns and brookies, but raise rainbows. It takes about 1.5 to 1.75 years to get to them stock size, and the bows grow will grow to about three pounds in the same time that a brown would grow to about 10 inches. We even had a 7 pounder in there last year!
Midway through bear season, we pull all our trail cams off to get ready for whitetail rutting activity. The trail cams help us track the bucks moving around, but having done this for a long time, we also find that human intel can be the best and listen to clients a lot about what they’re seeing out there. They’re sitting in stands all day and sometimes will see bucks that our cams didn’t pick up. One client told me about a buck he saw last year that I didn’t even know about, and I set up trail cam and saw him one time, and then never again.
When's the peak rut?
The rule of thumb is that three weeks after the bachelor groups break up, it’s the peak rut. If I really had to pick the best few days — just looking back at pictures — it would be November 4, 5, and 6 on the east side [of the Blue Ridge] at my old place in Middleburg. On the west side of the Blue Ridge here in Star Tannery, it’s more like a week later or November 12-16. So I can get a full two weeks of peak rut hunting!
We try to book through the first or second week in December for deer, and stop hunting and turn to hound hunting for bear.
What kind of dogs do you run?
We basically run a mountain cur mutt based on generations of breeding for hunting bear. We’ve been breeding them for generations -- we sort of took grit from one, then added some cold nose, and then one that wouldn’t leave a tree. Now we have a group of dogs that are just awesome! They’re about 20-25 lbs, and last winter we came up on four that had treed a bear that was 300-400 lbs. We tracked it on their collar that they one had run 17.2 miles!
How late in the season is the hunting still good?
Bear season depends a lot on the weather, and we watch closely what they’re eating. It all depends on how many acorns are falling in the mountains, but some years we’ve killed them well into January. But at some point, they’ll start eating this 10-inch long green grass that they can’t digest. It sort of cleans out the gut and plugs up the system.
At the end of the season, we’ll take three weeks off to gather up trail cams, fix everything we broke, regroup, and get ready for next year.
And then it's in to fishing and turkey season! How about your spring and summer?
The last weekend in February we’ll start fishing again, and then we’re hot and heavy into trout season.
Then it’s turkey season, starting with the April youth hunt. From there, we fly into turkey season. At the end of March, I’ll head out a couple of times a week for guided hunts. We’ll go out first thing in the morning and be done around noon. Then in the afternoon I might guide a fishing trip, but we usually just tell people where it is and they can fish it on their own.
The fishing shuts down about the first week of July. We know when its shutting down when the they start migrating upriver to the cold water springs. It’s tough to tell exactly at what temperature that occurs at, but it’s when the snot starts growing on the rocks and they run upstream, it’s time to shut it down.
Right now [in mid July], we’re putting in food plots, and just today put in 6-7 acres for the next hunting season. Later on in August or early September when the first rains of fall start coming, we’ll put in a small mountain crop.
This time of year, we’re mostly putting up trail cams, signing leases, writing contracts, booking hunts, etc… This is basically the busy time! We’re also watching the corn growth — when the corn goes to a milky white in mid-September, its time to set stands. After that, we are off to the races again!