By Allyson Dix
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
Growing up, Rick Hammontree’s grandfather in Pennsylvania took him on his first fishing adventures at a young age–a trip that would ultimately lead him to a love for hunting wildlife.
“While visiting my grandfather there, I noticed he had Field & Stream and Outdoor Life books back in the early 80s,” Hammontree said, adding that thumbing through those books was the beginning of a hunting journey that he still has today.
At age twelve, his aunt bought him his first bow and he pursued shooting competitions in archery at the Metcalfe County Lake Sportsman Club which led him into deer hunting.
“As a kid, I didn’t really have a mentor to show me how to hunt,” Hammontree shared. “My dad was retired military and self-employed, and he wasn’t really big into hunting.”
He killed his first deer, a 5-point buck, at age 15. Four years later, he had the opportunity to go wild boar hunting in Alabama while visiting a friend’s relatives. Over the years, his interest expanded to include hunting duck, dove, quail, bear, wild boar, and deer. Floating the Green River to duck hunt is a highlight; however, Hammontree’s passion is bear hunting.
“My biggest love is hunting bears with a bow,” he said. “I was ecstatic when Kentucky got its first bear season in 2009.”
“A friend of mine and I went to Harlan County where the first bear hunting season in Kentucky began in modern times. That first year, Harlan was hit with a major snowstorm dropping a foot of snow up on Black Mountain. Nobody got a bear that year, but we still had an adventure.”
Years passed, and Hammontree began exploring further into Harlan County where he also became a member of their Masonic Lodge which also helped him to find places to bear hunt.
Hammontree, despite his efforts, never saw a single bear between 2009 and 2015, but his determination didn’t falter. He knew the day was coming.
In June of 2015, he and a friend took a scouting trip to Benham where they saw sixteen bears in a single day, months before the October bear hunting season opened.
“They were all over the hillside eating autumn olives in reclaimed coal country,” he added.
October arrived. Hammontree and a couple of buddies made the journey back to the Benham area in Harlan County that they had scouted and set up on an old abandoned logging road at 2,400 feet elevation. At that elevation, the weather is unpredictable bringing thick fog and rain, or it could be sunny and nice.
Six miles off a side road in coal country among a wood clearing, the hunters set up camp for the night. They arrived in 80-degree weather and woke up the next morning, after a horrendous rain and wind storm, to a low 40-degree temperature.
This would be the day Hammontree had long awaited despite the trouble of curious bears ripping apart the blind already set up. A little disappointed after hearing one of his friends had already killed a bear a mile away, he pressed on.
“By early afternoon, we see a bear coming from 70 yards away right through the meadow so we stop, and prepare to meet the bear head-on before it starts climbing a tree.”
The adrenaline kicked in.
“My heart’s pumping, I drew back and I shot 40 yards at it and he runs up into the woods. I’m now going into the woods, bow in hand, and found him sitting on the side of the hill,” he said.
He was unable to get a good shot before the black bear ran away but Hammontree made eye contact, “His eyes are coal black. They are emotionless creatures.”
Hammontree gets another chance when, hours later, he sees a patch of black suddenly appear, “My heart starts pumping, adrenaline is going again.” From around 25 yards, he draws back his bow and the string hits his jacket sending the arrow in an indirect path behind the bear. The bear even sniffs at the arrow before running off, too.
Finally, another 30 minutes pass and Hammontree spots another bear stepping right into the opening giving him a decent broad-side shot, one that he says will dispatch the animal humanely with a quick, clean kill.
“I shot the bear. It runs 20 more yards, stops, turns around, and looks at me,” Hammontree describes. “I shoot it again at 40 yards and from that point, the bear shoots up into the woods.”
He and his buddy began blood trailing the bear where eventually it ran out.
“My heart sinks, I lost my first bear,” he reminisces, adding that the duo pressed on yet again where they ultimately found it.
“Boom! There was my bear laying there,” he said, “A perfect black bear with a white V of fur on its neck, which is really rare in bears.”
“By the time we got the bear back to camp and Fish and Wildlife came out for hair and tooth samples, it was 1 a.m.” Molars are taken from the bears to check the age of the bears after being killed. Hammontree’s first bear was around two years old and weighed just under 150 pounds.
There is a variety of bears out in that area and Hammontree said he has seen bears well over 600 pounds.
Battling torrential rains to morning frost from the cold, he said they heat with a variety of things including a Marine Corp surplus wood stove in the tent and pieces of leftover coal from the terrain to burn through the night to stay warm. In the night, it isn’t uncommon for them to hear the immense roaring while bears fight for territory.
“I’ve always been a die-hard bow hunter,” he added, “I love the challenge of hunting with a bow far more than the sureness of hunting with a rifle.”
Hammontree reflected on his time in Harlan County and the opportunity he was afforded years ago.
“The people of Harlan County were a welcoming and genuine bunch,” he said. “The down-to-earth personalities out there left a tremendous impression on us and how they took us in and treated my kids and I like family.”
Carrying on traditions
While Hammontree may not have had that mentor in his younger days, he now believes in the importance of carrying on the hunting traditions.
“I carry on the tradition of hunting with my kids, I always have, because the kids are our future in every aspect of life, they just are,” he said. “If we don’t pass on the knowledge of who we are and what we do, everything is going to be lost.”
He shared each of his children’s first hunting kills emphasizing that teaching them at an early age the ins and outs including hunting safety and protection. Ultimately, his children, whom he shares with his wife, Missy, still enjoy hunting and each has their own preferred ways of doing it.
Hunting is also a way to connect with nature and a reminder of where we came from, an aspect he said makes hunting a much more enjoyable activity.
Hammontree explained, “I think we are getting away from our core values of what makes us who we are. Everything in life eventually changes, but some things don’t have to change, but instead, be ingrained in us.”
“When mankind started, we were hunters pure and simple,” he added, “if it weren’t for hunting, none of us would be on earth.”
In modern times, it may seem easier to run through McDonald’s for a Big Mac or the grocery store, but we have become disconnected from where food really comes from.
“As hunters, we know where our food comes from. We know at one point that animal was a living, breathing creature that gave itself up for us,” Hammontree explained. “So we carry on those traditions because if we don’t remember our traditions, they’re gonna be lost through the sands of time.”