Earl grew up in the small community of Bonnerton on Durham Creek, attended Aurora High School, graduated from North Carolina State, was a U.S. Navy veteran, worked as Public Works Director for the City of Washington, N.C. and later as the Beaufort County Engineer. He married “Miz Helen,” who taught school in Beaufort County and later became the Beaufort County Reading Supervisor. They had one son, Carl, who later became acclaimed for his winning ways as an Ironman competitor on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Earl was a living legend in the eastern part of the state for his love of the outdoors and his efforts at wildlife conservation over the past years. He was a veteran of the Second World War where he served honorably as a Navy Sea Bee in the Pacific Theatre. He and his fellow Navy Sea Bee veterans were quite prominent in parades throughout the East where they had their special parade floats and helped to honor all military veterans on Memorial Day.
Earl was an expert small plane pilot that gained early notoriety for flying his two-seater down to the Outer Banks, spotting schools of red drum as they cruised the surf then landing on a nearby beach and fishing for them. Often Earl would invite his lifetime friend Woodrow Lewis to go along with him on one of these fly-in fishing forays to Ocracoke or Portsmouth Islands. If luck was with them and the plane flew well, they’d return to Earl’s private airstrip near Bonnerton and land with coolers of fresh fish for Miss Helen (Earl’s wife of many years) to fix for supper. Such flying fishing trips were not, however, without their share of mishaps.
On one trip to Ocracoke the wheels of Earl’s Piper Cub caught in the loose sand on the beach and the little plane nosed over on the sand. Earl and friends pushed it upright and examined the damage.
Everything looked “flyable” except for the propeller, which was beyond repair. Calling back home Earl had friends fly a spare prop to him on Ocracoke, replaced the broken prop and then returned to home base without further mishaps.
Another incident occurred when they were packing gear and fish into the plane to return to Beaufort County after a very successful Outer Banks trip. Woodrow Lewis tied the fishing rods to the struts of the plane as usual, secured the iceboxes full of trout and drum and took off. As they gained altitude Earl realized that he could hardly control the planes elevator at all. Glancing out the window Woodrow discovered that he’d forgotten to secure the line on one of the fishing reels attached to the strut and the loose line had peeled off the reel and fouled in the elevator rendering them nearly unusable. Not to worry. Flying by the “seat of his pants” Earl managed to land the plane on the beach where they unraveled the fishing line from the plane’s elevator and continued their flight home.
When the National Park Service took over the management of much of the Outer Banks they banned private planes from landing on the beaches ending this rather interesting practice of “flying beach buggys.”
This federal encroachment of a pilot’s “Flying Beach Buggys” rights did not, however, stop Earl’s love of flying.
“Miz Helen and son Carl gave Earl an 80th birthday gift of seaplane flying lessons. Earl passed the course with flying colors and received his seaplane pilot’s license. The Federal Aeronautics Administration later awarded the coveted Wright Brothers award to Earl or having had 50 years of accident-free piloting.
Most Tar Heels are well aware of the ongoing fracas between the deer hunters who use hounds and the hunters who like to still hunt.
You didn’t want to get into an argument with Earl n this subject because Earl was firmly on the side of the dog hunters. Legislators at the state or county levels who dared to threaten the rights of the dog hunters found themselves at odds with Earl who was a very active proponent of deer hunting with dogs (as well as the Down-Easterners right to hunt from the public roads).
When son Carl was a young teenager and becoming somewhat enamored with members of the opposite sex, Earl took him out for a hunt one morning near “Durham Creek International Airport.”
The rut was on and Carl’s chances of getting a nice buck looked good. Father and son watched the dirt road leading to the airstrip as a doe scrambled across like something was following her. “Get down there quick and wait quietly where she crossed,” Earl told Carl. Carl did as told and sure enough a few minutes later out jumped out a nice buck. Carl shot him and waited for his dad to come down and help him gut the deer. When Earl came up to congratulate his son the first words out of his mouth were, “Son, see what I’ve been telling you, chasing females like that deer was could be the death of you.”
Earl and Woodrow Lewis were great bunting buddies and were also friends of the late C.J. Overton who was the local game warden for the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. “C.J.” was a young warden who was on his way up with the Commission (later he became the Chief of Enforcement with the NCWRC) and quite anxious to make game law violators pay for their crimes. Earl and Woodrow were not above bending the wildlife rules in their younger years and would anonymously call C.J. and tip him off that there were violations taking place in one section of Beaufort County. When C.J. hurried to the reported section where these violations were supposedly taking place, Earl and Woodrow were busily hunting in the opposite direction.
Years later Earl actually helped C.J. by recommending him for the head game warden’s position.
To some youngsters Earl Bonner was the person they worshiped as their outdoor hero.
One young man tells the story of having had “Miz Helen” as his teacher at the Aurora school. This fellow went down to the old wooden Durham Creek bridge one Sunday afternoon to just look around (in those days many churches said that it was a sin to fish on Sunday) and was there as Mister Earl and Miz Helen showed up with a fly rod in Earl’s hand and a paddle in Miz Helen’s hands. “Darn,” the youngster thought, “Mister Earl is going to paddle his wife around and teach her to use a fly rod.”
When the two Bonners got into an old boat at the landing they started out with Earl on the fly rod up front and Helen, in the back, paddling the boat., the youngster states that Earl became his instant hero. “Any man that can have his pretty wife paddle the boat while he fishes is my kind of man,” he thought.
In recent years the recent studies of the black bear populations in the eastern counties found a strong backer in the person of Earl. The University of Tennessee wildlife biologists who were conducting most of these studies even had a couple of radio collard bears named “Little Earl” and “Big Earl.”
In the early years of the Twenty First Century Earl and his partner, the well-known quail hunter and bird dog trainer O.C. Bennett operated the Can’t Miss Shooting Preserve near Bayboro. For a number of years the two of them trained dogs and guided hunters of some great hunts on this land.
Many of today’s hunters and fishermen across North Carolina will remember Earl Bonner and his flying, fishing and hunting expeditions. He’s particularly going to be missed by the dog-hunting fraternity of hunters. We’ve lost a good friend.