Monday, November 23, 2015

Going to the Dogs, Hounding Bear with Spaulding Lake Outfitters

The echoing chorus of the pack, suddenly fractures the early morning silence and the chase is on. My heart rate quickens as the howls of the excited hounds reaches crescendo, indicating they are hot on the trail of a bruin. Early game camera pictures had indicated that a bear well in excess of 200 pounds had been a regular visitor to this bait site and I hoped the hounds were on his track.

As the sounds of the hounds begin to grow distant, I wander over to the guide to examine his handheld GPS dog tracking unit. A true marvel, the GPS unit is capable of tracking the movements of each individual dog, as well as indicating when a dog is sitting (resting) or has treed a bear. Given the massive size of the territory we are hunting, I cannot fathom how difficult hounding must have been before these units and their predecessors radio collar telemetry were created. How a hound man ever recovered his dogs after chasing a bear across this massively expansive country must have required a Herculean effort. Watching the hounds give chase to the bear on the small screen is addictive. The track of the hounds is overlaid on a detailed topographical map and shows the bear following streams and crawling through cedar bogs in an effort to evade the rapidly advancing hounds.

As the hounds chase the bear toward another accessible road, the guide shouts that we need to roll and in seconds we begin rocketing down the gravel backroad in an effort to cut off the bear. We arrive at the location, shut off the truck and quietly wait and watch the GPS tracker. "Bear should be on top of us any second", says the guide. My adrenaline surges as I intently watch the woods for movement. A minute passes and suddenly I see something moving through the bushes toward us at a great rate of speed. The animal erupts from the spruce thicket and instead of a bear, it's lead dog Nash. Nash blows by me without even a look, wild on the hot scent of bear. "Must have just missed him crossing", says the guide "let's catch the trailing dogs, throw them in the truck and replace them with fresh dogs".

Maine law only allows 6 dogs be used at a time be to chase a bear and so several hounds wait impatiently in the back of the truck for their chance to join the chase. The trailing dogs, despite being hot and thirsty, don't want to quit the chase and whine incessantly when placed back in the truck. The fresh dogs, now released, charge into the underbrush, eager to join their friends at the party. The fresh dogs rapidly catch the lead dog and soon I see on the screen that all of the dogs have stopped, their icons all indicating that they are placing their paws on a tree or looking up, a sure sign a bear is treed.

"850 yards", says the guide and I begin thinking this will be easy. As I step into the forest, however, I see that this journey is going to be anything but "easy". Tangled alder bogs, spruce thickets, blow downs and all sorts of woodland challenges stand in our way and as the temperature soars, I know this is going to be an adventure. We move slowly, methodically watching our footing and taking care to avoid mechanical injury. After about an hour, the once distant howls of the hounds have grown to high intensity. Through the thick underbrush, I can see the hounds and as we edge closer, I can see the black outline of a large bear about 35 feet up a large pine tree.

The massive bear, to my surprise, appears comfortable and almost relaxed sitting on his high perch, seemingly unconcerned at the commotion occurring at the base of the tree. As we nudged closer, the guide warns that despite the bears lasai fair attitude, I should not be lulled into complacency. A bear's actions can be erratic and a treed animal can rapidly develop a change of temperament the moment it begins to feel threatened.

I slowly pull up my weapon of choice for this expedition, a small video camera, and begin recording the event. It's exciting, fascinating really to be this close to a black bear if this size. While I enjoy hunting bears with a firearm, this day we are not hunting, instead we are training dogs for the upcoming bear hounding season. Even absent of a fatal end for Mr. Bear, I am relishing the opportunity to be involved in this spectacle. The guide asks me to stand back and one at a time he begins pulling the excited hounds off the base of the tree, tethering each in turn to a nearby tree. As the guide starts to pull the last dog, he warns that the bear will likely descend rapidly, seeing his chance to escape. I back up a few additional yards and while I keep video taping with my left hand, my right hand instinctively drops to rest on the grip of my .357 Magnum.

As soon as the guide pulls the last dog, the bear slides down the tree and rockets into the underbrush faster than a person can blink. The bears movement is so unnaturally fast, that it makes you realize how quickly this situation could go bad, if not for the experience of a professional hounds man, his aggressive hounds and a little luck. As the bear races off, the hounds again go crazy, wanting, no needing to do that one amazing thing they were bred to do, give chase.

The walk out is again tiring, dragging out the obstinate dogs but I also relish that my back is not also loaded with 150 pounds of de-boned bear meat and hide. Upon reaching the truck, we box the hounds and enjoy a quiet lunch. The dogs, finally accepting that the chase for today is done, peacefully drink water and settle down in the hay to nap. Tired but elated, by the entire experience, I began to ponder how fun it would be for others, both hunter and non-hunter to participate in such a traditional hunting method as the running of the hounds.

I think that no matter how you feel about hunting, everyone should at least participate this event at least once in their lives. Special thanks to Jeff Fey of Spaulding Lake Outfitters for allowing me to join hums and his rambunctious hounds on an adrenaline packed morning in Maine's wild lands. If interested in joining Spaulding Lake Outfitters for the 2016 season to run bears with hounds or hunt bears with hounds or over bait, be sure to give Jeff Fey a call!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Hunting Whitetails from Ground Blinds

Author with 8-Point Buck from 2014 Maine Deer Season
As I “mature”, I am less and less interested in deer hunting from elevated tree stands. While these devices allow a hunter to climb high into the tree canopy, well out of the visual range of most whitetails, what they don’t provide is security and comfort, two items that have become more and more critical as I have gotten older. Perhaps the greatest benefit of a ground blind is that a hunter is on the ground, there is no need to wear a safety harness, chance a fall or be afraid to take a mid afternoon nap.

When a hunter pairs a blind with a folding camp chair, one elevates their deer hunting to a whole new level of safety and comfort. Modern day ground blinds come in a wide variety of models that are lightweight, portable and can accommodate between 1-6 hunters. These blinds are constructed of wind blocking fabric that not only keep a hunter warmer but also helps confine a hunter’s scent within a small area.

Some of the more expensive blind models are even waterproof and do a fine job of keeping a hunter dry throughout a long rainy afternoon. Ground blinds have the added benefit of allowing a hunter to be mobile and flexible on where they plan to hunt. Ground blinds do not require hunters to locate a suitable tree, allowing for easy setups on field edges, power lines, clear cuts and other areas where tree growth won’t support a ladder or climbing tree stand.

Because ground blinds will be in direct view of an approaching deer, it pays to either put the blind out a few days before hunting or make sure that the blinds are blended well into their surroundings by covering them with cut brush and foliage. Also, even though some blinds are constructed of scent blocker material, care should still be taken to ensure blinds are setup downwind of the predominant wind direction for the hunting area.

Hunters wishing to pack light can quickly construct ground blinds onsite by utilizing dead branches and camouflaged burlap cloth. If these blinds are constructed on land where hunters have secured permission, the blinds can even be left up for the entire season or multiple seasons of use. On my private property, I have constructed rugged deer blinds out of freight pallets that I use season after season. After deer season is complete, ground blinds serve as a great way to stay warm throughout the winter while hunting coyotes.

Some people even use their ground blinds as ice fishing shacks, just be sure to strongly stake them to the ice so they don’t blow away! Pursuing whitetails Down East may require sitting in a blind for long periods of time. Even when hunting from a ground blind with a good quality chair, sitting relatively motionless for hours can get uncomfortable. Aleve, also know as sodium naproxen is an over-the-counter pain reliever that provides temporary relief of minor aches and pains and also really helps deer hunters from being fidgety when their back, legs and neck starts to ache after sitting for long periods of time.

Also, wearing loose fitting clothing, letting out a few belt notches or wearing one piece hunting clothing similar to coveralls allows for better blood circulation and added comfort. Allen Heath (Delorme’s The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (MAG), Map 25, A-2) and Beech Hill Heath (Map 25, B-3) located in close proximity to Pleasant River Lake (Map 25, A-2) contains wide open expanses of open timber, clear cuts and blueberry barrens, perfect for hunting whitetails using ground blinds.

In my travels around Down East this summer, I was impressed with the amount and quality of deer sign that seems to be beginning to return to the woods. While the population is still struggling, I would not be surprised if this season harvest numbers, in Washington County, are higher than previous years. For those sportsmen looking to increase their odds, get off the roads and into the woods!

While heater hunting is a popular pastime in Washington County, big bucks will be going nocturnal and pushing well off the beaten path as soon as hunters begin entering the woods on November 1st. For those hunters looking for an adventure and big racks, I suggest exploring the northern most reaches of Washington County and visiting Danforth (Map 45, B-3) and the spider web of unimproved roads around Stetson Mountain (Map 45, C-2), Howard Ridge (Map 45, C-3) and Hays Bog (Map 45, C-3). While these areas don’t hold lots of deer they do hold big deer and during a visit, be sure to check out the deer harvest sheet in the Danforth country store to verify what hunters are pulling out of the local woods!
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