Monday, August 6, 2018

Bear Hunting With Hounds

The echoing chorus of the pack, 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 particular bait site and I hoped the hounds were on his track. 

As the sounds of the hounds 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 predecessor’s radio collar telemetry were created. How a hounds man ever recovered his dogs after chasing a bear across this 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 top of 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 the 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 also 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 apparent relaxed 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 the least bit 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. 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 videotaping 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 bear’s 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 guide, 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 with hounds, everyone should at least participate this event at least once. Ducks, ruffed grouse, woodcock or even bear, a sportsman’s hunting experience is always enrichened when spent in the company of a dog. 

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