Tooth & Nail: Bears & Hounds

The chase may be everything in the pursuit of bears with hounds, but the conclusion is far from anticlimactic.

"I do not know that I have had many interesting experiences, unless you include bear hunting on the list."Outdoor Life Online Editor

-Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt was on a horse when he charged up San Juan Hill, which had to have been a lot less steep than this one. I had only my shaky legs to propel me up the grade, and as I urged my body to pick up the pace, I could sense the early stages of revolt. Those legs were grumbling about a job action while the lungs were talking all-out strike. My vision was getting spotty and the pain in my side told me that some internal organ had already mutinied. After the last stumble, the pain in my good knee was sharp enough to make my overtaxed brain lose the protest filed by my bad knee. I was bleeding from myriad scratches and one pretty good cut on my left leg. Dehydration was arriving, and with breakfast only a faded memory, my energy reserves were on empty.

Just as shutdown was imminent, I saw the first dog running to greet us, and instead, I pushed a little harder. I reached the tree just as the big boar bailed out and scrambled down the hill, close enough for me to touch the dogs snapping at his flanks. He was a keeper, but I never gave the gun a thought. Instead, I collapsed at the base of the tree and tried to breathe. Nobody was saying much and the dogs could be heard barking hard as they faded to the east. The thought on everybody's mind-that it would be long after dark before any of us got dinner-would prove correct.

Bears are interesting critters, and I have hunted them just about every way that's legal. I've sat for hours over baits enduring clouds of blackflies sucking me into anemia; I've experienced the intensity of spot-and-stalk hunting; and I've even taken bears by accident while hunting deer.

I am not a patient man, however, and passive hunting is pure torture for me. Tree stands are to be endured only for the need to experience the outcome, and spot-and-stalk is a tough proposition in the thick New England terrain in which I live, with incredibly low success rates.

I much prefer active hunting: hunting where you are constantly doing something; hunting where things can happen fast; hunting where if things don't happen you can make them happen. Given a choice, I'll take hound hunting for bears any time it's offered.

That the man who led his "Rough Riders" up that hill in Cuba, took 296 head of big game in Africa, ran this nation for nearly eight years and explored some of the wildest country on the globe would nevertheless choose hunting bears as his sole "interesting experience," surprises me not a bit. He too hunted bears with hounds.

With this sport, uncertainty is the only constant, and what the chase will bring is always a mystery. On one hunt, a big old boar refused to tree, preferring instead to back up to a ledge and fight it out on the ground. He was doing a good job of winning the battle, too, which was causing no small amount of concern to the owner of the dogs. So the owner waded in to pry a dog or two off the bear. He figured he could open a close-quarters "shooting lane," allowing him to kill the bear with his .44 Mag. handgun. The bear didn't think much of the plan and showed his disdain by swatting the hunter with a paw, sending the man sprawling on his back. As the hunter tried to wrestle the pistol out of his holster, the bear closed in. Reflexively, the man kicked the bear, even as he pointed the gun and pulled the trigger.

That probably would have worked perfectlyÉif the bear hadn't bitten into the hunter's boot heel and held on. The 240-grain bullet killed the boar, but not until it had passed through the shooter's foot.

When they decide to fight, bears can wreak havoc on a pack of dogs. And these dogs are valuable-some worth nearly as much as a compact car. But beyond that, the owner thinks of them as family. The possibility of losing a dog alwa looms in the background, but it is, and must be, dealt with as an acceptable risk. Experienced hounds carry scars, and they wear them as proudly as medals earned in combat.

Old Bowie was bought on the spot as a youngster at the base of an Arizona tree with a big mountain lion in it. My friend Bill Ingalls was the purchaser, and he brought that dog back to Vermont and hunted him on bears and bobcats. One of the first bears Bowie chased taught him that there's a difference between bears and cats. The bruin caught Bowie's back leg in his jaws and bit the bone clean through. The vet said there was no hope and that the dog should be put down. But Bill, having witnessed just how tough Bowie was, refused. It took months, but together they healed the leg. It never was quite right and years later it was still crooked, but it worked.

Bowie was perhaps the finest strike dog I have ever had the pleasure of watching work. It never ceased to amaze me how from a perch six feet up in the back of the truck Bowie could pick up the scent of a bear that had crossed some back road hours before. Sometimes that scent would be too old to run, but I never knew him to make a mistake. I used to doubt him until I learned that if you looked hard enough you would find a bear track. I finally quit looking.

In addition to his lopsided stance, Bowie carried a huge knot on his ribs-put there by another bear-and incidental lesser scars. He looked like walking road kill. It would seem cruel to people who don't understand, but to a dog like Bowie any other life than battling bears, cats and the elements would have been no life at all.

Inevitably, he took on one too many bears, and a few years back, a claw punctured Bowie's stomach. He died a few days later-with a vet and Bill looking on in helpless admiration.

Some bears have a tendency to jump out of a tree when the hunters approach. But if a bear is going to bail out, he almost always gives some warning. He'll climb backward down the tree until he feels confident of the distance down and then will turn his head and shoulders away from the tree and leap, forelegs hitting the ground first.

Sometimes a fast hunter can sprint to the tree and chase the bear back up. I remember a hunt when we only wanted to photograph a sow. One hunter, fresh with the vigor of youth, ran at the tree. But he was too late. The bear had already committed, and when she turned to jump she landed with her forelegs squarely on the young hunter's chest. They collapsed into a screaming, scratching ball on the ground as the dogs piled on. The bear finally broke loose and took off into the surrounding swamp. With the soft ground, the hunter claimed to have hurt nothing more than his pride. He denied that he smelled funny, but that certainly wasn't the opinion of the rest of us.

Another time, a bear had backed into a deep cleft in a ledge to make his stand. The hunter went in to retrieve his dogs, and when the bear spotted the human it made a panic- fueled dash out of there. The hunter and dogs simply became speed bumps, serving only to slow the bear a little. The hunter exited with a perfect bear track etched in mud in the center of his shirt.

Beyond the excitement of confrontation, bear hunting with hounds is much more. To truly love it, you must also truly like dogs, hound dogs. You will learn the personalities of each dog, each one's way of working the trail, his unique bark and the changes in pitch that indicate when a bear is jumped or is treed.

Bear hunting is early mornings searching for a track to run as hot coffee tries to keep the cold at bay. It's the smell of autumn sharp in your nostrils, mixed with the subtle scent of impending snow. It's Nature throwing everything she has into a final blaze of beauty before winter snuffs it out.

It's hours spent just listening for the dogs. The miles of driving, walking and running trying to follow the chase. It's the time spent with good men who are, or will become, equally good friends. It's the lonely country you see, and the knowledge that you are seeing more than most people ever will. It's the unpredictable, often intense, weather of fall. And it's knowing that once you turn the dogs loose, there's no stopping until it ends.

It's finding bear sign that's fresher than the frost, and the prickle up your spine as the first dog opens up in full cry at a hot track. It's the music of the hounds as they run the bear and you stand completely still to listen, afraid that even the rustle of your jacket will hide something from you. It's the mood change that comes with late morning, tired and foot-sore, walking another mile along a beech ridge, trying to find the track you know isn't there.

But then a dog squeaks, just a little. His tail is going in that short, stiff, wagging motion that means something's about to happen, while his nose is vacuuming the ground almost in a panic and you turn him loose from the leash. He courses frantically back and forth for another little bit of what he thinks he smelled and now your feet don't hurt any more. All the gloom is gone as you listen in the direction he finally chooses.

Then it happens-a bark, followed by another. It's a cold trail, but Bowie's good. You turn Jake and Rosie loose to help out and before they are out of sight Bowie is shaking the woods with his bawling.

The bear is jumped! He was probably sleeping off a bellyful of beechnuts on the ledges just over the ridge.

There he is, charging through the hardwoods only yards away! There's no wasteful bounding to his run-that's a deer's technique to gain height and look for trouble, but a bear is trouble. He fears nothing except man, and he wastes no energy on anything but straight-ahead momentum. Back feet sweeping past his head, the bear lunges away from you.

Damn, they are fast! They almost never look it, but when you see how quickly they cover ground with a pack of dogs at their flanks, the image is startling. And the first time you see one fighting the dogs and witness the "hand speed" of a bear's paws and the quickness of their heads as they bite and snap at their pursuers, you know just how physically inferior you are.

He's gone so fast you begin to question if you ever really saw him, but the dogs confirm his presence. Many who have never hunted this way think that you simply light out after the dogs, following the chase until the bear is treed or bayed. No human I know is fast enough, or tough enough, to follow in that manner. Instead, like the bear, we rely on our strongest attribute-our intellect.

So you listen until they are out of range, and then, revved and excited, you sprint for the truck. Out come the maps and you try to prediing and running trying to follow the chase. It's the time spent with good men who are, or will become, equally good friends. It's the lonely country you see, and the knowledge that you are seeing more than most people ever will. It's the unpredictable, often intense, weather of fall. And it's knowing that once you turn the dogs loose, there's no stopping until it ends.

It's finding bear sign that's fresher than the frost, and the prickle up your spine as the first dog opens up in full cry at a hot track. It's the music of the hounds as they run the bear and you stand completely still to listen, afraid that even the rustle of your jacket will hide something from you. It's the mood change that comes with late morning, tired and foot-sore, walking another mile along a beech ridge, trying to find the track you know isn't there.

But then a dog squeaks, just a little. His tail is going in that short, stiff, wagging motion that means something's about to happen, while his nose is vacuuming the ground almost in a panic and you turn him loose from the leash. He courses frantically back and forth for another little bit of what he thinks he smelled and now your feet don't hurt any more. All the gloom is gone as you listen in the direction he finally chooses.

Then it happens-a bark, followed by another. It's a cold trail, but Bowie's good. You turn Jake and Rosie loose to help out and before they are out of sight Bowie is shaking the woods with his bawling.

The bear is jumped! He was probably sleeping off a bellyful of beechnuts on the ledges just over the ridge.

There he is, charging through the hardwoods only yards away! There's no wasteful bounding to his run-that's a deer's technique to gain height and look for trouble, but a bear is trouble. He fears nothing except man, and he wastes no energy on anything but straight-ahead momentum. Back feet sweeping past his head, the bear lunges away from you.

Damn, they are fast! They almost never look it, but when you see how quickly they cover ground with a pack of dogs at their flanks, the image is startling. And the first time you see one fighting the dogs and witness the "hand speed" of a bear's paws and the quickness of their heads as they bite and snap at their pursuers, you know just how physically inferior you are.

He's gone so fast you begin to question if you ever really saw him, but the dogs confirm his presence. Many who have never hunted this way think that you simply light out after the dogs, following the chase until the bear is treed or bayed. No human I know is fast enough, or tough enough, to follow in that manner. Instead, like the bear, we rely on our strongest attribute-our intellect.

So you listen until they are out of range, and then, revved and excited, you sprint for the truck. Out come the maps and you try to predi