September 05, 2023
When the mud-spattered Toyota stopped at the end of the gravel road, I slid out and strode to the edge of a clearing that had most likely been a log landing in the recent past. The ground dropped off quickly beyond the crushed stone and scattered bark fragments, and below me stretched a vast forest of pine towering above thick, green undergrowth. A soft wind swayed the branches of the trees at the edge of the landing, and I caught my breath when the breeze delivered the faint yet unmistakable sound my ears had been straining to hear.
A bark, a bawl … somewhere down in there—way down in there—the hounds were still on the trail.
I turned around to get the attention of the guys in the truck and, excited to hear proof that the race was on, pointed in the direction of the sound. It was a needless gesture. Casey Hileman, the owner of the hounds and a guide with Table Mountain Outfitters, had been watching his pack's progress on a Garmin GPS handheld unit since the dogs had picked up the bear's scent more than an hour before. He knew exactly where each of his dogs were, if not where the bear was going to take them.
Good thing, too, because even though my friend Brian Lynn, vice president of the Sportsmen’s Alliance and an avid bear hunter, hopped from the truck and joined me to listen, neither of us caught the sounds of the hounds again. Brian just shrugged. "And that’s why we have GPS," he quipped. "Could you imagine trying to keep track of dogs out here without it?"
I couldn't. In the 80 minutes or so that the hounds had been trailing the bear, they'd covered more than six miles. The terrain was seemingly straight up and down in some spots, and innumerable snarls of deadfall and brush covered the forest floor. The hounds, hunters themselves in top form, were a lot better at traversing this country than us. They would give their all to their job—run the bear up a tree or hold it at bay on the ground—no matter how far they would have to chase it first. Being softer and slower of foot (I say that with no disrespect to my hunting partners) we had to resort to technology to stay in the race.
With each hound wearing a collar having a GPS receiver, we monitored the track of every dog in real time on the handheld. Having spent years training his dogs and hunting bears with them in the wilderness of southwestern Idaho, Hileman could study the icons on the handheld screen and visualize what was happening on the front lines based on the speeds and directions of the hounds transmitted to the screen. He knew when dogs were within sight of the bear, "looking at it," and when dogs had lost the trail. After another 20 minutes, it seemed as though this first race of the morning was leaning toward the latter.
"I don't think they have it anymore," Hileman said. "They're spread out and heading in different directions. Let's go see if we can pick them up. There's a road that will get us pretty close."
In the truck we made a winding descent, took a turn and soon the handheld showed us we were within a couple hundred yards of the hounds, which were moving in our general direction. It looked like they were still seeking the scent of the bear, but Hileman knew it was over.
"Rooster! Rooster! Rooster!" he shouted out the window to one of the hounds. "Clancy, here! Here dogs, come on dogs!"
The pack heeded his call, though judging by the hounds' expressions when they emerged from the timber, it was clear they didn't want to call it quits. Hileman loaded each one into the large dog box spanning the bed of his truck, and we were off to try to strike another bear. In this rough and immense forest, treeing or baying one—let alone getting a shot—would be far from guaranteed.
IN DEFENSE OF DOGS
Idaho is one of only a handful of states that permits hunting black bears in spring with hounds. The season, and dates during the season when hound hunting is allowed, vary by unit. Generally speaking, Idaho’s spring bear season opens in early April and ends in late June, with hounds permitted for most of that time in the majority of units.
Baiting is also permitted in most Idaho units during the spring. Table Mountain Outfitters employs a combination of both techniques to put hunters onto bears.
"Bait sites really serve two purposes for us," Scott Denny, who owns and operates Table Mountain Outfitters (TMO) with his wife, Angie, explained to me during my hunt with TMO last June. "We run bait sites to pattern bears for hunters who want to sit for them, and the sites that are being hit by bears give us a place to start the dogs. Normally we'll run dogs in the morning and hunters will sit on bait in the evening."
Both are effective methods of hunting bears and managing their populations in the expansive Idaho forestland where TMO operates its spring camp. With millions of steep acres covered in timber, it would be difficult to consistently locate bears—even with hounds—if there were nothing to encourage bears to establish a pattern.
Baiting and hound hunting, however, are criticized by those who do not understand the methods. Much of the misguided negativity toward the techniques stems from anti-hunters looking to drive a wedge between specific groups of sportsmen. Unfortunately, some hunters only help the antis’ cause by condemning methods of take that they subjectively view as unfair.
"Hunters are sometimes their own worst enemies," noted Lynn as we discussed the criticism often directed at hound hunting and baiting for black bears. "The antis recognize this and are always quick to use it against us. When they can get hunters to disagree on something, it only gives them more reason to influence public opinion and seek a ban. Wayne Pacelle [former president and CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S.] said it point blank: 'We are going to use the ballot box and the democratic process to stop all hunting in the United States. We will take it species by species until all hunting is stopped in California. Then we will take it state by state.'"
As the head of communications and marketing efforts for the Sportsmen’s Alliance, Lynn said that he is all too familiar with the tactics employed by extremists at the federal, state and agency levels to end hunting. In his home state of Washington, animal-rights activists banned bear hunting with bait and hounds by a ballot initiative in 1996. They did the same in Oregon two years before.
Anti-hunters also tried the ballot initiative approach to end hounds and bait in Idaho in 1996, Lynn pointed out. The Sportsmen’s Alliance was a major financial contributor in the battle leading up to the vote, helped to educate Idaho citizens on the facts of bear hunting and provided fundraising consulting to garner the means needed to spread the truth among the public. Voters resoundingly rejected the measure, and bear hunting as Idahoans know it was preserved.
But the fight isn’t over, noted Lynn. Hound hunting remains under attack in every state where it is legal, and anti-hunters are becoming increasingly furtive in their tactics. For example, distorting animal-cruelty laws to apply to hound hunters, trainers and breeders is a current favorite strategy.
"They disguise overly restrictive laws pertaining to breeding, kenneling, tethering, selling and transferring dogs as ‘animal-cruelty’ laws," Lynn explained. "These hit hunters, especially houndsmen and bird dog hunters, really hard. They make it difficult for hunters to train and interact with working dogs in a constructive way."
As I’d see in the coming days, hound hunters like Hileman and the Dennys have nothing but respect, admiration and downright love for their dogs. They pour years of effort into training and take great pride in the partnership that forms between hunter and hound. And along with that, I’d soon realize hunting with hounds is one of the most physically demanding and ethical ways to pursue black bears.
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TREED IN NO TIME
After another couple turns on the gravel roads snaking their way through the pines, I was lost. Hileman, of course, knew exactly where he was going and pulled the pickup into a wide spot at the end of an old skid trail. He opened the dog box, and four hounds bounded out the door, quickly disappearing into the wet woods. Seconds later, they struck the scent of a bear, their bawls crashing like waves against the huge trees.
"Clancy’s got it," said Hileman a couple minutes later. "He’s really going now. He might be looking at that bear."
The guide started to head in the direction of his hounds, and I grabbed my rifle and followed. Unlike the morning's first race, this time the hounds' voices remained clear in my ears. The GPS showed they were less than 400 yards away, heading along the side of a hill and into a shallow drainage. I fought my way through briars and over rotting logs, trying to keep up with Hileman, slipping in the mud of the trail made slick by a light rain.
We hadn't hiked 10 minutes when the dogs’ long, deep bawls shifted to shorter, more excited chops. They were getting louder because they were no longer moving away from us. We were gaining on them. The hounds had stopped at a tree, and in that tree was a bear.
Moving down the hill, drawing closer to the ruckus, I was astounded by the size of the gigantic pine looming before me toward the bottom of the drainage. It made the hounds scrambling around its trunk look like brown and white ants. A couple smaller trees had fallen next to it, uprooted by wind, forming humps of tangled roots and branches. The dogs climbed all over the deadfalls, seeking to gain every inch that would put them closer to the bear.
"Good Clancy. Good dogs," said Hileman with the sincerity of a parent looking over a straight-A report card. "Good dogs."
The bear peered down from its perch 30 feet above the hounds, unimpressed by their performance. Even as the dogs clawed and jumped at the trunk and tried to climb it, the bear seemed smug in its knowledge that it was unreachable.
"That's not the one we want," said Hileman, looking up at a bear I judged to be about 100 pounds. "I had a feeling it was a small bear since it treed so quick, but sometimes I'm surprised. This one's got to grow up."
It was an example of how hound hunting allows for selectivity in the taking of a bear. When a bear is treed, hunters typically have all the time they want to judge the animal for maturity, size, condition of its coat and color. It also ensures female bears with young are not taken, which is prohibited in Idaho. If a shot will be fired, it can be taken deliberately, with plenty of time to use a solid rest, shoot from a stable position and wait for the ideal angle that guarantees a quick, ethical kill.
Hileman gathered the hounds and put them on leads to walk them back to the truck. They weren’t going to leave the tree any other way, but for now, their hunt was over. Even though Clancy was young “and can go all day, and day after day,” Hileman didn’t want to overwork him and the other hounds. They would get much-deserved rest during the afternoon and night.
HONOR AMONG HOUNDS
It didn't take long for the hounds to demonstrate their amazing noses the next morning. We were slowly driving down another gravel road, still sipping hot coffee left over from breakfast, when a chorus of bawls erupted from the boxes in the back of the truck. Their noses constantly working, Clancy and the gang had struck a bear from the road—not uncommon with good dogs. In fact, driving mountain roads with the air wafting through the dog box and across the hounds’ noses is a preferred way to cover ground without needlessly tiring dogs and hunters. The tiring part would come soon enough.
Hileman pulled the truck off the road and released the hounds. The race was on immediately, with the dogs’ voices quickly fading as they rushed downhill and over a low ridge. The area was covered in saplings, brush and other tangled vegetation that was over my head, but it didn’t slow the hounds one bit. They were off and running. "We have a bait down there," said Hileman. "The bear was probably on it when the dogs first struck. They’re looking at him right now."
The houndsman could sense the excitement in his dogs, and pressed into the damp surface of the road was further proof that the trail was hot. Fresh bear tracks told us the animal had just been here, and judging by the size of them, it was a nice one.
After the initial fade when the dogs plunged down the hill, the volume of their bawls remained consistent. Rather than taking a course that continued to lead away from the bait site, the bear had turned and was running a line roughly parallel to the road, maybe half a mile from our location. This went on for perhaps 20 minutes, and then the sound began to grow louder. The bear had made another turn and was heading toward us.
"Looks like the bear crossed back on its track," explained Hileman, watching the dogs’ route on the handheld. "It’s coming this way. Be ready to shoot."
Lynn and I walked the edge of the road, looking for an opening in the brush that would give us a better view downhill. The best we could find were small patches of vegetation about 75 yards away that were just a bit thinner than the surrounding growth. The dogs sounded like they were just out of sight, and as I scanned the brush on the slope below me, I caught a quick flash of black. It was the bear, and it was gone just as quickly as it had appeared. Seconds later a couple glimpses of the hounds showed me they were right behind.
The race then took another turn, heading downhill and away from the road again. The bear had most likely either seen or smelled us and was putting distance between itself and us once more. Judging by the sound of the dogs, the bear soon turned yet again, looping back toward the starting point of the race before making another change in direction that took it farther downhill. It ran another long, rough loop at that elevation before going straight downhill and leading the hounds almost out of hearing range.
It had been more than an hour since the hounds had first struck the trail, and Hileman decided to make a move. We jumped in the truck, watching the race on the handheld, and found a road that would take us downhill and put us closer to the action. After a couple mile drive, Hileman stopped and studied the GPS.
"We got a tree," he reported. "Let's see what we have."
According to the handheld, it was only about 300 yards from the truck to the tree with the bear. That was a straight-line measurement, however, and a ridge between us and the tree would triple that distance. The bottom portions of the ridge were covered in alders and briars, slowing our progress as we clawed our way to the top, over the spine and then down into a steep drainage where the bear had treed. The hounds' choppy barks urged us on, and after a half-hour of sweaty struggle we arrived at a huge pine holding a black mass in its branches 60 feet from the ground.
The pine grew straight out of the drainage bottom. Climbing the slope on the far side of the tree put us about 30 yards from the bear but less than 20 feet below it. We could clearly see this was a bear worthy of taking, and being all black, something of a rarity in an area known for its color-phase specimens.
After a race that had spanned more than two hours and led the hounds over nearly 10 miles of rough terrain, my shot was almost anticlimactic but certainly welcomed. As the report echoed down the drainage and over the ridge, the dogs rushed in to get their final licks at the bear. They would leave their hard-earned prize only when we snapped leads to their collars and pulled them away from the jet-black carcass.
Tied to nearby trees as we skinned and quartered the bear, the dogs continued to bark, adding to the atmosphere of satisfaction with a job well done. It was almost like they were congratulating me for being able to keep up with them.
- Tough, lightweight gear is key for hound hunting.
Hunting bears with hounds often demands hiking over rough, nasty terrain, because that’s where the bruins like to live. Shots will typically be short, less than 50 yards, and so this isn’t a hunt where a precision rifle with a heavy barrel and robust stock is needed. Accuracy, of course, is never a bad thing, and the Browning X-Bolt Speed Suppressor Ready ($1,429.99-$1,529.99; browning.com) provides it in a compact, lightweight package.
The rifle's fluted, sporter-contour, 20-inch barrel is threaded for a suppressor and comes with a muzzle brake. The composite stock keeps weight at less than 6 1/2 pounds and is available with Browning's Ovix camo finish. The Smoked Bronze Cerakote on the external metal surfaces resists corrosion and scratches from brush and rocks. The rifle I used on my Idaho hunt was chambered in 6.8 Western
and the 175-grain Long Range Pro Hunter load cleanly took a bear with one round.
The scope, too, requires some thought when hunting bears with hounds. Since shots will often be at close range, lower magnification is the ticket. Hunters need a bright scope with a reticle that stands out against black hide in shade and shadows. The Leupold VX-3HD 2.5-8x36 mm scope ($499.99; leupold.com) I mounted to the X-Bolt gave me a clear view of my target in the tree, and built on a 1-inch maintube, the optic was compact and balanced nicely with the rifle.
The scope’s Elite Optical System provides bright images in low light while reducing glare. The CDS dial gives hunters a quick way to adjust for longer shots if needed, such as while spot-and-stalk hunting. Above all, the VX-3HD is tough, which provides piece of mind should a hunter happen to fall while traversing tricky terrain (I know this from experience).
- This article was featured in the 2023 edition of HOUND Magazine, now on sale at newsstands until Nov. 13.