I was absolutely exhausted. Initially, we'd followed the hounds by truck for several hours, paralleling a deep, brush-choked southwestern Oregon canyon. They were running a black bear, and we were trying to keep track of them and figure out where they'd eventually end up. When my guide, Dave Handrich, made that determination, we parked the truck, jumped out and took off on foot. That's when the rain began—a freezing, sleety mess on the heels of 2 days of wet, heavy snow. The ground and flora were saturated and slippery as an oil slick.
Moving as fast as we could, we reached the elevation that we thought the dogs were on and cut hard left. It was tough going, and it took us hours to finally catch up with the dogs.
The hounds had done their job. Up the tree was a dandy boar, the dogs yapping and barking around the tree trunk as they kept him in place. Handrich carefully looked the bear over and decided this was, indeed, a darn nice one. As his son moved in to leash the hounds, I readied my old battered pre-'64 Model 70 Winchester bolt-action rifle and moments later we were dragging my bear—a 350-pound boar with a flawless, luxurious hide—out to the road. When it was all said and done, I was more spent physically than I'd been on my last wilderness backpack hunt for elk.
That was back in the fall of 1984, when I was much younger and much tougher than I am today. It was also my first bear with hounds.
Hound Hunting Today
Sadly, the days of running black bears with hounds in Oregon are long gone, eliminated by foolish legislation enacted more than a decade ago pushed by anti-hunting groups who painted the practice as unsporting and inhumane. In fact, hunting black bears with hounds is only allowed in 17 states. Out West, these include Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, New Mexico and Utah, as well as British Columbia.
I've done a fair bit of hunting with hounds over the years, pursuing everything from black bears and mountain lions to wild hogs, and I have to tell you, it's anything but unsporting, and it certainly isn't a slam dunk. Unless you're hunting with someone who loves the game and owns a well-trained pack of hounds, and unless you're in good physical shape, it can be extremely difficult.
Out West, houndsmen cover massive amounts of country seeking fresh bear sign. They do this in pickup trucks, on horseback and sometimes on snow machines if an early fall or late-spring snow has fallen. To keep the strike dogs from wearing themselves out, they're often positioned in the open bed of the truck or on top of their dog box, where they can smell a bear as the vehicle is slowly driven along backcountry roads. If you've never been around hounds, you'll be amazed at how well they can pick up a scent from the truck bed.
When the hounds smell a bear they bark loudly. The houndsman will then stop the truck and look for fresh bear tracks. In this manner he can be very selective about the size of bear he runs. Dave Handrich passed on several small bears during the week we hunted together before turning the dogs loose on the bear I eventually killed.
A chase can last anywhere from a few minutes—as rare as a four-leaf clover—to several hours. During the chase, the houndsman will attempt to stay within hearing distance of his dogs. Once the bear has been treed or bayed up, the dogs will change the pitch of their barking. The houndsman recognizes this, and then takes the hunter in to where the dogs, and the bear, are.
All sorts of things can happen during the chase. The dogs can run out of earshot, or they can lose the bear. The bear might double back over the road, and the houndsman might turn a couple of fresh dogs on him. Generally speaking, as a client it's your job to stay out of the houndsman's way and keep up when the chase is on.
The object is to get the bear up a tree, where you can move into position in a controlled manner for a shot without fear of the bear running off again or engaging the dogs in a fight. When this happens, life is good, although occasionally bears don't like to stay treed and you have to be ready for anything. There are also times when the bear will simply not tree, and the dogs have to bay it up on the ground. This usually occurs in thick cover where visibility is often limited to a few yards. The hunter must then approach quietly from downwind, attempting to get a shot without the bear knowing he's there. Naturally, when the bear is on the ground, you have to be very careful that you don't shoot a dog by mistake, either with a miss, or a bullet or broadhead that passes through the bear.
Not all chases result in a treed or bayed bear. Bears, especially wise old boars that have been run by hounds before, have plenty of evasive tricks. They might swim rivers, ponds or lakes to erase their scent. They might walk logs across deep chasms or rivers, or backtrack their own trail. They might simply refuse to tree or bay up, instead swatting at the hounds as they continue on, eventually running the day out before the hunters can catch up. Just because the hounds have been turned loose is no guarantee of success.
One of the things that makes hound hunting so exciting and enjoyable is that the only sure thing is that something unexpected and unpredictable will happen. When success finally comes, it's a true team effort. That, and the joy of watching a pack of well-trained hounds work and seeing how they bring a sense of pride and accomplishment to a true houndsman's face, are the main reasons why I continue to follow the sound of the hounds.