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Hunting with hounds

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POSTED April 8, 2012 8:21 p.m.

The older I get, the faster that time seems to fly. It seems like only yesterday that I was chasing my first bear in the woods near Hoopa. It’s hard to believe that it’s now been over 35 years ago. Last fall my son Donald and I were once again out in the woods running after bears. Without a doubt the best way to catch a bear is to use trained hounds. While it may sound like it’s a simple matter to just shoot a bear once the hounds have treed him, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Hunting with hounds is a uniquely American tradition. I recall visiting George Washington’s Mount Vernon and discovering that the Father of Our Country and many of his contemporaries were houndsmen. Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry all hunted with hounds and today’s hound fanciers are passing that tradition on to future generations.

When you begin your bear hunt you cruise endless miles of backwoods roads in a pickup that’s heavily modified just for bear hunting. The easiest clue to recognizing a bear hunter’s truck is the dog box in the truck bed. It usually holds 4 to 6 bear hounds and has a platform on top of it so that 2 to 4 dogs can ride on top of the box. Fanatical bear hunters glue indoor/outdoor carpet to the hood of their truck and then affix an eyebolt on each side. Then two more dogs are leashed to the hood of the truck as well. As you drive along at about 2 miles per hour the dogs sniff the air constantly for bear scent. The noses on bear hounds are nothing short of amazing. Imagine yourself walking across town to the local shopping center. Now imagine that 2 or 3 days later a good dog can smell your scent and trace your exact route. That’s kind of how it works with bears.

The key is to search and search until you find a fresh scent that’s only a few hours old. The dogs get all excited and begin to bark in anticipation. You get out and examine the ground for fresh tracks, or even better yet for steaming bear droppings. Upon finding a fresh track the dogs are released and the work begins. If the bear goes down the canyon, so do the dogs and so do you. If the bear runs over the next ridge, so do you. You run and run until you think you’re gonna drop, and then you run some more. I have observed very few fat bear hunters. Sometimes you get lucky and tree a bear within a few hundred yards. More often than not, they run until you’re exhausted, and then they "tree.” As you approach the treed bear, after running 5 miles your heart is pounding and your gun is bouncing up and down with your heartbeat. You take a close look at the bear and find that he is too small for that rug you wanted or that his coat is all mangy or the wrong color. So you gather up the dogs and trek back to the truck to start over. Eventually you find a bear that looks just right.

Sometimes the bear doesn’t co-operate and comes down the tree into the middle of frantically barking dogs. That’s when you discover how crazy bear hunters really are. They care more about their dogs than they do about their own safety. The houndsman will jump without hesitation into the middle of a bear and dogs fight to save their dogs. They wade right in and begin pulling dogs off a highly agitated bear. You can always tell if you’re talking to a real houndsman when he begins to roll up his sleeve (or pants leg) to show you his scars. Another indicator is when he takes out his glass eye, or shows you the teeth marks on his gunstock. That’s a real bear hunter.

A piece of really good advice is never to shoot a large bear unless he’s uphill from the truck. Anyway you slice it, dragging a big bear uphill is hard work. It is vital to get your bear cleaned and skinned immediately so that the meat doesn’t spoil. Get that bear to the butcher as soon as possible and you will enjoy some great eating all year long. Jake Berghorst at Austin Meat Service does a fantastic job with bear sausage as well as the steaks, roasts and chops. I have bear sausage at least once a week and bear steaks almost all year long.

If you don’t know a houndsman to assist you or you want to learn more about how to get started in hunting California bears, you should plan to attend the big houndsman's dinner this year in July. Tickets are usually about $40 a person and all the money goes into conservation of bears and their habitat. There are great auction items and raffle prizes and the food and camaraderie are great. I’ll be there and bidding on one of the great guided bear trips. For ticket information see your local gun shop or Google the California Houndsmen for Conservation.

Until next week,

Tight Lines

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