Release the Hounds
Hound hunting has been around going back as long as 20,000 years ago and who knows how long we’ve considered this canine as “man’s best friend.” Dogs have been used for protection, hunting, searching, herding, companionship, and so much more. Hunting with dogs is something I wasn’t familiar with. Ever since I was little and watched “The Fox and The Hound” I’ve always felt a sense of sadness for the animals that were “run down” by dogs. And let’s not forget the terrifying scene where Bambi has to save Faline from the evil and vicious hounds as they try to rip her apart! I’d actually never really given hound hunting a thought. I wasn’t sure I really liked the idea. I was never raised with hunting dogs and had very few experiences with bird dogs.
I've had the opportunity in the past to go along on hunts with dogs for bears and mountain lions, but I always made up excuses about why I couldn't go. I completely avoided the subject because I had not really decided how I felt about it. I had mostly heard the opinions of others and they typically were not very good. I had been told horror stories about dogs getting killed, owners not treating their dogs well, animals being cornered as a sport, or every animal ever treed being killed. One day, someone reminded me that I should try it before judging it. I didn't necessarily feel like I was judging it, rather, not picking a side one way or the other because I didn't understand it or know enough about it.
I met a hound hunter that offered to take me out for spring bear. We’d made a deal: he’d run his dogs for me and I’d let him shoot the “blonde” black bear I currently had on my bait. Where he was from, all they had were the jet black bears, some even with that gorgeous white patch I liked so much!
Traveling several hours after work to a town I hadn’t been to in years, I grabbed a hotel that night. Up bright and early, I headed out to meet the hound hunter. As I walked up I could see him out with a few of the dogs to feed them and stretch their legs. As I approached, official introductions were made. I’ve been around working dogs my entire life and definitely felt a little cautious approaching the dogs as he introduced us. There were some sweethearts in the group and we were friends right away. Loaded up, we headed out! I was so excited, I mean, after all, it is hunting! There was one stipulation for our trip, if we came across a blonde bear it was his and I had no problem with that whatsoever. After all, I was the guest on this trip and they were his dogs, plus I preferred the jet black bears!
He hadn’t hunted this area either, so it was all new to both of us. As we headed up the dirt road he was explaining to me how the collars work and told me more about the dogs. The elevation was steep and the terrain was cut out by sharp cliffs towering above us. We made a turn off the main road. I was already scanning the area for any trace of a bear. According to him, the area had a dense bear population, however, it would be hit or miss if we’d hit a scent trail or not. It seemed like we hadn’t even been driving for ten minutes when I noticed movement above us on the hillside, not 50 yards from the road. It was so bright the sunlight was beaming off it, making it glow! “Bear,” I said. He looked at me and told me I was joking, even as I was already handing him his rifle, “No, Holy SH*T BEAR!!!!!” With a look of doubt, he looked at where I was pointing. Sure enough, the most gorgeous blonde-colored bear was running across the hillside towards us. The truck came to a sudden halt and he bailed out to run ahead and get a clear shot as it ran behind a couple of trees. Unable to make a shot he came running back and started instructing me to grab the dog collars in certain colors as he ran to the back of the truck. I stood there like an idiot! We hadn’t even talked about what to do if we actually came across a bear! Snapping out of it, I ran for the collars and met him at the back of the truck. He called the dogs out one at a time and placed a GPS tracking collar on each one. He told me to “get up that hill!”
I was confused, we have dogs and you want me to RUN up that hill?! Being out of shape and having a history of asthma, I wasn’t too keen on the idea; this girl needs a warm-up first! He told me again to start running up the hill and call the dogs up to me. “Here goes nothing,” I thought as I started going up. After all, he is the hound hunter and knows what to do. I turned back and began calling the dogs to get them to follow me. If you could have only seen the look on their faces, and how excited they were. I got one look and they looked back at their handler as if to say “are you serious, you want us to take orders from her?” I called and called but they wouldn’t budge. He had to run halfway up to where I was to get them to finally agree to go to me. I guess the dogs and I weren’t as close right out of the gate as I thought. It was so steep I was crawling on my hands and feet to keep from sliding down and losing the small amount of progress I was making. Being out of breath was an understatement and I was quickly burning out!
Then I heard it for the first time. That clear raspy bay echoed through the canyon. It was beautiful and sent chills down my spine. The dogs were off and hot on the trail leaving me in the dust. Completely out of breath and wheezing, I hit the dirt and rolled onto my back trying to catch my breath. I thought, what did I just get myself into? We weren’t even into the first thirty minutes and I was already exhausted! The sound of the dogs got farther away wrapping around the ridge. The handler reached me, I’m sure I was quite the pathetic sight to see lying there. No doubt he was probably already having regrets about taking me if I couldn’t even sprint up the mountain a couple of hundred yards. Heading back down to the truck, we went to see where they were headed. He predicted the bear would run the back side of that ridge and potentially cross the road ahead of us. If that was the case we had to be ready to potentially have a shot. Unfortunately, we’d just missed them, the bear had crossed the road and the creek, heading straight up the next mountain. It was fascinating watching them on the GPS while hearing them off in the distance. The bear made a big loop so we rushed back to try and get a glimpse of the chase.
Parked off the side of the road staring up at the mountain they were on I just remember thinking to myself “please, please, PLEASE don’t tree it up there. There is no way I’m going up there!” I’d never really hunted in terrain like this before. The hillside was covered in steep cliffs that seemed to tower to the sky. Then I hear, “they're treed up.” Not understanding what that meant for us, he explained to me that the dogs had the bear treed and showed me on the GPS. “So, what does that mean exactly?” He calmly said, “We go to them.” I looked up at that mountain, with what I’m sure was a look of terror on my face. He’d even offered me an out and said I could stay at the truck if I wanted. But there was no way I was going to wuss out.
We crossed the very large creek and made our way up to the very top of the cliffs. Surviving the climb, I could hear the baying getting louder and louder. I started thinking to myself “holy crap this is ACTUALLY going to happen!” I was about to see my first bear treed, and up close! We were 200 yards from the dogs according to the trackers. All we had to do was climb up to the top of the ridge. We were so close my adrenaline and excitement rose quickly. Then it started to get quiet. He quickly looked at the tracker and they were on the move again. We took off running up to the top as fast as we could. The dogs had lost the bear in the cliffs and couldn’t pick up the trail again. So he called them off and we made our way back down to try again.
Throughout the day, I watched as he placed certain dogs on top of the truck and watched them work. Constantly sniffing the air, as to not leave a single breath go to waste, eagerly searching. We hit what felt like every road without another hit. One of the young dogs in training happened to squeeze out of the box and bailed out after a squirrel! Not what she was supposed to do, however quite comical to watch as the handler tried to get her back. She was pretty proud of herself!
The next leg of the journey was in a different area near my bait. For those of you who don’t know wolves have been a serious threat to hound dogs, or any dogs for that matter. I’d done my research and called Fish & Game to make sure there weren’t any packs in the area. After confirming that the area was “clear” we headed out again. We hit a trail right out of the gate and off we went. Watching the GPS they’d once again treed a bear so we started making our way to that spot.
Then something very odd started to happen as we watched the GPS screen...the dogs began to scatter. This was a very odd thing according to him and not like his dogs to just leave a treed bear. We began the task of hiking and gathering all of the dogs. Over four hours, we collected all but one, his seasoned lead female. We could see on the GPS that she would go about 50 to 100 yards and stop for a bit. We assumed she was just taking a nap when she stayed in the same spot for a while. We got as close as we could in the truck, then continued on foot. As we made our way up the ridge, we noticed a lot of wolf tracks. We have wolves, but this was a lot of tracks!
We were about 500 yards from her and began yelling her name. 300 yards, more calling, and nothing. My gut sank and things began to feel panicked. 50 yards, nothing. It was an all-out sprint towards her location calling out her name. We found her. It was a sight I’d heard about but never experienced. She was gone and had been killed. As I began to look around this beautiful area