By Dick Scorzafava
Bear Hunting Magazine
Mar/Apr 2012 Issue
I have been chasing big bears around North America for most of my life and I’ve had the good fortune to put a tag on a few big bruisers from time to time. My mission on this adventure was to help another hunter, Bill Dermody, harvest his first bear with the new Savage Arms model 16 Bear Hunter rifle. Over the last several years I have been able to help several friends put a tag on the bear of their dreams and that was really rewarding to me.
I met Bill while working with Savage developing the model 16 Bear Hunter rifle, and the talk just naturally turned to bear hunting. Bill had never been on a bear hunt before and wanted to give it a try. However, he was a bit apprehensive about undertaking this new experience. I gave Bill the option of hunting over a bait or following a pack of hounds. He chose hounds immediately, probably because he is not a patient man, and said he couldn’t sit quietly in a tree and wait for something to happen. He preferred to be actively engaged in the hunting experience and the excitement a hound hunt can bring.
Plans were made for a fall hunt featuring my good friend Scott York who operates Spruce Mountain Guide Service in Maine. Scott is a second-generation hound hunter who is also a logger, which means he spends most of his life in the woods. Between Scott, his brother and father they have developed some fantastic hounds that are fast, tough, extremely cold-nosed, have loud bawl/squall mouths and are just bear crazy. Hounds need to be very high-powered and be able to run in the roughest conditions day after day and not poop out or quit during a race.
I was excited because hound hunting has been a big part of my life for many years and I wanted to share this experience with Bill. As long as I’m able to walk the mountains and deep swamps in the bear woods, the fall will bring to me the smell of autumn and the sounds of hounds on the hot trail of a bear.
When Bill first arrived at camp he was anxious about his first bear hunt, especially after he listened to the old timers telling stories of bear encounters over dinner. You’re on a hunt, you have pumped yourself up, but you realize you’ve never hunted a bear before, let alone with hounds. You ask yourself if you’re crazy. Do you have a death wish? Will you be ready? These were the thoughts racing through Bill’s mind as he sat there having dinner with the crew.
We were up bright and early the first morning; loaded up the hounds and were off to check baits. It is legal in Maine to run your hounds off baits so Scott sets up many bait sites and installs Cuddeback scouting cameras on them. This takes all the guess work out of just rigging the hounds because you know exactly the size of the bear and what time the bear was at the bait.
The third bait we checked had been hit hard by a really good bear at 5:35 a.m. It was a bear that Scott had several other scouting camera images of over the last week. The bear was very identifiable because it seemed to have a large growth in the knee area on one of its rear legs.
Sometimes rigging is the best way to find a bear. On this hunt, checking baits and trail cameras worked.
We helped Scott collar up all the hounds with their GPS and telemetry collars and he walked his dog, Willie, into the bait area and released him. Once unleashed this old veteran knew exactly what to do. Working the bait area, a great start dog will be able to tell which direction a bear had come into the bait and where it had exited. After a few minutes Willie headed out barking here and there and then exploded with his deep bawl mouth, indicating that he had jumped the bear.
Listening for this sound, the hunters can then cut the balance of the pack into the strike dog, which is six hounds total by law in Maine. We immediately unloaded the balance of our pack from the rig, walked them away from the truck, held them by the collars until they keyed in on Willie’s deep bawling and then released them. Within seconds the woods echoed with our pack hot on the bear and the chase was on. The hounds were over the top of the mountain and out of hearing in a matter of minutes. The GPS collars on the pack indicated they were all together now in hot pursuit of the bear and heading straight out of the country.
We all rushed to hop into the truck and headed to an area that was high on a mountain before we would lose the signal coming from the collars on the hounds. We could hear the hound music echo very faintly through the valley as they pushed the bear over the top of the next mountain and out of hearing range.
Just as Scott thought, the bear was heading into the nastiest country you could imagine trying to elude the pack. It’s very common for big bears to get into the thickest, most horrible cover imaginable during a chase and this big guy was no different.
The race had been going on for over two hours and we started to realize this bear would never tree. We could tell by listening to the hounds that he had been baying up on the ground and chasing the hounds. They would be hot on the trail with their high pitched bawl-chop voices and suddenly stop. When they suddenly stopped it meant the chase was turned around and the bear was chasing them. It was also getting quite warm, so we decided to get close to the chase and really put the coals to this old bear by pulling out a few older tired hounds and replacing them with fresh hounds.
Another two hours had passed and the game was still on and we were still unable to get close enough to pull hounds and replace them. He was still baying up and chasing and fighting the hounds. We had to do something fast or some hounds were going to get seriously hurt. Our group decided that Scott and Bill would get ahead of the chase and try to head them off, Bill would have to shoot the bear on the ground.
Scott and Bill got into position as the contest continued for another hour on top of a mountain. They listened for almost half an hour as the hounds were walking the bear through a valley. It was like sitting in a seat at a concert as the hound music echoed off the valley walls, and the backdrop was the spectacular Maine mountains. The concert paused as the race crested over the mountain in front of them, so Scott and Bill ran to get close to the battle. Just as they came over the top of the mountain they could hear the grand finale of the concert. The hounds now had the bear bayed up about half way down the back side of the mountain.
Scott and Bill quickly scrambled and rushed down to the hounds as quietly as possible so that the bear would not bail out again. The cover was so thick it was almost impossible to be quiet as they advanced forward. As they made the final approach, Scott told Bill to only shoot when he gave the okay because he wanted to make sure the hounds were clear of the bear. The cover was so thick they were going to have a very hard time seeing the bear and hounds.
This is a high energy situation to say the least. Actually, it can be sheer madness! You know how they say when a person is blind their sense of hearing becomes more acute? That is exactly what happened to Bill. The woods were so thick that he couldn’t see anything on the final approach. He slipped into this weird state of hyper focus on the sounds around him. He could hear the hounds barking and the bear chasing and snapping at them so loud it was actually piercing his ears. On top of that, his heart was beating so loud it was throbbing in his ears.
In these situations things can get really ugly in a hurry because you are virtually on top of the bear in cover so thick it’s impossible to move fast enough if the bear charges or you don’t make a perfect shot.
Scott now could see the bear just ten yards in front of them and could only see its head. He told Bill that the bear was right there in front of him and told him to shoot him fast. Bill quickly shouldered the rifle, mounted with the Alpen Radical Bear Hunter scope set on 2x, and squeezed the accu-trigger. The blast echoed through the woods as the bear hit the ground and never moved a muscle. There was silence for a split second followed by hounds opening loudly as Scott and Bill approached the downed bear.
What a beautiful animal, it measured well over six feet. He had an extremely thick black robe and a pumpkin head. I could tell from my years of experience that the bear had much more than enough bone on his skull to stretch the tape over 20 inches for the B&C Record Book, and was more than ten years-old by the wear on its teeth. The bear tipped the scales at 351 pounds at the check-in station later in the day.
Bill Dermody took his first bear up close with the help of Henry and Scott York and, of course, their bear hounds.
Bill was totally ecstatic about his trophy and the hunt. He also got to experience what it’s like when a bear does not want to tree. This old brute would have never treed, he was just a mean old bear.
It was now my turn to hunt and I did shoot a great bear on the last day of the hunt but that is a story for another day.
In just five days of hunting, Bill learned what it was like to put a daypack on his back, and trek across the steep mountains and valleys of Maine. He experienced following behind a pack of hounds and hightailing it after a mean old bear in extremely thick cover where you couldn’t see ten feet in front of you.
It was an episode in a journey that left miles of our footprints across some really rugged country. Creating memories with quality friends in special places, listening to the concert of the hounds’ music as it echoed through a deep valley from the top of a mountain is as close to heaven as it gets here on earth.