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A litter of seven Plott puppies were born in Protection, Kansas on October 17th, 1975. Every time hounds are bred the anticipation of what the cross will yield is exciting. Dwayne Herd and his son Steve, who got started in Plotts in 1952, crossed their male, ‘PR’ Bluff Creek Bouncer to a female out of Idaho, who would later be known as ‘PR’ Bluff Creek Donna. The female was owned by Paul Noble of Idaho, but would later be owned by the Herds. Dwayne knew the bloodlines of the two dogs and thought it would produce some good hounds. Little did he know how right he would be. Out of the cross came several very good hounds, but from a young age one stood out above the rest. They called him Bearpath Gunner.
Plotts are known for their grit, drive and bold trailing instinct. The Plott breed is truly American, conceived in the Smoky Mountains of Bute County, North Carolina. The hounds are decedents of German Hanoverian hounds, brought over by Johannes George Plott in 1750. Plott was only 16-years old when he traversed the Atlantic with the dogs that would be the foundation of a powerful, big-game-hunting breed. Like many other things, the New World was a breeding ground of innovation that would become the bedrock of American identity. The Plott hound breed was just that.
Mike Rychoch with Bearpath Gunner in Wisconsin. Bearpath Gunner was born in Protection, Kansas and was bred by Dwayne and Steve Herd of Bluff Creek Kennels.
Plotts were originally used in North Carolina as bear dogs and for catching feral hogs. Their strong treeing instinct, however, caught the attention of coon hunters as the popularity of the breed grew. They are the only breed of tree dogs that didn’t descend from European fox hounds, thus the brindle, unique look. Plotts are known for their distinctive, loud chop on the tree.
Dwayne had a large whelping pen, still in the same spot today, where they let the young dogs learn to become hounds. Steve remembers, “One day my father put a cat in the pen with the pups and he had to get in there and rescue the cat from Bearpath.” Later, when he was only three months old, Bearpath trailed and treed that cat, staying on tree for a long time. At this point they knew the dog was special and their expectations about Bouncer and Donna were spot on.
Dwayne got a call from Willard Woodby in Idaho who was looking for some pups from the Bluff Creek line to add to his pack. He told him that they had a “litter that was special” and that he should give them a try. Willard, also known as “Woody,” drove 19 hours to pick up a pair of pups in south-central Kansas. A male and a female, he named them Bearpath Gunner and Millie. Putting these hounds in the hands of someone that loved to hunt and lived in a prime bear hunting locale was critical for their development. At that time in the 1970s, bears were relatively unpressured and numerous. It was a great place and time to make a good bear hound.
Mike Rychoch with Bearpath Gunner in Wisconsin. Bearpath Gunner was considered one of the best male bear dogs in the country at the time.
Willard never penned or chained Gunner for the whole time he owned him. Bearpath rode in the cab of Willard’s truck and slept in the house every single night. This is very unusual for a hunting hound. The dog had extreme intelligence and according to Steve Herd, “He never knew he was a dog, he thought he was a human.” Certainly Gunner’s raising helped make him an easy dog to work. Mike Rychlock, who would later own Gunner, said, “When I went to pick up the dog in Idaho, he was like a darn Labrador. He would roll over and he slept in the house!”
By the time Bearpath Gunner was 11 months old he was running and treeing bear in Idaho by himself. It was said that there weren’t many hounds in the state that could out-tree, Gunner, even before he was one year old. Millie was also an exceptional dog, but was tragically killed before she was one year old when a dead bear fell out of a tree and killed her.
Gunner continued to develop and his reputation spread throughout the hound circles. He was a good-sized Plott, weighing over 60 pounds. What made Gunner special was his speed on track and ability to trail with his head up. Steve said, “He had a great ability to tree a cold track quick.” He continued, “If you were chasing someone on a motorcycle in a field you wouldn’t run the exact path they drove, but you would cut across in a direct line to them – you would cut them off. Gunner had an uncanny ability to cut off a bear, to wind him. His nose and winding ability weren’t anything less than a freak of nature.”
Woodby trained and raised Gunner in Idaho until the hound was around five years old. In 1979, Mike Rychlock began searching for the top hound in the country to breed his Plott female. He had heard about Gunner and contacted Willard. “I drove from Wisconsin to Idaho to have my female bred by Gunner. Willard and I just hit it off,” Mike said. Mike and Willard developed a friendship and began hunting together. Long story short, in 1980 Mike purchased Gunner. By the age of five, Gunner had been involved in over 250 treed bears. Mike recalled, “We didn’t rig bears in Wisconsin like they did in Idaho. When I hunted with Gunner I was impressed by that.” Gunner would rig off the hood of the pickup. To this day Mike is a serious houndsman who lives and breathes bear hunting. Mike says, “Gunner had the whole package”.
Many people across the country hunted with Mike, Willard and Gunner. He hunted Gunner in Wisconsin, Michigan and Idaho in the five years before Gunner’s death on June 4th, 1985. According to Steve, “Many people considered Gunner to one of the best strike dogs of all time.”
Gunner’s intelligence was notable. Mike remembered, “The whole time I owned Gunner he slept in the house and we wouldn’t let him get on the couch. I remember lying down and pretending to snore. When I did, Gunner would slip over like a snake and get on the couch. I would jump up and get on to him! In over 250 hounds I’ve owned, he was the only house dog.”
Bearpath's UKC papers. Note the Bluff Creek sire and dam.
Gunner seemed to prefer to run bear but he was also an excellent cougar and bobcat dog. By the time of his death, Gunner was credited as being involved in over 500 treed bears.
According to Mike, “In the 1970s there weren’t as many top bear dogs as we have now. Lots of people have top dogs these days. Technology has increased our ability to train them. Out in Idaho in those days the bears were like squirrels and it made it easier to make a great dog. Gunner was no doubt a great dog, but we’re still making great ones today.”
Bearpath Gunner was a legendary hound whose bloodlines are still strong in the Plott breed. Certainly, there are many unknown hounds that have had the raw ability to be great dogs, but didn’t have the context, training or opportunity to fully be developed. From Gunner’s breeding, to his training and finishing, he reached his full potential from all sides of the equation.
An ad for Bearpath Gunner in the 1970s made by Willard Woodby, the man who trained and raised Bearpath in Idaho.