The initial report of the lever action .30-30 was deafening, the second shot even more so as it was fired from just a few yards behind me and some ten feet over my head. But the sound that followed next – emanating from the impact of 100 pounds of tawny-furred fury landing just an arms reach away from where I was crouched at the base of a large pinion tree – was louder still. I could scarcely see through the flurry of snow and pine bows that were showering down all around me but I knew exactly what had just happened. Frantically I reached for Hannah’s collar, not wanting her to give chase to a wounded mountain lion but despite my efforts she was already in fast pursuit, bawling down the canyon towards her still very much-alive (and very much offended) quarry. Deciding that it was better for Hannah to not face this danger alone I untethered my other hound Crank, a young bluetick who was then just a year old, and released him to join the baying in the bottom of the canyon, a job which he was all too eager to do. Fortunately, this story ends well with one final, well-placed shot just moments later, undoubtedly saving me a trip to the vet and securing a beautiful tom lion for my otherwise trigger-happy friend.
While clearly this situation was avoidable, I had – up until then – taken for granted that some things need not be rehearsed beforehand, such as not shooting game out of the tree while your houndsman is attempting to secure the dogs away from it. Nevertheless, having not addressed what I thought to be common sense prior to the event very nearly cost my hounds or me a serious injury. Since that incident I have developed an evolving (and often rehearsed) short code of manners and best practices, which I refer to as “tree etiquette”. Some of this I’ve earned through firsthand experiences, such as the one described above, while others I’ve gleaned from listening to other houndsmen who were kind enough to share their wisdom with me. While much of this tree etiquette has been developed specifically for treed bears, there are certainly points that may be applied to other treed game as well.
1. The Nose Knows
Treed bears, at least in my area of the country, are particularly prone to “jumping tree,” meaning that, for any number of reasons, a bear that has temporarily sought refuge from hounds by climbing a tree, is apt to climb down the tree and, jumping over the dogs, continue on his race which may or may not result in the hunter getting to see that bear again. I have found that a bear’s sense of smell is unparalleled, with his olfactory senses being the primary obstacle for a bear hunter to overcome. However, when employing hounds to tree a bear this simple fact is often overlooked, especially by inexperienced hound handlers who may take for granted that their scent, if carried by the wind to the treed bear, may be cause enough for the bear to jump tree. The solution is simple, in that while approaching the tree, one ought to make every effort to come in from the downwind side of the bear, no matter how much commotion the hounds may be making.
2. The Upper Ground
Once you have the wind in your favor, it is best to try and come down towards the tree by approaching it from the uphill side (unless, of course, the tree is in a flat area with no discernible topography). This is because a bear that is jumping tree usually will prefer to jump towards the uphill side. By approaching the tree from the bear’s preferred escape route, you may prevent him from deciding to jump or, at the very least, buy yourself some time to determine if the bear is an animal you want to harvest or not. Another note on the approach to the tree: once I have got the wind in my favor and have picked a path that will lead me towards the tree from the uphill side, I prefer to remain concealed from the bear’s field of view for as long as possible. Once I am within say, 20 yards or so from the tree, I make a deliberate, unbroken walk directly to the base of the tree. While the bear is likely to take notice of you at this point, you’ll be at the base of the tree before the bear can make up his mind to react, and once at the base of the tree your presence will usually offer a strong incentive for the bear to remain in his elevated refuge… most of the time.
3. To Shoot, or Not to Shoot
One of the most often celebrated points of hunting with hounds is that they afford the hunter an opportunity to be selective in the harvest of game animals which may otherwise be challenging to evaluate under different hunting methodologies. A treed bear is certainly proof of this, as the hunter may examine the animal at relatively close distances in order to determine the approximate age, condition, and sex of the bear. Generally I prefer to keep the dogs unleashed during this time, as it seems to encourage the bear to stay put. I’ve had multiple bears watch and patiently wait until the last hound was tied back and then, as if on cue, jump from the tree and promptly exit the country. That said, if it’s obvious that the bear is not an animal you’re going to harvest, you’ll be money ahead to tie up the dogs sooner rather than later.
4. A Well Rehearsed Plan
Once the determination is made that a bear will be harvested, the first task is to tie the dogs back safely away from the tree. While it may seem unnecessary to many readers to reiterate this point, I speak from more than one personal experience when I say do not shoot before the dogs are tied back and everyone is clear of the tree. The shot angle and placement should be evaluated and agreed upon, and the go-ahead should come from the hound handler, as it’s their job to ensure the safety of the dogs. Time is of the essence at this point, as it is always a possibility that the bear will vacate the tree once the hounds are tied back. I cannot state more strongly though – this is in no way a justification for rushing the shot or trying to make a shot on a moving bear that has commenced with climbing out of a tree. It is, on the other hand, an encouragement that you need to make your first best shot, and to do so without delay. A second shot may often times be appropriate, even if the first shot hit its mark. One of my favorite mottos, which I picked up from the late safari hunter and author Peter H. Capstick, and one that bears repeating often, is to always “pay the insurance.” Simply put, this means shoot again.
5. The Bigger Picture
While the above suggestions are intended to provide some guidance for both safety and improved success when approaching treed bears, don’t forget to have fun in the process. There’s a wonder and joy in getting to walk up to a tree that holds a bear within its branches. The palpable excitement of the hounds doing what they love, what they were born to do, is an unforgettable experience, and undoubtedly what draws most of us as houndsmen and women back to the bear woods time and again. While I’ve made a great emphasis on time being of the essence, don’t forget to also spend some time enjoying the tree. Take photos, laugh with friends, and praise the hounds for a job well done.