By Steve Fielder
When this writer was hired to direct coonhound activities at the world’s largest purebred dog registry, the American Kennel Club, I was assigned the responsibility of bringing all recognized coonhound breeds, of which there were six at the time, into full recognition by the registry. Prior to my involvement, only the American Black and Tan Coonhound, the old-fashioned, long-eared variety, was recognized. I faced many challenges in my seven years at AKC but none more formidable than those presented by the parent clubs for the Black and Tan and for the American Foxhound. The former feared a tsunami of field-type coonhounds overcoming the relatively few old-fashioned hounds in the registry’s files. The field type hounds used by hound hunters are more streamlined, shorter-eared, and more fleet of foot than the AKC-type hounds. Judges in the conformation show rings however, have proven loyal to the original type, once the UKC dogs came in, dispelling the fears of the AKC faithful.
Likewise, but for somewhat different reasons, the American Foxhound group felt the Treeing Walker coonhound to be essentially the same breed as theirs. Bringing UKC Treeing Walkers into AKC would, they believed, simply denigrate the gene pool with non-typical dogs of the same breed. Granted, all coonhound breeds other than the German-originated Plott Hound, sprang from foxhound roots, from dogs imported from England, Ireland and France. My task was to illustrate to the powers that be within the AKC Parent Club Committee, that there were distinct differences between foxhounds and Walker coonhounds and I was ultimately successful. Those obvious differences provide a gateway for our look this month at a legendary Walker bear hound and at his owner’s journey from coonhounds to foxhound crosses with which to hunt, rather successfully as we will see, the North American Black Bear.
Brent Evitch, a forty-five-year-old lineman for Spectrum, the tv cable and internet provider has been at the job twenty-seven years. He’s also an avid outdoorsman that’s consumed by the bear-hunting-with-hounds lifestyle and has found great pleasure in leading hunts in conjunction with the United Special Sportsman Alliance, Inc. (USSA) organization. USSA specializes in sending critically ill and disabled youth and disabled veterans on free outdoor adventures of their dreams. Evitch has conducted more than fifty such bear hunts with his hounds and prides himself in failing only one time to fill the tag of his honored guest. He has conducted three or four such hunts a year. To quote from the organizations webpage, “USSA is a 501( c) (3) non-profit ‘dream wish’ granting charity that gives youth and veteran something to look forward to and to help sustain them in their time of need.” Evitch explains his involvement this way:
“I look at this way,” says Evitch. “I’m not big into politics. I keep to myself. I’ve put my life into these dogs. Working with them and with USSA is what I do. My fiancé knows that when training season opens on July 1st for three months, we don’t go anywhere. If I’m not working, I’m running dogs.”
Hound hunting, for Evitch, who lives in Birchwood, about an hour north of Eau Clare, Wisconsin and an equal distance south of Minong where I have personally hunted bears with hounds, began when he was fifteen years old on coon hunts with his friends. “I went one time and I was hooked,” he recalls. “Friends from Indiana were up here hunting and they lost their dog. After they returned home, the dog was found. They drove back up to get the dog and my parents, realizing how much I had enjoyed it, leaned on them and bought the dog for me. He was a Treeing Walker named Smoke and was a silent-trailer but he was hard on coon. I killed more than one hundred, some of them in the 30-pound range, with him when coon prices were pretty decent,” he said.
Evitch continued his coon hunting exploits for five or six years and bought dogs of other breeds including some Blueticks from legendary Dave Dean of Michigan. “I drove all over the place getting dogs,” he said. “I sat in Dave Dean’s cabin a couple of times and I went to Del Cameron’s in Montana. One of the best dogs I would have owned came from Dave. I was trying to coon hunt him and couldn’t get him off bear.” Little did Evitch know that he was about to become a bear hunter. Here’s his story:
“I got the Leroy dog from my good friend that sold me the first hound, Kyle Small from Bancove, Indiana in the northcentral part of the state,” Evitch begins. “Kyle was running him a little bit. I was always trying to buy something,” he said. “He had a nice young dog that had potential and I ended up getting the dog from him,” Evitch said. “The Pac Man-bred dogs from renown coon hunter Russ Bellar in Peru, Ind., worked well for him. I got him and he was treeing some coon but not lighting the woods on fire. I had a friend that I hunted with and I told him about Leroy. He said, ‘You should make a bear dog out of him.’ So, I started him on bear thinking that in coon hunting I was staying up all night but I could try him on bears in the daytime. I was just going to start him on bear and sell him. I had no intention of being a bear hunter,” Evitch confessed.
“I was hunting with a guy and we had become good friends,” Evitch said. “His name was George Hrdlicka and he has since passed. He had a handful of baits set out and we went out and refreshed the baits. One of the baits was tipped over, a fresh hit,” he said. “George had a few older dogs. We dumped them on it and the dogs ended up making a loop and they came across a dirt road. He put a young dog in and I put Leroy in. They made a couple-mile race. Leroy stuck with them and was in there treeing with them. It was during the July training season and that was his, and my first tree. We were able to get within five to six-hundred yards of the dogs on a road. It was nice to walk into the dogs without a light or stumbling through the brush.”
This Leroy dog, whose registration papers bore the name Bellar’s Leroy, was a blanket-back, red-headed hound with the kind of “tight feet” houndsmen want for good looks and top performance. He weighed approximately fifty to sixty pounds, about average for a hound of his breeding and when on the trail of a bear he had what Evitch describes as a “fairly high-pitched mouth.” Leroy ran his tracks with a chop-mouth and chopped when he treed. A fellow hunter once asked Evitch how he could tell when the dog was treed, seeing that his track and tree barks sounded the same. “When I put him on a bait,” Evitch said, “that dog barked every breath. It sounded so pretty. He was loose-mouthed and it was a continuous roar. When I was first getting into hounds, I just loved to hear the hounds. I still like to hear a track where the dogs are just pounding, just pushing the track.”
On the subject of cold-trailing, an essential trait in a bear hound of the better class, Evitch said: “He was a pretty mellow dog off the get go. After the first year of hunting, he wasn’t junky so I started using him to cold trail at about four years of age. He was two and a half when I got him.” I asked Brent for a story to illustrate Leroy’s cold trailing ability and he said:
“In one of the pics included with this article, we had a guy with a kill tag and had a bait hit that morning. In those days we smoothed the sand around the bait to determine the size of the bear. The bait had been hit. We followed the track in the sand and ultimately ended up treeing the bear,” Evitch said. “My buddy George had a good dog named Arrow. He was a good hound and he brought out the better in my dog. We turned Arrow and Leroy on that track. Arrow was a big black and white Walker dog that was the product of George’s breeding two of his older dogs. He was a phenomenal hound. He could cold trail and would stick with a bad bear on the ground. We hunted him and Leroy a lot together. It was nice when you had those two on a bear,” he said. “So, they ended trailing out of the bait and crossed the road by the trucks. They trailed through a clear cut and around by a green swamp. We ended up going down a logging road and were able to get some other dogs in. My other hunting buddy Mike Paul had his pride and joy, a Plott Hound named Jackpot, and we put him in with Arrow and Leroy. They ended up walking the bear and fighting it all morning. It wouldn’t tree. I had the shooter with me and he shot at the bear and missed. It was super swampy in there and finally the dogs got it bayed up in the roots of a fallen tree and he was able to get in and get a shot on him. We had been on that one from daylight to about one or two o’clock in the afternoon. At one point I had to put the shooter on my back to cross the swamp. It was a big bear weighing two-hundred and ninety-four-pounds field dressed. Thankfully, no dogs were hurt.”
When asked about Leroy’s strengths, Evitch said, “He was just a consistent hound. I held him to a higher standard because he was my first. He was there all the time. My birthday is in July. I once had five separate bear trees on my birthday and he was at every tree. My buddy George and I would pull up to a bait, drop Leroy and Arrow and we would tree the bear.”
When I asked if Leroy was often injured by treeing that many bears his answer was somewhat surprising. “Leroy would stay there with the bear but would keep his distance. Unlike some dogs that like to worry a harvested bear, Leroy wanted nothing to do with the bear once it was dead. He didn’t want to chew on the bear. I would unclip him and he would go back to the truck. I guess you could say he wasn’t very gritty.” But the grit issue aside, something that didn’t seem to hinder him at all, Leroy’s outstanding trait was that he was a very accurate tree dog. “He was a great tree dog,” Evitch said. “He would sit down, look up, and never get in trouble. If booing (dogs barking at each other) started, he would just move around the tree, sit down and continue to do his thing. It didn’t matter how long it took me to get to the tree, he would be there laying them off on the wood.”
Evitch’s daughter Autumn has followed in her father’s footsteps, now maintaining her own pack of hounds at the age of eighteen. “Two years ago, before she got her own dogs,” he said, “My dogs got hunted every single day. I told her she was going to have to take a day off now and then because the dogs were worn out. She’s eighteen now and hunts as well or better than two-thirds of the guys out there hunting.”
Evitch repeatedly extolled the mellow nature of Leroy. “I’m still not a dog trainer, and I’m sure I’m not a good handler but I could raise my voice and he understood. He was not block-headed or crazy. He was super easy-going and good with the kids and around the yard.” But this mellow attitude and the calmness with which Leroy went about the task of trailing bears would become a distant memory for Evitch as he made the decision to switch gears in types of hounds he now hunts. Here’s the story:
By his own admission, Evitch is not a breeder. “I’m not a breeder and I know it. I’ve only had a handful of litters,” he said. “I’ve bought dogs here and there. I truly don’t like puppies. I like to get them when they’re hunting. I hear guys talking about breeding traits in and out but I don’t know anything about that. I’ve bought dogs from virtually every well-known breeder,” he said. To illustrate, he said: “My wife had to fly out to Washington for work and asked if I would like to go? While out there, I ended up buying two dogs from Mike Kemp that I named Wyatt and Flower. I rented a car, bought them from Mike and flew them back to Wisconsin,” he said. “Wyatt has been my top hound for several years. The first time I tried him on bears he didn’t do well. The second time, he went 300 yards and treed. From that day, he leads every race and has treed hundreds of bears. He will be twelve in July and even last year, I hunted him almost every day. He’s different from Leroy. He’ll bark in the box, almost every mile. I just pull up and turn him loose. I’m getting close to one-thousand bear trees with that dog. But the point is this: This type of dogs is not for a weekend hunter. I miss the mellow, easy handling dogs like Leroy. I miss being able to dump into the bait, hot or cold, and go at the same pace. They were easier to keep at the house. These foxhound-crossed dogs are wired 220 but they suit my style of hunting now. I want a dog to be able to recover. Before, we were concerned with wearing the dogs down. Now I don’t worry about it. I was told the running dogs have more lung capacity. My dogs now, however, look almost identical to my original coon dogs.”
Leroy’s last bear hunt was a wish hunt. “When he died, I buried him by where we killed the big bear in the swamp a long time ago,” he said. Although the intensity of his pack has changed, the memories of an easy-going hound that simply got the job done remains. Evitch will forever cherish the memory of Leroy, a mellow fellow of a hound with an ear-pleasing voice, a hound that treed lots and lots of bears for folks that really needed a Leroy-induced adventure to sustain them in their time of need.