64 Years a Bear Hunter
A Lifetime of Hunting Bears with Hounds
By Ben Sheets
After a long day of hunting and driving, I turned in at the J&W Trophies sign. I drove past the house and went around the back, parking behind the maroon ‘97 Toyota Tacoma with the license plate “No Kill.” I am at the house of my good friend, “Uncle” Wayne Hensley. I had met Wayne a few years prior at a Virginia Bear Hunters Association field trial. A few Facebook messages back and forth to confirm he would be there and a six-hour drive later, I met Wayne for the first time. I had heard how his Leopard Curs were phenomenal bear dogs from a few people and I wanted to know more about them and the man from Lizard Ridge.
My first impression of Wayne wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Standing 5’9'' tall and around 185 lbs, he was smaller than I had imagined. Despite my first impression of his appearance, we hit it off right away. Wayne is very charismatic and loves to have a good time. Without fail, he is always teasing people and telling jokes. Over the next several years I hunted with Wayne a few times. During this time, I planned to breed one of my females to his young male that had impressed me on one of those hunts. Right as my female came into heat, Covid-19 struck and travel restrictions were put into place by many governors across the country, including Virginia. I didn’t let this stop me; as I drove to Wayne’s, I was on the phone with a friend. He asked me if I was worried about getting stopped with the restrictions. I replied, “Nope, I’m just going down to visit my Uncle Wayne.” Ever since I have jokingly called him that, but it’s nothing new to Wayne as many lovingly refer to him as Uncle Wayne as well.
Wayne grew up on a 351-acre farm in Bedford County, VA where his father, Charlie, raised cattle. The farm was high up on the mountain and bordered a national forest. At the age of ten, Wayne started bear hunting with Charlie. Wayne, the youngest of five children, hunted alongside his brothers Lewis, Carson, and Clyde. His brother-in-law, Pete Ware, also hunted with the Hensleys. These men laid a foundation that has lasted 64 years and continues to this day.
In his younger years, bears were scarce in the mountains around their home. Bear hunting with hounds also looked very different than it does today. The modern technology that has become essential was nonexistent. A lot of people didn’t even have a 4-wheel drive truck and hunted out of cars or cattle trucks. Charlie had an old cattle truck to haul his hounds and sons around. The Hensleys would start a bear hunt in the morning with a good breakfast cooked by Wayne’s mother, Minerva. Anyone hunting with them that day was expected to be there for breakfast and Minerva took offense if they weren’t. Charlie would then decide where the group would hunt that day and most often it was the roughest areas in the mountains. Wayne recalls walking until striking a bear and then following them afoot, always trying to keep them in earshot. Pete taught Wayne to stay high on the mountain above the hounds in order to keep up with the chase.
I asked Wayne what kind of hounds his father had and he replied, “You name it, he had it—it was a mixture of everything.” Most of these hounds were not registered and were referred to as whatever breed they resembled. Wayne recalls Plotts, Walkers, Blueticks, Black and Tans, Redbones, and in the later years Leopard Curs being among the pack. These hounds didn’t have a fancy kennel or even a chain; they ran free on the farm. Charlie would go to the livestock market on Tuesdays and on his way home would pick up meat scraps from the local butcher to feed his hounds. Wayne recalls many mornings as he left for school, the hounds would be treed somewhere around the farm. While they bear hunted hard, they let the hounds run coon and bobcat as well. The hides were worth good money and Wayne remembers getting as much as $30 for a big coon hide when he was young.
With such a long hunting career, one would think Wayne would have killed many bears; but nothing could be further from the truth. Wayne has only killed six bears to date. Of those six, he only went to the woods intending to kill two of them. His first kill was an interesting story. After eight years of bear hunting and on the first day of the season when he was 18 years old, he carried a rifle for the first time. The rifle was a 303 British Enfield that he had won for a dollar. The bear was treed in a rough and rocky area in a lone tree. Wayne went in quietly easing along when suddenly the bear spotted him. He quickly pulled his rifle up and shot the bear behind the front shoulder and the bear dropped. Unlike today, it was not a common practice to tie dogs back before shooting the bear out of a tree. Wayne quickly realized the bear was still alive as it started fighting the dogs on the ground. Hurrying around on the high side to not be in the bear's path if it tried to escape, Wayne got above the bear and saw it on top of his friend’s redtick hound. Despite never being in a situation like this, Wayne knew what he needed to do and put the end of his barrel in the bear's ear and pulled the trigger.
While Wayne hasn’t personally killed many bears, he enjoys taking new hunters and youth hunters alike for their first bear. Over the last 15 years, he has taken 31 people who were able to kill their first bear. These people have ranged from 9-years-old to 60-years-old. He especially enjoys the youth as they are the future of hunting. One such trip was with an 11-year-old girl who was able to kill a 465 lb bear. This bear was treed on private property that they did not have permission to hunt on, and the only reason they were given access was Wayne explained to the land owner that the shooter was this young girl. I have spoken to a few people who credit Wayne for getting them their first bear and even getting them addicted to bear hunting with hounds. Wayne has also given many years of service to the Virginia Bear Hunters Association (VBHA) by being a member for over 20 years and has served on the board for the last 12 years. In addition, he was inducted into the VBHA Hall of Fame.
Over the last 30 years, Wayne has developed and maintained his own line of Leopard Curs. His brother, Lewis Carson Hensley, owned a female named Flicka that was one of the first four littermates that were registered as American Leopard Curs. This dog and others owned by Pete and his father are what lead him to the breed. When Wayne went looking for Leopard Curs of his own, he went to Rex Bowers of Dutchman Creek Leopard Curs for his foundation stock. These dogs proved to have just the right combination of brains, speed, nose, and grit that Wayne was looking for. His dogs are well known in Virginia, but he has sold dogs all across the United States. He has line bred his dogs with only three outcrosses and these outcrosses were all to the Little Mountain/Glade Creek Line of Leopards.
As he nears 75 years of age, Wayne told me he has no plans of quitting. He continues to raise the next generation of dogs to make sure he is never caught without a good pack of bear dogs. His hope is when the Lord calls him home that he will be in the woods with his pack of Leopard Curs doing what he loves. If you would like to hear more from Wayne, check out episodes 1 and 9 of my podcast “Tree Talkin’ Time.”
Front row left to right: Pete Ware, Allen Overstreet, Leslie Overstreet, Landon Overstreet, Dennis Mitchen, Sidney Mitchen, Corbin Nichols, Tom Hensley, Richard Mitchen. Back row left to right: Unknown, Wayne Hensley, Charles Hensley, Joe Hensley, Clyde Hensley, Lloyd Holdren, Johnny Holdren, Jesse Hensley, Henry Wilkes, Jim Goff. Wayne is next to his dad and he is next to his dad. The five youngest people in this photo are the only ones that are still living. There are five bear hides in the photo but there are three more on the side of the barn. There were over 30 coon hides, some of those trapped by Wayne’s Uncle, Tom Hensley, but many were treed by the hounds as well.