Barry 'Bear' Siragusa | @thehuntinghound
Spring in the mountains of Scandinavia is suspiciously similar to winter virtually anywhere else in the world. The snow is still deep enough to swallow a hound up to its ears. The winds blowing out of the arctic are bitter, the trees are still devoid of leaves, and the birds are silently waiting for warmer weather before beginning their annual courtships.
However, signs of spring are there if you look for them. The Sandhill Cranes are starting to arrive from southern horizons, back to the coastal cornfields and wheat fields. The foxes are singing their love songs—tone deaf, poor things—and the days are getting longer with the sun hanging in the sky in the evenings like a weak incandescent bulb.
Also, the Eurasian Brown Bear is making its presence known again as food becomes more plentiful. These are not the fast and athletic black bears like houndsmen run in the USA. The bears in Scandinavia are huge, hungry, and aggressive. They don't tree and (like yours truly) would often rather sit back and argue than need to run.
In Norway's fun-loving neighbor country of Sweden (Sweden is Ernie to Norway's Burt) the bear training season is about to start. Pre-season training and conditioning is a crucial aspect of getting the hounds ready for the fall bear season. However, don't just take my word for it. Norway's premier Plott Hound man and bear hunter, Jon Steinar Vangen –in tandem with his duties as the host of Norwegian Outfitters TV– has been hunting brown bears with plotts in Sweden for years, and he knows the importance of being deliberate about preparing for the spring season.
“Well, they need to go into the season in good shape. They can't be slow and fat after the winter and be agile enough to stay out of reach of these bears. The longest run I had with my dogs was 72 km before it bayed up. It was 21 hours before I caught the dogs,” says Vangen.
Complicating the matter even more are the rules that dictate that scandinavian bear hunters are only allowed to drop two dogs on any one bear. Also, motorized transportation is not allowed once the dogs are on the ground and the tracks need to be cut “organically”, which means no baiting.
The hounds need to be gritty, smart, and hard headed while still able to keep themselves safe. The kamikaze hound will go out in a blaze of guts and glory, probably during its first season. The intense “in your face” dog that forces black bears to tree will almost certainly get itself injured or killed by a member of the 700+ pound walking bear clan.
To get his dogs ready for such a challenge, Vangen uses an ATV with a special frame attached that allows him to road his plotts year round–in spite of Norway's summer leash laws–allowing him to keep them active during periods between hunting/training seasons or even while they are recovering from injuries. It has made his dogs tireless, tough-footed, and fit for the fight.
Sal, a four-year-old plott that was badly injured last autumn, is getting back into shape on the ATV. Vangen has full control of speed and training intensity on the ATV, which gives Sal the best possible rehabilitation.
Sal was picked up and bitten through the pelvis by a 600 pound brown bear, and then stayed with the bear fighting and working with his partner hound, Rolf, until Vangen arrived. It wasn't until the adrenaline had subsided that Sal acknowledged his injuries. Vangen drove nearly a day to find a veterinarian that would work with him to save Sal after the first vet was not willing to consider alternatives outside of putting Sal down. Sal has proven Vangen made the right call by making a full recovery. If that kind of dedication to each other doesn't put a lump in your throat, I don't know what will!
Once the hounds’ feet and muscles are hardened and ready, the next step is determining which two hounds will work well together. Remember, Sweden only allows two hounds at a time to be dropped on bears. When asked how he determines which hounds will run together in pairs, Vangen says that it comes down to a slow accumulation of knowledge over each hound’s entire life. He gives the impression that it requires an overall assessment of each hound to inform his decision about which hounds will operate well together, compliment each other's strengths, and compensate for each other's weaknesses.
I ask him about the possible combination of two hounds, Rolf and Dan.
“Rolf and Dan as a pair would get themselves in trouble,” laughs Vangen. “They are both very intense, so they would rile each other up and literally bite off more than they could chew.”
I ask him which hounds he would use to balance an intense dog.
“My experience has been that a hound’s ability to cold trail is connected to how smart the hound is,” muses Vangen. “They need to be smart to cold trail. The hotter nosed dogs seem to be more likely to do something before thinking. My coldest nosed dogs through the years, like Ace and Smoke, have been smart and usually not the ones who get themselves into trouble.”
Vangen says that the imported North American dogs, who have made their bones hunting black bears, need time to adjust and learn how to tackle these brown bears. One of his best hounds was Ace from Canada.
“When Ace arrived, he charged in and treated his first bear as he would have treated a black bear: putting pressure on him to get him to tree,” says Vangen. “Instead of treeing like a black bear, that bear attacked and bit him in his chest and ear. After that, Ace was still very gritty, but learned how to work without getting hurt. I have taken many bears for him, and he was never again injured after that first bear. He was a great dog.” Another Canadian plott named Smoke (with S/M brands on his ears) has taken over and filled Ace's shoes.
Vangen has developed a system for running bears with only two hounds. Once the driving is done and a track is cut, he will assess how old the track is. On a fresh track (within 5 hours old), he may drop the pair of hounds together. If it is an older track, he will let his colder nosed hound—like Smoke—work the track without distraction until he has the bear lined out before dropping the other hound.
Running big brown bears with two hounds may sound counterintuitive to most North American bear hunters. Here in Scandinavia, due to those rules and regulations, two hounds has to be enough. The hunters and their hounds have adapted, and the hounds learn to protect each other while doing it. Vangen has ample video footage of his hounds harassing a bear whenever it turns its attention onto their partner.
I marvel at how only two plotts can contend with such a massive and dangerous animal.
“Two hounds can get out of the way of a charging bear faster than a big pack can…most of the time,” says Vangen with clear admiration in his voice.
Then he laughs and adds, “The plotts are special dogs.”