Sometimes hunting means doing your best to keep up.
By Levi Sim | @photolevi
I’m not accustomed to feeling useless. I’ve lived in three countries, I’ve had 45 professions, and I’ve run my own business for the last ten years. I can do a lot of things. But each time I go hound hunting on horseback, I feel more like dead-weight than a hunter and I love every minute of it.
I’ve been invited to hunt with my friends Don and Riley three times so far. Our setup is usually a big pickup with a six-horse trailer on the bumper and a camper in the bed with kennels built over the wheel-wells. On this hunt, I was anxious to pull my weight so they’d invite me again. This time it was just me, Don and the beautiful sunrise.
The trouble is, I’m not a horse person, and I’m not a dog person. I rode horses a handful of times, but my first time hunting with Don & Riley, I rode five-times farther in a day than I had the rest of my life combined. I’ve seen how saddles and bridles work, but it’s just faster to let Don get my horse ready instead of showing me how.
Don also has the dog situation under control. He puts collars on the dogs which communicate with the GPS unit he carries. The collars are identified in the GPS so he knows which dog is where and he puts the proper collar on each dog. Sheesh, those hounds all the look same to me, so I’m no help there either.
The best I can do is to make sure that I’m ready when he’s ready. And he’s so proficient that by the time I’ve laced up my boots, we’re ready to ride.
There were four horses for the three of us, with an extra to pack a bear. I’m always impressed with the horses’ and hounds’ performance.
Don’s palomino, Wrangler, is a Missouri Fox Trotter; the white, Casper, is a Tennessee Walker; and I’m on a red roan Paso Fino named Copper. These gaited breeds all ride smoothly and handle steep terrain confidently. Don sometimes brings his new mule, but not today. Don pointed Wrangler at the hill and up we went. We’re like a nucleus of horses orbited by seven hounds.
The dogs, ages two to eight, are Treeing Walker Coon Hounds, and they’re line bred. These dogs are tenacious and adorable. They’ve got the classic look of hounds with floppy ears and jowls drooping increasingly with age. Their coats have a white matrix with patches of brown and black and they are slim and springy which makes them puppy-like even in their old age. If someone said, “Let’s go hound hunting,” these are the dogs you would have in mind.
The houndsman’s job is to lead the dogs to a place likely to have bears and then keep up, which is what the horses are for. This country makes high demands on a traveler’s legs, so four legs are a significant advantage over two.
Starting out, we climbed 1,000-feet, followed two ridges, and dropped down into another creek. Each creek has many draws that empty into it, so the creek gains volume as it flows. The dendritic pattern of creeks is separated by 1,000-foot-tall ridges.
The sun crested the ridges, shining into the bottom where we were walking an overgrown logging road. The rays illuminated the steam on the horses. For a guy who didn’t grow up riding horses and has only been hunting for two years, it was idyllic. I sat with my horse, marveling at how lucky I am to enjoy this experience, whether we find a bear or not.
Typically, these hounds tree several bears a day, but I think the beginner’s luck I tapped during my first year hunting is now demanding payback. My first year hunting, I killed a black bear, a mule deer, a pronghorn antelope, and dozens of small critters and coyotes. When I mention I’m going hound hunting for bears, everyone tells me what a sure thing it’ll be to get a good bear. But I’ve been out with Don and Riley twice and we’ve only treed one bear, and it was tiny.
I’m sure it’s my luck debt at fault.
As we were riding, all the sudden a hound erupted into raucous howling and barking. The other dogs rushed over and started baying, and they all ran into the woods. The north-facing hillside is densely covered with trees and brush. I was ready to kick my horse and go galloping after, but Don didn’t even look that excited.
He understood the game. The dogs found a scent trail and were running along following their noses. However, they could be chasing an old scent, or they may even be going the wrong way. They could even be after a cougar (which are out of season). So, Don kept an eye on the GPS and an ear cocked up the hill. We kept apace using the logging road.
Soon the dogs circled back and then kept going up the next draw. Then they went over and up the next draw, and down the one after. Don figured they caught up to the bear and were hot on its trail. But this bear kept going and going. The track on the GPS screen was a zigzagging line following almost every draw in the drainage. Finally, the line went up to the highest ridge and over into the next drainage.
We headed for the top of the ridge, but it got so steep that we had to walk the horses. We dropped over the ridge and we heard the dogs barking continuously. Their baying changed. Riley explained that the sound is called treeing. We weren’t far to the minor draw where the dogs had a bear treed. Don told me to keep my voice very quiet.
Christmas morning was not as exciting as walking up that draw to see what the dogs had waiting for us. It could be a great grandaddy of a bear, massive and brown, or it could be last year’s cub.
Shucks. It was last year’s cub. It was my last chance to hunt for the season, so even a small bear was tempting. My first bear was small, but it was tender and delicious. It was only 10:00 a.m., though, and I knew Don would hate for me to kill a small bear. He and Riley never kill bears themselves. Plus, it’s brown and I was hoping for black. We pressed on.
Don leashed up the dogs and I walked the horses down the draw to the creek.
We headed to the top of a ridge between drainages because the thermals were going uphill and we hoped the dogs could catch a whiff from below.
Sure enough, the dogs got on a scent. They ran down, then back up and across the logging road we were on, and then they took off down the ridge. We followed the road and kept an ear on their progress. They split into two groups, each chasing a different bear. We sat on our horses at the top, watching the dogs’ progress below and whispered excitedly.
Pretty soon, the youngest hound became tired and returned. Then one of the older ones made his way up. They ran twenty miles, so I can’t blame them. Don called, and three more returned. Don was able to determine that they were chasing two small bears from the way they were running back in. His experience with hounds and bears is invaluable.
Around 1:30 p.m. we got five dogs back, but the other two were still pursuing a trail. Don thought they were still after the small bears so he went to call them and left the rest of us on top. The dogs curled up for a snooze, and I decided I’d do the same. As with all hunting, the most tiring part is keeping your mind continuously active, looking and listening and always on edge.
Don came back, but without the hounds. In pursuit of the hounds, we rode along the top of the highest ridge. We busted a trail through the dense buckbrush, and this made me glad we had horses. It was a steep drop on either side, 1,200-feet down to the creeks.
Just as we turned to find a way down, the two hounds below erupted into the sharp sounds of treeing, and the dogs with us ran to join the fray. In the West, granite ridges degrade into gravel, and you can surf and slide down. We dismounted and slid like ski racers into the draw where the dogs were treeing.
I could see the dogs around the base of a ponderosa pine. As I crossed the side of the draw, I was at the same height as the bear in the tree. She was watching me from under gray brows on her black face; she was much larger than the other bears we’ve treed.
The dogs saw me and started coming up to me, but I was afraid the bear would take advantage and run down. “Dogs, stay there!” I shouted.
Normally, you should be very quiet when hunting, and if you need to say something you whisper close to your buddy’s ear. But while hunting with Riley and Don on horses, we’ve always talked normally. I mean, the dogs are barking and howling, so I figured my voice would be inconsequential. Yet, whenever we got close to treed bears, they reminded me to be quiet.
As I yelled at the dogs, I finally understood why. The bear scampered down the tree right into the dogs to get away from me. As she hit the ground, the dogs attacked and there was a black, white, and brown rumble rolling down the gulley.
I cussed at myself and felt like such an idiot. But I must have gained a little luck back because she climbed a tree forty yards down and stayed put. Humbled, I caught up to Don.
He leashed the dogs while I started looking for a vantage to take a shot. She wasn’t an enormous bear, but huge bears in Idaho are rare. She was certainly mature, probably 150-pounds, and she was a gorgeous black. This was my last chance that season, and I was grateful for it.
Don met me on the side of the draw where we could see her well. The tree was about 50-yards away, which is critical because I was using a new .50 caliber air gun and it was zeroed for 50-yards.
She quartered toward me and when she lifted her head, I had a clear shot into her lungs.
She started down the trunk, then tried to go back up, and then fell through the air straight to the ground. She never moved again. The 500-grain bullet shredded her lungs and shoulder and buried itself in the tree. I shot the first bear in Idaho with an air rifle.
I felt relief that she was certainly dead, and we hurried down to her. The dogs got to inspect the carcass as a reward for their hard work, and they bit at the hide. I skinned her while Don prepared a place on one of the horses.
Casper had paneers over his saddle and Don wanted to put the rear legs inside one, lay her across the saddle and tie her on the other side. If you’re a horseman, you’re probably cringing thinking about how that horse was going to buck and try to get that predator off his back.
But not Casper. He didn’t pay us any mind. He just sat there munching grass while we placed the carcass of a bear on his back.
We had to walk less than a mile out to the road. We rode twenty miles to end up killing a bear about three miles from the truck.
At the truck, Don took a picture of me with the bear, the horse, and the airgun. We flopped her into my car, and I took the horses for water after Don removed their saddles — so I wasn’t quite useless! I can’t thank Don enough for another great adventure.
I rolled down the windows to keep the carcass cool. As I drove, I rehearsed all the things I needed to do that night to process the meat, and ran through the hunt in my mind. I swallowed some vitamin-I to help with the soreness from the hiking and riding.
My cheeks hurt, too, but I couldn’t figure out how to stop smiling.