By Steve Fielder | @Stephen.f.fielder
“I know there are other dogs of her caliber, because I have hunted with some, but she was just that one dog for me” - Mark Dufresne
Mark DuFresne is this writer’s personal best example of an outdoors renaissance man. Wildlife biologist, world-class taxidermist, professional Maine guide, and hunter/breeder of some of the most respected and acclaimed Plott bear dogs in North America are labels he deservedly wears without justifiable argument from his peers.
Born in Western Massachusetts, Dufresne says it was “in a hill town, much like in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina with simple hill folks.” As a young man, he attained the educational tools he needed to pursue a career in wildlife biology. Taxidermy came along as an offshoot and is the trade for which Dufresne is best known today. His work, including two amazing mounts of pairs of bull moose with antlers locked in battle, has earned him worldwide acclaim. He’s an innovator, constantly striving for realism in his mounts. Recent work in improving the head mounts for large bears is one example.
Dufresne has always been serious about the breeding of his Plott bear dogs. Farm life provided his introduction to hunting dogs. Being raised on a farm, Dufresne hunted whatever he could hunt with dogs. A good friend named Chip Sprague, the close friend of the legendary Plott hunter/breeder, Leroy Haug, of Indiana, came into a bar where Dufresne was waiting on his father to finish his beer and invited young Dufresne to go bear hunting. “I had not bear hunted at that point,” Dufresne said, “We had a great adventure and caught a nice bear. We climbed a mountain toward the baying hounds. It was like an amphitheater with all the racket the hounds were creating as they barked at the treed bear. Steve was at the bottom of the tree. There was a pistol shot and out came a ball of black with brindle dogs swarming it—a real wild west scene. I was hooked.”
Unfortunately, bear hunting with hounds was to be short-lived in Massachusetts. In Dufresne’s words, “We woke up and we had no more bear hunting. It was voted out.” The political scene had changed and everyone had to sell off the bear dogs. Dufresne was away from bear hunting for a time but, as a biologist, did assist in cougar hunting with dogs in Oregon. When he came back home, he went bear hunting with friends. Attempting to build his own pack of bear hounds, he started with hounds he could afford but that wasn’t working. Without a network of hunting friends across the nation, he didn’t know who to contact. He recalled the Swampland-bred dogs of his youth, dogs with tremendous noses and grit beyond belief. He remembered what those dogs could do and was frustrated with dogs that were quitting bears. In his words, he tried about everything, having dogs from several different lines across the country. However he finally settled upon a certain female and things improved from there.
Brin stricking off the box.
“I didn’t understand breeding,” Dufresne said, “I had been exposed to genetics in the wildlife field but through the Plottdogs.com website, I began to look up other hunters. I was not afraid to ask questions about dogs and I kept coming back to Plott dogs. I met Steve Herd from Kansas. He brought a four-month-old female pup down to me at the American Plott Association’s Breed Days in Tennessee. I fooled with everything under the sun with that pup. A neighbor had trapped a woodchuck and it got under a rock. She dug and barked at that woodchuck for six or seven hours until, at about nine or ten o’clock that night, I became afraid the rock was going to fall on her.” He kept her after that and named her Brin.
Dufresne continued, “She was about ten months old when bear season came in. I took her to a tree in Vermont and she barked at the tree. Later, the big dogs were trailing a bear. There was a high-tension power line and I saw a big bear standing up, marking a telephone pole. I ran over to the truck and grabbed her. The other dogs were trailing on the hill. She smelled the bear and got up on her hind legs, roaring. The bear ran on the same side where the dogs were cold trailing. I cut her loose and she left, barking every breath. The big dogs came to her and she was the last dog we caught off the bear five or six hours later. I didn’t know how gritty she would be but she had some pretty good dogs to run with. We just kept hunting her after that and she kept getting better and better as she went along.
Mark and Brin
“I was hunting some cornfields and one farmer was having trouble with bears,” Dufresne reflected, “A big bear was hitting a bait and we bayed it all day. It would break and go fifty yards. All the dogs fell off except Brin and she was in there still barking every breath. It was getting late. This had gone on since daylight and it was now 4:30 or so. We had about a half hour of daylight left. I said, ‘I’m going to try one more time to kill it.’ I got up there and she had it stopped and I heard her get caught. It was that crushing silence. I went in and she was laying on her side and couldn’t really get up. There wasn’t any way I could carry her off through those ledges and spruce thickets, so I sat there for a little bit and she finally got on her feet and we hobbled off the mountain. I was a young fellow with kids and really didn’t have a lot of money for going to the vet. I looked her over and I really didn’t see anything on the outside other than toenail holes and the usual stuff, so I brought her in the house. I never house-broke her, but she didn’t mess in the house. She couldn’t walk there for about three days. I had to put a towel under her and carry her outside to use the bathroom. She was all swelled up, kind of jelly-like with that rice krispy skin all over her. I just kept nursing her along,” he said.
“I went back to hunting and went over to one of the cornfields I was hunting for the farmers. I had left something inside the house and had left my truck door open. Brin had never moved off the couch. When I went back to the truck, there she sat. She had managed to climb into the cab of the truck. I looked at her and said, ‘What are you doing?’ It was the funniest thing. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. She was looking out the passenger window. I said, ‘Alright, you want to go that bad, I’ll let you go’---never figuring I would do anything but let her go for the ride. We got to the cornfield where she had hunted in training season. It was full of bears and she knew where we were. She jumped over my lap and fell on her face when she jumped out, but into the corn she went. Actually, I had to catch her because she wasn’t wearing a collar. I tackled her and put one on her and said, ‘If you want to go that bad, then go.’ It wasn’t five minutes until she was bayed solid out in the corn. I cut a couple of dogs in and they treed it. She wasn’t barking much but she was treeing and you could tell she was hurting. We rolled the bear out and she had a little chew and off we went. I said, ‘That’s a dog that has heart right there.’ I was impressed because she was a mess. About a week later, I had her back outside at her doghouse and was checking her belly and stuff just to make sure there wasn’t any hernia or anything. I would poke her belly and something would stick straight up. Off to the vet’s we go. He examined her and said she tore two major muscles off her pelvis. He said the fact that she was running, much less mobile, mystified him. He said, ‘If we go in there and repair it, she would have more scar tissue than she would if it heals.’ We just let it go and it healed itself.”
Dufresne hunted with Brin until she was thirteen years old. Here are his thoughts on his legendary bear hound: “Her trailing ability was her strongest strength. Her intelligence coupled with that ability enabled her to do an outstanding job. I believe the bobcat hunting, the way we hunt on foot with the dog, helped to develop her natural ability and made trailing tough tracks look easy. In thirteen-plus years, she went backwards on tracks four times and there were extenuating circumstances on each of those.
Mark and Brin with a bobcat.
“She was a fun dog to hunt with. She could run into a bait or strike a track from the rig and run to it, never breaking stride, then hook onto the track the right way and roll out instantly. One time we watched her traveling across a hardwood ridge, just trotting along. We got in front of her and led some dogs into her. We thought she was jumped at the pace she was traveling. We released the new dogs as she came across just above us. To our dismay, they went to her and stood around like there was nothing there. She never broke stride trotting by us with her head straight up in the air. We discovered later she had actually been trailing an old track.
“She always seemed to make the near impossible look easy. She would drift a track at a ridiculous distance. Somehow, she always knew when the game made a turn and she never blew a corner. Sometimes you could not pack to her because she was so far off track. I watched her as a young dog drift a bear from 75 to 100 yards off track. When the bear turned, she turned. One time on a hunt the bear crossed, angling across the road. She hit the road and ran, kicking up gravel while looking to her right where the bear had crossed. I believe she knew the road was faster than the thick swamp the bear was running in. She crossed a bridge over a brook and hooked right, cutting down an old logging road. Keep in mind, the second she came off the bear track she stopped barking. About 100 yards down that road, she opened and hooked to the left side and just left the area on the track. It wasn’t long and she was looking up at a bear.
“She used her mouth right, never barking off track and if she was barking, she had the track 100% of the time. She was very tight-mouthed as a yearling on old tracks and on cats, she was dead silent until jumped. But by her third season, she had developed into a very open dog on any track, a dog that, in my opinion, used her mouth perfectly.”
Dufresne began to realize Brin was getting old. At about eleven or twelve years old, she exhibited a swollen lymph node in her neck. It started to get larger and she got an infection. He said, “I had her on a pile of antibiotics and the swelling would go down and then she would go hunting and it would come back. That was an ongoing process for quite a while. That was through hunting season. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to run her until she doesn’t want to run anymore.’ I think, for a bear hunter, the worst thing is to see your good dog get old and when, although they still have the heart, they start getting outrun by their kids. She started doing goofy things. When they would catch up with her, she would give up and go find her own bear. I would find her hours later bayed up on one. If they would run by her, she seemed to say, ‘I’ll go find one that’s my speed.’ She was famous for that.”
“The infection came back repeatedly. Toward the end of it, I guess it would have been her thirteenth summer, I took her rigging. She still loved to go. I had started to notice that there was another tumor inside her belly (there was a bulge on one side). I took her in and the vets checked the place on her neck. They said if they operated, it was all blood-engorged and contained all the nerves that control breathing and everything else. It got to the point that it was dragging her down. It ended up, late that fall, she still would go out and jump bears, but her stamina was gone. It was coming into November and I finally saw that she was looking like a skeleton. I was cooking hamburger and rice trying to keep her going. She had lived inside with me for about two years and I had to face the facts and put her down. Those good dogs don’t give up. I had the vet tell me, ‘This dog shouldn’t even be here.’ Right until the bitter end, she would run until she couldn’t go. At the end, I found myself wishing she would get killed by a bear because I just couldn’t end it myself.”
Mark with Brin's offspring Reaper
In Dufresne’s mind, Brin’s greatest contributions have been the way she taught him how to hunt and how to develop a trail dog. He says he learned a lot from her. Secondly, her offspring have carried on where she left off. “I have a son of hers, Reaper, who is now ten years old. I think it’s a fair statement to say he’s as good and is perhaps a little better than she was, although he’s a little different type of dog.”
Mark Dufresne is still a young man when we compare his remaining years in the bear woods to mine. No doubt he will continue to breed and hunt bear dogs that will meet his expectations or close. But when he evaluates them, the yardstick will be a 45-pound bundle of brindle hair and grit called Brin, a legendary bear dog indeed.
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MD’s Elephant MTN Brin
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