Legendary Bear Hounds Pt. 46

Bear Pen Song Of The South

Our story begins roughly one hundred miles east of St. Louis, Missouri on the rural Marion County, Ill., farm of legendary Plott breeder Everett Weems., Weems is recognized as perhaps the most influential breeder of Plott bear dogs in the history of a breed believed by many to be superior to all others in heart, desire and athleticism to run, catch, fight and tree America’s most formidable and dangerous game, primarily black bears.  While each of the recognized coonhound breeds and crossbreds from those breeds are used successfully on bear, it is the Plott dog that was bred specifically for bear hunting and is solitary among seven individual breeds in tracing its ancestry to Germany as opposed to England and France. 

My father, Homon Fielder, born in 1920, and Everett Weems were the same age and they began their journeys with the Plott dog at about the same time, the mid-1950’s.  Everett in Illinois and Dad in West Virginia. Some twenty years later they would learn that the foundation stock for each of their bear packs came from the same source.  I’ve always liked the Weems-bred dogs and my dad and I benefitted greatly from our friendship with Everett over the years. We got our first Weems-bred Plott, NPHA Hall of Fame member CH Bear Pen Fancy as a puppy from Everett in 1973 and the litter from our Bear Pen Blackie, Fancy’s daughter, and Weems’ stud dog NITECH Weems Plott Punie produced some really nice dogs for raccoon and bear hunting.  A male from the mating produced two hounds that would figure heavily in the future bear packs of notable bear hunters Ben and Tracey Jones, Evan Workman, Scotty Swiger, Chad Barth, Carl Schotel and others.

I always looked forward to raccoon hunts with Everett when my position as Senior Vice President for the United Kennel Club took me to coonhound events in nearby Flora, Illinois.  I hunted with many of his dogs on those trips.  It was on a springtime trip to Black and Tan Coonhound Days that I first laid eyes on Singer, an eager eight-month-old pup at the time.  We had taken a raccoon hunt on a nearby creek with Everett’s then-current stud dog Stormy and the golden-brindle hound had accounted for a couple of raccoons in trees along the steep-banked creeks that snaked through the hardwood bottoms  I had a long day ahead at Charlie Brown Park, the fairground hosting the coonhound event, and we returned to the farm early.  Everett wanted to show me his hounds and as we looked them over, I was taken by a beautiful, rich brindle-colored female with seemingly boundless energy that was housed in one of his runs.  She was bouncing off the wire like a super-charged pickleball at the Senior Center, raring to be released to do only she knew what.  All I knew about her was her pedigree, which contained several hounds with which I was familiar, that she was a beautiful specimen of the breed, and that I wanted her.  Her sire Stormy was sired by Weems’ Plott Punie, a hound I mentioned earlier.  I asked Everett if he would sell her and he said no, he had plans to finish her out as a coon and bear dog.  With that, I drove the twenty miles back to my hotel in Flora to spend a restless night thinking about one of the nicest Plott females I had seen in a long time.     

The following day as I was preparing for a long day at the event, Everett knocked on the door of the motorhome and we shared coffee as we relived our hunt of the previous night.  In the course of the conversation, he told me he had reconsidered my offer to buy the female pup and if I still wanted her he would sell her to only me.  He knew my history, and that of my father, with the Weems-bred dogs and he knew she would be given a chance.  I immediately agreed.  In fact, I insisted that we go to his farm and pick her up before he changed his mind.  Thus began my life with a hound I named Bear Pen Song of the South because of her eager, melodic voice.  I gave her the kennel name Singer and it fit.  She would literally sing on the track of a black bear all the days of her life.

I took Singer back home to Michigan and she was soon running raccoons in the big cornfields.  She exhibited an abundance of nose as she would strike the trail of a coon but, as young dogs are prone to do, would labor the  track, lacking the experience to push the trail out of the corn into a neighboring woodlot where it would tree.  I would have to go get her at times, something that didn’t endear me to the dog at that young stage in her life but I did admire her determination.  She also developed a habit that frustrated me when she began to tree.  She would wait until I was within twenty yards of the tree and she would leave to find another track.  She simply didn’t want to be caught and led away from her game so she would go in search of more.  At that stage in her life, combined with the fact I was limited to hunting raccoons in southern Michigan, I hadn’t determined if I wanted to permit her to be run on bear or not.  My job prohibited me from keeping a pack of bear dogs at the time but my dad and brother were actively hunting bears in the Virginias.  I had no need of a bear dog in my then-current circumstance but I knew from past experience, hunting coon dogs on bears when they were young usually made them stick tighter to the tree and that’s exactly what Singer needed.

I sent Singer to my dad in southern West Virginia and he and my brother Randy, eight years my junior, took her right away to the mountain with their bear pack.  On the first bear she smelled she ran the track for five hours.  I had seen but a sample of the endurance and determination on those Michigan raccoon hunts.  Her heart and drive were off the chart from the very start and would lead to her stellar reputation as a bear dog but also to her untimely demise.   

Through correspondence with professional guide Tom David who operated Summit Outfitters hunting the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona, I believed Singer, and a buckskin-colored Plott male from the Weems/Bear Pen breeding effort named Rube, would benefit from a couple of seasons out West.  I shipped Singer and Rube to David and he hunted them two fall seasons and the spring season in between before shipping them back to me in Virginia.

While in Arizona, Singer helped to catch more than forty black and color phase bears for David’s clients.  He used the determined Plott as a start dog and she proved to be a challenge at first.  At the time, Tom’s nephew Josh David assisted his uncle in maintaining baits and handling the hounds.  When a bait was determined to be hit, Tom would release Singer or one of his veteran hounds, perhaps Smokey, a saddleback Plott or Blondie, a buckskin of the same breed, to start the track at the bait.  If the track was not fresh enough for Singer to take it from the bait, she would simply go looking for a bear.  With 2,600 square miles of territory in the reservation, the White Mountain Apache provided a challenge for the hunter chasing a roaming hound.  The e-collar proved to be a god send to David in keeping the ambitious bear dog under control.

I arranged to go to Arizona for a week of bear hunting with Tom, simply to see the country and to assist with the handling of the hounds.  Of course, the romance of hunting in the Old West and the opportunity to hunt with my own hounds in the process was very attractive to me.  The client was a hunter from California that wanted to kill a bear with his muzzleloader.  Our five-day hunt yielded two black bears, the first, a seven-foot trophy that challenged the dogs on the ground, nearly putting an end to Singer’s packmate Smokey before being harvested by the guide.  The second was a treed bruin that took the hounds out of hearing before treeing on a steep hillside, presenting the shooter the opportunity to make an accurate shot with the .50 caliber smoke pole. 

Master trainer, policeman and recreational bear hunter Heath Hyatt of Virginia and I picked Singer and Rube up at the Roanoke, Virginia airport on a rainy November night, returning to his home in Narrows in preparation for a bear hunt with a group of hunters the next day in Randolph County, West Virginia near the Swiss village of Helvetia.  Communication with the hunters revealed the group had found the track of a nice bear and wanted Hyatt and I to bring dogs to ensure the bear could be caught.  We made the three-and-a-half-hour drive to find the hunters gathered at the track, behind a locked gate on private ground.  The track appeared, in the three inches of fresh December snow, to be that of a medium-sized bear.  The bear was moving up hill and the track was obviously cold having been located early that morning or perhaps the night before. 

We were their guests and so Hyatt and I waited for the locals to attempt to start the bear with a Bluetick hound from their pack with no result.  Hyatt’s Frosty, a young crossbred male sired by Lance Hutton’s famed Homer, was set down next and appeared to be able to move the track uphill before returning to the hunters.  I was next in line and released Singer who left on a hard run uphill, angled to the left, and jumped the bear out of a mountain laurel thicket, all in the matter of a very few minutes.  In their excitement to get their hounds into the race and perhaps to kill the bear, the hunters left Hyatt and me listening to our hounds as they gained higher ground and eventually went out of our hearing.  We had no idea of the lay of the land once we returned to our truck.  You can imagine our surprise when we got back to the rig and found that someone had taken the truck’s keys with them.  Perhaps they moved the vehicle and absent-mindedly took the keys.  Whatever the reason, we were out of the race with no wheels.  The dogs in the meantime had crossed out and treed the bear.  We were able to summon a ride that took us back within hearing distance of the hounds but not in time to reach the tree before the bear was harvested.  Singer’s ability to move a cold track quickly to the jump, to run the bear with speed, and to put her game in a tree was certainly on display that day but I doubt the party of hunters, in their haste, took the time to recognize it.

Returning to my brother’s southwest Virginia home, after taking the photo of Singer from an overlook on Highway 16 that appears with this article, I loaded Singer in my dogbox for the long trip home to Michigan.  The Virginia bear season would continue through the first week in January and Randy asked me to leave Singer with him to finish the bear season.  I took her out of the box and snapped his lead onto her collar.  It would be the last time I would see my dog. 

The last day of the season found my brother and a party of hunters taking a walk-in hunt with hounds.  They had gone to the Mike Harris farm on the east end of Thompson Valley in Tazewell County.  This hunt positioned them at the western end of the bowl-shaped, ten-mile-wide valley known as Burkes Garden.  The all-terrain vehicles that took them to the top were abandoned as the hunting party, leading hounds, walked in an easterly direction toward the valley.   Singer had been released and from a vantage point near Hudson Rock, the hunters were able to look off the mountain into the headwaters of Wolf Creek that flows through the Garden.  Looking from the summit toward a wide expanse of territory, Singer could be seen trailing a track at a walk that took her through a herd of dozen or more deer.  A hunter that would later offer my brother a four-figure sum for the dog based on that performance I suppose, seemed incredulous that she didn’t pay any attention whatsoever to the deer.  Randy recalls remarking, “She not a deer dog.  She’s a bear dog.”  Ultimately, the track was too cold and the party decided to move west toward the top of the mountain before turning east on a foot path.  The dogs struck a bear track on the north face of the mountain, about seventy-five yards from the top, looking over into Thompson Valley.

My brother is a seasoned houndsman, raised by the same master houndsman that taught this writer everything he knows, or should know about bear hunting with hounds.  He realized the bear would be out in front of the dogs when he heard them coming in his direction.  He stepped off the path, about six feet to the lower side and true to habit, the bear came down the path. When the dogs came through on the track, Singer was the first dog through.  Ultimately, the dogs ran the bear into a hole on the north side in the rocky terrain, possibly my brother reasoned, into the same hole she came out of before the dogs struck her trail.  When my brother reached the scene of the mayhem, the hounds were coming out of the hole baying, gunshots were being fired and the bear was deceased.   When all the dogs had been accounted for, my brother’s fears were confirmed.  Singer had not survived.  Being the first dog into the hole, the remaining hounds packed in tight behind her giving her no escape route.  With the aid of a flashlight and a forked stick, Randy crawled into the hole and was able to snare the hound’s collar and pull her close enough to remove her collars.  Finding an ample supply of rocks nearby to suit the need, he entombed the great hound where she fought her last battle with Ursus Americanus to the death. 

Her passing was a great loss to our family as can be well imagined.  Tom David, for whom Singer hunted three seasons in Arizona, petitioned the National Plott Hound Association to nominate her for the association’s Hall of Fame and she was inducted as the Deceased Big Game Female in 2007.  We will never forget the Song of the South whose melody will forever live in our hearts.