By Clay Newcomb
Breaking the Pace
Legendary bear hounds come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Some are registered dogs with generations of trackable pedigree, while others are crossbreeds. One thing is for sure, bear hunters are interested in dogs that will put a bear up a tree, or bay it on the ground, for as long it takes. Papers won’t produce a bear dog, but generations of solid breeding practices will. Undoubtedly, the Treeing Walker is one of the most popular breeds of tree hounds in North America used for big game hunting. In the third article in our Legendary Bear Hound series, we highlighted a line of legendary Walkers, the Nance Bred Walkers. In this article, we will talk about a hound out of New England that has some Nance breeding in it that qualifies for this series. The dog’s name is ‘PR’ Bear River Bullet.
Trell Hartford lives and hunts in the White and Ossipee Mountains of New Hampshire. Trell began bear hunting when he was a kid with his friend, and legendary New England houndsman, Mike Lord (Mike passed away last year). However, Trell didn’t start to build his own pack of hounds until 2006.
Most of this region consists of wide-open hardwood forest. This is likely just the type of bear habitat people on the Eastern side of the country dream about for bears - The Big Woods. As good as this may sound, the Big Woods offer some unique challenges for bear dogs. The bear will run long, hard, and fast. They’ve got room to stretch out and set the pace of a race. You’ve got to have fast dogs, according to Trell. “You’ve got to have a dog that will run to catch,” he says. “A dog that I want to hunt has got to be able to catch the ‘80-pounder.’ In the open woods, I need a dog that can break the pace. A bear will set a pace that he can run all day. You’ve got to have a dog that will break it.” As it turned out, Trell’s first hound he got in 2006 would be the one that would set the standard for “breaking the pace.”
‘PR’ Bear River Bullet was born March 14th, 2006. A friend of Trell’s, by the name of Kirk Rogers, raised the pup until he was two-and-half years old. Trell was just getting into bear hunting, and he was looking for a top dog to start his pack. “When I knew I was going to start bear hunting again, I figured I would look for one really good dog to start with,” Trell remembers. He sold a 1967 Pontiac GTO to buy the dog on a two-week trial for $3,500. Quality has never been cheap.
The dog was out of some top big-game breeding. The pup was out of ‘PR’ Ashley’s Sebastian (sire) and ‘PR’ Bear River Terra (dam). The grandsire and dam on the sire’s side was ‘PR’ Huffs Studly and ‘PR’ Huffs Daisy. Also on the sire’s other side the bloodlines also go back to Mike Lord’s breeding (Lord’s Jesse and Lord’s Haley). The dam’s side (‘PR’ Bear River Terra) goes back to a rich pedigree of champion coonhounds. In the three-generation pedigree on her side, she has over 25 Nite Champion and Grand Nite Champion titles.
Spending that much money on a dog was big investment for Trell, and he wanted to know that hound had what it took to back up the price. Bullet started running with the other dogs when he was nine-months old, according to his owner Kirk Rogers. Even at that age he was really aggressive with bears and wouldn’t back down. To add to his lack of fear of bruins, the dog was extremely fast. This caught the attention of Kirk. By the time the dog was two-and-a-half years old, he was the top dog in the pack, but he hadn’t been hunted by himself much at all. However, the dog was too aggressive for Kirk’s taste, and so he decided he would sell the hound.
Trell bought the dog on a two-week trial, and after the first week of hunting the high-dollar hound, he wasn’t impressed. “The second day I had the dog he ate a porcupine. We hunted a few more days, and he got into a second porcupine. The vet bills were killing me, and I wanted to give the dog back.” Trell was frustrated. However, he got a call from a friend that would change the course of his bear hunting forever, as just the right opportunity arose for Bullet to prove the potential he possessed. Trell remembers, “The morning after he got into the second porcupine, a guy called me and said he had a bear in his backyard. Within two hours I was at the guy’s house with Bullet on a lead.”
“I remember Bullet started pulling on the lead, and I let him go,” Trell said. Bullet struck out of the backyard hard and soon opened on the track. He pushed it hard, and within a short time he was treed one-and-a-half miles from the friend’s house. He had run and treed the track all by himself and done it with style. This was just the boost of confidence that Trell needed to keep the hound. In that first season of hunting, Bullet and a small pack of hounds treed 12 bears. It was a start, but Bullet really didn’t start to show his full potential until he was about three-and-a-half years old. Patience played a big part in developing the dog that would ultimately become a once-in-a-lifetime hound for Trell.
Bullet began to develop as a bear dog, and in his second season with Trell, he began to use him as a rig dog. The dog really began to show his speed, and it became a problem because Bullet would catch the bear on the ground before the other dogs got there. This would put the dog in a one-on-one grapple with a bear, and Trell feared the hound would get hurt. “It was tough to get the other dogs to keep up with him, and he would be catching these bears by himself.” However, it was a risk that Trell would just get used to, and ultimately was a good problem to have.
Early on, Trell remembers hunting with other houndsmen that would turn their dogs out first to strike a bear. After the dogs were 1/2 mile into the race, Trell would turn out Bullet. By the time they got to the tree, Bullet would be a ½ mile ahead of the pack, treeing the bear by himself. The dog was scary fast, and Trell began to realize that he had an amazing hound.
To Trell’s credit, he has kept very good records of all the bears that his dogs have treed through the seasons. “Since Bullet was 3.5-years old we’ve treed around 100 bears per season. As of 2013, he has been a part of 567 treed bears in the time I’ve owned him, and he was said to have been on 50 treed bears before I bought him. That puts him at over 600 trees. These totals don’t include re-runs or bayed bears,” Trell recalls. “Most years he would tree between 20 and 40 of those bears before the other dogs.” The dog was rocket-fast and consistent.
“When he was four years old I started building my pack around him, trying to find to a dog that had the same “run to catch” mentality. I needed another dog that had the same idea that it wasn’t ok to be outrun,” Trell said. Bullet expressed the intense desire that all bear dogs need. “He would chew on the aluminum box when you didn’t turn him out. He would run to catch, and do it everyday and not be sore. I could run in the morning and tree a bear, and then go out and tree one in the evening, and do it the next day again.” The dog had endless desire.
In the different regions of the country certain styles of dogs are desirable. In the mountains of New Hampshire you need an ultra-fast dog. Trell prefers what he calls a “drifting” style of tracking. He said, “These dogs don’t run with their head down, they run with their heads up. They usually don’t cross the roads in the same place the bear does. They are drifting the track. I think it’s a “style” of running that they’ve adapted or learned.” He says that he’s had some other breeds of dogs that wouldn’t lift their noses off the track, and weren’t fast enough for his taste. In the Walker world, this is what you usually hear from the houndsman – Walkers are known to be fast. In some of the hound breeds more geared for coonhunting, you want a dog that will cold trail a track, and work it out step-for-step. Bear hunters are usually trying to put their dogs on hotter tracks, and prefer the hounds push them hard.
Even with this style of tracking, Bullet could also be a very cold-nosed hound. Trell recalled once when they put Bullet on a bear that had been wounded by a hunter 20 hours prior. “Bullet caught that bear in the rocks,” Trell recalled. The dog would do whatever it took to get the bear. He has intense desire and ability to back it up. Bullet is bawl mouthed on the track, and he has a good locate[JL1] . He then rolls it into a chop on the tree. Trell says, “He’s got a lot different changes in his voice. He’s not as mouthy when he’s really pressuring one. He’s not screaming in the bear’s face, but I can tell when he’s face to face with a bear. It almost sounds like a ‘booger’ bark.”
Miscellaneous things about Bullet
Most of the littermates of Bullet turned out to be good bear dogs. They were all blanket-backed and redheaded, according to Trell. “There was another female, his sister, that they said was faster than Bullet.” Trell has bred Bullet to some of Kirk Rogers and Kelly Irwin’s Walkers in New England. They’ve produced some really good packs that have been built around Bullet’s breeding.
Bullet is now nine-years old, and is officially retired but still living. His front shoulder was broken when he collided with a bear, and his Achilles tendon was bitten through. He’s not as quick as he used to be, but he still has the same desire. “One of his eyes is slow, and he doesn’t see that well anymore,” Trell said. Bullet now sleeps in the house during the winter, and Trell takes him to work a lot of days. “When I take him to work, he stays in my area. At home he lies by the stove and goes to the crate when it’s time to go bed. He loads in the truck easy, and he’s good with my daughter, and she can lead him. He’s always been easy to handle in the woods,” Trell says.
“Having an exceptional dog can sometimes stunt the development of other dogs in the pack. I got away from making him the lead dog because the other dogs started to depend on him. It was a real problem for a while. The other dogs were always behind him. If he was barking, that’s where they wanted to be, and behind him they all looked great! It’s taking me a while to find a hound to take over the lead spot.”
Bullet was an exceptional rig dog. “If he barks, he’s going to find it. He’s winded them over 400 yards away. He checks some tracks, but he’ll load right back if it’s not a bear. If he leaves the side of the road and opens, 99% of the time you’re going to see a bear,” Trell said.
Once Trell remembers leaving Bullet home when he went hunting. “I hunt the areas very close to my house. That day the dogs treed a couple miles away, and when I got to the tree Bullet was there! He had chewed out of his aluminum wire fence when he heard the race start!”
Trell remembers that once they found a fresh track leading into a cornfield. They turned Bullet on the fresh track assuming that he would run that bear. After being released, Bullet turned in an odd direction and left out silent, but in a dead run. “Within a few minutes he started bellowing in a patch of scrubby oaks. He had a 425-pound bayed, and it wasn’t the bear we turned him out on!” Trell recalls.
It’s these types of the stories accumulated over the years that build the case for a dog to become a legend. Perhaps the best description of Bullet would be that he had unbeatable desire and speed. The dog is easy to handle and is a pleasure to hunt. Though the dog is retired, Trell did take the hound on one last hunt when his 7-year old daughter requested that he tree a bear for her. In September 2015, old Bullet treed a bear solo that she killed in New Hampshire. This seems like a fitting retirement gig for Old Bullet, and nail in the coffin of his legendary status.