Going on a Tennessee Bear Hunt with Roy Clark
By Clay Newcomb
As seen in the Nov/Dec 2018 Issue of Bear Hunting Magazine!
The Appalachian Mountain range is an iconic and historic place to hunt black bear using hounds. It was the first region of the country to use European hound stock for big game. It also holds some of North America’s best bear habitat. Roy Clark, 69, is a native Tennessean and has been running bears with hounds since he was a child. His father, Hugh L., and grandfather, Charlie, started hunting in the 1940s with Plott hounds they got from Plott breeder, Charles Gantte. From these original dogs, a strain called Clark’s Laurel Mountain Plotts emerged over the last 60-plus years. The rabbit hole of history and tradition goes deep when you’re in Tennessee bear hunting with hounds.
“You’re welcome to come hunt, but you never know. We may not find a bar,” Roy said when talking about a potential hunt in late November. In Tennessee, they don’t say “bear,” they say “bar.” Roy went on, “We’ve done pretty good in the last two hunts, but I don’t know if we can pull another good one out of thar.” And they don’t say “there,” they say “thar.” A seasoned houndsmen is confident, but realistic. The challenges of late-season hunting are legit, as it’s often weather dependent. By this time of the season, the dogs are in great running shape, but some might be down with injuries. You’ve learned a lot about your pack by the late season.
The hunting culture amongst houndsmen is interesting and unique. Much of it is unspoken, but if you don’t know the rules you’ll make a mistake. One such rule gives order to where different groups hunt on public land. To hound hunt you need large tracts of ground without highways or civilization. Also, things get messy when different packs of hounds get mixed, so different groups hunt different areas on the honor system. Hunters voluntarily restrict themselves to certain areas, even on public land. It’s not black and white and doesn’t always work out perfectly. The hounds don’t know these boundaries. However, it gives some order to the bar’ woods. The Laurel Mountain Bear Hunters primarily hunt a large drainage roughly five miles wide, by about 15 miles long.
It’s unofficial, but Roy Clark is the leader of the Laurel Mountain Bear Hunters, which is a functional hunting club. It’s hard to get in and easy to get out. To lose your place, all you’ll need to do is cause a stink or be unreasonable. There’s no official membership list, but the members know who they are. If you’ve got an orange Laurel Mountain Bear Hunters hat, you’re pretty much in. The club consists of family members, neighbors and friends. Roy is a soft spoken and humble leader, but doesn’t put up with any riff raff. Everybody that hunts with Roy considers it a privilege. When he talks, they listen. When they talk, he listens. Today, in many parts of society, rank isn’t recognized, but in the bear hunting community in Tennessee it still is. Many other hunting clubs in the region exhibit the same type of leadership structure. Leadership is earned, not demanded.
You don’t have to hunt Plotts to be a Laurel Mountain bear hunter, but it’s probably a good idea to hunt black dogs. A couple of the guys hunted Walkers and English hounds. It’s even rumored that Roy once owned a colored dog named, “Secret.” Everybody has a favorite breed, but every true bear houndsmen respects any true “bar dog.” When Roy points and says, “Right thar is a bar dog,” everyone knows what he means and that it’s true.
The distribution of bear dogs from these lines is a thing of lore and isn’t understood outside of hound circles. Many of these strains of dogs you can’t buy. They’re not for sale. Breeders keep as many dogs as possible close so they can assess them as they mature and keep them in arm’s reach for future breeding. Breeding only the best hounds develops strong lines, and if you sell 90% of each litter, it’s harder to keep track of them. Almost all breeders have bought and sold dogs at different times, and there’s nothing wrong with it. However, the Laurel Mountain strain stays fairly tight around Roy and some close friends. Such is common amongst bear hound breeders.
To the close friends that have dogs directly from Roy, most were given as gifts. They’ve operated this way over 60 years. Some things can’t be bought with money. The currency of the bear houndsmen is trust, loyalty and commitment to developing hounds that will catch bears. Here’s an example of how a hound might change hands: On the way to hunt one morning Roy was following behind the truck of a fellow Laurel Mountain Bear hunter. The truck pulled up to a stop sign and Roy pulls beside him in the left lane. He flags for the hunter to roll down his window, “Hey, get that little black bitch out of the second box. She’s comin’ on pretty good. Just keep’er.”
The man did as he was asked and said, “Thank you, Roy.” Without saying a word, Roy rolled up the window and drove to the bear woods never making mention of the transaction to his passenger, Kenny. No questions were asked, but something special had just taken place. The man didn’t have any Plotts, but had hunted with the gang for several years. He’d gained their trust and Roy’s gift was the “right hand” of bear-houndsmen fellowship. Transactions like this have fueled the bear hound world for generations. The truth is that Roy could’ve named his price for that hound and gotten it. Men would’ve driven across the country to buy it, but it wasn’t for sale.
It was November 29th and by daylight multiple trucks pulled up on the road by Roy’s kennels. “You take Witch and Magic, and we’ll keep Bart with us,” Roy said. Bart belongs to Kenny Whaley, but is a Laurel Mountain-bred hound. Bart is eight years old and he’s their top trail dog (got the coldest nose). Kenny is one of Roy’s primary riding partners and clearly the gang’s top GPS-passenger-seat navigator. Kenny’s in his mid-fifties, but he can navigate the Garmin better than the younger guys. A driver is only as good as his navigator. Kenny manages the Garmin like a wizard giving Roy play-by-play updates on the race. The team is a like a well-oiled machine, aside from Roy giving Kenny a hard time on a regular basis, and Kenny giving it right back with a big grin and a drip of tobacco on his lip.
Their hunting area isn’t huge and there’s an interstate highway close. These guys travel all over the country and Canada to bear hunt, but when they’re in Tennessee they’ve got to be careful which tracks they run. This affects the way they hunt. “Roy is a master at finding bear tracks in this country,” Kenny said. “He finds more than the dogs sometimes.” The woods are littered in leaves and there is little bare dirt, so you’re not actually looking for a classic “track.” They’re looking for an imprint in the leaves. They drive slowly down the road hoping to get a “strike” from the box. When the dogs strike they’ll get out and analyze the track, which is often nothing more than scuffed ground and indented leaves. It’s truly an art that takes a veteran eye. Based up on the direction, size of the bear and age of the track they determine if it’s one they want to run.
As the truck crept along the road, Roy and Kenny kept their eyes on the ditches. About an hour after daylight the radio buzzed with news of a rig strike. After turning the dogs out they informed Roy what dogs were in the race and the direction they were headed. Within ten minutes of driving, the hounds could be heard in hollow and they sound bayed. “They’re moving ain’t they, Kenny?”
“They’re bayed, Roy,” Kenny said without lifting his eyes from the Garmin.
“We can take the trail right down to’em and see if we can get in front of’em,” Roy said. The hollow overflowed the sounds of bayed hounds. Every step forward the hounds were getting closer. “Boom!” In the distance a shot interrupted the hound music and the race was over. One of the Laurel Mountain gang had taken the mature boar off the ground. Lots of these Tennessee bears won’t tree, and it takes a gritty hound to make them stop. All the crew rallied to the bear and relived the details of the race as if it was a chapter in an adventure novel. “That’s a good bar’ for Tennessee,” Roy said with a sense of pride. The beauty of this type of hunting is that it’s a group effort. It isn’t about the individual. One man had killed the bear, but they all partook of the hunt and told the story like they’d taken it themselves. Such is bear hunting with hounds.
Day two started out the same as day one. The group hustled putting tracking collars on the hounds and decided who’d take which ones. As they loaded dogs, Roy’s 87-year old father-in-law, Britt Davis said, “We should’ve been gone an hour ago.” And they all knew he was right. Shortly after the plan was formulated the trucks went their separate ways to see who could find the most runnable track. Again, within the first hour of daylight the radio lit up, “We’ve got a decent track found,” a voice said.
“We’ll bring Bart,” Roy said as the speed of the truck increased over the rough ground. The track wasn’t hot, but Bart took it and soon other dogs were cut in with him. A short time later, probably within 30 minutes, the cold-track turned into a jumped race as the intensity of the dogs increased to a feverish pitch. The mountains were lit with the bawls, bays and chops of a fresh pack of hounds hot on the heels of bruin! The radios came alive and trucks went in every direction. The race could turn at any minute and there needed to a man at every crossing. There are certain areas where the guys will intentionally turn the race to keep the bear from going into bad areas. Within a few hours the bear was bayed on the ground and another nice boar was harvested. And before the day was over another bear was treed. Just before dark, a youth hunter named Chase killed the third bear after two days of hunting in the rain after walking over mile into a roadless drainage.
Day three started with a hot race and bayed bear before noon. A newer member of the gang took the bear on the ground. Roy and Kenny were on top of the mountain listening to the bay interrupted by the clap of a rifle. “They got’im,” Roy said. “That’s four bears in three days.” The pair jumped in the truck and headed back over the mountain. It was one o’clock and the hunt for the day was basically over. Kenny yawned, “Well, are we going to hunt anymore or head home, Roy?”
“We still might find a bar’ track yet,” Roy said. “We’ll head home but you never know, they may strike a biggun on the way.” As truck rounded the curve, a veteran hound named Witch, bobbed her head up and down in the box and slightly whimpered. Without saying a word Roy stopped the truck, opened the box and turned her loose. Typically, he likes to assess the track and make a decision, but something told him it was right. Later Roy would say, “I wanted to see what she was a’smelling.” Witch took the track up the mountain and Roy alerted the gang what he’d done. Within a few minutes the others arrived and turned in more hounds, and within thirty minutes the bear was jumped!
Zooming down the road several of the guys saw the bear running down a drainage with the dogs hot his tail. “He’s a big one!” one of the guys said. The bear ran into a laurel thicket and walked the dogs for what seemed like an hour. A roar of hound music echoed through the laurels. Several of the guys tried to get into the bay, but each time the bear would break away. He started moving toward a gated road and several hunters headed to cut off the race. Not long after arriving the bear came straight down the hill! He burst into the old road with a black dog within six feet of his tail! A shot rang out, and the bear crumpled. The old boar weighed 336 pounds and the race was a truly a great way to end the hunt.
“It don’t get no better than that. Not in the mountains,” Roy said. Having taken five bears in three days is about as good as it gets. Hound hunting is great tradition that deserves to be preserved and protected.