By Jana Waller
Standing on a ridgeline at the very top of the mountain , we paused to look at the GPS. Not only could we see the hounds were hot on a trail, but we could still hear the unceasing chase echoing below us in the timbered canyon. Music to the ears of any houndsman. The pack was heading in a straight line and moving fast down the drainage. I stood soaking in the beauty of the Wasatch mountain range of Utah, one of the prettiest places I’ve had the pleasure of hunting bears. Its thick oak brush and deep pockets of pines make it ideal terrain not only for bears but other big game including elk, muleys, moose, wild sheep and mountain goats. The surrounding snow capped peaks, from Mount Timpanogos to Nebo, make for a backdrop that’s hard to beat in the lower 48. After thirty minutes or so TJ, my friend and houndsman, looked up from his GPS with a big grin. “Looks like they’re treed!” This was a first for me.
I’ve hunted bears in almost every terrain and with multiple weapons. From spot and stalk in my home state of Montana to running my own baits just over the border in Idaho. I typically spend more time hunting black bears than any other big game species throughout the course of a year. But despite notching over a dozen bear tags, I have never had the opportunity to hunt bears with hounds. Like most predator hunting, it is widely misunderstood, that I knew. Nothing brings out the keyboard warriors on social media like a bear or cat hunt and when you add hounds to the mix the lack of true first hand knowledge seems to increase tenfold. If it was anything like the numerous mountain lions hunts I’ve been on, I knew we’d work hard, cover a lot of strenuois miles and God willing have sore quads and shoulders with a heavy pack out. It’s safe to say that most critics of hound hunting have never actually been on one.
For many years I’ve gone up into Alberta or Saskatchewan for spring bear hunting, but with the border being closed thanks to Covid I decided to put in for a Utah bear tag. My boyfriend John lives near the Wasatch unit and his co-worker TJ Pace is an avid houndsman. John is always sharing hunting stories of TJ and his crew, comprised mostly of plott hounds, with a couple red and blue ticks mixed in. “There’s no taking time off. Between feeding and caring for a pack, to keeping them in shape for the mountains, it’s definitely a lifestyle. My wife Kayce says it’s an addiction and I’d have to agree.” explains TJ. When I pulled up the Utah draw results and saw I was successful I was ecstatic and knew I had to coordinate with TJ and find time that we could give it a solid week in the mountains.
The alarm blared at 4am on our first morning of the hunt. John and I, along with my cameraman Heath Helgert, joined up with TJ at the head of the canyon. All ten dogs bustled with excitement as they stuck their faces through the portholes of the dog box to greet us. It was only an hour later and we were at the top of the mountain, creeping slowly along the dusty roads looking for tracks. Multiple game tracks peppered the road including deer, elk, moose and even fresh mountain lion. The sound of gravel popping beneath the slow turning rubber tires was interrupted by an occasional bark from a dog or two but mostly from their anticipation and not a real strike. “When the whole pack lights up and won’t quit then you know we’ve got something!” TJ described as we rolled slowly through the dust. Heath leaned out the truck window with his camera, capturing the dogs with their noses high working the wind.
It wasn’t long before the pack blew up. TJ slowed the truck to a halt and we all got out to search for tracks in the road. He released a couple of his top dogs to try and pick up the trail. There’s a hierarchy of sorts within the pack. For example, when his best dog “Easy” sounds off you know he’s all business. “Nuts” on the other hand likes to occcasionally bark for no apparent reason. After a while even I could tell when Nuts was giving us a false positive. TJ opened the flood gates and all ten dogs poured out barking and running over the hill in front of us. It wasn’t long however before they started filtering back to the truck. It was interesting to watch them work. If the track isn’t fresh enough they simply make their way back to the truck, load up and get ready to head on down the road. With most of TJ’s dogs being experienced, with a lot of hours logged in the mountains, they knew the drill and they knew it well.
We spent the rest of the morning slowly working the one and only main road that went along the top of the range. I quickly discovered that we’d most likely be putting in the hiking miles on this hunt. There weren’t a lot of switchback roads along this part of the mountain. None, in fact , other than some four wheeler and dirt bike trails. When the dogs are dumped and the chase is on, bears can run a LOOOONG way. And the only way to get to the treed bear is to lace up the boots and start hiking.
We had a couple of other exiting moments that first morning when the pack blew up out of nowhere. It reminds me of September elk season when you’re sitting on a hillside relaxing, almost dozing off, and you are woke with the sound of bugle in the distance that gets your heart racing! From dozing off to an adrenaline dump in seconds. But after barrage of barking turns into sporadic barks and the dogs start to filter back to the truck, you know it’s not a fresh enough trail. As the sun begins to warm up the ground that scent disappates and it can get harder for the dogs to pick it up. That’s when TJ and his hounds get off the roads and take a hike.
John dropped TJ, Heath, the dogs and I off at the head of a drainage and drove the truck down to the trailhead at the bottom. It was a 3 mile hike down a beautiful timbered creek. Muleys bounced off through the quake trees but the dogs didn’t even flinch. They were all business as their noses worked the ground looking for their one intended target. With the different smells of deer, elk, moose, cats and other critters it amazed me how they were so singularly focused. We had another exciting moment on the hike when the pack sounded off and ran over the ridge for twenty minutes but they lost the scent and make their way back to us looking almost disappointed.
That afternoon we did another hike in the mountains, this time making a big loop of about 7 miles. We found what looked to be fresh bear tracks in the mud around a water seep. The dogs spent time running along the creek bed trying to find a fresh trail but the sunny 80 degree day didn’t help as the scent wasn’t strong enough to pick up. After an incredible first day of exciting moments and sore feet we made plans to meet the next day.
Unfortunately John had to auctioneer a banquet in St. George, Utah that evening so it was just Heath and I. We met up with TJ and the furry crew and headed back to the top of the mountain to see what crossed the evening before. On the way up we passed numerous other houndsmen who were lined up to get on to a different road that just opened the previous evening. Not wanting to contend with other hunters we went back up to the top where we started the day before.
It was obvious that Heath and I weren’t the only ones a little tired in the rig. The dogs were noticeably more quiet than the day before but after an hour they were suddenly jump started like a dead battery! We were taking a short walk down a four wheeler trail and in unison the pack blew up and dove off the ridge! TJ watched the GPS as the dogs made their way over to the next canyon, their sound echoing from below. This was definitely a stronger strike then all the previous ones but after thirty minutes I could tell there was disappointment on TJ’s face. Staring down at the GPS he said, “I think they lost it. They’re separating and moving in figure eights.” He backtracked to the original track we found in the dusty trail and started to look on the opposite side of where the dogs dropped off. TJ found another bear track heading in the opposite direction. Shortly after that, one by one the hounds made their way back to the truck. “ I bet they bailed off that way because of the wind direction in their face but I think the bear went this way!” After giving the dogs a little rest in their box TJ let out ol’ trusty ‘Easy’, put him on the track and gave the “Go get him!” command. Easy exploded off the ridge with that classic hound ball and the rest of pack followed.
We listen closely, the sound of the pack dissolving as they moved deeper into the canyon. “They’re definitely onto something! They just went back up and crossed over the main road.” TJ explained as we headed back to the truck. We all stood on that ridgeline watching and waiting to make a move. I stood there in awe of how fast those dogs can move and how far a bear can run. TJ then smiled and uttered those words, “It says treed!”
After moving the truck down the road to get a little closer, we got our packs ready. I was hunting with my Desert Eagle .429 pistol, otherwise referred to as ‘the anvil.’ The gun is a heavy beast but that’s what makes it so fun to shoot, just not fun to pack. It’s decked out with a Vortex Razor 3MOA site and has served me well on numerous other hunts. We headed down the ridge, making our way through the thick oak brush and downfalls. “They’re over on that ridge.” TJ pointed as we made our way towards to distant sounds of the dogs.
The anticipation and excitement is difficult to describe if you’ve never experienced it. We could get to the tree and it be a sow and cub. Or even a younger bear. As much fun as they are to watch and film, it’s not what you’re hoping for. That’s another reason why hound hunting is beneficial for predator management. It gives you that opportunity to get close to the bear to make a good judgment call on the sex and age. With every step you make down the mountain and closer to the tree the anticipation builds. TJ suddenly stopped and pointed across to the densely timbered ridge roughly 300 yards away. “Right there. Through that opening.” He said as I put my binoculars up. A small opening in the timber revealed a beautiful cinnamon colored bear way high in the pines.
It was difficult to talk to one another over the excitement of the hounds as we approached the base of the tall pine. Our smiles said it all. Perched 30 yards above us was a large color phase boar. Along with the obvious telltale sign that it was a male he also had some jewelry. “He’s got an ear tag!” TJ exclaimed looking through my binos. This was the first bear with an ear tag he’s ever treed with a hunter, most likely a problem bear that had been relocated into the nearby mountains. Heath broke out his long lens to capture some great footage and photos while I offloaded my pack, got my pistol ready and walked around the tree looking for a clean shot opportunity.
We were all in agreement on two issues. The beautiful boar was a shooter. And he was in the worst possible position for a shot. He was extremely high in the tree with a lot of thick branches underneath. I was shooting a 240 grain bullet which will definitely pack a punch but shot placement is crucial for a quick, ethical kill. The cameras were rolling well over an hour while I patiently waited for a him to shift his weight and present a different body angle. With the dogs tied back and the noise cancelling ear buds in, I steadied the pistol after giving Heath the thumbs up. A loud shot rang out and the bear climbed up the tree another few feet. Only seconds went by before the boar fell 90 feet, dead before even hitting the ground. A clean quick kill is always a blessing in any hunt, but especially given the hounds safety is a factor.
TJ untied the dogs so they could get their reward, a quick smell and a chew or two, then tied them back as we tidied the bear for some photos and video. It’s important to me to give a prayer of thanks to God for the animal’s life, in that it can sustain ours as well as giving gratitude for the safe adventure we were blessed with. We took the time to get some great photos before skinning him out and deboning all of the meat. Bear meat is one of the most underrated of all game meats and I feel lucky to fill my freezer every time.
I rolled up the head and hide in my Eberlestock pack which rode perfectly for the steep climb out. TJ and Heath divied up the meat. My quads and calves were definitely feeling the first pack out of the spring season but it’s always so rewarding when it all comes together. On the hike out I kept focusing on the gratitude of how the hunt unfolded. TJ and his hounds were incredible to hunt with and it’s experiences like this that make me feel that I’m truly living. I can’t wait to share this episode of Skull Bound Chronicles on CarbonTV.com.
After registering the bear the the DWR office the following day we got news that my bear was actually caught in downtown Orem, Utah a couple of years prior. The problem bear was tranquilized and relocated into the mountains. Two years later he was only two canyons over from where he was released by wildlife officials before running into our crew.