“It’s somebody who is completely devoted to the dogs and is serious enough that it’s not a passive hobby. To be a big game houndsman and a devoted breeder and trainer of big game hounds, you have to be one hundred percent in,” said Leon Brown when asked to clarify his reference on what it means to be a true bear hunter with hounds. “The day I decide that I can’t hunt those dogs like they should be hunted, I’ll get rid of every one I have. It has to be one of the biggest priorities of your life. They don’t have to be ahead of your creator or your family, but it better be close to ahead of everything else or you’re never gonna get there.”
Taking hound hunting seriously runs in Leon’s blood in the same way that grit runs through the veins of his Plott hounds. He is a second generation houndsman that has been hunting with hounds since his father, Tony Brown, had him in the woods on a treed bear at four years old in 1980. Tony dedicated much of his life to breeding and training his “Big Pine” line of Plott Hounds. That experience with his father and his upbringing with hounds laid the foundation for how Leon designed the life that he leads to this day.
Leon has been a hunting guide for 20 years and has owned Clark Fork Outfitters in Northern Idaho for the last 10. His outfit guides hunts for multiple big game animals, but hunting elk and black bears with hounds is what gets Leon “the most fired up.”
Big Pine Buddy
There was one bear hound, though, of the Big Pine Plott hounds that really stood out to Leon as he himself was coming into his own as a hunter. “The same year I got my driver’s license, (Big Pine) Buddy was a yearling dog. I was about 16 and he was about a year old, but he hadn’t started treeing yet.” Leon expressed that there was some concern about Buddy being able to turn the corner on his treeing ability at that time.
“Then we went hunting one day and treed this bear up on a hill. I could tell the bear was treed low or something because it was very intense the way the dogs were treeing.” When Leon rounded the corner there was Big Pine Buddy, “and he was treeing like a machine,” said Leon. The pack, with Buddy catalyzing the group, had treed a sow black bear with two cubs that was working up and down the tree trying to keep the dogs at bay while also keeping her cubs atop the tree. “That day flipped his switch and he was a great tree dog for the rest of his life.”
Later that spring, as Leon was still learning to recognize Buddy’s great intensity on a caught bear, he was on a hunt with his friend, Joe Meyers. “The dogs got on this bear really quick and this one dog was just baying every breath.” The dogs stuck with the bear up and over the mountain as Leon and Joe picked up their packs and firearms to follow suit.
They found the dogs had treed the bear just over on the backside of the mountain. “I never even got a chance to tie dogs up. As soon as I approached the tree, that bear tried to come out of the tree over the top of my head and I shot and killed the bear. It was like a barrel-to-hair type deal.” The hound showing that intensity on the caught bear - “That was Buddy. When we added him into that bay-up scenario, there was a whole new dynamic to it. Just listening to it was a whole different deal.”
“From that point forward if he was on a caught bear, he was caught for good. He had a tremendous amount of just ‘stick’.”
When Leon was concerned about Buddy’s ability to tree a bear, he was as aware as any houndsman that even with solid breeding and bloodlines nothing is guaranteed. However, when that treeing switch got flipped, he was also reminded why bloodlines matter.
Big Pine Buddy was born in the early 90’s out of Carney’s Smooth Gabe and (Tony Brown’s) Big Pine Sierra. Smooth Gabe had originally been sold by Carl Carney (a fellow houndsman and hunter considered a close friend by Leon’s father Tony and a mentor to Leon) to a hunter named Dan Snyder. While hunting with Mr. Snyder, Smooth Gabe was nearly completely crippled by a bear, so he sold Gabe back to Tony as a stud dog.
This was significant because Smooth Gabe was sired by Carney’s Gabe, who was out of Carl Carney’s Slapwater Jack and All Heart Millie. All Heart Millie was a less publicized litter-mate to well-known legendary hound Bear Path Gunner of the Herd family’s Bluff Creek Hounds.
Thus, Big Pine Buddy was the great-grandson of All Heart Millie and the great-nephew of Bear Path Gunner. This would also be true of Buddy’s half-sisters —Big Pine Tara and Big Pine Velvet – who all shared Smooth Gabe as a father. Velvet was out of Smooth and Big Pine Jane and Tara from Smooth and Doug Setters’ Thorn Hollow Jan.
Those hounds all showed many strong qualities alongside Buddy on many of his legendary hunts. “They had more ‘stick’ on the bear than any of the dogs I’ve ever seen. The whole pack did, but Buddy was the catalyst to how that whole group of dogs would stay on a bear.”
That “stick” was in their blood. One of Leon’s hunting mentors, Dave “Fuzzy” Frost (a local hunting legend in his own right) and Dave’s hunting friend Ruben Rich, were hunting with Carl Carney once and killed a bear after a 72-hour bear race with Millie.
Bayed All Night, Over and Again –
There were no 72-hour treks, but there were multiple times when Buddy, Tara, and Velvet (the littermates) paired up with Big Pine Tarzan and Big Pine Jane (among others) to chase bear in multiple states and for months on end. “I hunted May, June, and July in Idaho, and then I would go to Washington and hunt August and the first half of September. Then I’d come back to Idaho and hunt the second half of September and beginning of October. Then after elk hunting for a week, I’d head to Northern California and hunt there late October and often into early November.”
On one those Northern California hunts with Leon’s friend, Bob, the dogs struck a bear at high noon, raced hard for a solid eight hours, and then got hung up overnight baying and walking the bear for miles of mountainside and through thick, Manzanita ridden country. After sleeping in the truck with his dad and taking a long and arduous hike up the mountain, Leon heard a gunshot. His father (who had taken a different route to the dogs) had reached the bear first. Leon looked down at his watch, it was 10:30 a.m. Buddy, Tara, and Velvet (who was fresh off of reconstructive surgery after being hit by a truck) had stuck on that bear for 22.5 hours.
Leon also shared stories of two other hunts, both of which were on the same black bear that his pack had caught multiple times over. It lived in a drainage in what is now part of his guiding area in Northern Idaho. Both hunts, one with his close friend, Chris Leyden, and another with a new, young hunter named Stephen (who made an ill-thought decision to wear shorts into Huckleberry country), lasted through the night. Both times Buddy was there from start to finish—once for 14 hours and another for 16 hours.
In all three of the longest bear races of Leon’s hunting career that ended with a caught bear, Big Pine Buddy was there. “He just really showed me what a dog should look like on a caught bear,” he shared. “He wasn’t the best all-around dog—he didn’t have the best nose—but he was one of the best dogs I’ve ever seen on a caught bear.”
Buddy’s Death –
Buddy was eight years old when he was tragically killed by a mountain lion on his first ever lion hunt. “Dad never cat hunted him at all,” said Leon, “I don’t know what made dad decide to bring Buddy that day.”
The dogs got on a good 152 pound Tom, but after an attempted frontal shot on the treed cat with Leon’s .44 Magnum Pistol by his friend Eric, a bloodtrail ensued.
“Dad and I started tracking the lion. It took off down the hill, but then it made a big loop and came back and got in our boot tracks, so it started tracking us.” They cut the hounds loose again. The loop made by the big cat across the hillside caused the dogs to fan out in search of their quarry. “Buddy was first to the lion. I could hear his strong bay barks about 50-100 yards off—he was caught. I took off running, but before I got there Buddy went silent. When I arrived, I saw that lion looking right at me. Buddy was pinned up under his front paws. I shot the lion and he rolled off of Buddy.”
Leon discovered Buddy was mortally wounded by multiple bites to the chest. He went on to share the two takeaways he took from Buddy’s death. First, the frontal shot on a lion is not one he believes should be taken lightly. Second, “You don’t take a bear dog that’s been a bear dog all of his life and cut him loose on a lion. He tried to bay that lion just like he’d bayed every bear he’d ever been on in his life—right up in his face.”
That close quarters, high-pressure baying from Buddy—the very thing that solidified his legendary status amongst his peers—is sadly what led to his passing that day. These are lessons that Leon carries with him always.
Guard the Gate –
Buddy’s legend lives on to this day, but not just because of the stories and abilities that made him great. Things of legend are always larger than life and Buddy’s legend lives on because it was always larger than him.
“To me, the legend is even more about the bloodline than any one dog. It’s about three West Coast bear hunters (Tony Brown, Carl Carney, and Doug Setters), who a lot of guys never even heard of. It was the breeding that those guys did that produced those dogs—the whole pack of them.” As the owner of Thorn Hollow Jan, a fellow hunter, friend and mentor, Leon holds Mr. Setters in high regard as a dedicated and underrated contributor to the Plott bear-hound world.
I asked Leon why it was important for us as hunters to fight for the right to hound hunt across the country. “It’s multi-faceted,” he replied after a long pause, “It’s as much about family tradition and building a family tradition—carrying on my dad’s legacy.”
He went on to reference his wife and children and multiple friends and mentors by name, guys like Carl Carney, Dave Frost (Fuzzy), Oliver Smith, and many others who he feels played an influential role in the legend of Big Pine Buddy and all of the Big Pine hounds.
Of his father, Tony, he then mentioned the strong sense of stewardship, “Right or wrong, he always did what he felt would be best for the Plott Breed and for Plott Bear Hounds. He always thought he was the keeper of something that was bigger than him.”
It was “bigger than him” in the same way that the ideals of family, faith, tradition, hunting, living close to the land, and living close to each other are all bigger than us. These are the things of legend. These are the things we are fighting for. Guard the gate.