Legendary Bear Hounds Pt. 48

Williams' Thunder

West Virginia offers some of the best black bear harvests in the eastern United States, despite the 2022 harvest figures. The harvest of 1,727 bears comes in at 37% fewer than in the previous year. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources cites shorter seasons and significant decreases in the mast crop as primary reasons for the decrease. Despite the downturn last year, bear hunting and especially hunting with hounds is a very popular pastime for mountaineers and those that travel to the state each year to hunt.

One such native bear hunter is forty-six-year-old Kevin Williams, a security specialist from the Randolph County town of Ellamore, near Elkins, in the northeastern quarter of the state. Williams is married, and he and Elizabeth have one son who is nineteen and is also deeply involved in bear hunting with his dad and his granddad. While Kevin is the storyteller in this tale of their exceptional bear hound, it is his son, Tommy, that picked the dog from the litter on day one and claimed ownership of the dog until his untimely death. Kevin’s father, Tom, is also an active hound hunter, and so the story we have to share is a three-generational affair.

Williams says he grew up in the country where a houndsman could turn his dogs loose without worrying about them. His start into hound hunting began with he and his dad hunting raccoons and rabbits with their hounds, mostly Redbones and Blueticks in those days. “Dad loved the Hammer-bred Bluetick dogs,” Kevin said. “He had a female out of Hammer XV and our first bear dogs were pups off of her.” They also hunted Plott dogs from the Star Mountain line for a time. Kevin recalls being a teenager of about sixteen or seventeen when he and a friend, Perry Long, began treeing a few bears with their coon dogs. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he admits. “We had some okay coon dogs that were stumbling onto bears.” 

Williams’ fortunes began to change when he bought a UKC-registered English Coonhound female named Ginger. “I bought Ginger and raised a litter of pups off of her,” he said. “She was sired by a Michigan Swamp Rooster and a female from Allen Cochran’s stuff here in West Virginia.” Williams bred Ginger to a good English Redtick dog owned by local hunter, Ricky Taylor. He was named Rocky and he wasn’t a registered dog. Out of the subsequent litter, Williams kept a Redtick female he named Spider. 

Spider turned out to be a natural bear dog. Exceptionally cold-nosed, Spider became Williams’ benchmark for bear dogs. He hunted her for eleven years. “She made things happen when nothing else could,” he said. “She was a tried and true bear dog. She had a high-pitched chop mouth on track and tree and was a hard tree dog. I pulled her out of bad spots lots of times,” he added. “I carried her out of the mountains and had stitches put in her. She was tough.” Williams retired Spider when she developed what he described as “a spot of breast cancer.” She survived the cancer and when she was eight years old and healthy again, he raised a litter of pups from her. “She still had the heart and desire but didn’t have the physical strength as before. She couldn’t keep up and I retired her. I built a ten-by-ten chain length pen for her and when it was cold, she lived inside in an area where she could be herself. It was like she was living in the house. She definitely earned her right to be part of the family,” he said proudly.

Williams tells a story of a hunt with Spider: “My son killed his first bear off of her. They both were seven-years-old at the time. They grew up together. We were hunting in Tucker County; I had walked her down around a farmer’s cornfield where the bears were doing damage. She cold-trailed out of it and none of the other dogs could go with her. She caught the bear and was walking and fighting it. We had the old Garmin Astro handhelds with the DC-30 collars then. She was about 500 yards off the road. I was walking in there to try to give her some help or to get the bear killed when she treed it. I radioed my buddies that I was at the tree. The bear had bitten Spider through the back and ribs, but she stayed and treed the bear. The bear was up a small maple tree that really wasn’t suited for a bear to climb. We got Tommy into the tree with a gun. He shot the bear twice in the ribs with a TC Pro Hunter 7mm magnum. We held a little of the recoil off him, but he did the shooting. Spider, her whole life, never did anything halfway. Even when she was young, she was all in, whether alone or in company.” 

The next year, Williams raised a litter of pups off Spider and Caleb Markwood’s English dog, Thunder. He had a lot of the Woodstock breeding of Ed and Steve Allen’s in Kentucky. “I had a Walker dog at the time that was a pretty good hound,” Williams said. “I was just days away from putting Spider in the pen with him when I found Caleb online. We had a long conversation and he told me some stories about Thunder. He said he was a cold-nosed hound that didn’t need any help. I told my wife that I was going to breed the man’s dog. It worked out great. There wasn’t a bad pup in the litter.”

The litter from the breeding of Thunder and Spider consisted of eight pups. They were all either red and white or were Redticks. The sire, Thunder, was killed before Williams was able to hunt with him. He kept four of the pups until they were six months old and wound up keeping two of them for their lifetimes; one was a white dog with a red spot on his head and a spot at the base of his tail that Williams appropriately named Spot. Williams still has the twelve-year-old hound in his kennel. 

The day the pups were born, Williams’ son, Tommy, picked the other male pup and named him Thunder. The pup contracted the Parvo virus when he was three months old. When the pup’s first bear season came around, Williams still had four of the pups. “They were the size of beagles and they were trying to take bear tracks in the snow,” he said. “The season ended and then Thunder got Parvo. He had been fully vaccinated and that’s probably what saved his life. I began to work the pups on coons and they began to run and tree,” he continued. “We drug a frozen bear hide for them to play with. We would take it out of the freezer and thaw it out and work them with it. We did that all winter.” William’s son also played tug of war with the pups with an old coon hide.

When spring came around and bears were on the move, Williams was out there hunting and he and his buddies started treeing bears. “When spring came and bears started moving, they were eight or nine months old and started treeing bears and looking like old dogs. Spider had just healed up to hunt when Thunder ran and treed his first bear alone at ten months old. Spider was behind Thunder on the track and I got to the tree before she did,” Williams said. “After that, Thunder never looked back. I told my son, ‘You don’t understand how blessed you are to have them. You started off hunting with Spider, a one-dog bear pack that needed no help, and then went right into hunting with Thunder being a natural behind her.’ He made bear hunting look easy.”

I asked Williams what it was like to hunt with Thunder? “From the start of the hunt until we rigged a bear, when the tracking collar went on him he wanted to be up on the rig. He would stand on the driver’s side and wait to be snapped up. When he rigged a bear, he was 90-percent silent on the track until he jumped the bear,” he said. “If you heard him come barking, you knew he was with the bear. More times than not, if the bark detector started hitting, it wouldn’t be long until he treed. He was extremely cold-nosed. He took tracks that most of the dogs that hunted with him couldn’t take and he would tree them.”  

Bear dogs, especially good ones, have a lot of heart, drive, and determination; apparently Thunder was no exception. “Downpours of rain, deep rivers, no matter where he had to go, it didn’t stop him,” Williams said. “He was a year old when he swam the Middlefork River at flood stage. Just my son and I were running that bear. I told Tommy, ‘The bear chase is over. There’s no way he’ll swim that river.’ I thought for sure the bear chase was done. It was a bad time to be hunting. A rain came in on us and there was water everywhere. He had rigged the bear and he didn’t want to quit. He treed the bear about fifty yards off a four lane highway. There was a deer fence and I held it up for Tommy to slide under and I climbed it. Without the GPS, we may have lost him. It has saved my dogs’ lives more times than anything.”

Williams and his dad, Tom, went hunting one morning. Thunder was three or four years old at the time. “Dad said, ‘We are going to get rained out.’ I told him, ‘It’s my day off and we’re going to go.’ We put Thunder and Spot up on the rig. It was raining hard and Spot came back and loaded himself up. Dad said, ‘You’re going to have to put Spot up and Thunder will be coming.’ He asked, referring to Thunder, ‘Where is he?’ I said, ‘He’s on a bear.’ He took the bear in there across a two-lane highway and treed,” Williams said. “I looked over at Dad and said, ‘Let’s go.’ He said, ‘You’ve got one dog in there and you’re one man. You go get him.’ Right before I got to the tree, it was like God turned the spigot off—it stopped raining. Thunder had a 100 pound bear up a tree, so I backed him off the tree and tied him while I shot some video. I let the bear down and it ran across the road and treed again, this time in a laurel bed with tree tops and greenbriers. It was a real mess.” Continuing to describe his dog, Williams said, “It didn’t matter the weather, hot or cold, he gave me 120-percent every time I took him to the woods. He produced bears on days I probably shouldn’t have had a bear.” 

As is the case with many of the really good ones, Thunder was killed by a bear. “I turned him loose in Tucker County on a bear track in the snow. Thunder was the only dog that could take the track and he jumped it. The other dogs got in on it and the bear went under a rock. It pulled Thunder in and killed him. He was not quite seven years old. “Looking back,” Williams lamented, “I had a dog snap on him and he was tied to the truck. He was barking to get loose. If I had it to do over, I would never have turned him loose. I had caught him off the track because I didn’t know if the track was going into a place where I could get my dog. The other hunters checked it out and said, ‘Yeah, we can hunt there.’ We turned the dogs loose and they ran for about forty-five minutes and put it under the rock.” The hunters carried Thunder out of the woods and when they got home, they waited until Tommy got home from school to bury him. Williams reconciled the great dog’s demise by saying, “There was no other way Thunder would have wanted to die.” 

Williams capped off Thunder’s story with what he says was one of his happiest days bear hunting. “I jumped a bear with Thunder, Sadie, and Spot. They treed the bear five times. Tommy got to it and shot, but missed. The dogs were squalling and fighting the bear. On the fifth tree, we had to walk uphill about 75 to 80 yards. It was treed on a steep spot. I said, ‘It’s now or never.’ I had a pistol and Tommy had a 270. I said, ‘Give me the rifle.’ I shot and it fell and slid about 15 to 20 feet right to us.” Williams’ pride stemmed from the fact that the hunting party consisted of himself, his son, Tommy, his dad, Tom, and his nephew, Caleb. “Caleb has been hunting with us since those dogs were small,” he said. “This was the first time Tommy had actually gotten into a tree by himself. Caleb and Tommy drug the bear out. It wasn’t large and it probably would have lived to run another day if it had stayed up. It was a good day. Dad was driving and Tommy was tracking. It was one of my proudest days in the woods.”