By Clay Newcomb
We cut the hounds loose with the rising sun as the late-October air turned our breath into visible vapor. Calling each hound by name out of the box, Strait put the collars on the dogs with nary a lead strap ever touching them. We’d saddled the mules in the dark before we left, but my mule, Izzie, had thrown a youngster-mule fit, the bucking kind, for no good reason. Luckily, I wasn’t on her back. Now, standing tied outside the trailer, though calmer, her feet shuffled nervously. This was her first morning in New Mexico. Strait’s mules are seasoned western saddle mules and they stood like granite monuments eroded into shape by hundreds of mornings of the same routine. It was late in the year to be bear hunting, but Strait Sedillo, a lifelong New Mexico resident said, “It’s a good time to catch a good boar.” We’d give it a try.
Strait is 25-years old, he’s six-foot-six-inches tall and built as tough as a ponderosa pine. He’s a man of few words, but the ones he speaks are substantial. Wearing leather chaps, with the stock of his 30.30 protruding from the scabbard, Strait can’t hide his Western roots. He once dunked a basketball after a fast-break steal at a high school game despite his no-nonsense coach forbidding such flagrant showmanship. Like many of us, he’s driven by an unexplainable connection to his dogs that defies modern logic, but makes sense in the light of deep human history. Humans hunting with dogs is as primitive and natural as our attraction to fire. The partnership between man and dog is older than recorded history can recount. Using them for protection and gathering meat, the biological success of the human species has been propped up by the domestication of dogs. It’s anthropology, not showmanship.
Brent Reaves and I made the 12-hour trip from Arkansas the day before and planned to hunt for five days. The New Mexican landscaped stretched out in flat, shrubby expanses interrupted only by chains of island-like mountains rising from a sea of juniper brambles, most of which were public land. This is some of the best elk hunting in the country, and they’ve got big mule deer, too. Wherever you have good ungulate populations in the West, you usually have cougars. In the winter, Strait’s pack of bear hounds becomes a dry-ground-lion-catching mob. He likes a dual-purpose pack. It gives the hounds a lot of exposure in learning to trail in tough conditions, and he likes catching both cats and bears.
Bear races are usually fast and furious, but a bruin will try to outrun the dogs by traveling great distances - sometimes you get lucky and catch them quick. A “race” is simply when the dogs are barking in pursuit of the animal. Cougar races are usually colder (an older scent trail), with longer periods of “trailing” ending in a short “jump race.” The “trailing” section of the race is when the dogs pursue scent left by the game on its natural travel pattern. An animal is considered “jumped” when it knows it’s being pursued and tries to escape. For the next five days we’d be pulled into the drama of the race, as if our very existence depended on its outcome. The illogical excitement felt when we hear a full-cry race is only explained in this way – there’s a place in the human brain that equates a barking dog with food for our family. It goes way back.
As we climbed atop the mules, Strait gave a “whoop” and the silent hounds dove onto the trail in front of us, displaying order amidst what seemed like chaos. They hunted like an oversized pack of upland bird dogs. He doesn’t like them to get out of sight because he wants to watch their demeanor and know the exact place they strike a track. He’ll try to find a print in the dirt to confirm the species, size, and direction of travel. Striking a track is when the hounds first smell scent and begin to bark. The dogs will run lion or bear, but he can usually tell what it is by the way the dogs engage with the track. A bear leaves more scent and the race is usually a fast moving raucous. A lion track is usually slower and more methodical. Later in the week, I’d be impressed with Strait’s handle on the hounds. He could easily call them off a started track by voice commands if he didn’t think it was worth running, or if he thought it was a lion.
We’d parked the truck in the flat ground beneath the shadow of a mountain that rose several thousand feet above our starting point. It was the first morning, and we hadn’t ridden more than a half-mile from the truck when the hounds began to bark furiously. All eight blazed away in a hot race.
“You think that’s a bear, Strait?” I said.
“Oh yeah,” he said confidently.
“You think they’ll catch it?” I asked.
“Probably. Sounds like a hot track. We’ll see,” he replied.
The race roared up the mountain almost out of hearing as the bear ran the rim of a small canyon, or what I’d call in Arkansas – a hollow. It sounded like they were going over the mountain, when the cacophony of barks began to get louder.
“They’re coming back this way,” Brent said.
“He headed that canyon and is coming back down,” Strait replied.
The sounds intensified as our mule's ears perked on full alert, as if they were also interested in the race, too. “If we were running deer with dogs in Arkansas, I’d make sure my gun was loaded cause any second we’d be seeing a deer.” The race was headed right for us. It sounded like a freight train headed through the pines.
“Do y’all hear that? Something is running,” Brent said.
“There he is! There’s the bear!” Strait yelled.
A bear about the color of Georgia sweet potato was running full blast sixty-yards away. One of Strait’s eight-month old pups that had pulled off the race was tooling around at the foot of the mules. The pup saw the bear about the same time we did, and with a curious bounce he ran toward the bear without barking. The bear was shocked to be cutoff by the silent hound and ran up a ponderosa pine about 15 feet. The pup looked around in confusion as if the bear had vanished, never thinking to look up or use its nose. We hustled the mules over to the tree as the remainder of the pack barreled down the mountain. Strait and I jumped off the mules as the bear, now regretting his decision to climb, tried to shuffle down the tree. With a mule lead in one hand and a dog lead in the other, Strait began to slap the tree with the lead as the bear charged downward. It was pure chaos.
Trying to keep hold of Izzie, I was yelling at the bear hoping to persuade him from coming down, but our efforts were nullified when he bailed out from eight-feet off the ground! A flash of orange-brown fur burst away from the sounds of the coming freight train. About that time the rest of the pack showed up at the tree, and after making a few circles, they lined out the track and the race was on again. We jumped on the mules and followed the roar of hounds.
A half-mile later we heard the distinct barks of dogs that were looking at a bear in a tree. Elongated “locate” barks filled the hollow and the dogs remained stationary, though very excited. We were able to ride within 200 yards of the treed bear and cautiously walked in, hoping he wouldn’t jump again. The bruin was up a half-grown pine and a beautiful sight it was! However, I immediately knew that I wasn’t going to kill the bear. The beauty of hunting with hounds is that you have plenty of time to judge an animal. It was the first hour of our hunt and I estimated the bear to weigh 150 pounds dripping wet. It was the perfect bear to “tree and free.” We admired the beast, petted the dogs and smiled big smiles before we called the hounds off and headed back to the mules.
“Well, we treed a bear in the first hour of the hunt, Strait. That’s a good sign,” I said. “I’ve got a good feeling about this week.” My optimism would be rewarded, but not with a bear steak and a rug.
A Humbling End
We hunted the rest of the week and covered over 40 miles on the mules. The dogs struck bear tracks every day, but we never treed another bear. We never saw another bear. Just when you think it’s going to be easy, you work your tail off and come home with nothing. The bears beat us.
Sometimes you feel like you deserve an animal after putting in a lot of hard work, but nobody deserves an animal. That’s what makes it so special when we do get one. Driving back to Arkansas, I was proud that we’d passed a young bear and had been beat by the others we ran. The dogs and mules had a great week of hunting and that’s something to be celebrated. Anybody that ever thinks that using hounds is easy or is in any way not fair chase…well, they can kiss my mule.
Freecasting, Rigging and Starting a Track on a Bait
There are several different methods of using hounds to strike a bear track. To take it down another level, this means finding a bear track with fresh enough scent the dogs can pursue it. In states where it’s legal, some hunters use bear baits and trail cameras to start dogs on a track. This is probably the most efficient method, because you usually know what bear you’re running and when he was last there. Secondly, hunters “rig” which means the drive around with their dogs on top of their dog box (or in specialized boxes where their heads stick out). The dogs are constantly checking the air for bear scent and they bark when they smell a bear. The hounds are then cut loose to pursue the animal. With this method you usually don’t know the size of the bear or old the track is. Freecasting hounds is probably the most difficult and simple. You simply turn the dogs loose to find a track on their own. The hunter has least control over the situation, because you don’t get to decide which track to run, they just find one and go. However, a houndsman with a good handle on their dogs can call them off a track if needed. On this hunt, we were at the mercy of the mountain. On the first day we bumped into a smoking hot track very early in the morning, but all the other days we only found older tracks. No matter which method a houndsman uses, it takes a specialized dog to excel in each scenario and they all have pros and cons.