By Jonathan Lesperance
It was the final day of a five-day bear hunt. The late October morning was cool and the air was crisp, a slight breeze made the conditions perfect for rigging bears. Our anticipation was palpable as we slowly rode through a pinion grove where the growing conditions had been favorable for an excellent hard mast crop of pine nuts – we were in a feeding area with plenty of sign. And then came the strike. When rigging for bears it seems that most strikes occur somewhere on a continuum of 1 to 10, where a one might represent a strike on bear scent that occurred sometime in the last twelve hours and a ten means the bear had passed through within the last hour or less. This particular strike would’ve registered an 11.
The dogs were straining against the rails of the boxes so hard it seemed that the welds were in jeopardy of failing. It was all we could do unclip the dogs on top and get ourselves clear as they bailed over the sides of the trucks, missing the tail gates altogether. This was a hot race, and I figured the bear had been jumped from his feeding routine by the sound of our approaching trucks. We listened intently as the pack raced through the pinion grove and across the top of the rocky plateau that forms the highest point of the mountain we were hunting. Suddenly at several hundred yards out, the pack doubled back and began returning towards the trucks at full cry – and full speed. Unsure of what this scenario meant we urged our hunter to ready his rifle and be prepared for a shot at the bear.
Suddenly we could see the dogs coursing and baying through the undergrowth of the trees as they flanked by us less than a hundred yards away. But where was the bear? As quickly as they returned they were off again directly away from us, running in a roughly “figure 8” configuration. This went on for several more minutes, but after the third return loop we had all had enough of the chaos. We called the dogs to us and set out to hike the edge of the plateau, which was comprised of a sloughing field of volcanic boulders ranging in size from soccer balls to Volkswagen beetles. We could only assume that the bear had slipped through the mess of rocks while the pack had all run head up and bawling with the air being saturated in bear scent.
As we continued along the edge of the plateau I could make out the distinct trail bark of my dog Crank, and judging by how faint the sound was I knew he was far away. I quickly grabbed the GPS and confirmed that he was quickly approaching a half-mile away from us, and in the exact opposite direction of trucks and the rest of the pack. Trailing behind him was a two-year-old dog named Ayla who belongs to my friend and hunting partner, Joe. Fearing the worst, I quickly asked Joe if Ayla was trash broke, to which he replied something along the lines of “Only in broke company.” Crank was now three-quarters of mile away and still moving fast. Being our last day to catch a boar for our hunter (we had previously caught two sows), I wasn’t interested in entertaining a trash race, and so I elected to tone Crank back. If you’ve read some of my previous columns you’ll understand why I was so hesitant to trust this particular hot-blooded bluetick. Feeling rather frustrated, I set out to go collect him and return to the trucks so that we could figure out where the bear had gone.
Crank returned shortly after I had hiked back to the trucks and as I was giving him a stern growl about not chasing deer, I was interrupted by two of the older dogs who went racing by us with wagging tails and trail barking. I stood and watched in disbelief as they took Crank’s previous track step for step. I knew these dogs to be honest, broke hounds, and they were telling me one thing loud and clear – Crank had been right. My frustration quickly melted to regret as I realized I had called Crank off of the bear’s track. Fortunately for us, hounds are experts at forgiveness and Crank was all too eager to be turned back into the race. Several miles and a couple hours later, our hunter had his bear.
While this particular hunt was a couple of years ago, the theme of trusting my dogs is one that comes up repeatedly. In hindsight it’s easy to see that I had enough information to reasonably trust Crank on this particular hunt, though Crank had taught me from very early on to error on the side of caution when he splits from the rest of the dogs as he was giving chase to mule deer as early as four months old! I’ve found that as time goes on, I tend to lean more towards trusting the dogs. After all, it’s their ability to see an invisible world through their sense of smell that allows us to be successful bear hunters.
So when should you trust your dog? Unless you’re certain they’re doing wrong, it’s probably worth giving them the benefit of the doubt. This uncertainty can be excruciating at times, but in my experience the most remarkable stories usually have moments where it is tempting to conclude that the race is over, or the dogs have taken the track backwards, or worse yet that they’re running something they ought not to. But when the dogs pull up treed following those moments of doubt or uncertainty, the feeling of accomplishment and pride for one’s dogs is unsurpassed. Make no mistake here, I am not advocating in the slightest to be lax about figuring out what your dogs are doing. As responsible handlers we need to make every effort to know what our dogs are doing in the field. I routinely hike into the dog’s tracks to try and confirm what is actually going on (or went on, if the race has been called off). After making this effort, if I’m not convinced that there is some mischief going on, I will trust the dogs. Most of the time, anyways.