By: Danny Boppe
On December 29, 2020 I loaded up my hounds, dropped the baby off at daycare and headed to the mountains. I went to a hollow with an old National Forest Road that runs along a creek where I had been successful before. I left the truck on foot and started up the hollow, free casting my three hounds up the road. About half a mile from the truck they opened on a cold track that led up the creek beside the old road and in the road itself. As we went up the hollow, they all barked with much enthusiasm, but the going was slow. I was fortunate to see the cold trailing work that is usually missed while pursuing bear in the Southern Appalachians due to the terrain and thick cover. After a quarter mile of cold trailing, the track left the main hollow and went up a small side hollow to the south. About 150 yards from me, my eight year old male Walker started barking treed. This wasn’t too exciting because occasionally while cold trailing he will stop and tree for a minute before he moves on. He had already done this a couple times while he was within sight earlier that morning. One thing I had not considered was that his tree bark sounds exactly like when he is baying a bear on the ground if it isn’t moving. When my five year old Walker/Bluetick female arrived only moments later, I knew the game was on. She loves a good fight and when she burst onto the scene her war bellow made it perfectly clear what was going on: they trailed the bear to its bed and it didn’t run. My 18 month old pup was nearby and soon joined in the fracas, albeit cautiously due to an encounter with a sow bear earlier in the season.
While they bayed, I attempted to get closer but to no avail. Twice I got within 100 yards and twice they moved. On the third attempt I closed the distance in the laurels but could not see the hounds until I was within 30 feet. I saw the pup to my left and located my old male straight ahead. My bluetick was to his right and after careful examination I found the bear’s head protruding from around a tree. Knowing the location of all three hounds and not wanting the bear to spook I quickly drew bead on the bear’s head and took the shot, filling my bear tag for that year.
After taking a few pictures, I cut up the bear and headed to the truck with a backpack full of meat and three happy hounds on my heels. The time between leaving the daycare and leaving the meat processor was less than five hours. I had two finished hounds and a pup. There was no rigging, baiting or leading hounds involved. This wasn’t a fluke or an accident and this wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten a bear alone with just these hounds. All it required was unwavering dedication, years of hard work, and a couple of random coonhounds to work with.
To fully understand the significance of this story, you need to know there are two main barriers to entry to hound hunting for black bears. They are finding a mentor/hunting party and finding good bear hounds to work with. Finding a mentor can be difficult in my part of the country because most Appalachian Americans are extremely distrusting of strangers. If you do not live in an area where your family has been for at least three generations and the local bear hunting community can verify it, you will just about have to marry into a hunting group. I am not condemning this system, but it makes it extremely difficult to get into bear hunting if you happen to be from out of town. So, assuming you would rather marry for reasons other than joining a hunt club, you can create your own hound pack and get started by yourself. With this you are still left with the even more impossible task of finding good bear hounds to hunt with.
This second barrier can be overcome more simply than one may realize. First you must know that outside of exceptional circumstances, good bear hounds cannot be bought, they must be raised. Fortunately, the types of pups necessary are relatively easy to come by. If you are going to hunt bears with dogs you need to make sure that they have the instinct and the necessary drive to run predator game to ground. You can get this type of dog from a bear hunter but a problem occurs if you are trying to hunt with a small pack of two to three dogs. You will be hard pressed to find a bear houndsman who is breeding dogs and understands their potential on the individual level. This is because most bear hunters are using large packs of hounds and seldom have the time to give an individual hound the attention necessary to fully develop its potential. With a large pack the short comings of the individual are overcome by the strengths of the whole. This is fine if you have ample space and resources to keep a large pack. If you don’t have the space or resources to support a large pack, and you don’t know other bear hunters to run your hounds with, you cannot afford to have hounds that will not develop into a complete bear hound at maturity. By complete bear hound, I mean one that can be trusted free casting, is easily handled off leash, can cold trail an old track, will rig from a truck, can be roaded, will catch and tree its own bear and stay with a fighting bear for at least a few hours without help. With two hounds of this caliber that work well together you can catch plenty of bears.
I suggest using the coonhound as the foundation of starting a small bear hound pack. Coon hunters almost always hunt a smaller number of dogs and typically put in the effort to finish their hound whether it’s for competition or just pleasure. Due to the nature of the sport, it is much easier when searching for puppies to get proof that the sire and dam can find and tree their own game. Coonhounds are also more readily available than big game bred hounds. If you get two pups from a litter of coonhounds, regardless of the breed, starting them on raccoons and then making the switch to bear is not difficult. With only the slightest of encouragement you can turn a coonhound into a bear hound. This may be contrary to what big game breeder will say but, in my experience, the surest way to have knowledge of the individual performance of the pup’s lineage is to look at coonhounds. In the small bear hound pack the performance of the individual hound is everything.
A key to this endeavor I am laying out is to manage your expectations and to have a realistic idea of what success looks like. An abridged version of the process is that you win the pups over by making them your buddies while simultaneously teaching them simple discipline. Once it is established you are the master and they work for you, it is time to start training for raccoon hunting while continuously expanding the range of exposure for the pups. Once they have matured and are successfully treeing raccoons you can move on to trying to catch bears. A realistic time frame to go from pups to bear catching machines is 3-4 years. This may seem like a long timeline but it takes experience for two dogs to learn how to work a bear, especially in the thick mountain laurel of the Appalachians. The more you hunt them the faster they gain this knowledge and the sooner you are bear hunting. You will find through perseverance that there is a tipping point where these coonhounds you raised start stopping bears enough that you no longer doubt they can and you will start to think of them as bear hounds. Once you reach this point, your confidence will grow and the dogs will feed off it. At the point you are catching bears consistently, you must also realize that you cannot stop every bear you run. However, you will be able to catch enough that you can harvest a bear every year.
When bear hunting solo with only a handful of dogs, the contribution of the individual hunter is much more important just as it is with the hounds. You cannot be successful with this style of hunting if all you want to do is ride around listening to the radio eating Cheetos. There will be no one else to go to the dogs. You must know the terrain and be in good enough shape to traverse it. You must be driven and have the will to go to your hounds as hard as you can no matter how far they may be. Most importantly you need to be a proficient marksman because there isn’t anyone to back you up and a wounded bear on the ground with your hounds is a recipe for disaster. If you want to carry a pistol, I suggest you carry it to a bridge and throw it in the river. A lever action rifle with a short barrel is best for rapid shooting in thick cover. Caliber is not as important as how well you shoot it. When you first get your coonhound puppies you should buy this rifle at the same time and spend the next few years practicing with it.
If you are seeking adventure, like dogs, and don’t have an in with the bear hunting world, I would encourage you to try raising a pair of coonhounds to be your own bear hound pack. Raising puppies to finished big game hounds is very challenging and can be extremely frustrating at times. Stopping and harvesting your first bear with a pair of pups that you raise will give you a satisfaction greater than most any other endeavor. The struggle to overcome all the obstacles that are in your path can be overwhelming at times and you will doubt the sanity of continuing. If you decide to take this on and reach the point where the allure of quitting is great, remember your commitment to the hounds and take them out one more time.