The Early Years
When they made the mold for an Appalachian mountain bear dog, they probably took the specs off a little Plott female named Clark’s Laurel Mountain Birdie (aka Annie). She didn’t appear by happenstance, but through generations of intentional breeding. Much bear-hound history stacks up in the bloodlines behind the little gyp. The dog was bred, trained and hunted by a man named Roy Clark. The mold for an Appalachian bear hunter was probably made using him. Few people alive today have as rich a history in Appalachian bear hunting with hounds and the Plott breed as Roy. He is 68 years old and has been around bear hunting since he was born. His earliest memories are of his father wanting him to sit on the back of a pet bear they kept for training hounds. To this day, Roy remembers being scared of it. Needless to say, bear hunting got in Roy’s blood and shows no signs of diminishing. “Bear huntin’ with hounds is like playing cards. If it gets in your blood you just can’t get out of it. You feel like you’ve got to play. Win or lose you’ve got to play,” Roy said.
It all started in the late 1940s when Hugh L. Clark, Roy’s father, starting hunting Charles Gantte’s hounds. These two friends came out of the service, and Charles went on a mission to find and breed top Plott bear dogs. “He went to Ohio and other places to make our stock of Plott dogs,” Roy said. “Daddy hunted them more than he owned them at first. Charles would bring dog food and he’d hunt some, but Daddy mainly hunted’em.” The Clarks lived in some great bear country in eastern Tennessee’s Cocke County near the North Carolina border. Roy’s father worked for the county driving a bulldozer and also farmed cattle and tobacco. Hugh’s father, Charlie, who Roy knew as “Pappy,” was a logger and had broke his leg in logging accidents two different times. “Pappy was crippled but could still get around in the woods. When I was just a kid, I always knew I could stay up with Pappy and I knew I’d be safe.” Pappy was Roy’s ticket to the bear-hunting world of his father. Hugh was known as a tough mountain hunter, accustomed to doing whatever it took to catch bears before modern technology.
Roy went on to describe the earliest hunts that he went on in the 1950s. “My grandpa and daddy, when they started out hunting, I’d get to go with them to the 12-Mile Strip. We didn’t have anything but a log truck, camping gear and dogs. We’d walk from there – no radios or nothing. If was tough to find bears that way.” He remembered. “Everything we had went on that log truck. We’d put hay in the back of the truck and sleep with a tarpaulin stretched over it. Today you’d have to have a tractor-trailer rig to haul all your stuff.” Roy continued, “Daddy used to have me lead a hound. I’d be skidding on the ground being pulled by that dog. I was scared the dog would pull me into a bear!” These days were long before any electronic devices were used to track hounds or communicate with people. It’s amazing that hunters were able to find their hounds in the long races lasting hours that covered miles upon miles. “Hunters had to stay on the high ridges and try to keep within hearing of the dogs. If you found a track, you stuck with it because there weren’t many bears back then.” Roy often speaks of his father-in-law, Britt Davis, riding back in back into the mountains to find Hugh after a long bear race. “Often it would even be after dark. It’s a wonder he’d ever find him.” Roy said. “There’s a lot of bear hunters today that wouldn’t hunt if they had to do it like we used to,” Roy said. “I’ve spent some miserable times out with these dogs, the bears would get away and go through yonder.”
Roy continued, “Back in those days when you lost a dog, somebody would write you letter when they found it. They’d have him tied up in their yard, and it would take you a full day to drive those old Jeeps out into the mountains to pick it up.” Road systems in the 50s, 60s and even 70s weren’t nearly as good as they are today, and neither were the communication systems.
Over 60 years later, in the same mountains and with same line of hounds, the Clarks are still chasing bears. “We ain’t never had no money to speak of, and probably if you had everything you’ve spent hunting and you had in one pile in front of you, you’d wonder, ‘Why did I do it?’” He never expounded beyond this statement, but it was implied that he’d do it all over again if he had the chance. Such is the nature of hound hunting. In modern times it’s a breath of fresh air to find people so deeply connected to their hunting roots. This may be even more significant than the actual bear hunting and hound breeding.
A Lifestyle of Hound Hunting
As Roy got older he began to carve out a living in the mountains of Tennessee, but the underlying theme was always hunting and training hounds. He went into the United States Army from 1968 through 1970. After coming home, he worked in a factory for seven years. He then worked for the county as the General Sessions Court Clerk for 12 years. He also farmed tomatoes, tobacco and cattle. Roy was quick to admit, “I’m just telling you the truth… I’ve worked, but I didn’t like it as much as hunting and fishing.”
For those not in the bear hound community you might wonder why a hound breeder couldn’t make money selling pups from his well-known line of hounds (which Roy’s would become). Many breeders, including Roy, keep most of their line of hounds within certain circles of friends and family. Roy explained, “I don’t sell no pups much, and I keep them amongst us and amongst my friends.” By doing this it gives the breeder access to breed back into the best dogs of the litters. They’re also able to track entire lifetimes of hounds and assess the breeding program more extensively. By selling hounds to strangers you can’t guarantee the full potential of the hound will be realized or that you’ll get any report on how it turned out. On a more human level, breeders work their entire lives to produce of a strain of dogs that suit them and many just want to keep them close. In today’s capitalistic society, an attitude that values principle over profit is rare.
In the early summer of 1995 he made a cross between Clark’s Laurel Mountain Leroy, a full blood Gantte bred hound, and Clark’s Laurel Mountain Becky who was a half Gantte and half Cascade bred. The female had come from a cross made by Roy’s good friend, Hoyt Dillingham of Barnersville, North Carolina. This cross produced Roy’s favorite hound of all-time, Clark’s Laurel Mountain Birdie, but she went by Annie.
Annie was born August 8, 1995 to a litter of only three pups. From a young age the hound seemed to pick up scent that the others couldn’t. “Because it was a young dog, I usually just ignored her. But later I realized she was a smelling a bear.” The adult weight on Annie was about 40 pounds when in good hunting shape. Roy describes his line of hounds, “Medium boned and medium eared Plotts. Most of’em from a distance look solid black, but they’ve got some dark brindle. I get some Maltese every now and then.”
Roy went on to describe Annie, “I’ve had some good hounds, but if I had to pick one to hunt with it’d be Annie.” Roy said, “When you took her off the chain and put her in the truck there wasn’t anything on her mind but bear. Many-a bear hunters have had some good dogs, but she was something special. She was the bear-mindedest dog I’ve ever seen. She would strike bears you couldn’t believe how far they were. I had bear hunters follow me around to watch her strike.” Rigging bears what was made Annie special. She could find bears that other hounds never knew were there. “If she barked and you let her loose, you’d have yourself a bear race,” Roy fondly recalled.
“I’ve had her strike bears from the road and she’d go 100 yards up the mountain and 200 yards down the other side to find the track she smelled.” Once she rigged a bear track that another hunting party had found, so Roy didn’t turn on it. For the next two days she rigged that track when they drove by. “I don’t know if she remembered where it was or if she could smell it, but she rigged it three days in a row.” A story that stood out was when he and R.L. Leatherwood loaded six dogs into a single box and headed out hunting with a skiff of snow on the ground. Roy recalls the box had only one door (with holes), but no side ventilation. Roy’s father, Hugh, had already driven the road with hounds in the box about an hour before. As they drove Annie began to bark. Roy said, “She smells a bear.”
“No way.” Mike said.
“Let me out,” Roy exclaimed.
“Annie pulled me up the mountain and we found the track,” Roy said. They ended up treeing the bear. “With six dogs in the box and only one hole, she rigged that bear. I think that’s pretty good. The reason she was so good to hunt was that if there was a bear to be found, she’d find it.”
What about Annie’s speed and nose? “If a bear was going to tree, and you couldn’t get another dog on the race quick, she’d tree it by herself. She was very fast. She was probably too fast. Some say that dogs that run too fast can hurt the rest of your pack. They may be right. You can tree a lot of bears with a fast dog! Speed kills in bear hunting!” Roy said. When asked what his dogs are most known for he said, “I’ve got good speed with these Laurel Mountain Plotts. Good speed trees a lot of bears.” He went on to say, “If you’re rigging hot bears, nose isn’t a big deal. If you’re hunting over a bait you don’t have to have much nose. But when you’re hunting in the mountains and you’ve got have something to trail,” Roy explained. “Nose doesn’t come in all of them and it’s hard to find one with a really good nose.”
Roy told another story about Annie, “We hunted that morning and checked all of our places and we didn’t find a bear track. I took Annie into some good bear country and free cast her. And about an hour later, she opened on a bear. We got her packed with about nine dogs and they treed a 500-pound bear. She was bear minded.” Annie was one of those hounds that had knack for turning up game. “She wasn’t real nervy, but she’d bay a bear all day.” Roy uses the term “nervy” to describe what many might call “grit.” He says that he used to prefer a really “nervy” hound, but that’s changed a little.
Annie was a prime candidate for raising pups, however she only produced one litter. “I got one gang of pups out of her, none of the pups turned out very good. When you get to the top you’ve got no way to go but downhill. That’s my theory. Out of the best dogs I’ve had it’s hard to get them to hold up their standards.” Roy said, “They ain’t never made a dog that didn’t have a fault, but they make dogs that you don’t mind their faults because of what else they can do.”
Annie lived to be eight-and-a-half years old before she passed. “Her last year she had kidney failure, but I took her to South Carolina. I took her so I could take care of her and say I took her hunting,” The old hunter said. “When we started, I put her on the truck and she struck a bear! ‘Another one bites the dust!’ I said. We killed that bear.” Roy continued, “I’ve had some just as good as her, but to tell you the truth, if I had to pick one dog I would pick her and simply because when you put her on the truck, if their was a bear in the country you was gunna have a bear race. No telling how many bears she caused to get killed that other hunters didn’t know was in the woods.”
Later that year in the winter of 2003, Annie’s kidneys began to fail. Roy spent $4,500 on the vet trying to save her, but she never got better. The year before a man in Florida had offered $7,500 for Annie and another female named Parvo. Roy “dodged him,” in his words. No one could have foreseen it, but both hounds wouldn’t live another year. Annie died of kidney failure and a hunter accidentally shot Parvo.
“The better they are the more you get attached to them. I’ve had some good dogs over the years, and I guess other guys have too, but you get attached to the ones that are yours. You can buy a bear dog, but it means more to me to breed it and raise it yourself.” Annie meant a lot to Roy Clark. Considering she’s the hound he considers his top hound says a lot. The efforts of generations of breeding only yields a few dogs like this in a lifetime.
Roy said they treed and bayed from 50 to 100 bears per year through out Annie’s lifetime. Conservatively speaking Annie was easily on over 500 caught bears. Roy and his hunting partners have hunted Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Canada almost every year for decades. Roy was quick to give credit to all the “boys” that currently hunt with him. In his words, “Those boys are good. If you don’t want a bear caught you better not put them on it, cause they’ll catch it.”
In closing, bear hunting with hounds isn’t for the faint of heart or the uncommitted. True houndsmen, especially from the Appalachians, are tough as nails and dedicated to their pack all year round. It’s really special when you find someone as dedicated to the sport as Roy Clark.
Special note from Roy Clark: I’d like thank my daddy, the late Hugh Clark. I believe he was as good a bear hunter as ever walked in the woods. I’d also like to think my daddy-in-law, Britt Davis who was my daddy’s hunting partner. I’d like to thank the late Charles Gantte for all that he did for my family and his help in supplying us with some dogs.
I’d like to thank Ronnie Bateman, Gerald and Ira Jones, the late Hoyt Dillingham, Chris West, Pete Thomason, Lance Eves (Canada), John Lockhart (British Columbia) as we’ve all bred dogs together over the years.
I’d like to thank my hunting friends and family for what they’ve done for me: Jerry Holt Jr (Spanky) and Jared Holt, R.L. and Sunny Leatherwood, Alvin David and Josh Ford, Floyd Ray Ford, Scott and Raile Childress, Mathew Raines, Jordan, Shane and Michael Davis, Mike (Hoss) and Sarah McHaffey, Ricky, Ethan and Tanner Rhinehart, Mike and ‘Big Jim’ Morgan, Randy Broom, John David Clark, Bill Denton, William Roy Carlisle, Tony Cook, Kenny Whaley, Jim and Sherry Reanu, Doug and Jr Woods, Charles Hensley, Tinker Clark, Hurkey Combs and Nick Banks. Also Terry Craig, Donny, Ryan Batey and Jake from Canada. And I’d like to thank all of my friends I’ve hunted with over the years as I know I’ve left some out – Thank you, Roy Clark