Adam is the very model of a houndsman, with logging boots, flannel shirt and a trucker hat he’s been wearing long before trucker hats were cool. For the past few hours, Adam has answered my bear-hunting questions with one-word answers. In Adam’s world, there is no such thing as an uncomfortable silence. Since this is my vacation from a job that requires too much talking, I soon shut up and enjoy the scenery.
With no small spike of adrenaline the silence is interrupted with the howl of first one, than all of Adam’s dogs. I don’t know if the wetness in my pants is from spilled coffee or something else, but it doesn’t matter.
From Adam’s reaction, he’s been down this road more than once, calmly getting out of the truck to release his strike dog. As I scan the woods for bear, rifle at the ready, he walks down the road, ever-present coffee cup in hand, scuffing the dirt with his boot. I follow his lead, trying to act like it’s not my first rodeo. I nonchalantly point out a bear track.
“Yup,” replies Adam. “See the swoosh?”
These are the most words he’s put together all day. I bend closer to the ground, thinking he’s passing along some great bear-tracking secret. As the strike dog comes snuffling out of the brush, Adam delivers the sucker-punch line that, I swear, sends the dogs into fits of giggling.
“That bear’s got his running shoes on. Let’s go find a different one.”
The morning continued in much the same fashion, with one or two tracks Adam deemed worthy of releasing the pack on. I saw the potential to become addicted to the quick spike of adrenaline provided by the howling dogs and it was hard not to fall in love with the motley hounds packed to the floppy ears with equal parts enthusiasm and courage. But soon, fresh sign faded and we turned off the forest road for home.
The next day, I ride with Brian, no less a houndsman than Adam, but whose youthfulness keeps him talking all morning. Brian’s enthusiasm quickly has me learning about bear hunting. When a strike gives him the opportunity to try the swoosh joke on me, apparently a well-worn staple among houndsmen, I respond instead with a question. “How do you know that bear’s a runner?”
I had been trying to read secret clues in the dust. Brian stated the obvious.
“Look at the size of the track. That small bear’s not going to tree.”
Soon, I learn another way to gauge a bear’s demeanor, when Brian releases a plucky Walker on a hot strike. No sooner had the dog plunged off the side of the hill into the seemingly impenetrable brush, than furious barking had Brian releasing the rest of the pack.
Answering my unasked question, Brian simply said, “That bear’s facing the dog.”
Now faced with uneven odds, the bear decides flight and leads the pack over the mountain. Sometime in the race, one dog had come out to the road, leading Brian to believe the bear was fighting the pack. “She got bit when she was a pup,” he explained. “If she’s off the race, it’s because that bear is turning to fight.”
Twice, I rounded corners to catch the back of the pack crossing the road in front of me, only seconds behind the bear. Soon he tired of the chase and found a tall pine, deep in a valley. When we got to the tree, the dogs’ echoing bays were so loud, Brian had to shout.
“If you want him, he’s yours.”
To a true houndsman, the hunt is over when the bear trees. His dogs have done their job, and his pride is in a job well done. Their pleasure isn’t in the kill; it’s in the dog’s work. The bear wasn’t the biggest, but it was a fighter, had led us on a good race and was a beautiful color-phase, with a cinnamon body, black legs and blonde highlights on his back. Plus, I would find out later, he would eat good, providing a meat as sweet as the song bear hounds sing.
Scott and Angie Denny of Table Mountain Outfitters provides an exciting, affordable bear-hunting opportunity out of their Idaho camp. Hunters ride with hounds in the morning, and sit over well-established baits in the evening. Color-phase bears are quite common in Idaho, giving hunters a chance at a unique trophy. For more information call 307-632-6352 or visit www.tablemountainoutfitters.com. You can e-mail Scott and Angie direct at firstname.lastname@example.org.