[Photos] Beating The Bush For Bears

Their team of houndsmen and guides have decades of combined experience running bears with dogs. I spent my first morning with Adam, respected as “the man” when it comes to this complicated style of hunting.

by Josh Dahlke

Content Director MORE FROM Josh

In an intense game of hide and seek, we baited and chased elusive black bears with Table Mountain Outfitters in the wilderness of Idaho.

IMG_20160620_082918220-01For five days we didn’t rise to the sound of an alarm clock, and most of us were too tired to be awakened by the nagging rays of dawn. Instead, each morning was loudly announced by a chorus of hunt-ready hounds. These eager canines craved the scent of fresh bear sign and the hot pursuit that’s likely to follow. So did their human companions.

Our six-man crew of hunters joined the black bear hunting experts of Table Mountain Outfitters (TMO), owned by Scott and Angie Denny. Their team of houndsmen and guides have decades of combined experience running bears with dogs. I spent my first morning with Adam, respected as “the man” when it comes to this complicated style of hunting. Adam quickly, methodically drove the Forest Service roads with his pack of hounds at the ready—one dog strapped to the hood of the truck, and several others kenneled in the back.

adam-dogs-soholtWithin a couple of hours, all hell broke loose as the dogs started uncontrollably barking. They had caught wind of a fresh track. Adam hit the brakes, jumped out of the truck and collared each dog with a Garmin GPS transmitter, which sends a signal to handheld receivers. It’s an uncertain affair—you never know if the dogs will lose the trail or catch up to the bear—but in this case, the GPS confirmed the dogs were on the heels of the bear.

dogs-running-soholt IMG_20160620_104239583-01

“Running bears is kind of like controlled chaos on a massive scale,” Adam explained. “They’re running across mountains and through crick drainages. If we stopped them right now, they’d be pissed. They’re happy right now. This is what they want to do.”

bear-treed-soholtAfter a 10-mile race, the dogs stopped moving on the monitor of the Garmin receiver and the LCD screen read “TREED.” Adam strapped on his cleated boots and told us to sit tight, as he would hike the 1.5 miles to the bear and radio us if it was a bear worthy of taking. We—the shooters—were anxious to join him, so the idea of staying behind was tough to stomach. But Adam knew we had five days ahead of us, and the wise choice would be to save our energy and acclimate to the elevation before taking on the steep, oxygen-deprived slopes that we were unaccustomed to. Less than an hour later, we learned the bear was too small. Contrary to Adam’s wisdom, we decided to trek into the treed bear for a closer look. After an exhausting hike, we reached the riled-up dogs as they barked in victory. The bear—albeit young—was a marvelous sight.

IMG_20160623_163429475-01 IMG_20160621_143313129-01 IMG_20160623_135531918-01 IMG_20160620_194352349-01 IMG_20160621_141958032-01Southern Idaho is wrapped in stunning, diverse landscapes. From Boise National Forest to the rugged Sawtooth Mountains, there’s no shortage of adventures to be found in this spectacular region of the potato state. If you’re ever in the area, find time to venture into the charming town of Stanley and make a stop for breakfast at the Elk Café. After you get your fill of local flavor and friendly conversation, head to one of the many public trailheads for a hike into the Sawtooths. Unless you’re fully prepared and feeling dangerous, stick to the trail—we learned that the hard way.

IMG_20160620_122539839-01-01We only employed the hounds from early morning until lunchtime each day. “There’s no stopping them,” Adam noted. “They’re like heat-seeking missiles.” As the TMO crew knows all too well, there’s always a risk of getting into a race that might last well into the dark of night. So, while the dogs took the afternoons and evenings off, we sat on bait.

bait-barrel-dahlke IMG_20160621_190854897-01 IMG_20160621_190938476_HDR-01My first evening on the bait revealed no bears. Even though I was protected from head to toe in Nomad hunting gear, the mosquitoes viciously swarmed and I couldn’t stop swatting them away. My cover was blown. I dug in my pack to retrieve my Thermacell, but I had left it back in camp. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

ben-bear-1At a nearby bait site, Ben O’Brien’s luck was different. Ben is the hunting marketing manager for YETI Coolers, so his day job of slinging high-performance cooling gear is often connected to his favorite pastime of filling a YETI with wild meat. He scored a stunning blonde color-phase black bear with a bow shortly after settling into his stand. With a perfectly executed double-lung shot, the tremendous beast went only 30 yards before quickly expiring. Just the way it ought to be.

treed-bear-6 treed-bear3Dogs at the ready, our caravan of pickup trucks cut across the gravel roads at dawn the next morning. Not long into our drive, the hounds fired up to alert us of bear in the air. Scott and Angie cut ’em loose and another race was on. This one ended quickly with a treed bear. We traversed a steep drainage to reach the howling hounds and set our sights on their prize. A medium-sized black bear with a cinnamon coat glared at us from above, skillfully balancing on the sturdy limb of a mature pine tree.

evan-bear1 evan-bear3Everyone in our crew had been blessed with bear success during past hunts, but for Evan Heusinkveld, president and CEO of Sportsmen’s Alliance, this great bear would be his first. There are many benefits of hunting bears with hounds—most notably, it gives hunters ample time to analyze a bear up close and determine if it’s the “right” bear to kill. Unless it’s an off-limits bear (in the case of Idaho, a sow with cubs), there is no right or wrong—as the trophy is in the eye of the beholder. Evan evaluated the gorgeous animal, chose the best position for a clean shot, and soon we joined him in celebrating his reward.

rifles1Me, Evan and several others used this hunt as an opportunity to test rifles from the up-and-coming Legendary Arms Works. These firearms are finely crafted to be precision shooting systems. With a buttery smooth action and ultra-accurate barrel resting on a custom stock, all of the LAW rifles are tack-drivers that offer total reliability.

randy-dog-loveThe hunting of black bears with hounds and bait is continually being attacked by anti-hunting organizations such as the Human Society of the United States (HSUS). At face value, it can be easy to convince the non-hunting public that these two means of bear hunting are barbaric, unfair or “too easy.” Four years ago, prior to my first baited black bear hunt, even I had mixed feelings about sitting over an artificial food source. Then I tried it—on two different trips, in two areas with extremely high bear densities—with no success. Easy? Not so much. But this type of issue can’t be settled based on emotion, opinion, personal preference or even tradition … it’s a matter of scientific wildlife management.

IMG_20160620_122519234-01-01Baiting and hounding are the two most popular means of hunting black bears because they’re the two most effective ways of managing the species. Don’t take my word for it—just venture into the habitat of black bears and you’ll face the immediate realization that spotting and stalking, or scouting and sitting, are next to impossible. According to the National Park Service, “It is estimated that black bears’ sense of smell is about seven times greater than a bloodhound’s.” Without the ability to chase bears with hounds or attract them to a controlled food source, hunting the cunning predators is nearly futile. Sure, some spot-and-stalk opportunities exist in their Western range and along coastal Alaska, but responsible management through hunting would be virtually impossible without the aid of bait and hounds.

bear-barking1 angie-dog1“Similar to the attacks on trappers, dog men have seen their fair share of attacks in recent years,” Evan explained. “Anti-hunting organizations have gone after bear hunting with dogs in California and Maine. They’ve tried to stop wolf hunting with dogs in Wisconsin.” In 2012, the California legislature imposed a total ban on bear and bobcat hunting with hounds. As a result, bear harvests have dropped 50 percent and human/bear conflicts have rose dramatically in urban areas. Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Massachusetts have also banned bear hunting with hounds, each case resulting in serious bear management issues. “We need you to help us [Sportsmen’s Alliance] expand our ranks so that we can engage in more battles, and win more fights that will protect houndsmen, trappers and every other type of hunter into the future,” Evan noted. You do that by clicking here to show your support of Sportsmen’s Alliance in a number of ways.

sam-soholt-lynnDespite a recently blown-out Achilles tendon, Brian Lynn, vice president of marketing and communications at Sportsmen’s Alliance, cautiously trekked into a frenzy of TMO hounds after an exciting race. It was the final day of our hunt, and Brian finally got his chance to claim a bear of his own. He arrived at the tree and carefully considered if this was the bear that he’d put his tag on. His answer came quickly and soon he admired a cinnamon beauty.

josh-bear2 IMG_0880Patience paid off, and my encounter with a remarkable black bear came while sitting in a ground blind just 15 yards from a bait barrel. Eerily, we watched the bear approach from the same trail we had walked in on just minutes earlier. At first sight, it was obvious that this was a bear I’d gladly take. I steadied my rifle (and my throbbing heart) and punched a Barnes TTSX bullet through the bear’s boiler room. He went only 40 yards before tipping over.

cleaning-bear IMG_20160330_132227876-01 havalon-bearWhat do you do with a bear after you kill it? I’ve been asked that question a number of times. The bear is skinned and its hide is turned into taxidermy—a way to honor the animal and cherish the memories from the hunt forever. And despite ignorant stigma, bear meat is fine table fare when properly cared for. Cool it quickly, go to work with a razor-sharp blade, and transform each fine cut into food. Remember to share with friends, family and other folks who need a tasteful reminder of why we hunt.

(images 2, 3, 5 and 25 courtesy of Sam Soholt)


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