Loose the hounds: Following bear hounds in northern Wisconsin

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Hounds rush off. as released by Heath, to start a training run for bear hunting.
Credit: Dale Bowman

NORTHERN Wis.–Snorting, the black bear crashed through brush with hounds snarling and baying just behind, unseen in the lush summer green. Standing on a forest road, I timed it well enough to snap a photo as the bear broke across in a full-stretch dark streak.

“Do you think you could have shot it?’’ asked Pat, patriarch of a hound hunting family.

“No,’’ I said. “I would not have even gotten a shot off.’’

Bear crosses a forest road with bear hounds close behind on a training run in northern Wisconsin.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Bear crosses a forest road with bear hounds close behind on a training run in northern Wisconsin.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Not sure what I expected from tagging along on training hounds for bear hunting, but it was one of my all-time experiences, doubly so because our 15-year-old daughter Sara wanted to come along.

Make no mistake, bear hunting is blood sport, especially with hounds. So our host family of hound lovers, Heath, son of Pat, his wife Laurie and their daughter Sierra, asked that I not use their last name.

And I mean family. Heath began going along as a 3-month-old; he and Laura started Sierra about as young.

Their home pays homage to bears from decorative paws outside to bleached bear skulls and cured hides inside.

It was truly primordial, beautiful in animal athleticism.

Bear season in Wisconsin runs five weeks, this year beginning Sept. 7. There is a split between using dogs and not using dogs (no dog hunting is allowed in Zone C). Otherwise, this year the first four weeks are open to non-dog hunting, the final four weeks for dog hunting only with a three-week overlap in the middle. There is differences of opinion between bait-sitters and those who hunt with hounds.

“I have nothing against bait-sitters,’’ said Heath, an outdoorsman of the sort I’ve met only a couple times. “I do wish they would come hound hunting with us at least once.”

I’m glad we did.

Dog training

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is July and August.

We shared the experience over two days. Sierra, tall wisp of a 12-year-old, handled the hounds like a lion tamer, having them sit on their boxes before she brought us into the kennel to meet them when we arrived.

Heath rebaits the evening before a training run for bear hounds in northern Wisconsin.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Heath rebaits the evening before a training run for bear hounds in northern Wisconsin.
Credit: Dale Bowman

We helped reset baits on a Friday evening. That involved loading Heath’s truck with buckets of bait–mostly old cookies–and the two girls.

At each bait–a hollowed log chunk sitting on a rock (so it can’t be dug out) and a heavy rock on top (so raccoons can’t easily tip it)–either Sierra or Heath raked around it. That way tracks showed if the bait was disturbed. If there are cub tracks, they won’t run that sow.

“One thing about baiting every day is you get to enjoy the outdoors,’’ said Heath, who stopped several times for us to pick blackberries. “It forces you to smell the roses.”

He showed me bear chews and clawings on trees.

The three generations have nine hounds, mostly mixed (hunting heart matters, not the papers). `Cuda was a young purebred treeing walker Sierra won at field trials. There was Grit, a tri-color walker who sired three black and tans: Loco, Freak and Hoax; Slash, a black and white; Rough and Rosie, both brown and white English walker types; and the young Saint, also sired by Grit.

Our Saturday training run, meeting in 5:30 a.m. darkness, was for the younger dogs.

Almost right away there was a disturbed bait with no cub tracks. The hounds were raring to go. Heath had to hold back the others when he loosed Grit and Hoax.

First the dogs cold track from the bait. Once they jump the bear, it is “running hot.’’ And even I could tell the difference in the baying of the hounds. Other hounds are added as Heath felt necessary.

Bear print on a training run for bear hounds in northern Wisconsin.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Bear print on a training run for bear hounds in northern Wisconsin.
Credit: Dale Bowman

As we waited for the dogs to jump the bear, their baying spooked another bear. I saw it come out on high lines and first thought it was a dog, then saw it was a young bear, a bonus.

When Heath and I stopped to listen to the dogs at one ravine, we flushed a late-roosting flock of wild turkeys, another bonus.

Half an hour in, Heath said, “Looks like they treed him.”

Hunts can be that short.

“You can sit on the road and wait for them to come out or you can go in and get them,’’ he said.. “I’m a go-getter.”

I walked back in about 3/4 of a mile with him in the toughest walk of my life. Heath peels off yards like Walter Payton in the 1970s. And I think Heath went slower than usual so I could stay within sight.

When the bear moved, Heath walked straight across a bog. I mean sloshing through cranberries, water and vegetation

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I didn’t know.

Then the bear moved again and Heath headed back to the truck. This time on a logging road and I was able to hang.

“That’s hunting to us,’’ Heath said. “It is not just killing.’’

With the GPS on each dog, rather sophisticated Garmin technology, Heath is able to follow each dog. And correct them if they run off on other game, such s deer.

When the bear stopped again, Heath went tearing off. I stayed with Pat. But even in his mid-70s, Pat was not slouch at chewing up yards. He got us close by a deadfall. Then he guessed right and we heard the bear and dogs busting through the woods in time to spot them racing across a logging road.

In another truck, Sara, Sierra and Laurie were within 15 yards at another sighting. Twice more I was within 20 yards but unable to see the bear in the thick cover.

Then without the bear treeing, they began to pull off dogs. Hoax and Grit, even after 15 miles, like any top athlete, did not stop willingly. Some hound hunters use individual horns. Heath uses a distinctive guttural call that cuts through. And the dogs come, even off the chase.

“Even though they didn’t tree that bear, I consider it a complete hunt.” Heath said.

Sierra and her mother Laurie lead the final two hounds back, Sara Bowman is in the background, after a successful training run for bear hounds.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Sierra and her mother Laurie lead the final two hounds back, Sara Bowman is in the background, after a successful training run for bear hounds.
Credit: Dale Bowman

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