Hunting Bear with Hounds

When we go down to the woods today we’re in for a big surprise – we hope! … we are going bear hunting.

One of the best chances of seeing a bear is with a pack of hounds. Our tame American hunting celeb and new best friend Jason Bruce becomes the wild man of the woods. He is passionate about hunting with hounds. Raccoons, mountain lions, bobcats are all fair game in California. However just like in the UK, laws are changing and this is probably the last legal bear hunt to take place. From January 2013 bear hunting with hounds is banned in the state of California.

It is not the bear hunting that will be banned. It is using hounds to hunt that is being banned. This is also the case for bobcats. We will still be in the woods with fox and raccoons, but the big game has gone. What is the reason for this, you may ask? Jason Bruce has no clue what the reason is. He thinks it is the anti hunters, the humane societies and stuff like that. They think they know what is best for us. What they don’t realise is they are going to lose a lot of money because hunters won’t buy tags next year if they can’t go hunting. Jason won’t, and he knows many others that won’t. Futhermore they won’t buy honey licences any more. Mass media has a part to play, they cover what they don’t understand and just to turn a profit. It leaves people misinformed and uneducated on the subject of hunting.

Jason says “They are just not going to hunt in the state because the state of California didn’t support us, they didn’t protect us. And yet you know how there is hunting all over the world. There is revenue lost when hunting is lost and it is a big loss for the animal.”

Bear hunting may not be everyone’s cup of root beer, but don’t knock it till your try it. The bear hunt is a big part of culture across Europe and the rest of the world. More importantly it is a working man’s sport. The Quorn and The Pythcley, this ain’t.

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Jason and his friend Mike have driven us up high into the Sierra Nevada mountains. Mike is a true hound man, the kind you would recognise from your own country if hunting with hounds is allowed. Before we clamber our way through into the wilder parts of this wilderness the dogs have a comfort break and are sat on to the top of their transport box – it’s kind of like putting your periscope up on a submarine, turning on the radar and GPS…

The hounds start to speak, obviously we are onto something now.

“When the hounds get going, this is obvious that there is something out here. So we look through the snow or the mud and try and find some good tracks and start putting dogs on it and see what happens.” Mike explains.

The drive up and over into the valley is fun, the snowfall has been pretty light. Usually at this time of year this place would be off limits. I must confess I do have a thing for seeing hounds work and it fires up the old ticker when the hounds catch the whiff of cat… big cat. The tracks of two mountain lions have been spotted by Jason and Mike. The tracks indicate that the big cats were walking side by side, last night. We are not shooting mountain lion today but that doesn’t mean we can’t go and see where they went. Jut for a bit of fun.

The good news is there are lions very close by, the bad news is that in the state of California we can’t hunt them. Were we in the state Nevada (just a few miles away, across the border) the dogs would be long gone, and with the government’s blessing.

The toyota's periscope, radar and GPS
Jason and Mike unload the car

So what’s the difference between hunting a cat and say a bear?

The bear early on in the bear season can run far. He has a high endurance levels at this point. Later on in the season he starts feeding himself, this is when they start gaining fat and building up energy for the winter so they won’t run as far. The lion can’t run far. Jason has seen them run a distance but it’s not huge. Lions have a smaller lung capacity and less endurance. They will pop up a tree, rest and maybe do some fighting. Growling back at the hounds and hunters and will often jump to another tree to distract the dogs and then make an escape from the tree.

If you go to the woods to today your are in for a big suprise
Thick Californian woodland

After another drive, the hounds once again erupt and this time it’s bear. Mike keeps tabs on his charges with a GPS. They cover huge distances, criss crossing each other, doubling back, all trying to feather on to that hot trail. There are three dogs at about 400 yards. One dog took of down the road before making his way back. He disappeared to about 700 yards. The hounds have gone across to the next valley. We drive one way and Jason the other. Jason hasn’t got a GPS to rely on, just the hope he’ll hear the hounds speaking. That’s just what happens. Jason hears the hounds on the other side of the canyon. They crossed the creek and are still moving. It is up to Jason and Mike to get around the creek and locate the hounds. Then we can see what they are chasing. Fingers crossed its a bear.

The talk of the hounds resonates through the forest. At last we have caught up with the pack.

It doesn’t really sound like they are treeing. It sounds like they are baiting up on the ground. Mark is the dog handler and owner of the dogs. He will carry a gun so that if the dogs are attacked by the bear he can dispatch it. The dogs are the priority. (Not forgetting me!)

We charge as quickly as possible down to the sound, not knowing what to expect. It sounds like one of the dogs is in pain and Mike is worried the bear has it. In actual fact the dogs are fighting amongst themselves and in the confusion the big black bear shows a clean pair of paws and runs away. The bear wasn’t held up in the tree but at its base. What a rush, but also a shame not to get close to this amazing predator especially, when it’s a big’un. Very disappointing, but that is hunting

A variety of terrains are crossed to keep up with the hounds
The search for bear…

With all true hunting, management is key. Jason tells me about a hunt last year where they caught up with some young which were left alone.

“Well, if a bear goes up a tree we would have heard them barking, we would have got to the tree. The dogs would be barking like crazy. We would have looked up the tree and find the bear. When they get on a really hot track and you hear them echoing down the canyon that is the whole sport of hound hunting. It is not about the kill.”

One by one we track and pick up the hounds. These dogs only know one thing and that is how to hunt. Some have been known to stay on the trail of a bear for days. One of the older bitches, Lady, is unaccounted for, the GPS is not getting a reading. We split up and for the next two hours we scour the hunting area. Mike is desperate to find her. She would have no problem surviving up here for a few days. Mike and Jason recovered one after two weeks earlier in the season. It had been living off a bear carcase. To improve our signal range Mike wants height. This requires more than the old Toyota’s 4 wheel drive deep tread. Out with the winch now I’ve seen some off-roading in my time but this effort is exceptional. Tree by tree we clamber up the hill. It’s no good. With heavy hearts we have to leave the Sierra Nevada without 11-year-old Lady.

The following morning we get a call from Jason saying that Mike had gone to the last spot where Lady’s collar had transmitted a reading. It’s bad news. Mike finds her dead, the bear had killed her. What can you say? Farewell good friend. This was to be Lady’s last season. It’s California’s last bear hunt with hounds and it sounds like she was giving that bear what for right to the end.

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