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That raucous howling you hear in the distance today is not the sheriff's K-9s hot on the trail of an escaped felon, but more likely the chop and bawl of Walker, blue tick, redbone or black-and-tan hounds in hot pursuit of a big Maine black bear.
Today marks the opening day of the 2005 hound-hunting season on bruins, and the comings and goings of 4-wheel-drive pickup trucks loaded with cages, dogs and, later if they're lucky, a trophy-sized bear, will be commonplace over the next several weeks.
Nearly 4,000 bears were taken by Maine hunters last season, and as usual only about 10 percent of them were tagged by hound men. Nearly 1,000 bears are taken in Piscataquis and Penobscot counties (491 and 468 respectively), which may help explain why you may notice hounds, hound hunters and their dust-covered pickup trucks seemingly at every crossroads in the region this month. There are lots of bears here thanks to excellent habitat and conservative management by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife over the last 30 years. And, there are enough active farms, abandoned homesteads (with still-productive apple orchards, which attract bears) and endless gravel roads to make hunting with hounds the perfect technique.
A surprising number of folks believe that bear hunting with hounds has something to do with dogs chasing and killing bears for the hunter, but that notion can be dispelled by studying the textbook definition of “hound,” which is to “pursue relentlessly and tenaciously; to urge insistently.” Hmmmm . . . nearly sounds like someone in door-to-door sales, but when it comes to bear hunting, the definition is accurate. Those big, noisy dogs you see howling and running at full speed are pretty much all bark and no bite, and that's exactly what their handler wants to see.
Back yard pet cemeteries are full of dogs who thought they were much more than that, but boy, were they ever wrong! The smallest black bear can take on the biggest, meanest hound and win (often with dire consequences for the dog). Back in my guiding days we'd spend an hour at the end of every hunt stitching up over-eager young hounds (those that live long enough know better), but a surprising number of dogs never learn to hold back and “hound” the bear, and they pay dearly for their indiscretions.
A typical bear hunt with hounds starts before daylight with the usual preparations (load up the dogs, gear, leashes and lunches) and cruise back roads, cornfields and other likely bear haunts in search of a fresh track. Most hunters use a “strike dog,” which is the one that sits in the special cage attached to the front of the truck. That dog's primary job is to get a whiff of a bear that crossed the road earlier and start howling. The hunters will stop, look for tracks and get a feel for the size of the bear (and whether or not it was accompanied by cubs, in which case they go look for a different bear). If it's a “runner,” the hunters will unleash up to three hounds, get them going on the track (sometimes the dogs will run full speed in the wrong direction - a common but, happily, reversible trait!), and the race is on.
Many things can happen at this point. The bear can be 100 yards or two miles away. If it's close by and has been feeding all night (such as in a cornfield), the bear might just run a short way and climb into a tree to escape the relentless hounds. Or, the bear could be a lean, hungry male in a bad mood, which may mean a long, hard run, possibly some fighting along the way and many miles of driving, listening and considering options. A walking bear (one that doesn't run but simply walks along, cuffing dogs and covering ground at a slow pace) can go for hours on end, and in most cases won't stop or tree . . . period. Many of the bears I hunted started in the Milo-LaGrange area and were still going strong when we caught up to the dogs and pulled them off the track in Abbot or Monson many hours later! Those hunts ended without a bear, by the way . . .
Or, the bear could be a small one with big feet (most hunters won't let the dogs go after a bear that leaves small tracks!), and when it finally stops or trees the hunter comes up, sees that the bear is of less than trophy size, leashes the dogs and walks away. Some bears are too small, sows with cubs, have poor-quality hides or just don't meet the individual hunter's trophy minimums and is left to go it's merry way, all that time and effort invested with nothing but fond memories in return.
Most hunters shoot for bears in the 300-pound class, which is a rare bruin in Maine. The vast majority of bears killed each year weigh a little over 200 pounds. A good guide in top country who knows his stuff can produce a 300-pounder maybe once per week (or less), and bears over 400 pounds (in Maine) are the stuff of legend. Most hunters want to shoot a bear and go home with some meat and a nice rug or wall mount, but the more selective hunters often spend a week or 10 days on the trail and never fire a shot. Good bears are hard to find and hunting with hounds does not guarantee success, let alone a trophy-class bruin.
Granted, hound hunters are more visible, noisier and sometimes more vociferous than bait or still-hunters, but from a management standpoint they are not a threat to the bear population. Hound hunting in any form is expensive, time-consuming and not the least bit guaranteed. However, it is an interesting, enjoyable and entertaining way to pursue bears in Maine.
I don't know a hound hunter anywhere who doesn't like company (they brag a lot about their dogs and old hunts, so be prepared!), so it shouldn't be difficult to wrangle an invitation to join them. They are serious about their sport so plan to spend the day, keep up despite the conditions and don't complain - hound hunters love what they do and they will not quit.
Educate yourself, see what it's all about, and don't be surprised if you get the sudden urge to grow a beard, buy a hound and start wearing crisscrossed leashes over your shoulders everywhere you go!
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