Black Bear hunting may be the most varied kind of hunting on the planet and it’s a very different hunting experience to every person you talk to. It could mean hunting over bait or spot and stalk, with boats or with hounds, arrows or bullets, public land or private. It could be within an hour’s drive of home or an all-out Alaskan adventure.
In the last three years, I’ve tried most of the methods and I’ve brought home two black bears. Whatever you think you know about each of those methods, don’t judge them until you’ve tried them yourself. Hunting bears with whatever method or tool is just not as easy as it sounds.
Hunting with hounds and horses in Idaho, for instance, is one of the biggest adventures you can have.
The first thing you need to know is that hound hunting means working with highly skilled individuals — both the dogs and the owners. The dogs have been trained to find and follow the scent of bears. The seven Treeing Walker hounds I’ve worked with also pursue cougars and bobcats.
The dogs run around and around sniffing the ground looking for bears. Once they find a scent that is fresh enough to be exciting, they sound off making a big noise to let you know they’re onto something. They take off barking along the trail, hoping they’re going the right direction, and coming back to go the other way to find the freshest scent.
The dogs are going and going, trying to get close to a bear and chasing it until it climbs a tree to get away from the dogs. Bears run faster than dogs, but they know dogs don’t climb trees, so they’ll take refuge up a tree until the dogs leave. But these dogs won’t leave until they’ve either been hauled away on leashes or until the bear falls dead from the tree.
In the meantime, the houndsman is trying to keep track of the dogs on his GPS unit. The dogs each have a collar that transmits the location and the track the dog has run. This is overlaid on a topographical map and the houndsman can see where the dogs are and where they’re heading. The GPS also sends an alert when the dogs have treed a bear (which it interprets from the amount of time they’ve stayed in one place).
The houndsman’s experience is essential here because he has to know when to follow the dogs and when to let them run without pursuing them. The dogs may chase the bear several miles but end up treeing it a few hundred yards from where the chase began. The houndsman learns to interpret both the bears and the dogs and tries to initiate the chase in the most economical manner that won’t make him run extra miles before the bear is treed.
It’s a fascinating process, and my friends with hounds go bear/cougar hunting several times each week, treeing bears all the time but never killing them. It’s easy to see that both the dogs and the houndsman enjoy the pursuit and appreciate the chance to sharpen their skills.
If you want to go bear hunting with hounds on horses in Idaho, go watch The Man From Snowy River and then multiply the mountainous terrain times 1,000. Idaho mountains are only available in one style: steep. Riding horses to hunt may sound like a relaxing way to enjoy the countryside, but not when you’re pursuing hounds and bears.
Bears and hounds don’t stick to the trail and they don’t take the easy way to go anyplace. Although you’re with horses, you should expect to use your own legs to climb and descend the steepest hills because staying mounted can be too treacherous. Even then, some of the stuff I’ve ridden pursuing bears would make those Australians pucker tight.
The horse I use is a Paso Fino named Copper. He’s 19-years-old and can cruise up and down those hills like they’re flat ground.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
I’ve been hunting three times with my fellow writer, Riley Baxter, and his dad, Don. They guide in another part of the state, and I’m lucky enough that they invited me along to hunt nearby. They never kill bears themselves, and I feel very fortunate to get to go along and hunt with them and their hounds. The problem is, I think I’m bad luck.
The first time I went with them we rode 25 miles (which was five times as far as I’d ever ridden total) and the dogs pursued one bear for hours and never got it treed. The week before and the week after they treed several bears.
Miraculously, they invited me again this year. But again, we rode 26 miles and the dogs only got onto one bear late in the day. It turned out to be a very young bear and Riley and Don promised they could help me find a more mature and larger bear another day. The next week I couldn’t go and they treed five bears, three of which were good shooters.
Well, before my third trip I did everything I could to shed my bad luck. But by 3:00 in the afternoon, it looked like the problem was still me.
Small Bears Are Delicious
We started the day in the same spot where we had gone last year, and it was the same place they’d treed several bears last week. This time it was just Don and me. The weather was perfect with cool temperatures and slightly cloudy skies. Bright yellow balsamroot flowers with their blue-green leaves covered the hillsides, and the sweet smell of wild onions was everywhere. It seemed like the perfect day to hunt bears.
And sure enough, as soon as we got to the mouth of the canyon where the dogs had picked up sent previously, they started bawling and chasing. It’s exciting when you hear that sound and it makes you want to kick your horse and chase up the hill, too.
Fortunately, Don’s experience and instinct about bears and dogs told him to be conservative. We followed the major creek in the flat area but didn’t head up the draw where the bear and dogs were going yet. Suddenly the dogs were heading back toward us, then up another draw. Then back down and up another. Finally, they went over a major ridge into the next drainage over and we started after them. They had already chased about five miles and we’d ridden less than a mile in the creek bottom.
Getting up over that major ridge was one of those times when we had to dismount and hike, leading the horses. Going from the creek bottom to the ridge top was 1000 vertical feet climb and very steep.
Once we topped out, we could hear the dogs baying: They had treed a bear. Now we had to navigate a way down to the bottom of the other side, another 1000’ descent, and up a little draw where they had the bear pinned down.
The closer you get to a treed bear, the faster your heart beats. The dogs are making a ruckus and you are trying not to get your hopes too high. This could be a huge mature boar, or it could be last year’s cub.
As we rode up the draw, the tree came into view, a huge ponderosa with pink bark standing alone on a hillside of scrub bushes. High up where the branches started, there was a bear peeking around the trunk. It was last year’s cub.
Decision time: Would I kill this bear, or continue the hunt?
Going through my mind was the fact that this would be my last chance to this season. The first bear I killed two years ago had also been quite small, and its meat was tender and delicious.
Isn’t a bird in hand worth two in the bush?
But it was only 10:30 in the morning, and I decided not to shoot the bear. I think Don appreciated that decision and was happy to continue hunting.
Tired Dogs & Persistent Dogs
Thermals flow uphill, and the dogs can sometimes find a scent on the air at the top of a saddle. And sure enough, when we got near the top, the dogs got onto a scent and took off.
We stayed on top and monitored the dogs from the ridge. The funny thing is that the dogs went up and down the canyon below us over and over again. Then they split up, following two different trails. We walked the horses back and forth along the ridge top trying to stay near enough to get down when they treed a bear. This lasted a couple of hours.
Finally, one dog came back up to the ridge, and then another. We walked back toward that saddle and two more dogs walked up, tongues out, looking exhausted. The horses, the dogs, and I caught forty winks while Don went to call the other dogs back up.
After thirty minutes, Don came back, but the two dogs hadn’t come back up. They were still pursuing a bear down below. We mounted up and rode the ridge nearly to the end, about 1,400’ above the creek below.
Suddenly, the dogs changed their bark and we knew they’d treed a bear. The other dogs took off to catch up, like characters from the Little Red Hen.
We dismounted and surfed down to the creek below, riding the loose dirt and scree. It’s fun to half-slide down the mountain, especially knowing that there was a bear waiting for us. But I was mostly focussed on not being crushed under a horse as we slid down the mountain.
It’s a curious thing about hunting bears with hounds: You have to be quiet, but not all the time. I’m used to being quiet continuously when sneaking through the woods pursuing deer and elk.
So it’s a little incongruous that we’ve been riding on horses, snapping branches, chatting with each other at regular volume, following dogs who are bellowing at the top of their lungs and now that we’re getting close to the bear, we have to only whisper. The dogs are barking at a bear in a tree above them, but every time we were getting close, Don and Riley would remind me to be quiet. For some reason, this habit was hard for me to adopt, but I quickly found out why it was so important.
We came down from the ridge and into the draw where the dogs were baying, and we could see the tree, another large ponderosa. On the slope, we were at the same height as the bear and I was still leading my horse. When the bear looked out at us, I could see that this was a much bigger and older bear than the previous two. There were gray eyebrows in the rich black fur and a whole lot more mass. The bear watched me and my horse curiously but didn’t seem to mind our presence.
When I paused my horse to look at the bear a moment, the dogs saw me and started coming up the hill toward me. As soon as the dogs’ attention was on me, the bear started looking for an opportunity to come down. I yelled at the dogs, “Stay there!”
The instant my voice came out of my mouth, that bear practically jumped down the tree. As long as I was quiet, the bear was content to watch me, but when she heard my voice everything changed.
When she hit the ground, the dogs immediately dove onto her and attacked. There was a ball of black fur mixed with patches of white and brown as the rumble rolled down the hill. Then they bumped into another large tree and the bear was up it like a shot.
I was feeling both extremely foolish and lucky beyond what I deserved. Don had told me several times to keep quiet near the bears, and now I’d seen the consequence. I felt like such a fool. I was so lucky the dogs had kept on her until they hit that next tree. Humbled, I lead my horse down to where Don was waiting with his horses. While he leashed the dogs at the bottom of the tree, I started looking for a place to take a shot.
The Air Rifle
As if hunting with hounds and horses wasn’t enough adventure, I was planning to use an air rifle to kill this bear. The rules regarding what weapons can be used to take big game in Idaho were recently amended to include big bore airguns.
There are a few specific requirements for airguns used to hunt big game:
- The gun must use pre-charged pneumatic power
- At least .35 caliber bullets must be used for deer, pronghorn, mountain lion, and gray wolf
- At least .45 caliber bullets must be used for elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and black bear
- The airgun must produce at least 350 ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle
- See Page 100 of the Idaho Big Game Seasons 2019 & 2020 Seasons & Rules
The gun I used was Airforce Airguns’ Texan LSS .50 CF, which Riley Baxter reviewed in last month’s issue of Hunt365. It’s a .50 caliber rifle with an incredible 34” barrel, and it sent my bullet with about 650 ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle, so it surpasses the legal requirements for hunting.
Big bore airguns like this one use a whole lot of air to push the bullets, and that makes a loud report. The Texan LSS .50 CF comes with a suppressor, and it’s very effective.
The impulse is to think that you’re hunting with a big BB gun. But a 500-grain bullet weighs more than an entire .308 cartridge. This gun could do a lot more than shoot your eye out.
Shooting Up A Tree
I found a spot back up the hill with a clear view of the bear that was about fifty yards from the base of the tree and about halfway up the tree to the bear. My shot was aiming upward at about a 45-degree angle.
I got a forked stick to support the gun and waited for the bear to reveal her vitals. The scope was zeroed for fifty yards, so I held the center of the reticle on the bear.
She was constantly moving, looking down, and trying to decide if she could make a run for it. She was quartering toward me, and when her head was up I would have a good shot into her lungs.
After watching for several moments, I finally got a clear shot across her lungs. I fired and was rewarded with the distinct ‘whump’ of a bullet hitting home, as well as the hard ‘thump’ of a bullet burrowing into a large tree.
The bear started climbing down, then climbed up and then fell straight out of the tree and landed with another thump. Ponderosa pine trees self-prune their lower branches so that a mature tree looks like a bush on top of a long stick, and she had a clear path to the ground and she stayed put.
A First In Idaho
From what I can tell, this was the first black bear killed with an air rifle in Idaho. That .50 caliber bullet when right through the lungs and into the tree. I’d like to have kept the energy inside the bear, but it shredded the lungs and shoulder enough to get the job done.
Having made sure she was dead — and learning she was a she — it was the dogs’ turn to check her out and see that she was dead. They appreciate the reward of killing a bear now and then.
I donned my latex gloves and gutted the bear. By this time, it was early evening and we needed to get down the mountain and back to the truck. So I didn’t do any more processing, and Don’s plan was to haul the bear out whole.
A Horse & A Bear
This is actually one of the most amazing parts of the whole hunt. As you can imagine, horses are averse to having a predator riding on their backs. But this Tennessee Walker, named Casper, didn’t seem to mind at all. Don and I picked up the bear and stuffed her feet into the panniers on the left side of the horse, and laid her head and arms over the saddle to the other side. We ran a cord around the body to keep it place, stowed the rifle in the scabbard and we were ready to go.
We navigated our way down the creeks until we got to the major drainage and the road we had parked on. We secured the dogs to a tree and got ready for the strangest part of our hunt.
It was a Saturday evening, and with the quarantine, many people have been heading into the hills to camp and enjoy the time away from work. The road we were on is generally a popular spot because it’s close to town and well maintained.
This day it was packed. RVs, tents, hammocks, and ATVs were packed into every available spot. There were dozens of dogs and hundreds of kids. I’m always glad to see people enjoying the outdoors, especially camping with their kids. But this was more than I had anticipated.
If you’ve ever been to a Fourth of July parade in a small town, you’ll know what it was like to see three horses come clomping down the road through the camps of all these people. Kids were so excited to see the horses that they were jumping up and down. Dads who looked a little closer had their interest piqued by Casper’s cargo. Some called out and said, “Wow, a wolf!” while others looked a little anxious to see that either bears or wolves were in the area near their campsite.
People came out to the roadside to watch us pass. All I could do was sit tall and wave as I’d seen the 4H kids do.
From Bear To Meat
A long night followed skinning and processing the meat. It’s all worth it, though. My family already enjoyed backstrap steaks, and I’ve just finished smoking a whole ham. I’m planning to make a little sausage, too.
Remarkably, I processed the entire bear with that Lanzo knife without sharpening it, including gutting, skinning, and cleaning the skull. The tungsten carbide blade stayed so sharp that I could still slice paper with it after butchering the bear. I took the skull to Swanson’s Skullery and they did a great job cleaning and whitening it. Do yourself a favor and keep skulls submerged in ice water until you take it for finishing. It helps leach out the blood and makes it easier to whiten.
Hounds, Horses, & Humans
I’ve hunted bears over bait, and I’ve spotted and stalked. I’ve carried arrows and firearms hoping to get the chance to use them. While those options are viable and fun, there’s something special about hunting with hounds — which is the whole reason they were domesticated in the first place.
Riding horses is growing on me, too, particularly when it’s riding horses as fine as these. My Copper could be a little ornery, but he was smooth and confident and fun to ride.
At the end of a 20-mile-day on a horse, you kinda just want it to end. But at the same time, you want the experience of the hunt to last in your mind. I rode a hundred miles over several days, chasing dogs who are in heaven the whole time. I felt sore and disappointed and all kinds of things. I worked with hounds and horses, the same way humans have always done. It all leads up to the two-tenths of a second it takes a bullet to fly straight into my next meal.
Miles and miles of monotony punctuated by the same excitement my ancestors have experienced since the dawn of time.