Pursuit of black bears with packs of hounds is a classic American hunt. These days, you don’t get many opportunities to participate in it. To begin with, few states allow it. Then, persistent misconceptions about this hunt prevent many outdoorspeople from considering it. Not every hunter is even aware that such an opportunity exists. Today we’re talking black bears and hounds with John Chapel of New Mexico Professional Big Game Hunting, Inc.
Everybody has heard about running hounds after mountain lions. Hunting black bears with hounds is much less popular. Why?
The main reason, I think, is because there are various alternative methods of hunting black bears. You can bait bears, very successfully, you can spot-and-stalk hunt them. With cats you don’t have these options – hounds are about the only way you can catch to get a mountain lion. Another thing is, not every state allows hunting black bears with hounds. New Mexico, Arizona, and Montana just opened up in the West. (BYH Note: Hunting black bears with hounds is also legal in Idaho, Georgia, Maine, North and South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin).
Obviously, it’s because a lot of people, even hunters, see hunting bears with hounds as unethical.
Right. These are the people who are completely uninformed about the circumstances. It is actually the best method of bear hunting that exists, because it allows you to target the animals you hunt precisely. I’m talking specifically about big, old male bears. Black bears in New Mexico don’t have any apex predator that feeds on them – except other bears. It is the big, old male bears that have the most serious negative effect on black bear populations, because they kill a lot of cubs. When you take such a bear, it has a highly positive effect on cub survival. But these big, old bruins, they actually hardly ever come to the bait. Mostly, it’s the younger bears who are coming to the bait. Big bears, they’re looking for sows with cubs, so a pack of hounds is the most reliable way to get them.
What hounds do you run?
You can’t just go get any old dog, or a couple of dogs, and get a bear or a lion. It’s a big and long process; our pack of hounds has taken over forty years to build. We mostly raise and train our dogs from pups. We have about 40 dogs at a time, and every dog has its own personality. Some of them are all business, some of them won’t have anything to do with the animal after it’s dead. I mostly run Walkers and Blue Ticks. I like hounds that are small and agile, very fast – it allows them to get away from the bears, so that they don’t get hurt, the bear can’t get hold of them. Smaller dogs tend to have more stamina, and this is very important when we hunt and train day in and day out, at least 100 days a year. They can handle days after days. We normally take between 12 to 20 clients a year, and then there’s training, so we spend hundreds of days afield a year.
When’s the best time to run hounds?
We hunt mountain lions in the winter, when bears are hibernating. The hounds can’t distinguish a black bear from a lion, I mean, you can’t tell a dog to chase only bruins or only cats. The season for bear hunting with hounds in New Mexico is open in the fall, before hibernation. New Mexico sets the seasons so that they mostly don’t overlap, so that we don’t interfere with deer or elk hunters, for example.
What should the hunters be prepared for?
Obviously, fitness is important. But even if the hunter is physically challenged, we can adjust to their ability. There are usually two guides with the client – one will stay with the hounds, and the other will take you to the tree or wherever the dogs put the bear at bay. We know the terrain very well, and can figure out an easier route for you if necessary. Once we catch the bear, we can mostly keep it in one place for quite a long time, so the hunter can take the time to come over.
What’s the worst mistake a hunter can make during this hunt?
Apart from being out of shape and bad shooting, I really can’t think of anything. We control most of the variables in this hunt, everything is talked and walked through before the hunt, so there are few things that can go out of hand.
What rifle would you recommend for black bear baiting over hounds?
I personally like the .30-30, and in general I prefer it when the hunter carries a larger caliber rifle, say .30-06 or so. It is important to kill the bear on the spot, both for the sake of ethics, and for the dogs. It’s when bears get wounded that the dogs mostly get hurt, because a wounded bear usually can’t climb a tree, and will stay and fight the dogs on the ground. On the other hand, most shots are at the distance of 30-40 yards, so a light, easy-to-carry lever action rifle is a great choice.
Do dogs get hurt often?
No, actually we only lost two dogs in 40 years of black bear hunting. One was pushed off a cliff, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know how exactly it happened, and the other got shot accidentally when a client was firing at a bear on the ground, the bullet passed through and killed the dog. It’s not like a bruin can grab the hound and chew its head off. A bear is too cumbersome for that, they have a hard time catching the dogs. The bruin mostly tries to slap the dogs around, it can’t get a hold on them. The bear claws are not as fitted for grabbing as a mountain lion’s. Then, there’s safety in numbers: when a bear goes after one of the dogs, the other dogs will run and bite at his rear parts, and it has to let the dog go so that it can turn and deal with these other dogs.
Obviously, that can only happen when the bear doesn’t escape to a tree, but fights the hounds on the ground instead. How often does it happen?
Dogs don’t really need trees to get a big bear, they can fight him on the ground and stop him. But most bears do climb a tree if there’s a suitable one around. Only the big ones in the fall, when they are all fat, they can’t climb a tree and prefer to fight the dogs on the ground. These bears, however, because they’re so fat, they can’t move as fast, and are less of a danger to the dogs. But on the other hand, a bear that is very lean will usually prefer to run rather than stay and fight or climb a tree.
How big do the bears get in New Mexico?
Our bears are big, we kill 7-footers every season. But they are not very heavy. A big bear will weigh about 400 lb maximum in New Mexico. A part of the reason is that there isn’t enough food for them to get big. They hibernate from November to April, and when they get out of their dens, there isn’t much food for them until fall. In the early summertime they roll rocks, eating ants and larvae. Then there are berries, cinder berries, juniper berries and acorns, cactus bulbs, etc., this kind of stuff. And they have to feed hard so that they can go through hibernation.
And if they can’t get enough fat, will they hibernate?
Then they get very lean. That doesn’t mean they are smaller, it only means they weigh less. That’s when you kill a 7-feet bear that weighs 300 pounds, while in a good year the same bear would’ve weighed a hundred pounds heavier. In a bad year, I saw big bears walking about in January. They may den up for a short while, to get over a cold spell or a snow storm, but when the cold spell is over, they’ll wake up again and go looking for food. But mostly there is at least one bumper crop to keep them fat for hibernation.
And that’s where you find the bruins, by hunting the food source?
Normally there’s no abundance of various food sources, there’s a bumper crop of one particular kind of food. This past year it was juniper and pinion pears. That’s where we go looking for them – we start from the food source and let the hounds pick their trails.
So, you don’t first find a track, and then set the hounds on it, like it usually happens on a mountain lion hunt?
With bears, dogs find the tracks 95% of the time. With lions, it’s the other way round.
How is hunting black bears with hounds different from hunting mountain lions?
A bear smells really strong. The dogs can smell them in the air, they don’t have to follow the tracks like with mountain lions. A cat is one of the cleanest animals in the animal kingdom, they hardly smell at all, the dogs have to slow down and smell the ground where it stepped, where the pad actually made contact with the ground. Mountain lions are a lot harder to catch. Another thing is, a mountain lion is much more likely to get up a tree. Sometimes they bay on the ground, but it usually happens when there isn’t a suitable tree to climb where you caught them.
What happens if the dogs catch a cougar, or a bear that is not up to your harvest standard?
We do 5-day hunts, and in the course of such a hunt we typically catch 5-7 bears. Most of them are smaller bears, we hunt very selectively. But one of those bears would be a big old bruin to be proud of. A lot of our bears are browns, and usually we’re very selectively hunting a large brown or color phase boar. When you catch them with the dogs, it allows you to take your time to evaluate the animal, it’s not a split-second decision. You can examine the bear from every different angle, and if it’s not what you want, we leash the dogs and get back to the truck.
How hard is it to call the hounds off?
You can’t call a hound off the bear. All dogs wear tracking collars, you grab it by the collar, put a chain to it, repeat with the next dog. Some dogs don’t like bears that try to bite them, they all like to chase bears, but when the bear tries to chase dogs, they don’t like it. Dogs, like humans, are all individual, and have their preferences, so some hounds prefer mountain lions over black bears. But for most hounds it’s a very emotional thing. Just as it is for the people!
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