By Shawn McGinnis
The news made me angry. In the Fall of 2012, a congressman from San Francisco had pushed a bill through the California Legislature to ban black bear and bobcat hunting with hounds in the state of California. Governor Brown signed the bill, and this style of hunting would be banned starting in 2013.
When my friend Doug said he had an old friend who owned a pack of bear hounds, I told him to tell his friend I’m sorry that his hounds would soon be out of a job. Doug said he would ask his friend if he would take us out hunting for bear in early December, 2012. I jumped at the chance.
I chose to bring my lever-action Winchester Ranger 94 Angle Eject in .30-30 along for this hunt. Since the shooting would be up close and possibly in dark forest canopy, I mounted a Leupold 1X4 power scope with the new “Pig Plex” reticle. I decided to travel light, since the area we were going in the vicinity of Platina, California was steep and brushy. I secretly wondered if my 47 year-old body could keep up with the demands of such a hunt.
Doug said he didn’t want to hunt, but he did want to bring along his ten year-old son for the hike.
We left before first light, travelling in a convoy of trucks pulling all terrain vehicle trailers and happy hounds.
When we arrived at the trailhead to unload, I looked around at the houndsmen and their dogs. The houndsmen were hardy looking gentlemen ranging in age from early 20s to late 40s. Their ATV’s were battered and worn, but their rifles were a sight to behold. Mostly Marlin lever guns in .45-70 caliber. The open-sighted rifles had no bluing left, and the stocks were worn down to bare, unvarnished wood.
At the sight of my rifle, one of the houndsmen jokingly asked, “What are you going to do with that pea shooter.”
The hounds were athletic bundles of determination. One old fellow had a battle worn look about him as he peered at me from a dog box on the back of an ATV. I wondered if they sensed their impending forced retirement.
The morning air was cool and crisp as we loaded into four-wheel drive vehicles and bounced down rutted out dirt roads. The sun was just over the horizon as we crested the top of a mountain. Below was a valley choked with Manzanita brush and oak trees.
As we stopped to let the dogs out on a scent, the houndsmen began to tell stories as the different landmarks in the area reminded them of past hunts and adventures. Some of the stories went back decades, while some were from earlier this season. Some of them spoke of providing for their families while guiding paying clients.
It was apparent to me that some of these stories involved helping government officials with problem bears and cougars. I asked, “Who will they turn to for help when no Californians bother to keep hounds anymore?” They just shrugged. The answer was not readily apparent.
Some of the stories involved letting the bear go at the end of a chase. Sometimes the bears were too small, or sometimes too big to pack out of the far locales where they were located. It was definitely about the chase for these sportsmen.
The vast amount of knowledge these hunters had amassed regarding the habits and biology of bears was impressive, to say the least. I wondered if America’s early hound hunters, such as Daniel Boone and Theodore Roosevelt, would be pleased at this new breed of hunter/conservationist. I bet Roosevelt would certainly approve of my choice of rifles.
I had to bring it up. I asked them what they thought of the new legislation that banned their sport, and for some of them, their lifestyle. The main response was a sense of betrayal from fellow sportsmen. One houndsman said he didn’t understand how a man could use a bird dog to find a pheasant, command the dog to flush the bird for the shot, then complain about his choice to hunt bears with hounds.
I could have talked to them for hours, but the hounds were now coming back. Apparently they were unable to follow the scent to conclusion. After more bumpy roads and looking at various bear tracks in the dirt, the dogs were again released.
I had the distinct feeling I was watching an intense drama unfold, but it was a silent movie that I couldn’t completely understand.
By late morning, I was told to get ready to hike. The dogs had something up a tree. My heart started to beat faster in my chest.
The party moved out on foot down a steep ravine. The dirt was so loose in some areas, I had to slide down or risk going head over heels. Other times, I had to negotiate my way over logs and under low hanging branches on my hands and knees.
After hiking further down in the canyon, I could hear the dogs. They were singing a chorus that hounds have sung in America since the 1650s.
I looked down at Doug’s son to see that he was beaming with a smile. I too felt like a boy again.
Then we saw him. A male black bear with a cinnamon coat standing on a stout limb about thirty feet up in a tree. The hounds were barking around the base of the tree.
One of the experienced dog handlers told me that the critical moment would come when they leashed their dogs and took them away from the base of that tree. He explained that the bears often took that opportunity to quickly climb down the tree. He left me with a parting piece of advice, “Keep shooting as long as the bear is in the tree. These bears die hard.”
I chambered a Hornady 160 grain Flextip bullet and waited for the command to fire. At the command, I put two shots into the bear’s chest. He fell off the limb and landed with a thud on the forest floor. The mountain was so steep that he tumbled for twenty feet on the ground before coming to a stop. He wasn’t the biggest bear, but he was my first. It was time for some photos.
He was among the last of the bears to be taken with the aid of hounds in California.
The experienced bear hunters made short work of the skinning and boning work. Then the realization hit me. What goes down must go back up.
The hike was brutal for me, but I made it. The houndsmen once again amazed me with their stamina and fortitude.
I thanked them, and my friend Doug, for the opportunity to join them on one of their last hunts.
The young bear was good eating when I ground him up into breakfast sausage. The sausage is almost gone, but the memories will last a lifetime.