Following a pack of howling big-game hounds is one of the most exciting ways to hunt bears and cougars.
If you were ever under the notion that hunting bears with hounds is easy, let me assure you it is not.
Occasionally the process is simple; the dogs strike a bear, the animal trees quickly, and it’s exactly the boar you’ve been waiting for. But that’s the exception to the rule, as I quickly learned while hunting with Heaven’s Gate Outfitters in Idaho.
Andy and Karen Savage, who own and operate HGO, have exclusive rights to hunt the breathtakingly beautiful country near Hell’s Canyon, which forms the border between Idaho and Oregon. The area is remote and rugged, and that isolation makes it one of the best places to tag a record-book black bear or mountain lion in the lower 48. But getting that animal, even with the aid of expert guides and a superb pack of big-game hounds, can be a challenge.
We managed to strike a track early on our hunt. Andy’s hounds were “rigged,” which means they were riding atop a box in the back of his pickup. All at once, the dogs let out a chorus of howls and barks as we crept along a narrow two-track. The dogs were released, they fell in line, and the whole mountainside rang with the sound of the chase.
And that bear, as bears so often do, went straight up the steep slope.
We followed on foot for more than an hour, climbing, scrambling over deadfalls and working our way down steep, rocky faces as we followed the dogs. The first rule of hound hunting—and this is very different than most big-game hunts—is that you follow the animal you are pursuing, regardless of where it goes.
I find hunting with hounds to be one of the most physically challenging hunts anywhere in the world, and there’s no promise that the bear or cat you’re following is a shooter. When Andy’s dogs finally treed that bear in a narrow drainage by a river, we found that it was only a small sow in the tree, so we leashed the dogs and climbed back up and out of the canyon to start all over again.
Enjoying the Chase
Scientists believe that humans domesticated dogs tens of thousands of years ago, and since that time, we’ve refined these animals into breeds that are suited for hunting almost any game on Earth. But hound hunting has come under fire of late, and some of the detractors are fellow hunters who’ve never even set foot on the trail behind a pack.
Contrary to what some believe, hound hunting is an ethical and challenging form of hunting, and there are far, far more animals treed than are ever harvested. In fact, many hound hunters simply enjoy the chase and are more than happy to leash their dogs, head for home and leave the animal to run another day.
Chasing hounds is one of my favorite pastimes, and I look forward to these hunts as much as any that I take part in. Is it all about the kill? No. Of all the animals I’ve treed, I’ve never actually harvested any of them—and that’s by my personal choice. I’ve been on hunts during which animals were taken, but I’ve never pulled the trigger myself.
I’m booked to hunt with dogs again next spring for bears, and even though I haven’t harvested anything yet (and might not then), I await these trips with great anticipation.
Why Hound Hunting?
There are a number of ways to pursue black bears—everything from baiting to spot-and-stalk to chasing them with dogs. So, why should hound hunting be at the top of your list?
For one thing, it offers a rare opportunity to witness well-trained hounds at work. The various hound breeds, from the smallest beagle to the various larger breeds (such as coonhounds, foxhounds and bloodhounds), have 220 million olfactory receptors in their brains. Compare that to humans— who only have five million receptors—and you can quickly see why a hound’s sense of smell is 40 times greater than our own.
But that impressive sense of smell doesn’t ensure a successful hunt. The dogs have to follow the trail, often over dry, barren ground (the hardest for tracking) and stay locked on the scent for hours at a time. They then have to tree the animal, and the hunters have to manage to reach their location, which is sometimes on a sheer rock face or in the midst of a tangle of dense forest.
At that point, you have to decide whether or not you’re looking at a mature animal to harvest. Bears, in particular, can be very hard for new hunters to accurately judge; and having time to be certain of the animal’s sex and age reduces the odds of shooting an immature bear.
Planning for a Hound Hunt
My first bit of advice to anyone who plans on hunting big game with hounds is to be physically prepared for the trip. Train as you would for a mountain sheep or elk hunt and carry a pack such as the one you’ll carry in the field. In most instances, you’ll be walking in steep country, so add some hill workouts and try to trim your body weight as much as possible.
There are a number of places you can hunt bears with hounds, including the Rocky Mountain states, Maine, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Michigan. If you’re after mountain lions, the hot spots are Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Montana. Bears can be hunted in the spring or fall (depending on state regulations), but mountain lion hunting is typically a winter sport. And, the more snow, the better for the dogs, because it improves tracking conditions, and the size of the tracks offers some insight into whether or not it’s a mature tom.
You can hunt bears and mountain lions behind hounds with any number of firearms, but remember that shots will be close, and you’ll be hiking in steep country. For those reasons, I prefer a short, handy rifle such as a lever-action or a handgun; in fact, many hound hunters I know feel the same way.
Choose a good bullet that expands reliably—and make your first shot count. Can you eat these animals? Indeed, you can. I’ve had both bear and mountain lion. When prepared correctly, they are excellent table fare.
Here’s a list of some of the most popular firearms for hunting bears and lions behind dogs:
Winchester Model 1892:
This John Browning-designed lever gun is light and plenty for close-range shooting. Choose a jacketed expanding bullet in either .45 Colt or .44 Magnum.
MSRP: $1,069; WinchesterGuns.com
This is an affordable lever gun chambered in .30-30 that’s superbly suited for hunting behind dogs.
MSRP: $574; Mossberg.com
Ruger No. 1:
The short overall length of this rifle makes it a favorite choice of those who follow a pack of dogs into rough, steep country. It’s durable and accurate with iron sights—exactly what you’re looking for.
MSRP: $1,899; Ruger.com
Springfield TRP 10mm:
This 6-inch 10mm 1911 is very accurate, easy to carry and is chambered in one of the most versatile handgun hunting calibers of all time.
MSRP: $1,842; Springfield-Armory.com
The classic big-game wheelgun is extremely reliable and easy to carry in a shoulder or belt holster when you’re climbing over rocks and deadfalls.
MSRP: $1,079; Ruger.com
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.