We were driving around, killing time and waiting for dark so we could pick up the hunters. This road was as remote as you can find in the northeastern part of the continent, so the last thing we expected to see was a jogger. Still, some distance ahead of us there appeared to be just that, a determined runner staggering along like he was at the tail end of a double marathon.
In those days it was unusual for anybody who had not served time in prison to be all tatted up, but as we got closer I could see this guy was covered.
“That’s Jimmy,” I said.
“Jimmy” (not his real name) had surprised us all when he turned up in camp because he didn’t exactly fit the concept of “bear hunter.” He proved to be a great guy, but he didn’t belong there. He was a New Jersey city boy, a heavy-metal rock-and-roller without a clue about anything off the concrete.
He was covered with some of the most spectacular tattoos I have ever seen. Even today, when it seems like tattoos are all but mandatory, his stand out as art. One, which he said was of his girlfriend, looked so alive that every man in camp fell in love with her.
Jimmy was intelligent and funny, but he was no hunter. I had gotten to know him in the last few days, and while he hid it well, I could see he was terrified. He came along on this bear hunt because a buddy talked him into it and because he thought it would be something “extreme” to tell his bandmates about when he got home. I suppose right now, it really was.
We got Jimmy into the van and calmed him down enough to figure out that something pretty traumatic had happened. Even though he was miles from his hunting stand he violently refused to return. I asked where his gun was and he didn’t know.
We were hunting an army base in New Brunswick. It seems the bears were losing their fear of humans and were giving the soldiers a lot of problems. One of our guides was retired military, and somebody had contacted him about running some hunts to thin the population and maybe teach the bears some respect.
To say it was an unusual situation would be an understatement. The bears were aggressive, fearless and prolific. In spite of the extremely lazy outfitter who had done almost nothing to prepare, we were seeing plenty of action.
I was a booking agent then and I would fill a spring bear camp for a few weeks then spend the time tending to my clients and hunting for myself. Jimmy was part of an outside group the outfitter had booked, breaking our agreement to keep the week exclusive to my clients. (I parted company with that outfitter soon after.)
Jimmy’s stand was on the edge of a bivouac area used by the army when it in the field training. It was one of the trouble locations where the bears would come in and steal food off the table while the cook was working. Nobody had been there for several months, but there was still a lot of bear sign.
After he gulped down a couple of cold beers Jimmy was finally was able to tell his story.
He was in his stand, listening to Alice in Chains on his headphones, when he felt the tree shake. Looking down, he saw a bear coming up the ladder.
Actually this was not an uncommon occurrence. Black bears often climb the trees to check out the stands. When a hunter was obviously scared of the bears we would put him in a stand with a climbing bear. Mean? I suppose, but it was funny as hell, too.
That was not the case with Jimmy. I knew his fear was different, and hooking him up with a climber would cross the line into cruel.
Let me back up a little here. For hunters who have never seen a bear, it becomes almost a mystical creature. You are hunting for bears, so intellectually you know they exist otherwise you would not be here. But until you actually see one, there is always some subconscious and lingering doubt. Sort of like Bigfoot, you just aren’t sure what to believe. The first bear you see can be a life-altering experience. “It’s true,” you realize. “There are bears lurking about.” And that changes everything.
A guy like Jimmy getting his “first look” at a bear that is sniffing his boots? Well, I guess that probably was life-altering.
“I know you told me to kick him in the nose if he did that,” Jimmy said. “But, I just froze. Sorry, man.”
It took a while but the rest of the story came out. The bear climbed down and went over to the cook area to prowl around as Jimmy watched in terror that he had no problem admitting to. Then as the bear was leaving he remembered why he was there. He had brought a shotgun with slugs. Not a bad choice, but unusual in rifle country. He shot the bear, and then shot it some more until the gun was empty. The bear rolled into a shallow pit that had served as a latrine the last time the army was there. It fell in butt first and was kind of reclined there like it was sitting in a hot tub.
Jimmy might have been scared, but he was no coward. He finally worked up the courage to climb down and check out the bear. He got a long stick and poked it several times. Without a response he moved closer, and with the knowledge that this beast was dead and could do him no harm Jimmy decided to pull it out of the pit so he could get a look at his success.
Standing behind the bear, he bent over and grabbed it under the front legs and, hugging the bear from behind like a lover, he lifted with his back and legs.
As he pulled, it released a big bubble of gas and the bear let out a loud groan.
That’s how Jimmy came to be drenched in sweat, near collapse and running down the road miles from the bear.
Angry Dog Guy
We had been running this bear for hours and it refused to tree. That usually indicates a big, old male: too fat and too belligerent to climb a tree. My son, Nathan, was a senior in high school, and this was to be his bear. He had a .450 Marlin Guide Gun while I carried a .454 Casull in a crossdraw holster. The dog guys, true to form, were unarmed. We grabbed a few fresh dogs and charged to the sound of the hounds.
We were there as guests of my buddy Pete Richardson. Most of his dogs were on the bear, so the fresh dogs belonged to one of his friends, a big fella who I had just met. When we got close to the bear, we turned the dogs loose. This can be a very dangerous situation, the kind of angry-bear-and-tired-dogs situation that has a high potential to end badly. The fresh dogs would help control the bear as we approached.
Except it was not a big boar as we expected. It was a full-grown male, but a small full-grown male. Bears are not unlike people in that they come in all sizes and attitudes. This was a little guy with a big chip on its shoulder. Some sort of “small bear syndrome,” I suppose. But, he was not one we wanted to shoot.
The bear spotted us and tried to run. One of the fresh dogs grabbed a hind paw, tripping it, and they all piled on.
We waded in, grabbing dogs and pulling them off the bear. I had two leashes so I tied the first two dogs I got off the bear to a tree beside me. I pried the last dog’s jaws off the bear and started backing up with it in my hands. This bear was like that one guy in a bar fight who just won’t quit. Instead of running away it got on its feet and tried to grab the dog in my hands. One of the young dogs I had tied up lunged for it, and the bear grabbed that dog by the head, snapped it around, breaking the leash and tossing the dog several feet. At that, all the dogs piled back onto the bear again, including the one that had been tossed.
That dog belonged to the other dog guy, the big one I didn’t know. He thought I panicked and had let the dog go, that it was my fault the dog was hurt. There was no time to explain in the middle of the melee, but the guy was clearly mad and kept screaming at me, “Don’t let go of the dogs!”
Once again, I found I was pulling the last dog off the bear. I had its collar in my left hand while my right hand was through the collars of two other dogs. None of these dogs were being passive, so it was more than a handful trying to control them. As soon as I had the last dog free of the bear I started backing up, pulling the dogs with me. That little brawler of a bear came for me again. I scrambled back and tripped over a log just as it got to me. Without thinking I kicked out and hit it hard on the nose. The bear sat down like a big dog and started shaking its head and sneezing. The angry dog guy ran over, kicked it in the butt and yelled, “Get the hell out of here you idiot before somebody shoots you.” With that the bear ran off.
Later we got it all sorted out and the angry dog guy realized I had not let his dog go or caused it to be hurt.
“Just the same,” he said with a laugh. “Why didn’t you let go of those dogs when that bear came after you and shoot him with that cannon you carry on your belt?”
I thought for a moment and responded, “Well, two reasons I suppose. First, it happened too fast and I didn’t even think of the pistol. But even if I had, I don’t think I would have turned loose of the dogs. At that point I was a lot more scared of you than I was of that bear.”
The Last of the True Bear Men
My buddy Pete Richardson is about the most hardcore houndsman I have ever known. Sharp-eyed readers may recognize his name as I have written about rabbit hunting with him in this magazine a few times. Pete’s first love is to run bears with his hounds. I don’t think he’s ever shot one himself, and he lets very few others shoot them. “We take a few each year,” Pete said, “but most, we keep them around. I am sure we run a lot of the bears more than once. Sometimes I think the bears start to enjoy the chase as much as we do.”
Pete was hunting alone a few years ago and got mixed up with a runner. Sometimes these young, macho male bears just love to run. They won’t tree and they keep going as long as the dogs keep chasing. The only way to stop them is to pull off the dogs. So, late in the day Pete was trying to collect his hounds to end the chase.
Pete was in a dense, uncut cornfield. He could hear something running through the corn and, thinking it was his young hound, he called to it as he kneeled down. Pete has trained his dogs to come to him when he kneels.
Trouble was, it was the bear coming, not the dog. As soon as it saw Pete it charged.
“He was biting my knee and his teeth must have been hitting a nerve because it felt like he was ripping off my man parts.” Pete told me.
“I didn’t have a gun or even a knife, so I started punching the bear and trying to gouge his eyes with my fingers. That made him let go and I took the opportunity to run. That’s when the bear knocked me down and bit me in the ass.
“Now, after feeling like your testicles are being ripped off by a bear you might think being bit in the butt is better, but you would be wrong. It hurt like hell!
“It seemed like a long time, I suppose it really was not; time is relative when there is a bear chewing on your backside; but finally my dogs showed up and chased the bear away.”
“I was bleeding all over the place, but I still had dogs out. My truck was a bloody mess before I caught them all about an hour later.”
“What did they say at the hospital?” I asked.
“Hospital? Do you have any idea how much those places cost?” Pete said. “I don’t have health insurance and I could not afford a hospital. I went home and filled all the bites with iodine. That hurt almost as much as getting bit. Maybe even more.
“They turned all yellow and green over the next few days and looked pretty bad for a week or two, but after a while everything healed.”
Did he ever go back to find the bear?
“Naw,” said Pete. “I don’t hold a grudge against him; he was just being a bear. I don’t want to shoot him and if we meet again I’ll tip my hat and watch him run off. But, what I will not do, ever again, is turn my back to him!”
.44 vs. Foot
Another bear hunter I know had a similar situation with a big bear that wanted to fight. He didn’t want to shoot the bear; he just wanted to pull off his dogs.
He had his hands full of dogs when the bear decided that it hated him personally and was going to prove it. The guy let go of the dogs, drew his Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Mag. and backed up as fast as he could. He tripped over a stump and fell just as the bear got to him. He instinctively kicked the bear, to stall it a moment, and then he shot.
It would have worked too, except the bear bit into his boot and held on. It was too late to stop what was already in motion and the hunter shot through his own foot.
He killed the bear, but it ended his bear hunting. He sold his dogs, and it was a few years before he could walk right again.
“The thing that makes me the maddest,” he told me one day as we sat in a coffee shop talking hunting, “is that was a brand new pair of boots.”
Clan of the Cave Bear
I had another bear-hound hunting buddy who never carried a gun, but had occasion to re-think that policy.
The bear ran into some rough country and holed up in a cave. My buddy retrieved his dogs and tied them off a safe distance away. Except for the one that was inside the cave and still barking.
He started after the dog, but lost his vision as soon as he entered the darkness of the cave. He stood there for a minute waiting for his eyes to adjust, when he heard something coming. He assumed it was his dog until the bear hit him, driving him backwards and knocking him down. Then it ran over him, trampling muddy bear tracks all over his hunting coat.
The bear treed on top of a steep hill. We already knew we didn’t want to shoot it, but I was determined to become an outdoor writer and I wanted photos to show the world.
Bears climb down a tree the same way they go up, that is butt down and head up. They will come down until they are of a certain height, then will twist to one side or the other, release their front paws and jump headfirst the rest of the way.
This bear was coming down, which is not uncommon when bears see humans approaching. Our technique was to sprint to the tree, yelling loudly and beating on the trunk with a stick or even our hands. That would make the bear climb back up and I could get my photos.
But, as I said, this was a steep hill. Even though I was a much younger specimen then, it was a steep hill. I was too out of breath to yell and I was a few seconds too slow. Just as I got under the tree the bear did that turn-and-jump thing.
I ran under the bear and it came down on top of me. The dogs piled on, and on the steep terrain we became a very noisy ball of bear, Bryce and walker hounds rolling downhill. The party broke up soon enough and the bear ran off with the dogs chasing after it.
I didn’t think I was hurt, but later a bruise appeared on my chest the shape of a bear’s front paw.
Just imagine if this had happened to Jimmy! What a story he would have to tell his rock-and-roll buddies, if he didn’t turn catatonic first.