Bear Hunting 101: The Training Season

Michigan Black Bear

“Daylight in the swamp!”  The world-wide morning wake-up call for hunters everywhere.  Whether it be upland birds, ducks, deer, or bear, this call jolts sleepy-headed sportsmen and women out of the sack and into a world of adventure.  But for bear hunters during the annual bear-training season, which runs from early July to about a week before the September Bear Season opener, the morning alarm has a whole new ring to it, so to speak.  On this writer’s first ever bear-training session, the morning alarm sounded at 4:00 A.M.  But it wasn’t a regular alarm clock by any means.  It was the deep, booming voices of a dozen bear hounds howling in my ear to get up and get moving.  I was lucky enough to be a guest of my son and his Newberry Unit michigan bear hunting group, for the 2011 bear training season opener which began on the weekend of July 9th.

I am certainly not joking about the 4:00 a.m. wake-up call from the concierge services of messieurs Plott, Blue Tick, and Walker, all pure-bred bear hounds of the finest bloodlines and training.  Their voices boomed at me to get over to the fire pit and get that first cup of coffee poured into my cup.  There would be a breakfast bar waiting in the truck—a true breakfast bar, that is, either granola or the cereal grain type.  If I wanted to be a part of this chase, then I had better be in the passenger’s seat when the truck pulled away from camp.  Being new to the sport of bear hunting, and hoping to be invited back to Bear Camp again sometime soon, you can bet your season’s bear tag I was ready to go when the truck pulled out of camp.  In fact, my son, and George, the camp’s main dog caretaker, had the dogs loaded up into four bear-dog trucks and ready for the chase—long before daylight even touched that old blueberry and tag alder swamp.  We took the legal limit of six dogs into the woods on this training morning.

Group guidelines and the day’s action plan had been all set the night before.  Hunters and their dogs all knew which way to go in search of bear tracks.  My son and I headed north at a snail’s pace as we turned out of camp and drove along the dry and sandy county road.  “You’re looking for tracks along the banks and then down into the road.  Pay attention!  And if you see anything that even remotely looks like a bear track, holler out and we’ll stop to check it out.”  Almost immediately a call came over the two-way radio.  It was George, one of our trainers, with the day’s first sign of good luck.  “Driving along East on the Blue Road here and the dogs rigged a little.  Both Old Sparky and Hopper had something to say.”  (“rigged” means the dogs caught a bear scent and barked.)  “ Roger” was my son’s only reply.  Fact is, you don’t dare say too much over the airwaves so other trainer/hunters don’t move into your area.  Especially if the sign looks hot and might lead to a good chase.  This particular hunting group code names all the roads and earthly landmarks.  I was up there for three days and still have no idea where the Blue Road is located.  All I know is we were on the main road that took us to and from Bear Camp.

I was lucky enough to spot an old track, and the kid was pretty impressed with my attention to our scouting efforts.  But then just another 100 yards down the road he saw something that caused some serious interest.  It was a nice track crossing from right to left.  The bear had crossed the road from my side of the truck, so  I scoured the bank and found where the animal had lumbered down.  Then it made a clean, visible track right in the middle of the road.  My son marked the tracks which headed up the bank and into the woods.  I was instructed to stay in the middle of the road and keep an eye on the bear’s line of movement.  Then he put out the call over the airwaves and said the magic words, “they look pretty good.”  Within a matter of minutes the other hunters were on us like bears after a honey.

The dogs were wild with excitement, their voices bellowing loud enough to impair my hearing and thinking.   But my job was to keep a pair of dogs quiet while the best trackers were put down on the track.  The extra dogs must be kept quiet as to not over excite the main trackers and to keep from calling these dogs back to the truck.  The next thing we knew one dog handler unleashed his dog.  It was the Plott hound, Old Sparky, and the dog took off like a rocket and just a-howling, his deep voice booming far into the dense jackpine forest.  After about another minute, the second dog was unleashed and it all became official:  the 2011 bear training season was off and running.

All trainers and bear chasers got back into the trucks and fanned out in every direction to set up a perimeter.  These dogs were being tracked by both high tech and traditional methods.  Some of these hunters used GPS tracking devices and some used the traditional tried-and-true gear:  just their own ears trained to the voices of baying hounds, good vision, past experience and common sense.  This combination of old and new techniques was a new approach for our bear-dog training group.  And the end result was destined to produce an amazing experience on this bear chase.

In hot pursuit of the dogs and bear, it seemed as though we raced up and down the county road and two tracks much too fast for personal safety.  However, the guy behind the wheel of this truck told me to “just relax”—because this would be his third year of chasing bears and he was getting to know every bump, rut, rock and curve in these roads.  Although the trip was a lightning fast and bumpy ride, I managed to stay seat-belted into my place as co-pilot.  Unfortunately, I had the dubious position of map reader.  And now the joke was on me.  It’s simply not easy to read a county road map while bouncing along a two track at over 50 miles an hour.   I was chided a number of times for giving out bad information by those who responded to my radio reports.

“Sounds like your map reader needs to go back to school there,” a voice teased over the radio.   (I am a former school teacher and took the razzing in stride.)  The next thing I knew two trucks converged on a narrow tree-and-brush lined road.  Both trucks raced about a half mile into who knows where.  (I had ditched the map into a corner on the floor.)  We came to a small clearing and our other trucks were already in position.  We were on a ridge which led down to a creek bottom.  Then two other dogs were cut loose to track the bear.

After a short wait the two younger dogs still in training were walked into chase.  Or I should say these dogs dragged their leash masters toward the baying hounds?  Now all the dogs were in pursuit of this bruin.  From the sounds of their voices I could tell the dogs probably had the bear treed.  A quick gland at the GPS unit confirmed this as the dogs with tracking collars were clustered in a group on the GPS screen.

On the way into the tree I fell far behind the group.  The cover was as thick as any I have ever tried to walk though.  During a bear chase this is not a leisurely walk in the park with your sunglasses and a bottle of ice water.  It is, in fact, more like a race to the finish with a ‘you just try to stop me’ attitude.  I fell more than once and soon looked like I was wearing the designer outfit of U.P. black spruce.  After each stumble I pulled myself up and continued on a line toward the deafening sounds of barking and howling dogs.

Finally I came upon the treed bear.  From about 50 yards back I watched the tree swaying back and forth could hear the hunters’ shouting directions to each other. Clearly I could see the black silhouette of the bear in the tree.  The dogs’ baying was frantic now and the noise level was deafening.  OSHA would have cited this entire group for not wearing approved ear protection.  After about 30 minutes at the tree, this training session came to an abrupt end.  Each of us took a leashed dog back through the thick cover and up to the truck.   It had been a very successful run.  From the sight of the first fresh track to the bear in the tree, a mere 90 minutes had passed.  Now it was time to break into the coolers and get out the icy cold bottles of waters.  And I got to eat a second morning breakfast bar.

When we got back to camp and the dogs were settled around, someone asked me how I liked my first successful bear-training session.  “Nothing to it,” was my off- the-cuff reply.  “I think it was pretty easy, really.”  To which my own flesh-and-blood, replied, “Dad, you now have a genuine false sense of reality.”  Then as we ate lunch, stories of past bear chases were told.  Stories about chases that lasted all day, all night, two days or longer, and of the dozens of bruins that eluded both dogs and hunters.  Many, many of those bears were never treed.  And I had better not forget it.  But for the record, the 2011 bear training season opener was a huge success for this hunting group.  Complete with my false sense of reality, to boot!

Russ Fimbinger is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer and new to bear hunting.   Be sure to check the current Michigan DNR 2012 Bear Hunting Digest for all hunting dates, rules, and regulations before you train dogs or hunt bears.  Copies are available at most hunting license sales outlets.




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