Combine extreme adventure, epic views, dangerous game and Force Recon tactics using dogs. The result? A bear hunting adrenaline dump and an exhausted hunter if you’re me. And pardon me while I eat my crow, but that’s not exactly what I expected when Barnes Bullets suggested a bear hunt using dogs as the kick off to our expanded brand Special Hunting Weapons And Tactics™ (SHWAT™). It seems I’d bought into a common lie about hound hunting black bears: Turn dogs loose, drink coffee in truck while dogs tree bear near road, shoot bear. Yawn. Hunting with Table Mountain Outfitters, nothing could have been further from the truth. If I’d been told I was to join a Bear Interdiction Task Force™ (BITF™) I’d surely have been more excited, but no one had coined the phrase yet! I submit to you my BITF™ AAR (After Action Report)…
It’s 6:00 in the morning the first day of our hunt. There’s light in the central Idaho valley that Table Mountain Outfitters calls home. Brett Throckmorton and I grab some quick breakfast and gear up. As public relations guy for Barnes Bullets, Brett has hunted bear with dogs before and has been telling me just how great this is going to be. It’s not that I don’t believe him at this point, I just can’t connect the dots. I have a Labrador Retriever, and my whole family adores her. I’d never think of sending her into a bear battle. Guess I’d seen too many hog dog stories where armored up dogs lock on to a wild boar and hope they survive without damage from the hog or the hunter’s bullets. Talk about a misconception.
Just down the hill the hounds are putting up quite the racket. Thirty-three dogs living in a doggie Taj Mahal are fired up about the day’s hunt. Not all of them get to go out each day, but all seem equally bent on barking “PICK ME!! PICK ME!!” Brett and I head down and connect with our guide and the owner of Table Mountain Outfitters, Scott Denny. Greetings are quick as Scott loads eight or ten dogs onto the purpose built Toyota truck. The Treeing Walker Hounds are jumping and pulling to get on board.
Two dogs ride on the carpeted hood. Instead of names like Terminator and Beastmaster, we have Lucy and Molly. Their owner is as fond of them as my family is of our aging Lab. Lucy is a trusted start dog and Molly is learning. They eagerly jump to the truck hood. Dexter, Blaze, Sally and another dog or two are positioned on top of their spacious dog box in the back of the truck. All the dogs are safe and secure by means of short tethers. They aren’t going to bounce off as we head up the rough roads. To keep some fresh legs, a couple more dogs remain in the box.
As we roll out, Lucy and Molly are literally dancing on the hood, noses to the wind. Driving along the narrow backcountry fire roads, Scott explains the “strike.” It’s the moment the dogs explode in barking, announcing they’ve caught a scent they want to chase. Some strikes are stronger than others. If just a few dogs in the back strike, we roll on. If the start dog strikes, we stop and send her in. “Start dogs” are trusted because they have enough experience and maturity to generally strike on bears and restrain themselves on other scents. Generally. Nobody – and no dog – is perfect. When the strike dog confirms that the trail is good and the chase is on, Scott “dumps” the rest of his dogs into the “race.” A couple might be held back for their fresh legs if needed.
Table Mountain Outfitters was running three guide and dog teams on our hunt. Brett and I rode with Scott, aka Big Dog. Another hunter rode with Adam, aka White Dog, and his dog team. Davie, aka Crockett, was roaming ready to dump his dog team into a race that called for more man power – make that dog power.
Dogs are to our Bear Interdiction Task Force™ what Force Recon Marines are to operational area commanders. Quoting from the United States Force Recon Association webpage: “US Marine Reconnaissance units are tasked with providing the commander of a larger force of Marines with information about his operational area. Their missions usually focus on specific information requirements which, due to their changing or unique nature, cannot be obtained by means other than putting a man on the ground to observe and report.” In the case of the BITF™, it’s dogs on the ground to observe and report. They are specialized athletes, muscled up endurance champs. Unlike the marines, they exercise exactly zero stealth capabilities. In fact, each dog wears a sleigh bell so it sounds like Christmas as the group moves around.
To coordinate three teams and up to twenty-something dogs in the rough expanse of central Idaho, this Bear Interdiction Task Force™ leverages some specialized equipment, serious technology and cryptic communications. The vehicles are custom built Toyota four door four wheel drive flatbed trucks. Outfitted with dog boxes, carpeted hoods, recovery gear and a dirt bike in Scott’s case, the BITF™ is prepared for almost anything. Radios, both vehicular and hand held are in constant use. Cryptic code words are used to communicate locations to avoid enticing outsiders to unsafely attempt joining the operation. Each dog wears a GPS collar transmitting its location back to synchronized terrain mapped GPS receivers. This enables search and rescue should the race lead dogs towards a highway or if they simply don’t break off a trail and come back when expected. It also allows the guide and hunters to stay in the race as it moves from canyon to canyon.
When bailing out of the vehicle brush busting your way eight hundred feet down into a nameless canyon as the bear and dogs do laps, you really appreciate the technology. It’s utterly incredulous to me that some states have banned the use of GPS tracking when hound hunting. If the myth of dogs treeing a bear 50 yards from the vehicle were true, GPS wouldn’t be a big deal. But the bear that Brett and I finally caught up to ran 25 miles first.
Each strike is its own adventure. The anticipation of what comes next is palpable. Sending in the hounds is a frenzy. Once they’re off, though, we become still and listen with heightened senses. The dog’s baying echoes in distance. The cool clean air smells amazing. Thick pine trees towering sixty feet or more often surround us. Green hues across the spectrum contrast with blue mountains and white clouds. The air is cool and moist. Scrub bushes can be so thick that I loose visual contact with Scott on a steep incline when no more than ten yards behind him. Now, consider the fact that the bear might be that close, too! Over the years others have attempted hound hunting this area, but it proved too hard, too extreme. I’d call it epic.
We chase after the dogs round one and get skunked. Literally. The over eager young dogs got distracted and chased down a skunk. Round two was bear scent, but led only to claw marks on a tree. For round three on the following day we coordinated with Adam, helping secure a fugitive bear Adam and his hunter had chased for five hours. Bears are athletes, too. More strikes, more days but contrary to the myth, bears don’t voluntarily cooperate.
And then it happened. Another strike. Lucy is with us again and confirms the bear scent trail. We send in the dogs. We chase. We pause, assessing the GPS data. We turn around and blast back where we came from. We pause, the track has turned again. It’s only four miles over the mountain where the bear seems to be headed, but closer to fifteen or so by road. So we turn around again and drive with intensity. As the road runs out, Scott heads off on the dirt bike with radio and GPS. Brett and I recheck our AAC 300 Blackout rifles loaded with Barnes Bullet’s 120 grain VOR-TX ammunition. Keep in mind this is a supersonic load, not subsonic, flying 2100 feet per second and delivering 1175 foot pounds of energy. In 10% calibrated gel blocks this round delivers twenty inches of penetration. Brett has killed bear and cougar with these. We both carry 10mm STI pistols in CrossBreed holsters. The pistols are loaded with Barnes Vor-TX ammunition. It’s been said that luck favors the prepared.
Scott calls us on the radio and we head into the canyon on foot. The bear decides to head for a nearby highway, a real danger for the dogs who could be hit or stolen. We reassess and call in reinforcements. Adam and Davie show up, but the bear has yet other plans. He’s headed back to us. Then he’s in the canyon and we’re blasting through the ridiculous brush. Take a step, slide down six feet. My slung rifle keeps getting hung up on the vegetation. I’m a Texan, and the altitude isn’t my friend. We press on, the bear near us, but not in sight. Dogs are loud. The dogs and GPS tell us the bear turned yet again. We climb up out of the brush. I catch my breath.
Suddenly, the bear is heading our way again. I imagine him taunting the dogs. He’s run 25 miles already. We decide to cover his trajectory front and rear. Brett and Adam dive back into the brushy steep slope at full speed. Scott and I run to the upper end of the canyon anticipating the bear’s arrival. It looks like it’s going to be close quarters and Scott draws his hefty pistol as a precaution. Then it happens – a flash of dark rough hair in bush. Jut a flash. Scott is an expert and we are in the right place at the right time. But the bear makes a u-turn and not knowing exactly where the dogs are I don’t have a safe shot. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aggravated. But the BITF™ is a team, and with Adam and Brett still down below, the team is still in hot pursuit.
Scott and I pause, listen, and check GPS data. Then, BOOM!!! Brett’s shot echoes in canyon, followed by the unmistakable cry of victory. The bear broke cover on the canyon wall opposite Brett, and Brett was in position. He had only a moment to connect with the bear and his Barnes 120 grain VOR-TX ammunition did its job efficiency. Hit behind its left shoulder, the bear just quit, sliding and rolling down the canyon wall. No more chasing. No tracking a wounded bear’s blood trail. The dogs caught up and celebrated loudly.
Now you know how I came up with the BITF™ / Bear Interdiction Task Force™ names. It’s the polar opposite of what I had anticipated. Maybe I’ll make some tee shirts…
Like a lot of the black bear in the area, this was a great looking color phase bear. Instead of black, it was a deep reddish brown boar. Instead of being weighed, bears are skinned and the hide laid out to measure. This one was pretty solid for the area, measuring six foot ten inches “squared.” To square a bear, you lay it out flat then measure from the base of its tail to tip of its nose and across the front paws. Combine the two measurements and divide by two.
So I still have a Spring bear tag for Idaho, and while I wanted to bring home a bear I could call my own I have not one complaint. This kind of extreme hunting with Table Mountain Outfitters using modern rifles and high tech ammo in a wilderness adventure is a perfect example of Special Hunting Weapons And Tactics™. All of us played a part in bringing back the bear. All of us pumped the adrenaline. Brett was fortunate enough to be the trigger puller. Yes, you can bear hunt over bait at close range with Table Mountain Outfitters. If that’s you’re thing, more power to you. It’s not mine. I love the camaraderie and pace of the high speed team sport adventure.
Special thanks to Barnes Bullets’ Brett Throckmorton and Thad Stevens for putting this hunt together. Their reputation for the highest quality hunting ammo is well deserved and we appreciate the opportunity to kick off the expanded Special Hunting Weapons And Tactics™ with them.