While turkeys dominate the spring hunting scene, several states and provinces also have spring bear seasons. One of those is Idaho, where I returned from a hunt with folks from Marolina Outdoors, who make and sell NOMAD hunting and HUK fishing apparel.

Brad Stubbs, Bobby Lader, Zach Heaton and I were hunting with Scott and Angie Denny of Table Mountain Outfitters. I’ve known and hunted with Scott and Angie for going on a decade and always expect an enjoyable experience.

Day 1, I ride shotgun with guide Adam Nelson, as knowledgeable a dog handler as I’ve met. Brad settles into the back seat of our rig while guides Kelly Lee and Joey Gammons bring up the rear in another truck. As we roll along, I stare out the window at the verdant valley slowly giving way to the dark-timbered mountains we’ll soon climb.

Adam, meanwhile, enlightens us on the contest. “The hope is that the dogs will tree a bear, but even the best hounds can’t make a bear do something he doesn’t want to. Bears are smart. They learn from every encounter. That bear will do everything he can to try and lose a dog. He’ll double back, cross streams and go over ground you wouldn’t think possible. Most of the time the bear wins, but once in a while it works in our favor.” I’m hoping that will happen today.

The hunt begins after we’ve made our way well off the pavement and into the back country. First, dogs are let out to work off pent-up energy. Then a pair of strike dogs is mounted on the hood and the rest clipped in on top of the dog box. For as long as it takes now, we’ll creep along mountain roads hoping they catch a whiff of bruin scent.

It is said of West Virginia that everything is at a 45-degree angle. Idaho is more like 60, and instead of open hardwoods, the forest is dense evergreen over a brush-choked understory. It’s not unlike the Maine woods, were they tilted precipitously to one side. It seems as though the only flat spots are the roads that snake their way around steep topography, and looking out the passenger window I’m often scarcely a foot or two from a drop of 1,000 feet or more.

Occasionally the dogs fire up. First one bays excitedly, eliciting a chorus of background hound music. My pulse quickens, but Adam merely rolls down the window and scolds them. It will take a while to learn what’s no doubt second nature to Adam, discerning a real strike from a cold trail or some other forest creature.

Scott and Angie, with Zach and Bobby, are the first to strike and we try to follow the action via two-way radio as best we can. Baying hounds are heard in the background of the first transmissions, which rile up our dogs. I anticipate Adam will whip the truck around and head off to join the chase, but he calmly rolls on, hoping to find a chase of his own.

Eventually, word comes back that a bear is treed. Actually it’s two bears, a sow and a cub. Photos and video are the only things shot. The dogs are gathered up and the other team pushes the restart button. Unless I’m overlooking something, running hounds is the only true opportunity for catch-and-release hunting. Once a bear is treed, the game is won and the hunter has ample time to decide whether to take home a trophy in the bed of the truck or merely as an image on an SD card.

For several days, we run in similar teams, each covering 40 or 50 miles of gravel forest service roads but neither encountering a scent hot enough to put the dogs on. There are a few false starts, cold trails that the dogs just can’t seem to sort out. One day is too hot and dry for good scenting conditions. On another, heavy rains wash out the aroma the dogs need to track. This is no easy game.

On the final morning, our teams unite and strike at the first stop. The guides cry havoc and let loose the hounds, who disappear in a flash. The soon distant baying echoes off the mountainside and I notice a subtle smile in the corner of each dog handler’s lips.

After several days, it has become clear this hunt is as much about the dogs as us, perhaps more so. They quiver with excitement and beat their tails furiously as collars are put on. They dash with enthusiasm in to the woods, then for hours follow scent over ground that would be impassable to two-legged travelers.

Some folks disparage hound hunting as cruel, but I could think of few acts crueler than depriving these dogs of their sport. This, the chase, is what they and their handlers live for, and without it they would be merely heal hounds, fat, domesticated house pets. But out here on the trail they, like their masters, rekindle ancestral flames that remain sequestered in the DNA of town folk.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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