TRACKING WOUNDED BIG
FROM DEER TO BEAR
by John Jeanneney
A standard dachshund bred for hunting is a natural for tracking wounded deer. What may come as a surprise to some is that the standard wires that we use to track deer also track bear. They seem to make the transition to tracking wounded bears without any problem. In areas where the anti-hunters have succeeded in closing down bear hunting with hounds it may still be possible to track a wounded bear with a leashed dog. This is the case in New York State.
Those of us in Deer Search have tracked a number of bears with our wirehaired dachshunds. Even those dachshunds that have never tracked anything but wounded deer start off willingly on a wounded bear line. I have to admit that the dogs give us some funny looks at the beginning. They seem to sense that a bear is something big and nasty even if they have never seen one. They show some caution at first. When they warm to the task, they forget about being worried. When the bear is jumped alive, they are raring to go on the hot line.
Bears often leave a poor blood trail for the eye tracker. The fat of the bear tends to close the arrow or bullet wound, and the heavy coat absorbs much of the blood. In the more difficult cases much of the blood that the unassisted hunter sees will be smeared on saplings and branches rather than dripped on the ground.
Bears can be hard to track by eye, but they are easy for a dog because the body and pad scent of the bear is overwhelmingly strong. I was called upon to track a bear that had been wounded with a 30-06 rifle 48 hours earlier. When I saw the evidence, I strongly suspected a grazing high leg or shoulder hit that had not broken bone. We tracked over a half mile of visible blood trail and through a deadfall area where the hunter had stopped tracking. My dachshund Sabina was able to continue on with little difficulty for over three miles of typical Catskill mountain terrain forested with hardwoods and hemlocks. A few, widely scattered smears of blood on saplings indicated that we were on the right track. The bear just kept going. We never caught up to him. The probabilities are very high that this bear survived.
I hope to see a bear killed cleanly, but when a bear is wounded I do love to track them. I was in the middle of a beaver swamp last fall, trying to track a wounded buck, when a good call came in on my cell phone. It was a bear call, shot with a bow a little far back.
I track wounded deer at night most of the time, but I draw the line on bears after dark. Since it was already late afternoon, and the call was more than a hundred miles away, the hunter and I agreed to meet in the morning. When I began tracking the line was 28 hours old. The hunter, Anthony Lamonaca, had done an amazing job of tracking that bear up the Mombacus Mountain in the Catskills on the faintest drops and smears of blood, but finally after about a half mile, he had run out of line. The bear had gone up through a blow down area where a tornado had passed through. It was up and down through deadfalls with lots of thick mountain laurel to crawl through. We had to track again over most of the half mile before we could get to the point of loss because it was in the middle of a mess that looked like a war zone. By the way, as New York Law requires I was using a tracking leash, thirty feet of stiff mountain climbing rope. It never got hung up.
Even though the blood had completely stopped there was no shortage of scent and Sabina kept going. We had no way of knowing if the bear was dead or alive. Probably we went only another 200 yards, but it seemed liked a long way in that dense cover. Sabina was tracking along a slight trace of a path, still going up, when I saw her raise her head. She pulled off at right angles into the wind with her head high. We went about 50 yards through the thickest laurel I had ever seen and these was the bear. Dead. Dead was fine with me. In the first excitement he looked as big as a Volkswagen, much later on the scale he was a dressed 318 pounds, which is still a big bear. Sabina jumped right in and grabbed some fur, but once she realized the bear was dead she did not care for the smell much.
Sabina was content to watch as we gutted the bear and started to drag him down the mountain. When she finds a deer we have to tie her up to keep her away from the work that has to be done. We never would have moved that bear up a mountain, and as it was it took the rest of the day to get him down the mountain and out to a four wheeler. Even though he was not fat he was like a 300-pound sack of jelly. His head was big and heavy ( 20 3/8" P & Y) and we had to lift it over every log or deadfall we encountered.
In the right situation a small tracking dog can be ideal for recovering a bear, and yet most of us in Deer Search who have been tracking wounded bear have found less than 20 percent of the bears we track. We find a much higher percentage of deer. The reason appears to be that a mortally wounded bear usually does not travel as far as a comparably wounded deer before it beds down. Therefore the mortally wounded bear is more often found by the hunters themselves. Even if there is no blood trail, a thorough area search has a good chance of turning up that bear unless the cover is exceptionally dense. In cases where bear are shot with a bow over bait at close range the string tracker can also be very useful and can preclude the need for a dog. Most of the "difficult" bears that a tracking dog is called upon to track, when all else has failed, will not be mortally wounded bears. It is the handlerís task to find out just what happened. If we track a bear and determine that it is strong and traveling well the next day, we believe that we have accomplished something. The bear is not wasted and we have the satisfaction of knowing he will be there for next year.
Anthony Lamonicaís bear was probably an exception that proves the rule that wounded bears do not go as far as deer. He was big and tough; he went an exceptionally long way, up hill in the laurel before he bedded down to die.