By Bob Robb
I love black bear hunting so much that when I lived in Alaska I guided a bit for them and hunted them hard both spring and fall. I shot my first-ever bear in the early 1980s, back when you could chase them with hounds in Oregon. Before I left for that hunt, I thought it would be all peaches and cream. You know, dogs chase bear up tree, hunter strolls over and shoots bear, then heads back to camp for cocktails, not a hair out of place. Just like that.
What I found was one of the most physical hunts ever, as we had to chase the dogs up and down and all around some of the steepest, nastiest country in western Oregon. I loved it! That was some 25 years ago. And while I have followed hounds in pursuit of mountain lions and wild hogs a lot since then, I had not chased bears again.
So in late May 2011, my friends Derrick Nawrocki of Alabama and Jason Bear of California joined me on what would turn out to be an archery hunt with hounds that none of us will ever forget. We were hunting with Chris and Cody Korell of Emmett, Idaho-based Korell Outfitters. I’d bowhunted elk with Chris a few years back. And while I didn’t get an arrow off, I was so impressed with Chris and his outfit that I knew I wanted to hunt with him again.
“We do it a little differently than some outfitters,” Chris told me. “A lot of dog guides will turn their hounds loose on the first bear they come across. It might be big; it might be small. Whatever. Before we cut ’em loose, we get out and look for tracks. I will not set my dogs off on small tracks. We only want to shoot mature boars, and the only way to make sure we do that is to not chase small bears. Plus, you are only going to chase so many bears in a week before the dogs need some time off. It’s best to know what you are getting yourself into before you start running the mountains. And when we turn the dogs loose, 90 percent of the time we catch that bear.”
The first morning we split up into three trucks and the search began. There were two packs of dogs: the Korells’ and another belonging to Kidd Youren, a close friend and local houndsman who has been hunting with the Korells for years. Chris and Cody’s father, Larry Korell, was in one truck along with Cody and Jason. Derrick and I were riding with Chris. Kidd and a couple of his buddies went off on their own to see what they could turn up.
We weren’t in the game two hours when our radio crackled. It was Cody, who had found a good track and cut his dogs loose. They had treed a bear up a big pine, so we all vectored in on the tree. As we looked at the bear, I thought to myself how lucky Jason was to be first up. The bear was a stud, big and with a flawless cinnamon hide. Jason made a solid bow shot. Less than half a day into his first-ever day of hunting bears with hounds, he had had tagged a superb 250-pound boar.
But things were just beginning to get interesting. Kidd was now on the radio saying his dogs were in pursuit of a dandy. Naturally, the wise old bear decided to run off a near-vertical face fronting the river. “We never, ever go down there,” Chris said in all seriousness. “The river is between us and the highway, which means when you go down, you have to climb back out. And it is really, really nasty.”
We were all full of adrenaline when Kidd called again and said it was a really good bear, and cornered in a “hole,” so where the heck were we? We jumped atop the dog box on the bed of the Toyota Tacoma and hung on for dear life as Cody raced over the rough roads and through the foot-deep snow drifts until we reached Kidd’s truck. Derrick, Chris, Cody and I bailed off the 60-degree slope and through a 10-foot tall alder jungle that seemed to never end. It took us an hour to drop the 1,500 feet or so–still high above the river–and when we arrived the bear was not in a “hole,” but backed into a small cave! It was complete chaos, with dogs barking and men yelling, all of us trying to find a flat spot on which to stand.
The cave’s opening was minuscule, and the bear was backed up 20 feet to the rear. There was no way to slide an arrow through the opening and hit the bear in the right spot, so we knocked down part of the dirt bank in front of the opening to give Derrick room to operate. The bear was well-positioned for a shot, so Derrick planted his feet, came to a full draw and cut his arrow loose.
“Man, he didn’t like that one!” Kidd yelled as the bear roared and started moving like a Tasmanian devil. The bear somehow was able to do an about-face and squirt out of a small opening on the side of the rock face. He launched himself away from us, over the edge and into the thick alders, tumbling down the slope and out of sight. The dogs, of course, live for this stuff and were on top of it immediately, barking and growling and going nuts. The guides, who carry handguns in case things get dangerous, were right on their heels. Fortunately, Derrick had made an excellent shot and it was soon over. The beautiful old boar weighed about 225 pounds and had a flawless cinnamon hide, with a large, yellow V-shaped patch in the center of his chest.
The bear was quickly skinned. Then the real fun began. Chris, who is tougher than a mountain goat, decided to climb straight up and out to the truck so he could gather up Larry and Jason and meet us at the river. Our five-man crew–Cody, Kidd, their 18-year old friend Milt, Derrick and me–decided to sidehill around the mountain, staying high above the river until we reached a bridge where we could cross. Naturally, there were no trails and the alders were a nightmare. It took us 3½ hours to reach the bridge, where the trucks were parked. The young guys still looked pretty fresh. But Derrick and me? We were trying to act tough, but our thighs were on fire. Fortunately, there was a pub on the way home where we were able to dull the pain.
Two days later we woke up to rain, and fresh snow up high. Derrick and Jason had returned to their real lives, so it was just me, Chris, Cody, Kidd and the dogs. Less than an hour into the morning hunt the dogs sounded off, and as it began to rain and sleet heavily, Chris and I saw a large track. Chris cut the hounds loose, then radioed Cody and Kidd, who came over pronto. The bear took the dogs high up into a brush-choked canyon, and Cody and Kidd followed on foot with more dogs. Chris said it was best for us to stay put until we knew exactly what the bear would do. “Often old boars do not go up a tree. Instead they just keep walking ahead of the dogs, or back themselves up into some brush jungle,” he said.
About 45 minutes later, as rain poured down, we spotted the bear. He was walking across the opposite hillside with the dogs right on his heels, sounding off as loudly as they could. We figured we could cut them off with the truck, so we drove back to where we started the chase, then got out and sidehilled around and through the nearly impenetrable brush. Finally, the hounds bayed the bear up in an alder jungle, and we slipped within about 15 steps of him. The bear had his butt up against the trunk of a huge pine, but there was no way on earth I could get an arrow through that mess. The bear then saw us and took off downhill, with Chris and the dogs in hot pursuit. I followed as fast as I could, given that I was carrying a bow and couldn’t see worth beans through my fogged-up eyeglasses.
Thirty minutes later, I caught up with them. Dogs, men and bear were at the bottom of the canyon along the banks of a swollen creek. It continued to rain buckets, but the bear was bayed up on the ground in the thick brush along the opposite bank. I slid down a small hill to the water’s edge and came to a full draw. When the bear exposed its chest, I turned the arrow loose. Upon impact, the bear roared, then spinned and snapped at the wound channel. The dogs, sensing an opening, attacked. Fur was flying as Cody and Kidd pulled the hounds off as fast as they could. After about 30 seconds, the bear died.
All of us looked like drowned rats, and I felt like I was wearing cement shoes. But the dogs were howling wildly, four men were hollering like little boys, and I had a 275-pound cinnamon boar. I loved every minute of it.