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  • Patrick Durkin

Big Bear Inspires Gratitude and Old Stories

Updated: Oct 24, 2019

Doug Nelson of Winneconne, Wisconsin, sent a photo the other day showing him with a big black bear he shot Sept. 23 while hunting his property east of Crivitz in Marinette County.


When I asked to hear his bear story three weeks later, he was still feeling fortunate. He said he maintained only one bait site, and that his trail-cam pictures showed no daylight visits from a large male that typically showed up around 3 a.m.


That habit changed Sept. 22 when the old boar arrived at dusk, triggering the camera. Nelson climbed into his stand late the next afternoon, hoping the boar would return for the strawberry pie he dropped into his bait hole.


The bear obliged, strolling in just before shooting hours ended at 7:06 p.m. Nelson aimed for its neck to ensure it wouldn’t run off into the forest’s knee-deep water 100 yards away.


Everything had worked as Nelson planned, a rarity in hunting. By baiting only one site, Nelson didn’t have a Plan B. He had shot two other bears on his property the previous 20 years, plus one in Montana and another in Saskatchewan, and so he figured he would shoot his sixth bear on his own land or go home empty-handed.


Besides, based on his trail-cam photos of that 3 a.m. visitor, Nelson felt motivated to stay put. He also really didn’t want to drive 40 miles to chase bears with some houndsmen he knows. Nelson has never hunted bears with hounds, and he has nothing against it, but he doubted a pack of hounds could find and tree a bear bigger than the one in his photos.


Nelson has nothing against catch-and-release, either, but a friend who filled his bear tag earlier that week assured him that hounds offer no guarantees. The hunter went on 27 chases with the houndsmen before their dogs treed a bear matching his desires.


For all those reasons and more, Nelson was pleased he stayed loyal to his land, and shot the biggest bear of his life. Its field-dressed weight was 442 pounds.


When Nelson’s story ended, I breathed a quiet sigh of relief, grateful that he likes hounds and houndsmen. Throughout my career, my defense shields go up whenever someone mentions bear hounds. I’ve never hunted bears with dogs, but my travels have allowed me to hunt deer, ducks, geese, rabbits, turkeys and raccoons with help from various dog breeds.


I loved those experiences, and I’m confident I’d enjoy huffing and puffing after a pack of bear hounds. But as often as not, when I share that thought, others with even less experience than mine freely criticize hounds and their owners.


Their attacks compel me to defend hunting with beagles, blueticks, Plotts, redbones and black-and-tans, but I’ve found that writing about it is futile. Those columns just inspire critics to insult my looks and curse my mother.


For instance, I received a venomous letter over 20 years ago after writing such a column. I noted that urban and suburban dogs – including my former neighbor’s dim-witted guard dog – are far greater year-round nuisances than random six-packs of hounds crossing my buddy’s back 40 in Ashland County.


Here’s an excerpt of that angry letter from a Green Bay reader:


“You’re a big (naughty word). I hope your neighbor reads what you wrote and rips off your chicken-(blank) lips. You offend people with everything you write. Your whole style and personality is lame. Stay out of the corner of avid hunters. All you ever do is set us back. I’d sign my name but a dink like you would respond in your loser newspaper.”


Funny thing was, he didn’t sign the letter, but his “helpful” wife took the liberty of sticking a label with his name and return address on the envelope. When I wrote a quick note to thank him for being a loyal reader, he tore my photo from the newspaper, wrote “DINK” across my forehead, and mailed it to me. I felt so flattered that the picture remains taped to a shelf above my computer.


In that same column about bear hounds, I also said it was unfair and superficial for a famous animal-rights activist to claim that shooting a treed bear is an “unsporting violation of fair-chase principles.”


I noted, for example, that I prefer to shoot deer while they’re standing still. Stationary targets better ensure a well-placed arrow or bullet that kills quickly. I consider that a crucial fair-chase principle.


I also wrote that other hunting cultures believe it’s crucial to make eye contact with their quarry. They think it fulfills a spiritual contract between hunter and prey. Mexico’s Huichol Indians, for example, wait for deer to face them before they shoot. They think the deer “talks” to the hunter through its eyes, and then sacrifices itself so that the hunter might live.


I find such philosophies fascinating, and I respect them even though they don’t mesh with my own beliefs. But when I shared that bit of culture in my column, the reward was this angry note from a Madison reader:


“Hunting bears with hounds is an absurdity and outrage. To compare these fat, lazy slobs in 4-wheel trucks to indigenous hunters in Mexico is offensive!”


Whew. Talk about prejudiced. My work has put me in touch with lots of houndsmen the past 37-plus years from Idaho to Wisconsin to Louisiana to Alabama, and few fit that hateful description. In fact, I once had a boss who lined up houndsmen every time she drew a bear tag. She was slim and active, and remains so today.


She’s also as ethical and entitled to hunt as any person, whatever their heritage or nationality. And she feels that way whether the prey is elk, deer, ducks, black bears or anything else we’re licensed to hunt.


I’d mention her name, but she doesn’t need anonymous critics.


So why did I share Nelson’s name? He’s spent time in elective office. He’s used to it.


Doug Nelson of Winneconne, Wisconsin, shot this black bear Sept. 23 in Marinette County, Wisconsin. Its field-dressed weight was 442 pounds. -- Doug Nelson photo

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