Larry Case: Partnership makes bear hunt a success

Well-trained hound dogs play a key role in the success of the annual USSA bear hunt.
Well-trained hound dogs play a key role in the success of the annual USSA bear hunt.

Most of you know I am a retired game warden. Game warden, department of natural resources officer, conservation officer, natural resources police officer - whatever you call them in your state, they usually have a tough job, and most of the time what they do is little known and even less appreciated.

Over the years I came to realize this was just how it is, and that I should get on with life rather than dwell on it.

photo Lane Petty, center, poses with the 580-pound black bear he killed in southern West Virginia as part of the annual USSA bear hunt.
photo Contributed photo / Larry Case

The relationship between game wardens and their chief clientele, hunters and fishermen, has always seemed a bit strange to me. I have talked to people who expressed a great fear of the game warden. They never had any problem with one, you understand, it was just some kind of inherent fear passed down through the generations.

Other hunters seemed not so much to fear these officers as perhaps resent them. They seemed to have an attitude that game wardens were out there to spoil or interfere with their favorite sport. Oh well - I told you I didn't understand it.

Don't get me wrong. I know there are sportsmen and sportswomen out there who appreciate what wildlife officers do to protect our resources. I am bringing all of this up to talk about what I believe is a great partnership between hunters and officers, and a great organization that helps special sportsmen.

For the past three years, the United Special Sportsman Alliance has sponsored a bear hunt in southern West Virginia. USSA is a nonprofit "dream wish"-granting charity that specializes in sending critically ill and disabled youth and disabled veterans on the outdoors adventure of their dreams. USSA adventures give our youth and veterans something to look forward to that can help sustain them in their time of need.

Families are whisked away from the mundane, man-made world of hospitals and high medical bills by giving them a place of peace to focus on the quality of life, family ties and the wonders of our natural world. USSA is composed of a 100 percent volunteer staff from all walks of life, bonded together by a common love for our fellow mankind and a deep respect and appreciation of our world's natural resources.

By working cooperatively with caring "adventure" donors as well as generous individual and corporate sponsors, USSA has made a significant impact on the lives of thousands of children, disabled veterans and their families. New lifelong friendships are made, and the public's image of all sportsmen is enhanced through this valuable community service.

What USSA does for this event is wonderful, but without the team of bear hunters and their hounds, along with the DNR officers, this hunt would not happen. The seasoned bear hunters who show up are absolutely vital for these special sportsmen to achieve their dream of taking a bear.

Even more important may be the hounds the hunters bring. In this mountainous terrain, the chances of taking a bear without dogs are extremely low. These aren't just any old hound dogs - these dogs are the real deal, and they spend many hours a year in training and conditioning.

Kish Justice of Greenbrier County is the ramrod for the group.

"You wouldn't think the presence of a small army of uniformed and off-duty game wardens would put a bear hunter's mind at ease," Kish told me. "Truth is, every year I pull into Turkey Creek and see those DNR vehicles, I feel relieved. Over the years I've learned those game wardens will give you everything they have to ensure a safe and successful day. It's an honor to go to the woods with these fellows every year."

The logistics and planning of a hunt like this can be monumental, and Kish shares some of these responsibilities with Andy Lyons, a natural resources police officer. Andy is an experienced officer and bear hunter, so Kish and Lyons work well together to make this bear hunt happen for their special guests.

The USSA bear hunt took place again this year on the property of Monroe County's Jim Justice, and this beautiful area has the two features to ensure a successful hunt with hounds: a sizable bear population and lots of room (bear chases may go for miles).

The two hunters this year were Isaac Welch from Marengo, Iowa, and Lane Petty from Dickinson, Tenn. While Welch took a very nice bear, it just so happened the bear Petty encountered was a whopper, and the circumstances of how he collected it made it even more special.

While hunting with hounds greatly increases your chances of taking a bear, it is by no means a sure thing.

Usually a bear will climb a tree to evade the dogs, though sometimes not. Large male bears are known for staying on the ground and fighting the dogs. I have witnessed this several times, and it is a wild scene to say the least. The frantic hounds encircle the bear if they can, baying and trying to dart in and grab some fur. Most often the bruin will pick a dense thicket to make his stand. The bear is asking for no quarter and giving none - he could go up a tree easily if he wanted to - so woe be to the dog that gets too close to him.

It was into such a scene that Petty approached his bear, and even an experienced bear hunter could not have been expected to perform any better.

This can be a very tense situation. The baying of the hounds is deafening, and the hound owners are often on edge as they know at any second the bear may grab and kill one of their dogs. The hunters want the bear dispatched with one shot so no dogs are hurt. The pressure is on the shooter!

Petty met this challenge, and everyone was thrilled when he took the bear out with one shot. Not until they could approach the bear closely did everyone realize the size of Petty's trophy. Placed on scales later that day, the monster bear tipped them at 680 pounds!

Petty and Welch will always have their bear trophies and a memory of a wonderful hunt in the mountains. It just may be they will remember the hospitality and camaraderie of a bunch of bear hunters and game wardens even more than collecting a bear hide.

I'm sending out a great big "attaboy" to the USSA, Brigid O'Donoghue (USSA CEO and founder), all of the bear hunters and hounds, and all of the West Virginia DNR Officers who made this possible. You gave these two young men an amazing Christmas present.

I wish you, all of my wonderful readers, a Happy New Year. I will see you on the trail!

"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at

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