Case: Mountaineer spirit is strong in young bear hunters

Photo contributed by Larry Case / Kish Justice, Cade Clemons and Anse Justice are carrying on the tradition of bear hunting with hounds in the mountains of West Virginia.

Cade Clemens and Anse Justice are bear hunters. This would not be considered too unusual for either one, seeing as how both are from West Virginia and they live in the Appalachian Mountains. We West Virginians pride ourselves that we are a stronghold for hunters and outdoorsmen, and Cade and Anse are every bit of that.

Thing is, Cade is 12 years old and Anse is a ripe old 10.

Both boys have been going on bear hunts since they were well, little — as in toddler size. Both come by all this naturally. Cade's dad, Todd Clemens, and Anse's father, Kish Justice, are both avid bear hunters in their own right and have included their sons in their extensive ramblings around the mountains near Richwood. If there is a bright spot in the darkness from the lack of hunter numbers these days, it is with fathers and children like these.

Oh, by the way: Anse's sister Arlo also joins Dad and her brother on bear hunts. Arlo is every bit of 6 years old, and she has already taken her own bear!

Cade, Anse and Arlo are being steeped in a hunting tradition for this area that goes back to colonial times. The first brave hunters and settlers who came west of the Alleghenies found a wealth of game in the mountains, including bears. Black bears, which were plentiful, served as an important food source and trade item to the early settlers in the mountains. Bear meat was highly prized, and even more important was the use of rendered fat, which could be used for cooking, protecting leather items, burning in oil lamps and everything from skin care to lubricating metal hinges. Bear hides were bought, sold and bartered to be used for leather and other goods.

These early hunters knew one of the best ways to successfully take bears in the mountains was with the use of dogs, usually hounds. Early bear hunters quickly started to develop a bear hound that not only had a good nose for trailing, as most hounds do, but great stamina to run long races. They also had to have something else: grit.

Bear hunters will often use the term gritty for the trait in hounds that will make them stay with a bear when the dogs get in close quarters with a bruin. Without the desire for a hound to fight a bear, the dogs could never make the bear climb a tree until the hunters arrive, or bay the animal if he refuses to climb a tree. The bear that stays on the ground and refuses to climb a tree (often a big male) can be a problem and will often hurt the dogs, sometimes killing them.

I spent two days hunting with Cade and Anse, riding in the same truck with them and Kish. It was an education to say the least, and this wasn't exactly my first bear hunt.

Early the first morning, Kish took a couple of his best dogs and placed them on top of the custom dog box on the back of his pickup truck. The dogs that ride here as he slowly cruises the mountain roads are known as strike dogs. These are the best and experienced bear hounds with keen noses and can be trusted to only open, or bark, when they the smell the track of a bear as the truck rolls by.

As this was happening, I asked Anse what was going on.

"When the strike dog strikes a bear, we turn him loose and listen to see how the track goes. If he is barking loud and it seems he has a good track, we will turn other dogs loose to help him," he said.

Added Cade: "We listen for the strike dog's bark, and you can tell when the dog's bark changes by how excited he is. Then we know we can turn other dogs loose."

On the second day of the hunt, one chase in particular seemed to go on forever. This bear went over the mountain several times and led the hounds and hunters on a merry chase. Thousands of acres of timber company land that can border U.S. National Forest make for a vast area the hunters sometimes have to cover. One minute you can be stopped in a place as you listen for dogs and the hunters check their electronic locator collars, and the next you may be speeding down a narrow forest road trying to catch up with dogs and the bear as they cross into another drainage in this wild country.

It's probably not for the faint of heart. Cade and Anse seem to take it all in stride.

Some may be surprised to learn that many of the bear hunters here, those who own the dogs, may rarely kill a bear on these hunts. Often there will be hunters along who have never taken a bear, and once the bear is treed or bayed on the ground, the new hunter is called in to do the shooting.

That is what happened this day as Nathaniel Hambrick of Craigsville went for a long hike for a treed bear and brought it down with one shot. I'm not sure who was the proudest — Nathaniel or his granddad, Gary Milam, who joined him. Also along for the hunt was Addison Kelly, daughter of Bill Kelly, one of the leaders of this band of bear hunters.

It was quite a day for us all.

I watched Cade and Anse through it all. One minute they seemed like sage bear hunters, helping to catch dogs, lead them to the truck and take on many other bear hunter chores that are required. The next it was just two young boys, racing down a dusty road and laughing at something that boys do.

There is a fire in these mountains — the fire that the hunters like Kish Justice and Todd Clemens, and now their sons Anse and Cade, have for bear hunting.

Here's to hoping this fire never goes out. Here's to hoping that Cade's and Anse's children and grandchildren will have that same fire.

"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at