CADILLAC — As enthusiasts will attest, there’s something special about the relationship between hounds and a hunter that makes tracking a bear more than merely the sum of its parts.
“It’s really overpowering at times,‘ said 31-year-old Wexford County hunter Elijah Keller. “The dogs seem truly in love with what they’re doing.‘
Keller comes from a heritage of bear hunting with hounds.
As a child, Keller heard stories about his great-grandfather, Carl Kangas, tagging along on bear hunts with none other than Carl T. Johnson, a legendary conservationist and bear hunting pioneer whose legacy has been memorialized in Cadillac by the DNR’s Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center (more on Johnson later in the story).
Leading up to the season, hunters like Keller “work out the kinks and jitters‘ of their dogs by taking them on practice runs.
Every weekend, he takes his four bluetick coonhounds — along with his 3-year-old son Anders — into National Forest land and practices locating paw prints and tracking the scent back to the bear.
To do this, Keller first releases his best “cold nose‘ dog — the dog with the best chance of locating a bear using only the scent from a paw print.
Based on the frequency and intensity of the dog’s barking, he can tell if the animal is close on the trail of a bear, at which point he will release the rest of the dogs to aid in the hunt.
During the practice season, the bear is allowed to escape but during the normal hunting season, once the dogs have the bear cornered, the hunter will get into position for a killing shot.
In the Lower Peninsula, Keller said swamps, forests and marshland are broken up by roads and two-tracks, making it relatively easy to locate the dogs when they have the bear cornered.
The Upper Peninsula is a different story, Keller said, as the land is much more expansive.
To aid in finding the dogs, each is affixed with a GPS collar — an invaluable device in the U.P., where wolves are a constant threat to the dogs.
“Wolves are on the forefront of all our minds,‘ Keller said. “If I know wolves are prevalent, I get my dogs out of there. The dogs are like family to me.‘
Although he does take his dogs up north occasionally, Keller said he prefers hunting in the Lower Peninsula, particularly right where he lives in Wexford County.
“There’s a very strong bear population in the Cadillac area,‘ Keller said.
Sept. 15 is the start of bear season in the Baldwin Bear Management Unit, which includes Wexford and Lake counties, although hunters using hounds won’t be able to start until a day later.
DNR Wildlife Biologist Verne Richardson said the season is set up this way so dogs won’t interfere with bait hunters, many of whom have been tracking a specific bear’s movements for months.
As a compromise between the two types of hunters — the majority of which use bait rather than dogs — the last two days of the season are reserved only for those using hounds.
In the Baldwin unit this season, the DNR awarded 260 bear licenses. Richardson said they calculate the number of licenses to give away based on the bear population in the area, as well as hunter pressure.
Prior to the time when conservationists managed bear populations, Richardson said people had a different view of the animals, with many preferring to think of them more as a nuisance, such as raccoons.
For this reason, bear populations plummeted, prompting the animals to eventually become a protected species, with hunting banned altogether for a number of years.
Starting in the 1990s, Richardson said bear populations have steadily risen, allowing the DNR to increase the number of licenses they award each year.
In terms of harvest numbers, Richardson said Wexford and Lake counties consistently rank among the top three counties in the entire Baldwin unit, which spans from Muskegon all the way up to Leelanau County.
Missaukee County is in the Red Oak Bear Management Unit, where 700 licenses were awarded this year.
The Red Oak unit is a vast area, stretching essentially from Emmet County south to M-55 and from U.S. 131 all the way to the eastern coastline of the state.
Richardson said bear hunter success is quite high in the Baldwin unit, ranging from 50% to 70%, and the Red Oak unit is no slouch at 40% to 50%.
Osceola County is in the Gladwin Bear Management Unit, which awarded 110 licenses this year and has the lowest hunter success rate of area counties, Richardson said.
Wexford and Lake counties offer particularly good bear hunting grounds, Richardson said, because there is plenty of public land availability and the kind of habitat where bears thrive, specifically swamps and marshes.
This was no doubt appreciated by Carl T. Johnson, who was instrumental in founding the Michigan Bear Hunters’ Association in 1946 and was the founder of the Michigan Conservation Foundation in 1982.
Johnson was born June 1, 1911 in East Lake, Michigan. While attending Cadillac High School, he organized the Cadillac Big Game Club.
In 1929, Johnson began his lifelong career selling life insurance. He was the owner/operator of Johnson Insurance with his brother Vernelle until he retired.
On Jan. 1, 1942 Johnson was sworn in as the youngest mayor of Cadillac and held office until he resigned to enlist in the U.S. Cavalry, serving in England for two years.
In 1963, he was appointed to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission by Gov. George Romney and served 17 years; he was elected as chairman three times. In 1969 he was recognized as one of the 10 most outstanding citizen conservationists in America and received a special award in Washington, D.C. He was appointed by Gov. William Milliken as personal liaison with Michigan’s Congressional Delegation and the National Park Service to bring about improved management of the National Lakeshores at Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks and Isle Royale National Park.
On May 16, 1992, a dream that Johnson had for years — the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center — was dedicated in Cadillac.
Across the canal from Mitchell State Park, the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center opens its doors to about 25,000 people every year for education on outdoor recreation.
On an annual basis, the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center holds clinics on bear hunting fundamentals.
The Cadillac News reached out to center Interpreter Ed Shaw for comment on this story but did not hear back by press time.