Nationally acclaimed bear hounds are Michigan bred
Gaylord bear houndsman Keith Huff knows what it takes to develop a top-notch bloodline.
“I’m not a big production breeder,” he said. “I’m very selective and very determined on what dogs I do breed.
“They’ve got to have the endurance, treeing ability, stamina, a good cold nose, intelligence, voice and aggression,” Huff explained. “With breeding these dogs I look at the litter mates on the sire side and dame’s side.
“I always breed the dogs that the brothers and sisters are top dogs, too,” he said.
It’s a formula for success that’s helped Huff develop a reputation as one of top breeders of Treeing Walker hounds in Michigan and beyond. And while Huff celebrates his 50th year raising and running his dogs after bear, bobcat and coyotes, he’s not one to dwell on his accomplishments.
“I never brag on them. I just relay what other people tell me,” Huff said. “You don’t have to leash them all the time, they’re just a really nice hound that are really intelligent. They’re fast, intelligent, and they really do a nice job on the game animals.
“They’re a really well-balanced hound,” he said. “They have a lot of endurance and tree well.”
The feedback comes from hunters from across the country who have sought out Huff’s Hounds after seeing dogs in action, or learning about their abilities from fellow hunters. Huff’s sold his dogs to hunters in every state with a bear season, and many more without.
Now, his reputation proceeds him.
“The reputation of dogs carry over from year to year. They tree a lot of bear and catch a lot of coyotes,” he said. “I never advertise my dogs. People contact me and I put them on the list for puppies.”
Huff credits much of his success to the quality bloodline that traces back to the undisputed father of the Treeing Walker breed – Lester Nance.
Nance, of Indiana, promoted his hounds at the World’s Fair in the 1940s after developing the new line of treeing hound from running Walkers, and Huff’s stepfather, Roger Redick, purchased his first hounds from Nance in the 1950s.
Huff hunted raccoons and bobcats with Redick’s hounds as a teen before a stint in the military, and eventually took over Redick’s line of Nance-bred Walkers to develop the breed for bear hunting after returning home in 1967.
Instead of focusing on traditional traits like coloration, Huff focused in on ability – selecting hounds to breed based on speed, stamina, treeing ability, and other characteristics of top big-game hounds.
He also kept the best hounds close, sending dogs to his sons Troy and Rusty Huff, as well as other members of the Michigan Bear Hunters Association he’s come to trust over his decades as a leader with the organization.
“I’ve turned it into the love of my life. My two sons both hunt with me and it’s just part of the family” legacy, Huff said, adding that keeping tabs on his top producers allowed him to “have a good background to choose from the best of the best.”
“I set my standards high,” he said. “They don’t run deer or porcupines.
“They’re obedient dogs and they’re true to the sport … it’s mostly instinctive. They perform well time after time. We tree bears constantly.”
Putting a lot of time in the woods has also helped to select the top performers, Huff said.
With a pack of about a dozen dogs, Huff hunts six to eight hounds on a regular basis, including three to four times a week during the summer training season and four to five times a week during the bear and winter hunting seasons, he said.
“They’ve been perfected from years of hunting and breeding to get the percentage that turn to good dogs really high,” he said, adding that he’s raised well over 67 generations of Nance-bred hounds over the last 50 years.
Longtime Munising bear hunter Don Heyrman said he started hunting with Huff’s hounds 35 years ago, and quickly learned his –bloodline stands out from the rest.
“I got my start from him … and I still get dogs from him,” Heyrman said. “They have a lot of desire and a lot of heart. They stay with the bear and don’t quit.”
Heyrman said he’s used Huff’s hounds to take numerous bear, bobcats and coyotes over the last three decades, and he’s continuously impressed with how they perform.
“He told me what they were going to do and they did it,” the 70-year-old Heyrman said, adding that he’s also passed the hound hunting tradition on to his sons. “I’ve had good luck with them. They love running. You take them out in the morning … and they’re so excited.”
Upper Peninsula bear hunting guide John Cryderman also got his start with Huff’s hounds about four decades ago, and has continued to breed dogs with Huff’s bloodline over the years because of the relentless focus on performance.
“The best thing with Keith is he puts them into the hands of a lot of people he can go back to and breed back to,” Cryderman said. “A lot of people breed for papers and Keith doesn’t; yhey’ve got to produce.”
And Huff’s hounds produce better than most, Cryderman said.
“That strain of dogs, probably their best trait is their ability to stick when a lot of dogs would drop out of the race,” he said. “They have the ability to stay on a bad bear … and they’re bred specifically for that. We call it stick and grit.”
It’s those traits that now have hound hunters from across the country seeking out Huff’s hounds, earning him a reputation as a guy who “doesn’t breed any junk,” Cryderman