by Bill Rooney and Doug Howlett
The baying of hounds hot on the scent trail of a fleeing quarry is a sound that harkens back to prehistory, to a time when survival depended largely on a man’s ability to hunt. That elemental sound – then and now – meant that game had been struck and that the human hunter was directly linked to it by his hunting companion, the hound.
The sounds of the chase set hunting with hounds apart from every other form of the sport that means so much to readers of this magazine. Bird dogs are wondrous creatures, and watching them work is pure joy to countless upland gunners. But the yowps and yodels of a brace of merry little Beagles all but swallowed up in the high brush where the cottontails live, or the basso profundo bellow of a redbone or bluetick coonhound snuffling up the effluvia of a bear or cougar, touch the very soul of a hunter.
Hounds are the embodiment of humankind’s primal urge to hunt. And they empower us, helping us to overcome the limitations that make us ineffective at the chase. Unlike us humans, whose lives are so often frantic with competing responsibilities, there is simple beauty in a hound’s singularity of purpose. A hound pursues relentlessly and without compromise, without fear about what lies ahead or concern for getting lost, each cry proclaiming hope that the goal is within reach. And when we fall behind, as we always will, the dog closes in and harries the quarry until our inferior limbs can curry us to the final scene, where we can end the encounter.
Ancient artifacts reveal the symbiotic relationship between hunters and their dogs. Coursing – trailing game by sight – was an early tactic of Mediterranean lion hunters and Egyptian pharaohs. By the 11th century hounds were used across Europe to trail stags, hares, and boars by scent. In 1650 colonist Robert Brooke brought a pack of hounds from England to Maryland, the first recorded instance of hound hunting in America.
That special bond between hunter and hound is stronger than ever today. Each knows or senses that they are a team with a common goal, a goal that is far more attainable together than separately. The hunter knows that chances of finding the quarry are far greater with the help of his canine companion. The hound surely senses that its chase may never end without the human’s help – and perhaps that if the quarry does bay or tree, it may well be too big and dangerous for the dog to tackle alone. These realizations seem to nurture cooperation and respect.
We humans are constantly amazed by the incredible sense of smell that hounds possess. Scent laid down 24 or even 36 hours before is enough to trigger the olfactory ability of an experienced hound and make him lift his head and announce to the world tat a much-sought critter this way passed. The will tenaciously stick to the trail, the intensity of his tonguing clearly tells the human partners and any bracemates how fresh the scent is and where the quarry is heading. We humans use that aural information to either intercept the animal – in case of a rabbit or deer, for example – or home in on the spot where a raccoon or bear or mountain lion has treed or stopped to take a stand. With large animals at bay, the hunters know they must get to the scene as quickly as possible because their hounds’ lives are at risk.
And this brings up another unique aspect of using hounds: It permits the only form of catch-and-release hunting available today. If a ‘coon or bobcat or bear or cougar climbs a tree, the hunters have the option of leashing the dogs and calling off the chase, allowing the animal to run another day. In many states, hounds are also used for research purposes, treeing animals that are then ear-tagged or radio-collared for later study by scientists. Sadly, a few states, Massachusetts and Washington among them, recently passed statutes outlawing the use of hounds to hunt large game animals. Such ballot referenda do not bode well for the future of hound hunting. Indeed they cast a shadow over all hunters.
There are other ways, too, to measure value of hounds. They minimize the potential for wounding loss. They are frequently called in, for example, to recover deer and bears wounded by hunters without hounds. The percentage of humane kills is greatly increased with large animals that are treed or bayed on the ground. Where bears and cougars are the target, hounds allow hunters to target males and release females so that a higher percentage of females remain to produce young.
“Just an old hound dog” is a common expression. But hound dogs are far from common. Loyal companions, inexhaustible workers, brave warriors, dedicated chasers; they are an irrepressible and irreplaceable element of hunting today. May their cries continue to define our sport.