By Wynnton Melton, Alabama Dog Hunters Association Field Director
It had already been a good morning, Johnny reflected, as he maneuvered his pickup down the narrow woods road surrounded by an impenetrably thick planted pine forest. He and his oldest son, John, had arrived at the old abandoned farmhouse that now headquartered the Beaverdam Hunting Club shortly before sunrise that morning. Everything was just as he remembered. Uncle Dave had arrived early and had the coffee ready, a half dozen friendly faces greeted him with hearty handshakes and were soon joined by another seven or eight to complete the day's hunting party.
An interesting group it was, too. Uncle Dave was the unquestioned dean and authority figure and though he seldom aimed a gun anymore, his respect had been earned both in the club and in the community as a citizen and sportsman. Three area farmers, two of their sons, a local banker, three teachers, the postmaster and his wife and a group that worked at the local tire manufacturing plant rounded out the group.
John was treated as a celebrity and was the object of more than a few light hearted gigs. Dogs were whining in their boxes, big tracks had been spotted in two sandy ditches, a venison hindquarter and three Boston butts had already started cooking in the old sooty smoker that would be welcomed at lunch and the total atmosphere could not have been better.
It had been three years since Johnny had been home during hunting season and he so wanted John to enjoy the community hunts and grow from the comradeship as he had in his youth.
Uncle Dave and John had ridden with him to their stands and had already been dropped off. Johnny recalled all of Uncle Dave's conversation and instructions as it had been some time since he had last hunted: "stay on your stand and be careful with that gun. A load of buckshot is a powerful load so don't take chances. Fred is turning his dogs out first this morning. He has a redbone gyp named Sally, a Walker gyp named Judy and an old blue male dog he calls Drum. Both of you have rope leads to catch the dogs with. If the deer gets by you or if it's a doe, try hard to catch the dogs, especially that spotted gyp cause she will run all day if we don't catch her. Sam is working the outside and he will try to catch them if we don't in the woods and he will let us know when the drive is over by blowing his truck horn."
Johnny spotted the stand he had been assigned and pulled the truck out of view. Only minutes after settling in, the morning stillness was interrupted by the mellow bawl of a hound on scent. Soon there was another bawl and a sharp chop mouth bark joined the trail. Suddenly the air was shattered with the excitement of three hounds giving full tongue which could only mean they had jumped the deer and it sounded like they were coming in his direction. Johnny's pulse quickened! A nervousness entered his body that begged him to move toward the hounds but he knew to stay in place. How could a bead of sweat be coming down his forehead in 40 degree weather, he thought, as the race came closer. Johnny could hear branches being broken and now the unmistakably sound of a deer, and close. There he is! A buck too! But Johnny can't get off a shot. It is just too thick! He has turned and headed toward John. Three shots rang out! The dogs run about 30 seconds after the shots and stop! Could it be? Could it be? Wouldn't it be something if John got his first buck hunting with Uncle Dave just as Johnny had a generation ago? It could be!!!
Deer hunting with hounds is a long and proud tradition that is enjoyed by countless thousands of all ages, levels of hunting expertise and physical condition throughout the south each year. The warm fellowship, fraternal relationship among hunting groups, friendly rivalry among dog owners as to who has the best pack, the ribbing about missed chances, sharing of chores, and all that is associated with a quality dog deer hunt is likely unparalleled in all the outdoor world as an enjoyable group experience. One conversation official is quoted as saying "a deer harvested on an organized dog drive probably brings more pleasure to more individuals than any game animal taken by any method of hunting."
Dog deer hunting is indeed a team effort and the pronoun "we" is the main word rather than the ever increasing "I". We had a good hunt and we got a nice 8 point though young John actually pulled the trigger. Shared responsibility and shared reward is a part of every quality dog deer hunt. A quality hunt might or might not result in a deer kill. Several good hound races, companionship with one's friends surrounded by God's great outdoors can certainly be reward enough.
Dog hunting probably isn't the way for any individual hunter in good physical condition and willing to work hard to kill bragging level numbers if that is his only objective. Deer herds have increased to the point that anyone able to climb an acorn tree or to mount an elevated stand around a green field can kill a deer.
These herds grew at enormous rates through an era when the only chance you had to sight a deer was when it was pushed by dogs. If dog hunting had been detrimental to the deer population there would be none to hunt today because it was virtually the only method of deer hunting in the deep south until a few short years ago. Talk to any deer hunter over age 50 that grew up in our area and he will tell you that he has dog hunted.
Now we have large herds of deer and they can be harvested on dog hunts, stalk hunts, man drives, from tree stands, with primitive weapons, handguns or bow and arrow. Unfortunately it appears that some have targeted the dog hunting method for extinction. This is ironic as it is the oldest method of modern deer hunting and is coming at a time of record deer populations and unprecedented anti hunting pressure which demands solidarity among hunters.
Illegal, unethical hunters running across everybody's hunting grounds and shooting off public roads is the cry. Laws are on the books to protect against this kind of abuse and should be enforced to the maximum. However, no law enforcement problem should ever result in penalizing the innocent and this is surely the case when moves are made to ban dog deer hunting because of a few renegades.
It is true that sometimes dogs do get by standers and cross land they are not welcome on. No one regrets this more than the legitimate dog hunter and he can reduce the possibility of it happening by using fewer and more controllable dogs such as beagles when short drives are called for. No one has the right to trespass or road hunt and all dog hunters should carefully examine where they cast their dogs and make exhaustive efforts to catch them before they leave their grounds. The anti dog man should show some tolerance and keep in mind that a hunting dog is always valued by someone and that the owner doesn't want him on unwelcome ground or to be a bother to others. Further, all hunters have to contend with coyotes, wild dogs, and farmer's yard dogs. An old hound trailing across the back forty just can't represent a major negative impact. Many hunting clubs dog hunt in the morning and climb trees in the late afternoon in the same area and take many deer from their tree stands. Also many a stalk only hunter has harvested that trophy buck after it was pushed under his tree by an adjoining dog drive.
As to the dog hunting critic that says it is unsporting to shoot a deer in front of dogs, I simply say "hogwash." Any deer run by dogs knows the hunt is on. His ears are back, his flared nostrils are in the wind, he uses every sense and instinct he has to escape and usually does. No standing shots here. You have to be quick and accurate. Compared to shooting the casually feeding deer in a green field with a powerful rifle aided by a 6 power scope? Now really folks.
In summary, it is my considered opinion that there is room for all methods of deer hunting. Each hunter, regardless of his chosen method, needs to constantly examine himself as to ethical hunting practices, acceptance of and respect for those that legally hunt differently from himself, respect the game he hunts, land owners, and all laws and regulations. Hunting is important to all of us and we that enjoy the "old way" and our dogs and friends deserve our sport as do all others and we are going to work like heck to keep it alive for present and future generations. Live and let live should be a part of every person's creed at every junction of life. To do less is to attack the very fiber of what democracy and America were built on.