May 07, 2021
Sometime during the paleolithic era, in the midst of the ice age, the first wild wolf came into a human camp in search of food and never left. Since then, humans and dogs have hunted alongside each other, and over time selective breeding has molded wolves into modern dogs, transforming once-wild canines into the pugs, Brittany spaniels, Labradors, and poodles that now roam our suburban streets.
But no group of dog breeds conceived by man for work or whimsy is as important to our evolutionary history as the hounds. The earliest known breed of dog is the Afghan hound, which archaeological evidence indicates is at least 8,000 years old, predating written history. The first scent hound, the Saint Hubert hound, appeared sometime before the year 1000 B.C., meaning that humans were hunting with scent hounds millennia before the first firearm was invented.
In the thousands of years since the first scent hound breeds were developed, the world has witnessed the arrival of repeating firearms, magnified optics, laser rangefinders, motor vehicles, and even thermal technology. But we have not developed any hunting tool that is as effective at following scent as a hound. Despite our reliance on technology, there are certain tasks in which these machines simply cannot compete against our four-legged hunting companions.
Even though human history closely parallels that of hounds, there are those who vilify these dogs. Hounds and hound hunters are a favorite target of anti-hunting groups and even some hunters who feel there’s no place left in America’s game fields for them. Let’s take a closer look at our most misunderstood and maligned hunting partner: the hound.
The Nose Knows
Hounds are broken into two primary categories: scent hounds and sight hounds. As the name implies, scent hounds have been bred for a superior sense of smell, and these dogs have amazingly keen noses. Bloodhounds have over 200 million scent receptors in their brains (as compared to just five million in a human brain), and that means their sense of smell is 1,000 times better than our own. Most modern scent hound breeds—a list that includes coonhounds, beagles, basset hounds, and more—were derived from bloodhounds. Scent hounds rely on their sense of smell to track game. They do not, however, “circle” game or run it back to the hunter. Beagles have a reputation for this, but the reality is that their favorite quarry—cottontail rabbits—have a relatively small home range and rarely leave that range when pursued. Larger animals, like bears and mountain lions, may run great distances, and hounds usually either tree or bay these large predators at the end of the chase.
Some of our greatest political leaders, writers, and entertainers were hound hunters. George Washington owned a pack of foxhounds, and Theodore Roosevelt accompanied the famous hound hunter Ben Lilly on the chase for bears. Lilly hunted six days a week and lived with his hounds in the American wilderness, sleeping in trees and killing grizzly bears (which he classified as “varmints”) with a knife, and Roosevelt wrote that he had “never met a man so indifferent to fatigue and hardship” as Lilly. The author William Faulkner was an ardent hound hunter, and his short story “The Bear,” which details the hunt behind hounds for Old Ben, a two-toed black bear in the swamps of Mississippi, is widely considered one of his best works. Roy Rogers also hunted with hounds, favoring blueticks, which he used to hunt raccoons in his home state of Ohio during his youth.
Hound hunting remains popular in many parts of North America and around the world. The six coonhound breeds recognized by major breed organizations—redbones, treeing walkers, blueticks, English, black and tans, and Plotts—provide the stock for most of today’s raccoon and big-game hounds. Five of those six breeds were derived from foxhounds. The Plott hound, which traces back to the Hanoverian bloodhounds of Germany, is the only breed not directly developed from foxhounds. Even the popular beagle, a breed of choice for rabbit hunters, was derived from the European foxhound.
On The Trail
Ceanothus branches scraped the side mirrors of the pickup as we inched along the narrow Idaho logging road. Directly behind me, I could see, through the cracked and dirty rear window of the truck, two leggy hounds positioned atop the top box. The dogs—one Plott and one treeing walker—were “strike hounds” and constantly monitored the thermals for scent. When they caught the fresh odor of a bear that had passed by, both erupted in a series of loud, raspy bawls that rattled the windows of the pickup.
“They got one,” my guide Caleb from Heaven’s Gate Outfitters said. By that time, the hounds on the box were shaking and howling in consternation at being left out of the hunt. Upon their release, the strike hounds vanished into the ceanothus bushes, and within a moment the entire canyon echoed with their cries.
There are those who assume that hunting over dogs means the dogs do all the work and the hunter simply walks up and shoots the bear. That may be true in some instances, but it has never been the case for me. Most times a hound chase requires following the dogs wherever the track leads them—into deep ravines filled with deadfall, onto steep cliff faces, or over timbered mountain peaks. That particular bear hunt in Idaho’s Hells Canyon was among the toughest I’ve ever experienced and one of the most grueling treks I’ve endured. The dogs quickly outpaced us, and as their barking faded from hearing and more dogs were let out on the track, we were left to follow the GPS signal from their collars wherever it led.
The chase lasted several miles, and at the end we found a bear treed in a ponderosa pine with the hounds panting and barking below. We decided not to kill the bear, and after we pulled the dogs from the tree, the sow shuffled backwards down the tree and ran off into the timber.
Hound hunters are fond of saying “It’s not the thrill of the kill but the sound of the hounds” that brings them back to the woods, and the bond between hunters and their dogs goes far beyond simply harvesting game. And no matter whether or not the quarry is killed, running on the trail behind a pack of hounds at full cry is a reward in itself.
A Different Kind of Game
In his popular novel Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls tells the story of Billy Colman, a boy living in the Ozarks who helps secure his family farm when he earns money by winning a coon hunting competition with his pair of redbone coonhounds. The book is fiction, but champions of modern hound hunting competitions do take home significant prize money. The United Kennel Club’s Tournament of Champions coon hunt, for example, offers a top prize of $50,000 for the dog that has the highest score. And it’s not uncommon for the winners of hound hunts to drive away in brand-new pickup trucks. For that reason, today’s top hounds bring serious money.
In most hound-hunting competitions, dogs are broken into casts, or groups, of four. The handlers and their dogs are sent to different areas, and a judge scores the dogs based on which dog opens on a track first. In raccoon hunting competitions, dogs are also scored based on the order in which they tree the animal. And in rabbit hunts, dogs are scored based upon their position relative to their packmates on the trail. “Checks,” or temporarily lost tracks, deduct points from all dogs and award points back to the hound that finds the track, and lost tracks result in minus points. Dogs are instantly scratched from competition for running off game (deer, cats, and so forth) or fighting. The target animals in competition hunts are not killed.
Each year the United Kennel Club, Professional Kennel Club, and other breed registries oversee hundreds of competitions across the country. If hound hunting interests you, it’s one of the simplest ways to experience the sport firsthand and meet hound hunters in person. The
atmosphere at the hunts is generally very friendly despite the high-stakes competition. Some hound hunts, like the Autumn Oaks coon hunt in Richmond, Indiana, serve as annual rendezvous for hound hunters from across the country.
Preserving the Heritage
Hound hunting is a tradition in America, but the sport has become increasingly under attack. As urban sprawl swallows up more hunting land and houses, cars, and highways increase across rural America, the sound of the hounds runs the risk of fading forever. Hound hunters are a favorite target of anti-hunting groups, but my experience with those who decry hound hunting is that they know so little about the sport that they have very little factual evidence upon which to base their claims.
There are also a number of hunters who support legislation prohibiting hound hunting, perhaps assuming that anti-hunting groups might be mollified if hound hunting was stopped. In truth, attacking hound hunting is part of a divide-and-conquer strategy waged by anti-hunting groups.
The increased popularity of private deer leases has also caused friction between deer hunters and hunters who use hounds. In one case in Ohio, a deer hunter was charged and convicted on two felony counts for shooting hounds that were passing through his hunting area.
But do hounds affect deer movements to a degree that warrants such a reaction? Without any good data examining the impact of running hounds on deer herds, I decided to research the topic myself.
Beginning in 2017, I started running beagles on rabbits in an area where hounds had not been hunted previously. I had plenty of anecdotal evidence to illustrate that hounds don’t significantly impact deer movements or home ranges, but I wanted more substantial proof. For more than two years, I tracked deer movements during periods when hounds were in the field and when they were not, and I recorded the movements of deer that I could identify as individuals (mostly bucks). The result? Deer did not alter their home territories, and after a few weeks of hunting, deer movement patterns changed very little even while dogs were in the field. It’s worth noting, however, that the dogs in this trial were trained not to run deer and did not do so during the trial period. The area I tested also happened to be my personal farm where I deer hunt, and daily hound running did not stop me from shooting bucks on the property.
A Case for Hound Hunting
Despite the voices crying out against hound hunting, there are several reasons why preserving our hound-hunting legacy makes sense. For starters, hound hunters help control populations of raccoons, foxes, and coyotes, which, in turn, increases wild turkey, game bird, waterfowl, and deer populations. Raccoons are notorious nest raiders, and in areas where they are not hunted, diseases like distemper run rampant in raccoon populations, which can have a negative impact on other wildlife and domestic pets.
In the West, bans on cougar hunting with dogs have largely backfired. Hound hunting was banned in Washington state in 1996, and by the year 2000, cougar-human conflicts in the state rose to 936, which was four times the average number of complaints from before the ban on hound hunting. Washington increased accessibility to cougar permits and lengthened seasons following the hound ban, but that did not help stem the rise in the number of conflicts.
We know that hunter numbers are down across the country, and that doesn’t bode well for any of us. But could hound hunting be an answer? You might never recruit your non-hunting friends to climb into an icy tree stand before sunrise or sit alongside you in a cold, wet goose pit, but hound hunting is a family affair. I bring my kids with me while I run beagles, and their excitement during the chase almost matches that of the hounds.
I remember spending time seated on a tailgate with friends listening for the cry of a coonhound late at night.
You may never own a hound, but no hunting career is complete without having spent some time on the trail with dogs. It’s more than just a sport, it’s a direct link to our ancestral hunting heritage. If we come together, we can ensure hound hunting never becomes a thing of the past.