The dogs looked not just happy, but ecstatic. I sometimes think hounds look forward to the start of hunting seasons more than the hunters themselves.
Their heads stuck out between the edge of the dogbox and the side of the truck, ears flying, drool raining on the fenders and the cars behind them.
I don’t know whether the hounds were working dogs en route to chase a hog (both were wearing vests) or just deerdogs heading for a veterinarian’s visit before the first day of the season. They may have been new additions to someone’s pack, or just senior dogs out for a joyride with their human. To them, it didn’t matter. All that mattered right then was that they were in the truck, and it was a beautiful day.
They looked not just happy, but ecstatic. I sometimes think hounds look forward to the start of hunting seasons more than the hunters themselves.
Good William IX isn’t a deer dog, but as September bleeds into October, his demeanor changes. He can’t read a calendar, but he knows the time of year, and becomes restless. Our raccoon-racing redbone doesn’t have to work for a living, and hasn’t done a lick of work since I picked him up, scared and hungry, on my birthday one year. He gets nervous whenever I pick up a firearm, and hides like one of those shivering pocketbook puppies when a round goes off.
Needless to say, William no longer hunts – but when Indian Summer begins to turn to fall, and the air crisps like the crust of a Sunday banana pudding at homecoming, he wants to be in the woods. We speculate that someone tried to train the arch enemy of procyon lotor to instead chase Odocoileus virginianus, and discovered the hard way that coon hounds ain’t necessarily deer dogs. Whatever led William to end up beside the road, he is a house-hound now, and has been for three years, although there are times he wants to hit the woods, nose down, tail up, and feet flying.
William is by no means the first freeloader to end up as a permanent member of our household. Lost or forgotten hounds have ended up with the Weaver family since time immemorial, or at least since my dad surprised everyone on a rural Virginia road by offering to bring charges against a man beating a non-hunting hunting-hound, after Papa took off his suit jacket and offered to dispense a little dirt road justice. That dog was Driver, whose buddy Wheeler wandered up in Papa’s yard o a year or so later. One died of old age, the other of a cruel tragedy that’s a column for another day.
At our house, we’ve had Duchess, Pitty, Gimpy Jack, Cleopatra, Bent Persephone, Molly, Scooter, Scarlett and Melanie, Dan’l Grunt, Lorena and others I forget. All were either lost or tossed or the offspring of similar castoffs. Some were with us for years, some only a few months, some from puppyhood through old age.
Very few hunted with me, but those who did were the happiest animals in existence.
As deer and other seasons start this weekend, the music will again ring through the pines, bays, swamps and hollows. Walkers, blue ticks, red ticks, black and tans, my beloved Plotts and redbones will dance at the tantalizing first whiff on the breeze or on the ground, a scent that only a dog can define. The professionals are the veterans who may not seem as excited as the newbies when the tailgate drops, but those experienced hounds have been there and done that. Their joy comes from an entire season of doing what God designed them for, not just the brief excitement of a single cast.
While I love all hounds, I can’t always say that about those who hunt with them. The majority of hunters care for their dogs, and have respect for other folks. Sadly, some of those panting like their very own dogs for the start of season have significantly worse manners than their hounds (who at least have an excuse, unlike their humans).
As more and more folks who ain’t from around here flee the cities and suburbs for the country, the opportunities to run dogs shrink. There are those who don’t understand anything about doghunting, except that hounds smell, make a lot of noise and can’t read no trespassing signs. Unfortunately, there are hunters who refuse to make any effort to improve the image of our pastime.
Since scofflaws by definition ignore laws and regulations, it’s the honest hunter who pays the price in gates and new local laws and restricted property and “starving” dogs that are snatched up and taken to animal shelters. I don’t see this getting any better any time soon, and despite the fact that I’m primarily a stillhunter, it hurts my heart to see hounds stolen or killed for just doing their jobs.
Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy an old fashioned hound drive, where you are placed on a stand to await the opening aria of a trio or quartet of hounds, with no radio or warm truck to help in the pursuit. I am not down on those who enjoy hunting from vehicles, since it’s sometimes the only way to pursue a deer deep inside a bay. It’s just not my thing. If I can’t treasure the sunshine on my face, and grumble about a damp backside, and try desperately to not think about smoking a cigarette or crunching on a snack, it’s just not my type of hunting.
While I have seen any number of truly malnourished hounds, most of the skinny, pitiful dogs that you see padding determinedly down the side of the road during hunting season are actually in prime condition. There’s no place for fat on a dog trying to outrun a deer or bear; coons and hogs are challenging enough without a hound hauling around a lot of excess weight. It’s natural for a working dog to show some ribs, same as it is for a marathon runner to look about one cheeseburger away from death.
I worry every year that this will be the last time hunters and their hounds can run the woods and fields of our state; a number of folks on the ballot next week are not very hunting-friendly, and sadly, their supporters revel in the bureaucracy and politics that drive most hunters to the outdoors.
We would lose even more of our heritage if the chorus of hounds that rings at dawn and dusk was silenced. Society would be lessened if a grownup hunter couldn’t teach a little kid how to tell which hound was on a trail, which one had treed a coon, or which one was just talking to hear himself bark.
Beagles are often amongst the saddest looking creatures in the world, yet I cannot imagine their sadness multiplied if they couldn’t run through the broomsedge and blackberry brambles on a cold February afternoon, joyous voices ringing out that there was a rabbit headed in your direction, and you’d better be ready, bub.
God made hounds to run and sing, just as He made man to follow along looking for the next meal and to take care of the hound at the end of the day.
Without those glorious fall and winter cantatas, performed in four-part harmony against the backdrop of a sleeping pine forest, a tangled bay or a stand of hardwoods ablaze with red and orange, the ground crunchy with acorns and hickory nuts – without that music, the world would lose a bit more of what goodness and beauty remains. Hunting season wouldn’t be as precious without the background music of houndsong.