Though dog hunting is hated by many outdoorsman, it is actually an enjoyable way to target Louisiana’s wary deer.
It was late afternoon on the Hammock Lease in northern Winn Parish. I sat in my truck trying to stay warm, watching for deer on a long stretch of road.
This was one of the coldest December spells in memory, and the temperature had been below freezing for several days.
I didn’t think anybody else was crazy enough to be out in such weather, but suddenly several trucks drove up. The Griffin family, friends and fellow lease members, were posting standers for a dog drive.
I was situated at a good crossing so volunteered to cover this stretch of road.
Bundling up, I got out of the truck and soon heard a pack of dogs in the distance coming from the opposite direction of the Griffins’ drive. They were hot on a deer’s trail, running it out of a palmetto swamp about a mile and a half away.
Several shots rang out, but the dogs kept coming. The deer then turned and began heading my way, apparently trying to return to Dugdemona swamp. I got ready, knowing after a long race, the deer might be far ahead of the dogs.
Nervously, I glanced up and down the road as the bawling hounds came closer and closer. Where would the deer cross? Only a dog hunter knows the anticipation, pounding heart and growing excitement created by a pack of fast-approaching, yelping hounds.
Then I heard the familiar crashing and galloping sounds of a large deer bounding through the thicket.
It was close. Real close! I raised my 30-06 just as a huge buck came tearing across the road 25 yards away. Instead of loping across like most deer, he was down low, stretched out like a thoroughbred.
One quick shot was all I got. I thought it was well placed, but the buck never missed a step and disappeared into the pine plantation.
“Surely I didn’t miss that thing!” I thought.
How embarrassing that would be to explain to the others. Walking to where the buck crossed, I immediately saw blood. Excited, my impulse was to follow it, but I knew not to mess up the trail for the dogs. Impatiently, I waited and then trotted into the thicket behind them.
Quickly, the dogs hushed, and I walked upon the biggest deer I had ever seen. I knew it was a good one, but he crossed the road so fast I really didn’t have time to get a good look at the antlers. Now, I couldn’t believe the rack. The big buck was a perfect 10-point with an 18-inch spread.
By then, the Griffins had arrived.
“You know what you have there?” Doc asked. “That is a trophy!”
We collected the dogs and dragged the heavy deer back to the road.
The dogs belonged to Paul and Kevin Browning of the neighboring Palmetto Hunting Club. After jumping the buck in the swamp, the dogs ran it across a small pipeline onto the Hammock Lease. Some of the Griffins were placed there for their drive and shot at it and missed. Just by chance, I was in the right place at the right time to take the largest deer of my life.
Dog hunting for deer in Louisiana is a sport older than the state itself, and one that infects the hunter with an excitement and obsession few others can match.
Since Louisiana is covered with thickets, canebrakes and dense timber, hunters have used hounds to chase down or tree game ever since the French first settled here in the 18th century.
Squirrel dogs, bear hounds and mongrel mutts were as common around Louisiana homesteads as barefooted kids.
In the piney hills of North Louisiana, dog hunting was an activity passed down from father to son for generations. I once asked Jimmy Griffin why he enjoyed the sport so much. His answer was typical.
“My daddy brought me up doing it,” he declared. “It’s a tradition in our family that goes back over 100 years.”
Paul Green, a neighbor who kept deer hounds for many years, compares dog hunting with bass fishing.
“You get people who like topwater baits for the anticipation and excitement. Others like underwater baits, and the feel of it,” he said.
Still hunting, he says, is like the latter. It takes a slow, methodical approach, much like fishing with an artificial worm. But dog hunting is filled with action, the excitement of hearing a good race and adrenaline-pumping anticipation waiting for the deer to bound into view.
Except for using vehicles and CB radios, dog hunting has changed little in the past hundred years. Standers, or hunters assigned to stay in a specific spot, are placed at known deer crossings on pipelines, old logging roads and in the open woods. The driver, usually the dogs’ owner, then takes the hounds through a patch of woods to try to jump a deer and run it to a stander.
All dog hunters use landmarks to place standers. Typical instructions are, “You get on the Georgia Hill and the rest of you cover the Hammock Road. Make sure someone gets on the Big Pipeline near the glade. If the dogs get across the pipeline, try to cut them off at the Dallas Place.”
After a few seasons of dog hunting, one becomes very familiar with the homesteads of the area’s early families.
Every drive is different because no two deer are alike; hunters must always expect the unexpected. Sometimes a deer is jumped quickly and makes a bee-line out of the area. Or it might run in circles for several hours and never give standers a shot.
Then there are times when the drive is a bust, according to veteran dog-hunter Bobby Joe Chandler.
“Some big bucks have nerves of steel,” he said. “He’ll lie quietly in a fallen treetop while you work your dogs through the woods. Unless you literally stumble on him, you’d never know there was a deer around.”
Once jumped, deer have no trouble staying ahead of the dogs. Some people believe dogs run down and catch deer. Actually, that’s a myth. A healthy deer can easily stay ahead of a pack of hounds.
“The deer will be as far ahead of the dogs as he wants to be,” Chandler said. “If he wants to be one hundred yards ahead of them, that’s where he’ll run. If he wants to be a half mile ahead, that’s where he’ll run.”
Standers never know how far in front of the dogs the deer might be. You have to stay alert. Rather than exploding across a pipeline just ahead of the pack, the deer might simply walk out of the woods a half mile in front of the howling dogs.
Staying far ahead allows the deer time to look for escape opportunities. Wise bucks are well known for jumping over fences, running through herds of does or hogs, swimming sloughs and doubling back to lose the dogs or throw them onto another track.
When chased, deer rarely run at top speed for long. They can maintain a good lead by simply bounding through the woods, stopping frequently to look for danger.
Only a badly wounded deer can be caught, and the dogs then invariably bay it rather than attack. This allows the hunter to catch up and administer the coup de grace.
Jumping and running a deer is not difficult. Killing one is. The odds are very much in the deer’s favor, since only a fraction of its possible routes can be covered by the standers.
As a boy, there was a huge buck that stayed behind our house. Numerous times the dogs jumped him, but it was almost as if he knew where the standers were placed. Inevitably, the buck would run where no one was waiting. He never was killed.
Since the deer usually escapes, dog hunting often involves long hours searching for wayward hounds. Most hunters blow a cow horn to call the dogs back. If they are out of hearing, well-trained dogs eventually return to their owner’s house or the area where the drive started.
Dog hunters are a helpful lot, and a long-established tradition requires hunters to take in lost dogs and notify the owner. There have been cases of hunters receiving calls from people 40 miles away who had their hounds.
Collars with the owner’s name and phone number are necessary. Sometimes, dogs also are marked with dye. The Griffin family puts a large “G” on each dog with 36 Midnight hair dye. It lasts up to six months, and makes the dog identifiable at a distance.
Traditionally, deer dogs were long-legged walkers, blueticks or redbones; dogs that could push a deer all day and cover a vast territory.
“The bigger the woods, the bigger the dog,” Bill Griffin explained.
Today, however, the trend is toward smaller dogs, such as beagles.
This downsizing is largely a result of changing conditions in the sport. Over the years, hunting territory has been carved into leases. Dogs that run slower, cover less ground and are easier to catch better fit these new hunting conditions.
Today, Griffin leans toward beagles.
“They have a better homing instinct,” he said.
Feeding smaller dogs is cheaper, too. Dog hunting can be an expensive sport. A hunter may spend hundreds of dollars a year just to feed his hounds — all for a four-week season.
Dog hunting is much more a social activity than is still hunting.
“We spend more time visiting than hunting,” Griffin says.
Much of the day is spent huddled around trucks, drinking coffee, spinning yarns and ribbing friends good naturedly about missed shots while planning the next drive.
Most dog hunters agree that listening to the race with a group of close friends is the best part of the sport. Conversation usually drifts more to which hound has the best stamina or nose than on killing deer. It’s that special relationship a hunter has with his dogs that makes dog hunting so enjoyable. Actually shooting a deer is of secondary importance.
Chandler sums up well this dog hunter mentality.
“If hearing a pack of good deer hounds running a deer on a frosty, cold morning don’t get your heart to thumping, you ought not to be deer hunting anyhow,” he said.
Despite its long tradition, Bill and Jimmy Griffin fear the sport’s days may be numbered.
“There’s been a lot of pressure against dog hunting ever since the timber companies began leasing their land,” Jimmy said.
Two things have caused this.
First, many leases simply aren’t large enough to handle dog hunting. But at times, unethical hunters put dogs out anyway. The hounds quickly leave the area and go onto another lease that does not allow dog hunting. This inevitably causes friction between clubs.
Another problem is that some folks incorrectly think dog hunters kill too many deer.
“When we drive by,” Jimmy says, “some people say, ‘There goes those dog hunters. They’re going to kill everything.’”
“Actually, the opposite is true,” explained Bill. “We don’t kill as many deer in dog season as we do still hunting.”
My dog hunting experience supports this observation. A typical dog hunt is like the one I enjoyed while coming out of Dugdemona swamp after a morning of still hunting.
I ran into Bill, Bradley and Jimmy Griffin, and decided to join them for a drive. Their group of seven hunters had already made two, but only one shot had been fired. The first drive jumped a buck, and the dogs ran it past Jimmy in the thick woods. He got off one quick shot but missed.
Soon, Clyde Knox, Chad Curole, Junior Peace and James Wilburn joined us in the road. Our adjoining Hammock and Georgia Hill leases are perfect for this type of hunting, because they are large enough to accommodate dogs and are cut up by logging roads and pipelines.
Soon a plan was made. Each hunter agreed to cover a particular stand while Bill took the dogs through a thick patch of pine.
Bill jumped a deer almost immediately. But as usual, it did the unexpected. Instead of heading toward the standers, the deer doubled back across the main road from which Bill had started. Soon the dogs were out of hearing.
I drove around to a pipeline James and Chad were watching to see if anything had been flushed out past them. Knotted together in the right-of-way talking, we suddenly heard the dogs in the distance. The deer had recrossed the main road and was coming up Dugdemona River toward us.
There was a mad scramble for the trucks to get in position. James and Chad headed down the road a ways, while I backed off the pipeline to watch a clearcut.
The dogs were hot on the trail. They were coming straight for me, their bawls echoing through the swamp.
Scanning the clearcut, I soon saw movement as a deer popped over a ridge and headed for the road. Raising my rifle, I was disappointed to see a single doe stop about 150 yards away. I remained ready, hoping a buck would follow, but there was none.
The doe had already run about two miles and was several hundred yards ahead of the dogs. Taking its time, she looked around for a minute or so and then leisurely loped across the road. James and Chad quickly drove up to cut off and catch the dogs.
By early afternoon, another drive had been completed. In four drives, about a dozen deer had been seen, and one buck missed. But no one complained, for we had enjoyed a good hunt with good friends. It was a typical day in one of Louisiana’s oldest sports.
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