While deer hunting with dogs was once enjoyed throughout much of the South, today it's limited to portions of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. Even in these strongholds, it's increasingly under attack.
Bob Duncan, chief of wildlife for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, cites growing human populations, increasing development in rural areas and the sell-off of large tracts of timber-company land into smaller pieces as major causes for the increased conflicts between dog hunters and nonhunting property owners,many of whom don’t want dogs running across their land. The state is currently reviewing and developing a dog-management strategy that Duncan hopes will allow the tradition to continue well into the future, while making some concessions to appease critics. Georgia and South Carolina have recently conducted similar policy reviews, which have resulted in more restrictions being placed on where and when hunters can use hounds. Jon Veleas
“We do not want to see an end to dog hunting in Virginia,” says Duncan, an avid hunter himself. “Hunting with hounds is big business in that part of the state, and we count on those hunters to help us meet our deer-management objectives.” Duncan notes that in the Tidewater, or eastern, region of the state, 70 percent of deer hunters use hounds. Despite the strong numbers, there is little denying that the face of hunting is changing as new sportsmen, unfamiliar with the practice, move into traditional deer-dogging areas and buy or lease land upon which they wish simply to still-hunt. These fellow hunters are often the source of complaints as well. The rise of Quality Deer Management may even be partly to blame, as more sportsmen develop food plots and work to grow big deer. Jon Veleas
“It’s a hundred-dollar fine if you shoot a deer that’s undersize,” explains Hunter Darden (pictured), who helps orchestrate the hunts at Forks of the River Hunt Club in Southampton County, VA. That’s no small chunk of change when you figure that the club’s yearly dues don’t even break the $200 mark. “If you shoot another one that’s too small, you’re not allowed to hunt for two weeks.” Outdoor Life Online Editor
A buck’s rack must meet two of three criteria: a width of 14 1/2 inches, a height of 10 inches and a beam that, measured with calipers, stretches 28 millimeters across at the base. Mistake a button buck for a doe and you suffer the same consequences. Kids get one mulligan. The move was a tough sell at first. It’s incredibly difficult to judge a buck as it dashes through cover while being pursued by hounds. But the club has bought into it, and the results are obvious from one look at the year’s trophy photos tacked to a bulletin board in the clubhouse. Jon Veleas
“Unless it looks like the biggest deer you’ve ever seen, don’t pull the trigger,” warns David Sackett, a Michigan native and former Marine, who has found the deer-dogging tradition to his liking. Sackett’s approach, shared by a number of club members, often translates into fewer deer being taken than one might expect. But that’s just fine in a place where, at the end of the day, a successful hunt is measured not so much by the number of deer hanging on the meat pole as by how well the dogs ran. “Man, I love to hear a dog,” says Buddy Gyoker. “There’s nothing like it when you hear a pack burning it up and all of a sudden they turn your way. If that’s ever going to be eliminated, I think it would be the end of the club. I know it would break my heart.” Jon Veleas
Nearly 238 miles and one state down the coast, North State Game Club, near Council, N.C., looks much as it did when famed outdoor writer Robert Ruark visited in 1946. That same year he penned Dixie Deer Hunt, based on his experiences at the club, for the Saturday Evening Post.
“The North State members and their guests have a curious idea that it is more fun to run a deer and listen to the hounds than it is to reduce the animal to a bloody carcass, and so they kill only enough to keep venison on the table,” Ruark wrote. Outdoor Life Online Editor
It’s dark outside and the hunters have feasted in the dining hall on venison from a past hunt. Now they gather around a bonfire for an occasion as important as the hunt, maybe more so.
Court is in session.
Once a common practice at many dog clubs, the tradition is waning as modern hunters have become strapped for time. But not at North State. Here, Walter Campbell presides over the kangaroo court, where hunters who missed deer are brought before the judge. The event is part social gathering, part theater.
On cue, Mac Henderson delivers from memory Churchill’s famous words: “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us…If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world…including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age…Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”
The words could easily be applied to modern deer-dogging. For despite those who feel it should be relegated to the past, on this night, amid the laughter and camaraderie of the men whose lives have been shaped by the 300-plus-year tradition, it is truly the deer-doggers’ finest hour. Outdoor Life Online Editor
Deer hunting with dogs has been a way of life down South for more than 300 years. By Doug Howlett