THE “old guns” that took to the stage at the recent Master of Fox Hounds Association’s biennial hunt staff seminar have seen a lot of hunting. The “young guns,” some of fox hunting’s rising stars among huntsmen, touched on everything from choosing whippers-in to engaging field members in the hound work. But the older huntsmen had a tighter thematic focus. Most talked about two of the most important developments North American hunting has seen since these men first picked up a hunting horn: the change in quarry from fox-only to predominantly coyote, and the loss of hunt country due to urban and suburban development.
The old guns’ panel was moderated by Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller, and panelists were Dr. Marvin Beeman (Arapahoe Hunt, Colorado), Marty Wood (Live Oak Hounds, Florida), Jody Murtagh (Moore County Hounds, North Carolina), and Mason Lampton (Midland Fox Hounds, Georgia).
One man on the panel, Marvin Beeman, was the odd man out, in that he hasn’t had to face a change in quarry or the kinds of development that have threatened other hunt countries.
In Arapahoe country, it’s always been about coyote chasing over the wide Western acreage. So Beeman was in a good position to talk about the coyote and its behavior on open plains, and his talk provided an interesting glimpse at hunting conditions we (relative) Easterners never have to contend with. Like hunting at 6,000 to 6,500 feet. In the high winds that whistle across the plains, Beeman estimates, about 90 percent of the time you’re hunting. Where “covert” is more likely to mean a slight dip in the land rather than 10 acres of woodland or scrub. Then there are the plains themselves: mostly flat, open land that provides little opportunity for sneaking up on any game, least of all the acutely sensitive coyote.
Photo of the Arapahoe Hunt by Kathy Tourney. To see more, click here!
Beeman pointed out that the Arapahoe often see their first coyote a half-mile away. That’s quite a challenge, especially considering that scent only lasts, on a good day, from three to six minutes, far less in the 40 to 50 m.p.h winds that can blow across Arapahoe territory.
“Seldom will you jump them,” Beeman said of Colorado’s plains coyotes. “But sometimes, if the wind is just right, you might find one sitting under a yucca and you can get upwind and come up closer to them.”
In these conditions, Beeman picks his hounds up (they’re English, by the way) and takes them to the coyote line. “A lot of people say that’s not fair, they should work the line,” Beeman said. “Well, if you want to have sport, you can work the line all damn day if you want to, and it won’t be there when you get there if you don’t get them started.”
Whatever difficulties Colorado’s geography and climate throw at coyote hunters and their hounds, they do get one advantage in return: few roads and miles of open space. In a country Beeman estimates to be about 35 square miles, there are only two roads, and they’re seven miles apart. Some of the individual pastures in the Arapahoe country are 5,000 acres, so it’s hardly surprising that Beeman uses both radios and tracking collars for his hounds.
Beeman also expressed admiration for the coyote’s iron constitution. “It’s amazing how tough they are, and how far they can run,” he said. “It’s hard for us to stay hooked on one coyote, because of the conditions I’ve mentioned.”
It might surprise you to know Arapahoe hunts with English hounds, whom many American hound proponents believe are too slow for coyote-chasing. That’s a debate that once raged about fox-chasing, too, as you might recall from the English v. American debate that resulted in the Great Hound Match of 1905.
“A lot of you have asked me, ‘How do you hunt English hounds? They’re too slow!’” Beeman said. “Let me tell you, if they ever got any faster, we couldn’t find them!”
Marty Wood of Live Oak remembers the changeover from red fox to coyote very clearly, and chasing the wiley coyote has left a mark on him.
“I have a love-hate relationship with coyotes,” Wood began. “I think they’re the greatest quarry a good pack of hounds could ever chase. They’re fast, they’re smart. At times they give off really good scent, and at times you think they’ve pulled an Indian rope trick on you. I love them for that reason. I hate them for the reason that I’m standing here and no longer riding a horse anymore because I’ve busted myself up pretty badly in the past 20 years chasing coyotes.”
The Live Oak hounds ran their first coyote back in 1984 or 1985.
“I’ll never forget it,” Wood said. “It was the day after a really hard thunderstorm, early in the morning. We got to the meet and unboxed the hounds. My kennel huntsman was on his horse looking down at the sand road, and he said, ‘You’ve got to come look at this. It’s the biggest damn red fox track I’ve ever seen.’ I didn’t have to go look at it, I trusted his judgment. We put the hounds on it. Let me tell you something: we crossed five plantations, taking gates off their hinges. We didn’t cut any wire, but we damn sure unstapled some. Daphne and another whipper-in finally caught up with the hounds. We were way, way, way far behind them. “
One of the tip-offs that this was not a red fox, Wood said, was that this quarry, this coyote, ran roads through the woods and avoided the swampy brushland that dominates Live Oak country. “Obviously no fox was going to run like that, and no bobcat was going to run that way, and for damn sure no deer would,” he said. “He just took off and went and went and went. Finally, we picked the hounds up and hacked waaaaay back to the meet. And a few days later I had a call from a man. He and his wife had been sitting out back on their terrace having a drink in the evening, and this thing walked up into the yard, and he got a rifle and shot it. He took it into a taxidermist, and it was a coyote.”
Wood pointed out one of the classic maneuvers that coyotes will pull in an attempt to evade pursuing hounds: “For you future huntsmen, when you’re on a coyote and you’re putting pressure with a capital P on him, you’re going to see him going from covert to covert to covert. He’s looking for another coyote to throw you off. The biggest problem you’re going to have as a huntsman hunting your hounds is controlling the bombshell when he goes into one of those coverts and four others come out. The only way I know to do that is to trust your experienced hounds. They’re not going to want to change. If you can possibly figure out which one of those bombshells has the experienced hounds on it, pick it right away. But a huntsman must make an almost instantaneous decision as to which pack he’s going with, so that the whippers-in can stop the others.”
Wood also noted that he likes to hunt large packs of 25 to 30 couple. “I think that helps you find the quarry better,” he explained, “because they spread out. When one opens up, they hark to that like filings to a magnet.”
Moore County huntsman Jody Murtagh knows what it’s like to hunt free-running coyotes in a small territory. Moore County’s country, he said, is about 5,000 acres in total, with the largest portion being 3,000 acres. Murtagh hunts a pack of Penn Marydels, another breed often reckoned to be slow, though Murtagh says, “They’re not, especially on coyote.”
“A few people think they’re slow and run heel or dwell,” Murtagh said. “But, believe me, folks, the people in Moore County wish they did all those things. When we started running coyote, at the end of the run there were about five or six people left out of 60 or 80. It just blew them away.”
Luckily for Murtagh, not all of the coyotes in his country leave it. The resident coyotes tend to stay in his country. By contrast, coyotes that come into the country from nearby Fort Bragg, which covers about 60,000 acres, are the ones that tend to run back across the road to their home territory.
Murtagh said that he does occasionally have a good run on a gray fox, something he tries to take advantage of, because the gray foxes provide great sport for his field on a limited territory.
“The coyotes will basically stay in the territory, and we’re running for about a hour to an hour and a half, which is about the most anyone can stand, and then we basically stop the hounds. The problem we have is that the territory is so small, and the boundaries are so significant, and the coyotes love to run across the road into Fort Bragg. So the whips have to be right on the number. When they see them going for the road, the whips have to be at the road first. That happens in seconds. You have to make that decision in seconds. It makes things very, very difficult.”
In closing, Murtagh related a story about hound breeding. Some years ago, he talked to Ben Hardaway, the Master of Midland so famous for his hound breeding program. “He said, ‘You oughta pick up those Penn Marydels and give ‘em some pizzazz,’” Murtagh recalled. “Well, Mr. Pizzazz, I wish I hadn’t of listened, because we gave ‘em pizzazz and we can’t stay with them most of the time! What I think I should do now with my breeding program is breed for bad feet, long ears, out at the hock, and a straight hind leg. Maybe I’ll be able to stay with them!”
Hardaway’s son-in-law, Mason Lampton, is carrying on the tradition at Midland. He started hunting and field-trialing hounds in Kentucky with his grandfather, Mason Houghland, well before moving to Georgia. His hunt career, too, has spanned the arrival of the coyote–a development Lampton called “a very exciting change.”
“It’s been a whole different kettle of fish,” he said.
Lampton, like Wood, agreed that a coyote “is the only thing that will run a road.”
“The Fitzpatrick part of our country is about 15 miles by six miles, on average,” he explained. “You’d think that’s a nice size country. But in February we hit this coyote, and he pushed out two does and a buck. We had a few hounds speaking pretty hard on it, but the majority of the pack weren’t speaking. Finally the does and buck peel off, and, boom, we were away. One fellow had GPS on, and we went 10 miles in about 45 minutes. It was just a screaming run. It was amazing. But then the son of a gun went out of the country. Well, we stopped the hounds, and the horses were all spraddle-legged, so we came back. Everything was pretty well cooked.”
Lampton said he drew the same spot the next two hunts, trying to get up the same coyote, and, when he did, the hunt went exactly the same, with his staff having to stop hounds at the same edge of their country.
“These coyotes, when they find a spot where you’ll stop your hounds, they’re gonna go every time to that spot,” he said.
Lampton called a coyote run a “mail train,” a description anyone who has ridden on one of these blistering chases will agree with. To chase coyotes, Lampton said he likes to cast his hounds wide “at a big distnace, almost a quarter-mile,” he said. “I like them spread out, not all balled up.”
The Midland Fox Hounds
In fact, the days of hunting a close-bunched pack might well be over anywhere coyotes have become the main quarry.
“I think the coyote is very tough on the English ‘throw a blanket over them’ style,” he added. “When you’re on an hour-and-a-half run on a coyote, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. You’re hunting something different.”
“Your horse has got to be fit, you’ve got to get that Advil out,” he added. “The hounds are bounding around, you go and hit that covert and the first hound speaks and the pack breaks away, and they start screaming. They blow gone away and you’re galloping that Thoroughbred horse as fast as you can across that beautiful country, you’re in a rush, things are good! An hour and a half later, you’re red-faced, you can’t blow the horn. … That’s coyote-hunting for me. When it goes right, it’s about as exciting as anything I’ve ever done. How often it goes right? I’m not going there.”
Next time: Dr. Stanley Gehrt on the life of the urban coyote!