THE weather has played havoc with the season, but on one of the better days when it was safe for hounds and riders to take to the hunt field, one of our favorite hounds was the hero.
It was New Year’s Eve, and the hounds hadn’t had a good gallop over the hunt country in two weeks (weather, weather, weather, more weather again …). After the long period of freezing temperatures, the temperature climbed to about 45 degrees on a windy New Year’s Eve.
“You’d expect them to be obviously anxious to get out and a little bit hard to handle at first,” Iorquois huntsman Lilla Mason said of the hounds. “It’s not unusual when they’ve had that much time off. But what you don’t want is for them to just run through the first few coverts with their heads up. I had a feeling it was going to be a marginal scenting day, although I never really know for sure about that until the hounds let me know.
“The first covert we drew, I tried to move really slowly, because the slower I go, the slower they’re going to have to go. I wanted them to empty and settle down and start putting their noses down and focusing. They were surprisingly good. This litter of puppies is just so mature for their age.
“It was kind of weird, because, even though it was windy, in a way it was still: there weren’t any birds, we didn’t see any rabbits, nature was still. The wind was going to be a factor, because it makes it hard to hear the hounds.
“I drew the Silo Pond Covert, and then I went and drew the Cabin Covert, which I never do in that sequence, because that puts me going back west toward an road that’s the border of our hunt country,” Lilla continued. “But this pack is so easy to handle that I went ahead and did it. I put them in at the west end of the Cabin Covert and then asked them to come out the south end. They could have just kept going on west, on down the covert to the road, but they did just exactly what I asked. They’re such a good team together.
“From there we went into Barker’s, and in Barker’s they started feathering. Then they started speaking.”
The chase was on. The hounds headed due east, with their huntsman galloping just behind. “But straight east there was a pond with a gaggle of of geese,” said Lilla. “And if there was one, there were 500 geese. I’ve never seen so many. All at once, they took flight, and they sounded just like a pack of hounds. The puppies ran straight to the sound; it sounded like a pack of hounds from God! The puppies must have thought they were going to hark to the biggest cry they’d ever heard. It was funny, because they ran right out of the covert and then on to the pond, and then you could see them realize pretty quickly they’d made a mistake. They looked so disappointed, like, ‘Aaaw, darn.’ But when puppies get caught like that, it’s part of their learning.
“They were kind of hot, so I thought I’d regroup and let the older hounds catch up to the puppies that had made the mistake and let them all get some water.”
After that brief rest, it was on to Murphy’s Covert, where hounds spoke again. Lilla rode to the north side of the covert in time to see Sassoon and Payton pop out, noses to the ground.
“They tried to take the line north but lost it,” she said. “They swirled around and cast themselves back into the covert, followed closely by the puppies, who also swirled around and followed them back into the covert, right along the line Sassoon and Payton had taken.”
Lilla waited. Sure enough, out came Sassoon and Payton again. This time, Sassoon took the line a little farther north before circling around and returning to Murphy’s covert once again, speaking a little from inside the covert.
“This went on a little while, and it was just beautiful hound work,” Lilla recalled. “You could tell they kept losing that line to the north, and they kept going back into the covert and speaking. You just never know if a coyote is concealed in there or what. You just have to let the hounds work it out. But to see the leadership of Sassoon. It was so clear. He just took charge: ‘The line’s fine here, here, here—no, not here. Gotta go back and try again.’ He kept coming out of the covert at the same place. They’d come tumbling back out of the covert and make a big cast with Sassoon in the lead, then go tumbling back into the covert behind him. That’s the experience a hound like Sassoon can offer your pack when the pack really needs it. When things get complicated, they look to a hound like him for that kind of leadership.
“They couldn’t find anything in Murphy’s Covert, and Sassoon was telling me the line seemed to be going north. To the north is a kind of scrubby covert that all year I have called ‘a covert of interest.’ It’s not much of a covert, just a long strip of scrubby weeds, and it’s not that wide and not very high. We don’t even have a name for it. It’s just sort of a scrubby fence line. But every time I’ve put the hounds in there they’ve spent a lot of time in there, even on a bad scenting day. It’s been a good training covert for them. They draw it really thoroughly. But it was odd, because it didn’t seem like enough covert for a coyote to sit in there.”
Kennel manager Michael Edwards, who also serves as a road whip on hunt days, was in a good position to see what happened next. Sitting in his truck on the opposite side of the covert from Lilla, Michael spotted what appeared to be not a coyote, but a fox, dashing by. He was too far away to see the quarry in sharp detail, but he could tell even from a distance that it was small for a coyote. Michael later speculated that it was a gray fox or, possibly, a red fox with a lot of gray in its coat. That’s an intriguing development that seems all the more likely given that two local landowners’ automatic wildlife cameras recently have gotten images of gray foxes.
Whatever it was, the hounds had captured its scent and got on the line, blazing out the west end of the unnamed “covert of interest.”
The pack flew back to Barker’s, circling around and around in that covert and running between it and the back of Schwartz’s in the small circles that are typically for running foxes. They eventually made a lose in Barker’s. They worked back to Murphy’s Covert and spoke briefly there before making a lose again. At that point, with hounds getting hot in the warmer weather, Lilla called it a day, still pondering the appearance of a possible fox at a time when we rarely see them.
The Iroquois field members always welcome a variety of game. Foxes will add a different spice to a day’s hunting by providing some days when hound work is the feature of the day, instead of the fast galloping sport that coyotes provide. There’s room for both in the Iroquois hunt country, and, while we continue to love the bold moves of hard-driving coyotes, we also hope to the foxes stick around–especially for days like New Year’s Eve, when we’ve been buried under snow and ice for weeks and our horses are no longer at peak fitness!
“It wasn’t clear whether it was a red or a gray fox, but I would tend to think it was a red,” Lilla said, “because I don’t know why a gray would run out in the open like that. Usually, by this time of year, we don’t have any foxes in our hunt country, so it’s interesting that we found one. And now I know what’s been in that covert all this time.”
A fox or two will add a new element to the puppies’ education, as Lilla pointed out. “Especially if it’s a gray,” she said. “That will be a whole new dimension for the puppies, because a gray fox will go up a tree, and foxes just run so differently from coyotes. I guess Sassoon will have to explain that to them.”