REMEMBER Playper? The tri-colored Class Clown? The puppy who liked to unearth and carry random objects around in the hunt field? Well, treasure those memories, because Paper ain’t a boy anymore. He’s the man.
The last time we got out with the hounds was on Sunday, Jan. 30, a day that was notable because the sun came out. Which it hasn’t done for a long while. We were all delighted to be out in relatively warm temperatures and with the sun on our backs, and we didn’t expect the day also would mark a milestone for our young friend Paper. We’ve been following his development since he first started going out on hound walk back in the summer of 2009, and it’s probably worth a brief recap.
Paper came to Iroquois from the Live Oak hounds in Florida. He arrived in Kentucky still a puppy, and he exhibited a silly streak very early. He got his name, in fact, while he and Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller were making the 10-hour drive from Kentucky to Florida. Jerry had put Paper in a large traveling crate with an absorbent paper pad on the bottom of it, and Paper found that pad rather a lot of fun. He started shredding it not long after Jerry left the Live Oak kennel, and he didn’t stop until they rolled into Lexington. As the young pup kept himself busy with this, the bits of paper piled up in his crate until, finally, when Jerry looked in his rear-view mirror to check on him, the hound had disappeared completely in the mound of ripped paper he had created. Hence Paper.
Paper has become a favorite at Iroquois because of his various antics on hound walk and out hunting. But, it must be said, this year he has graduated into quite a serious member of the working pack. And, last Sunday, he led the pack on a coyote run, showing the ability we always knew he had in him.
Last Sunday afternoon was a remarkably warm, breezy day after a long frigid spell. The ground was frozen cold, but the air above it was warm, and what scent there might have been stirred and dispersed in a strong breeze. The sun, while nice to feel after its long time away, also didn’t help the scent to linger for hounds’ noses to find. The hounds’ body language signaled to huntsman Lilla Mason early on that scenting conditions were very poor. It was, Lilla said, as if they were telling her, “We’ve got our noses on, but they’re not picking up much that’s interesting.”
The scenting conditions might have been less than ideal, but the pack was as good as they could be. Bringing them back to the hunt field after a long absence due to the long stretch of “unhuntable” weather was like putting on a comfortable old shoe, as Lilla described it. The hounds were as responsive as ever and settled quickly to their task. “It was like we’d never left,” Lilla said.
The hounds started winding something in the field near Grundy’s barn. They started feathering–but then couldn’t quite make out the line, another hint that scenting was difficult on a day when the earth was cold and the air relatively warm. The hounds tried, feathered, and even sometimes spoke, but the line proved elusive. They kept casting themselves to the south, feathering enthusiastically. They were clearly trailing up to something but couldn’t quite get consistent enough scent to strike off. When joint-Master Jack van Nagell tally-hoed a coyote heading into Pauline’s Ridge, Lilla harked the hounds to that line less than a minute behind the quarry. The hounds feathered, desperately working what little of the line there was–but it was not enough to send them into full cry. That told her how difficult scenting was going to be, and, if she needed any more evidence, Lilla got proof positive that scent was not the hounds’ friend that day when a curious thing happened on top of a cliff.
“I could see a coyote in the grass, that black coyote,” Lilla said. “It was quite a way off, and it was just standing there in tall grass. I’d already harked hounds to the line once with my voice, and they didn’t pick up scent, so I couldn’t do that again, because it’s like I’m lying to them. I couldn’t risk that again.”
“It’s terribly frustrating, as a huntsman,” Lilla added. “You’re sitting there staring at a coyote. I could get the hounds into the high grass, and I could see the coyote in there. He was lower than the grass, and through the wisps of grass I could see him moving back and forth in front of the hounds. And they couldn’t smell it. And he knew they couldn’t smell him. They were feathering, but they couldn’t quite pick up the line.”
Flash back to summer hound walk: “When you watch the hounds on summer hound walk, you realize how much depends on their noses,” Lilla said. “That’s true of almost any dog. If I throw a red biscuit two feet in front of me, and they see me throw it, they don’t look for a red biscuit in grass–they smell for it where they think it landed. It’s hard for humans to understand how much hounds depend on their noses. Their noses are so much more sensitive than ours, whereas we depend on our eyes.”
You can also see this difference–hounds’ reliance on their noses rather than their eyes–when Michael Edwards and Alan Foy scatter biscuits in the grass before unloading the hounds at a meet. When the hounds rush out of the trailer to hunt for the biscuits, they don’t look for the for red and yellow dog biscuits. They come out of the trailer with their noses down to smell for them.
“So even though we can see a coyote, they’re using their noses to smell for it,” Lilla continued. “The problem is, you don’t know how many coyotes are there, either. If I rely on my eyes to tell the hounds what to do, I’m committing an error. With a pack like ours, hounds that don’t switch coyotes, you have to let them establish their own line.
“When you know it’s a bad scenting day, and you know there are multiple coyotes, you sort of have to wait to let the hounds pick up one of them. You can’t assume which one it will be until they tell you. They might be working hard, about to pick up a line, and if you lift them and cast them and put them on another line, well, that’s no good. You want to teach them to work it out for themselves.”
A four-hound group did just that, finally speaking on the line of a reddish coyote that had headed out the east end of Pauline’s Ridge. Paper, Sassoon, Battle and Bagshot took off on the line they’d found, but the hounds had cast themselves widely, a necessary tactic on a bad scenting day when you’re hunting coyote. As Paper and his three companions raced on close behind the coyote, they distanced their packmates. The other hounds behind them caught onto the same line, but when they reached the sunny open ground after Paper’s group, the main body of the pack had trouble holding on to scent as it dwindled rapidly in the warmer air. As Paper, Sassoon, Battle, and Bagshot hurtled toward the western boundary of the hunt country–and a busy road where horses could not follow–their packmates were left puzzling over a line that, to their noses, was nearly invisible. When they made a lose, Lilla opted not to cast them forward and risk having them run toward the road, too.
“I also knew there were coyotes back in Pauline’s Ridge,” Lilla said, “so it wasn’t too egregious for me, as the hounds came out of the ridge, to send them back in again and let Michael and Alan get those two couple back.”
It turns out that Paper and Bagshot, spotted by whipper-in Elizabeth Playforth, came back on their own, and Alan and Michael quickly picked up Sassoon and Battle.
The moment when Paper struck off and led his group on a coyote, and in far from perfect scenting conditions, didn’t last long. But it was an important indication that the Class Clown is becoming a serious student, and is even on his way to being a potential pack leader. Not for him the tempting aluminum can or old cow bone. Not anymore.
“He’s Mr. Foxhound now,” Lilla said. “No puppy left in him. He’s running with the big boys. He’s just changed, hasn’t he? He’s no longer goofy.”
As Paper and Bagshot filtered their way back to Lilla, their colleagues in the pack, meanwhile, had struck off again in the east part of Pauline’s Ridge. “That helped bring everyone back together,” Lilla said. But when hounds went quiet soon afterwards, the pack, working their noses hard the whole time, scattered out again, trying to find scent anywhere they could. As hounds worked silently, snuffling through the grass, woods, and cliff, Lilla headed back up to the ridge and blew her horn. She soon collected 10 or 11 couple and headed west with them, intending to draw the covert at Pauline’s house.
Just then, another tally-ho, this time from field secretary Betsy van Nagell, who spotted–guess who! The black coyote, of tall grass fame, emerging from his weedy haven.
“He looked over his shoulder just like he was saying, ‘Hi!'” Lilla said. “And he just trotted away down the hill. I immediately took the hounds over there and put them on the line. And they couldn’t do anything with it.”
I’m not sure who ticked off the Scent Gods that day, but someone did, and the black coyote knew it.
“He was moving so slowly,” Lilla said. “He knew we could see him in the grass, and he knew we were going to see him when came out of the grass and went down the field. He trotted right by the field. He always goes that way: he comes out of the top of the ridge and goes south like that. Sometimes he’s a lot of fun, but this time he knew there was no scent and wasn’t bothering to move very quickly, just trotting a long and not giving off a lot of scent from his pads. At least the field had a nice view.
“To an uneducated eye, they’d probably wonder, ‘What is wrong with those hounds?’ But those kinds of days really teach you how much they hunt by scent.They hunt by scent, not by sight. They can hunt a little bit by sight, but scent really is the key.”
Missing just one and a half couple, Lilla took the pack into Pauline’s Scrub, a good covert for game and also near where Lilla suspected the three absent hounds would be. Hounds spoke in the fenceline between Pauline’s Scrub and the Deer Covert, a good, strong cry on to the Deer Covert. Spirits lifted–but the burst was short-lived.
“They went to the Swamp Covert, to the Deer Covert, then went quiet for a minute before picking it up again,” Lilla said. “They ran across the field by Salt’s Barn, then turned sharply west out in the open into the Silo Pond Covert, right where we started. They made a lose there. The line was very, very strong going into the Silo Pond Covert, but once they got in there, they hardly even feathered. They tried really hard: they had their noses down, they were frantically looking around. If it hadn’t been so close to sunset, I would have tried to cast a little to the south, but I think they had done as much as they could with it.”
Having battled the Gods of Scent all afternoon, Lilla called it a day. From a hunting standpoint, the day was understandably frustrating for huntsman and hounds alike. But there were at least two important saving graces: the mere fact of being out again, galloping a horse alongside hounds over the countryside, and Paper’s brief, shining moment, leading the pack on a line.