The January 23 meet at Foxtrot was gray and damp. But it was a happy day for huntsman Lilla Mason, who picked up her horn again after almost three months on the sidelines.
When they rushed out of the hound trailer at the meet, the hounds went about their usual business–that is to say, they immediately sniffed around in the grass for the biscuits Michael Edwards and Alan Foy scatter at every meet (a pre-hunt biscuit or two helps prevent stomach acid build-up).
“It was such a thrill when the hounds got out of the trailer,” Lilla said. “Latch came running over to me and leaped up in the air, standing on her back legs and jumping up and down. It was like seeing old friends you haven’t seen long time. When I blew the horn, their heads snapped right up and they moved right off with me.
“Stanza was out in front of me, and when I said her name, she froze, turned and looked, then came running back. She ran a circle around my horse, then ran out and back again, like she was saying, ‘It’s you! You’re back!'”
Lilla has kept largely out of the hounds’s sight and hearing since she broke her ankle in November and handed the horn over to joint-Master Jerry Miller. Miller’s task since then was to maintain the pack without putting too much of his own imprint on them (read more about why and how he did that here). Did he accomplish that goal? The verdict from Lilla: yes.
“The best thing about the day I came back was that I could tell by the hounds’ demeanor and body language that they were the same as when I got hurt,” Lilla explained. “That was so meaningful to me. If someone other than Jerry had taken them over and managed them differently, it would have been heartbreaking if the hounds had cowered or been different when I came back. After an absence, you wonder, ‘Are we all going to be on the same page mentally?’ And we were. They were the same pack they were when I left: confident, enthusiastic, obedient, just as they were when I left them in November. I’m very thankful to Jerry for that.”
The conditions were … I guess “gooey” would be the technical term. We’ve had drenching rains all winter, and the ground was deep. It was only thanks to a generous landowner that we were able to hold the meet at Foxtrot, and it turned out to be a showcase for how complex and important Michael and Alan’s work really is on a hunt day.
Lilla and the whippers-in all carry radios, and so do Michael and Alan. That communications network is solely for the hounds’ protection. It allows Lilla to direct the whippers-in even over long distances when they are out of sight, allows Michael and Alan to position themselves along a stretch of road where a coyote (and thus the hounds) might try to cross, and allows everyone to communicate and get to hounds as needed.
I hopped in Michael’s truck once the hounds had moved off. When Lilla radioed that the hounds were heading into the Silo Covert, Michael drove on top of a rise to the south of the covert. From there, we could view a wide swath of landscape, keep tabs on the hounds, and speed back toward any of three roads that border that part of the country, if need be. Alan, in a second truck, was stationed exactly opposite our position, watching north and east across the same acreage.
“We always like to keep the hounds between us,” Michael explained.
We sat watching and waiting, following Lilla’s radio reports as she tried a few coverts without finding anything. Then she brought the hounds to Junior’s Scrub, a brushy area with a thickety treeline and tall grass. Suddenly: coyote scent. The hounds’ noses played rapidly along the ground, searching, trying to parse out the coyote’s path. The hounds’ movements became electric, and they waved their tails quickly from side to side, feathering, a sure sign that they smelled something.
Lilla’s voice crackled over the radio: “Hounds are in Junior’s Scrub. They’re really feathering. Bonus and Stifle are really trying to work something out.”
“It was one of those days when air is dead still,” Lilla said later. “Sound really carries on a still day like that, and I could even hear the traffic from all the way out on the interstate. I thought I’d try moving through coverts a little more quickly, because surely the coyotes would hear us coming. When the hounds came in to Junior’s Scrub and started feathering, my heart started beating.
“I thought might be an old, cold line. So I waited to let them work it out. When the hounds started to feather, I didn’t move my horse forward with them, because any sound would echo through the still air, and I didn’t want to to distract them. There was something there, but they couldn’t quite work it out, and I wanted to give them ample room and opportunity. The field was quiet too, which was helpful.”
And then, all at once, the hounds struck off.
“It was like a clap of thunder,” Lilla said. “There was no preliminary yipping, it was just BAM and they were off–really thrilling. I knew they’d worked the line out and were right on top of whatever it was.
“But it was like a bad dream, too, because the mud was so deep,” Lilla added. “The horses were being so careful, and you almost had to push them into a canter. It was slippery, and they had to take it down a gear, where on a regular day you could have run on. We just couldn’t move fast enough.”
As the hounds shot away from them, Lilla and the field on their horses were mired down, slowed by the heavy ground. Jumping coops was out of the question, and even getting through gates proved tricky.
“It was very slick in the gateways where the tractors had gone through the gates, and some of the ground was still frozen, so it was treacherous going,” Lilla said. “We ended up far behind the hounds. It was a good example of why things are different when you’re hunting coyotes. Unlike foxes, coyotes just get out of there so fast. It’s harder to protect hounds’ safety on days like that because you can’t push your horse and can’t get to the hounds as quickly as you could on days when the footing is better.
“We knew the footing wouldn’t be great that day, but I didn’t think it would be that deep. Still, we had to get the hounds out.”
Two coyotes had run simultaneously out of Junior’s Scrub, one heading west and the other south, a common tactic coyotes often use to confuse a pursuer. This time, the ploy didn’t work especially well, because the main body of the pack, 15 hounds, stayed together in pursuit of the southbound coyote. One hound, young Griffin, headed west after the other.
From where we sat in his truck on the hill, Michael and I couldn’t hear the spine-tingling sound of the pack until Lilla came back on the radio, breathlessly giving directions at a gallop. In the background we could hear the pack, too, off in the distance.
“This is my favorite part of the hunt, even though I don’t see a lot of it,” Michael said. “This is what it’s all about.”
We sat tight for a moment, tensely listening for the next update that would tell us which direction hounds were running, and therefore which way we should head.
The radio crackled again, but this time it was all a muddle of strong wind, flapping saddle leather, and an unintelligible voice calling out. Static. More wind, and then the signal clarified into the voice of one of the whippers-in: “Tally-ho! They’re right on it!”
Another whipper-in cut in to say the hounds had turned south and were running along the banks of a wide creek, just at the bottom of coyote-rich Pauline’s Ridge. There was a pause when hounds lost the scent and wheeled around like a school of fish, tails feathering busily as they searched silently for the coyote’s line, and then full cry again! The whipper-in closest to the hounds reported the pack had climbed the ridge and turned east at the top.
Back on the road, Michael headed east, too, the radio signal fading out and in again as we negotiated turns and crested hills. Committing to the east was a gamble, as all decisions on the hunt field are, but it put Michael in a flexible position if hounds switched direction and headed south again, something Michael thought was a strong possibility. “If they keep going east, I’ll be right in position,” Michael explained. “If they head back south, from this road I can get south pretty fast.”
We roared along, waving to landowners as we rushed by and keeping our eyes open for the hunted coyote. Instead, we saw ponds, flocks of Canada geese, horses grazing peacefully in their paddocks. At one point we passed a yard where three house dogs sat in a line, bolt upright and ears pricked, clearly tuning in to the distant cry of the foxhound pack.
All seemed quiet and pastoral outside our windows, but inside the truck the excited radio transmissions described a dramatic chase as it unfolded. Radio messages poured in from Lilla, from whips in their various positions, from Alan in his own truck as they spotted hounds, heard hounds, or requested information to adjust their positions.
Then hounds did indeed turn again, as Michael thought they might, and headed back south–a path that would bring them onto a busy road if they didn’t lose the line first. Michael detoured onto the back roads, taking a short-cut to the street in question, near the hunt country’s southern border. Our goal now was to get to the road before the hounds did and stop any oncoming traffic.
And then, as we came up a hill to the place where Michael anticipated coyote and hounds might try to cross, we saw it: the coyote, a big one with a heavy coat highlighted with tawny gold. He loped along across the top of a ridge we call Smitha’s Cliff, too far away for me to catch on camera, then disappeared into a dip near the road. The next few minutes were frantic. Hounds, no longer speaking but still on the line of the coyote, appeared on the ridge and ran on. We backtracked, and so did Alan, just in time to see the coyote cross the road. That, we now knew, was the path the hounds would take, too. Michael and Alan braked, hopped out of their trucks, and stationed themselves along the road, arms spread wide, to stop oncoming cars and trucks.
Before they reached the guard rail on the road’s north side, the hounds were speaking again. They squirmed under the rail and screamed across the road, barely conscious of us as they passed. They were focused on one thing: following that coyote.
The coyote, meanwhile, had leaped up the rocky hillside on the opposite side of the road. He still had a significant lead over the hounds, and he made good use of it, skipping over the top of the ridge and disappearing. The hounds streamed after him but went silent along the top of the ridge, out of our sight. Their quarry evidently had made it to safety in a hole among the rocks and trees, and the hounds gradually began to filter back down the hillside toward the road again.
Lilla, hampered by the treacherous ground, was riding five or ten minutes minutes behind the hounds and still hadn’t made it to the road. By the time she arrived, Michael and Alan had held the road safe for the hounds. Lilla decided that, given the exhausting ground conditions, it was best to call it a day after a ripping welcome-back coyote run.
By day’s end, horses had gone 16 miles round trip over some of the most testing ground the hunt had ever faced.
Michael and Alan, who carry tracking equipment to track any hounds that are late in returning, loaded up the hounds. The hounds were damp from running through the wet thickets and mud. A few ears were scratched by brambles, but the hounds’ eyes shone with the startling intensity that working hounds are famous for. Sayso, below, is a good example. She came back when called, but her eyes suggest that, in her mind, she was still homing in on that coyote.
We headed back to the kennel, but for the kennel guys the day was far from done. While Alan attended to the hounds he’d picked up, returning them to the hound trailer at the meet, Michael pulled into a nearby farm to make sure a farmer’s gate we’d used was shut and locked, as the farmer wanted it. Michael counted up hounds as he went, to make sure everyone was accounted for. Griffin, the hound that followed the westbound coyote by himself at the start of the run, had hooked up with the hilltoppers, and Michael wanted to be sure he’d returned to the meet with them without incident.
Poor Griffin missed all the excitement. He eventually lost his coyote and came back looking for the rest of the pack, who had followed the southbound coyote. Along his way, he met up with the hilltoppers, who had not kept up with the first flight and therefore couldn’t return him to the pack. Horses, at least, were familiar, so he stayed with them until the end of the day when he was reunited with the pack back at the meet.
Joint-Master Miller confirmed for Michael that Griffin was safely in, and then Michael drove back to make sure the road signs warning about horses and hounds had also been collected; they had.
Back at the kennels, the hunting hounds still needed their dinner, as well as a thorough examination to be sure bramble scratches were the only things the hounds had picked up on their run across country. The hounds that hadn’t hunted also were waiting for their turnout time in the paddock. The puppies, having spent several hours out, were now ready to come back in.
It was, like most days at the kennel, a long day for Alan and Michael. But it was worthwhile, especially knowing that the hounds they care for had performed so well.
“This is a blast to me,” Michael said. “It’s what I live for, chasing these hounds. I get depressed just like they do if the weather’s bad and we can’t hunt. We spend the whole year getting them ready for this, it’s what they’re about and what I’m about, and I love it.”
FOR most field members, the first hunt day is a beginning. But to the Masters and hunt staff it is, in many ways, a grand finale. If you take a sort of “journey to the center of the earth” look at what has occurred behind the scenes to make this day possible, you’ll see what I mean. Case in point: our grand hound Iroquois Grundy ’98 died several years ago, but he had a tremendous impact on the Oct. 3 opening hunt.
A great hunt can only become great if it has a great hound breeder behind it. Grundy is an excellent example of this. So much thought, care, and consultation go into mating hounds in order to produce the kind of hunters that can give outstanding sport. Iroquois makes its mating choices with special care, because we breeed relatively few hounds and have committed to keep them all from cradle to grave. For any hunt, Iroquois definitely included, the idea is to breed hounds that are great hunters themselves but who will also keep providing great sport through future generations. That is what Grundy, who was bred by North Cotswold huntsman Nigel Peel out of the Peterborough champion Grapefruit, has done for Iroquois: give great sport himself, then through his sons and daughters.
When breeding hounds, you pick what you want to add to the pack by looking at its breeding and considering what it will contribute once it is an experienced hound. For instance, we don’t expect anything from Paper this year, but his breeding suggests that, down the road, he should be a great cold-nosed hound that could be invaluable on bad scenting days.
We had a lot of trouble with splits until Grundy, whom we imported from the North Cotswold in England, showed in his second season to be a non-switcher. In other words, he always stayed on the line of the original hunted coyote. So we, along with many other hunts, used him as a stallion hound. Thankfully, he passed that trait along to his offspring. Ten of the hounds that hunted on opening day Oct. 3 are Grundy’s blood, and they reflected his immense contribution to our pack. Rarely nowadays do we have splits.
With much anticipation, 40 field members and staff met at Brookfield Farm for the first cub-hunting morning. The hounds we had out Oct. 3 were Finite, Finesse, Sassoon, Savvy, Salute, Saracen, Saba, Allie, Grindstone, Sayso, Latch, Flash, Sage, Stanway, Griffin, Stam, and Glog. Like the first day of school, there was nervous excitement in the air. It was a bright sunny morning with a temperature of about 45 degrees. There had been a full moon and clear skies the night before. I had woken up several times in the night supposing that all nocturnal animals would be busy hunting, and by morning would be tucked away to rest somewhere.
We have not seen much game on houndwalks, not like in previous years. Common sense tells me they must still be out there, we just can’t see them, although only two landowners said they had seen a coyote this summer. I opened my bedroom window to see if by chance I could hear that familiar coyote laughter, but the night was quiet.
Each season, the hunt country poses new and different challenges and limitations. Some land gets closed off by development, some coverts get leveled for farming, and some years there is drought. This year, there is thick vegetation from the unusually wet summer. It’s going to be hard to see the hounds in the coverts as they draw–and even harder to see game. At the landowners’ request, the first draw of the morning on Oct. 3 would be a large corn field in a corner bordered by two busy roads. Consequently, we carefully chose hounds for the day who were experienced in the dangers of traffic. They also were ones the hunt staff could stop if they ran something that would cross those roads, leading them into danger. As always, the hunt staff and Masters’ primary concerns are respect for the landowners and the safety of the hounds and field members.
The first draw
The first draw was about a mile from where the hounds were unboxed, which was ideal for loosening them up and settling them down. It is so funny to see how different they are on a hunt day than on houndwalk! For instance, Finite and Finesse have been so ho-hum on houndwalk, expending the least amount of energy necessary and spending time at cow pies and trails of muck left by manure spreaders, smelling and smelling until they were forced by hunt staff to catch up. They are sisters and do everything together to such an extent that we’ve long called them “two bodies, one brain.”
Sometimes on houndwalk, hounds will drift ahead of me, and, just to school them, I’ll call them back. But Finite and Finesse will not volunteer to come back. Instead, they’ll stand still as though they don’t want to cross the same ground twice. They know I’m going to walk forward to where they are, so why come back? Geeeeeeeeez. But not on opening hunt day! Once I blew the horn and left meet, there were the girls out front, tails wagging, purposefully moving forward, on a mission and focused. I had to use my voice to steady them, and they responded without looking back at me – obedient but lost in concentration. The girls were switched on!
We held the hounds up as the field of 30-plus riders moved around the sides of the corn bordered by roads. The hounds respected the hunt staff and impatiently waited as all the riders got in place. I can’t tell you how proud we all were of them–all the summer training pays off. It is little things like this, being able to hold the hounds up until all is ready for them to go in a covert, that are such great rewards. Then being able to take them towards it, but requiring them to go in exactly where the huntsman wants instead of just rushing forward. Those subtleties that put such polish on a pack also reflect great whips. It makes you very proud, but you also smile as you remember all the mistakes hounds have made along the way and how much guidance and training they needed to reach this pinnacle.
Hounds spilled into the corn, drawing well considering there was no way to ride through the corn, and so I had to just stay outside. They spoke some, a good start. We left there and drew more coverts to the south: Davenport’s, Wee Young’s, Raymond’s Scrub. It was pleasing to see such beautiful houndwork; they were very thorough in underbrush so thick you could only hear them moving through and only occasionally see the tips of their wagging tails. But I was getting anxious to find game.
A Lesson–and a View–at Little Kansas
Next we hacked to two smaller corn fields in Little Kansas. The first was very long, but only about 15 rows wide. I wanted to draw west to east. Hounds went in, and halfway down the field, most spilled out, moving towards the bigger corn to the north. Early in the season, you really want hounds to stay in the covert they are drawing unless they find game or are called out by the huntsman. If half the hounds are in one covert and half have drifted to the next, and then suddenly one group fires off after a coyote, the rest will be left behind. That’s especially detrimental to the puppies. So I called to the hounds that had left the covert, turned my horse towards the little corn, and lieued them back in. It was risky to try to do without a whip there to reinforce my command, but the intensive summer training stood hounds in good stead again.
It occurred to me they might have been winding something in the bigger corn, but cub-hunting is as much about hound training as hunting, and I want the hounds to be disciplined in coverts. As soon as they got into the bigger corn, they erupted in full cry. Fieldmembers were spread out on the west end as a way to discourage game from going across that fenceline out of the hunt country. Round and round the hounds went. A whip tally-hoed a coyote out of the corn south. But hounds did not follow, indicating to me there were multiple coyotes in there, and the one the whip saw just got flushed out.
One of the hardest things about hunting coyotes is the fact that they often travel in groups, so if you find one you actually might have found four or five together. Most of the time, they will each run a different direction, seemingly to deliberately split the pack of hounds. It is a real muddle if three couple of hounds are running east another five couple running south, and the rest running north all after coyotes. This happened a lot in the early 1990s when coyotes first established themselves in our hunt country. The correct way to handle that scenario is that the huntsman must choose which hounds to follow, blow the horn and hark hounds out of the covert. Any hounds following another coyote are a split: the whips must stop them and send them on to the huntsman with the main pack. This is very difficult to do, as a whip only has a few seconds to stop hounds and divert their attention back to the horn. Once hounds have gotten half a field away on a coyote, it’s almost impossible to turn them back, and by then the huntsman and sound of the horn is long gone.
Hounds were still full cry in the corn, and another coyote was viewed going south out of the covert. A few minutes later, a third very small coyote came barreling out the east end, followed closely by “two bodies one brain”–Finite and Finesse–with the rest of the pack in hot pursuit.
I said under my breath, “Thank you, Grundy!” The coyote slipped through a wire fence too tightly woven for the hounds to penetrate. I galloped forward and opened two gates to let hounds through, they cast themselves east to no avail, then returned to the fenceline where they last smelled the quarry, as they often do when they make a lose.
Grundy’s Bloodlines Win the Day
I cast them into the bean field that was on the other side of the fence. Finite erupted again, running hard north. Hounds honored her, and the little coyote was viewed again. It ran through another tight fenceline and turned west, only to be turned back into the beans by fieldmembers going in early. Hounds were delayed getting through the fence and made a lose. The Masters had seen the coyote get turned and go back into the beans. But it’s amazing how coyotes seem to just vanish when they lie down and hide! The beans were not that tall, but he had disappeared into thin air.
I took the hounds and began making a half moon cast in the field. Long minutes went by, hounds were tying but could only find a very angry skunk! I noticed Finite, Finesse, and Grindstone trotting off to the north end of the field, though most of the hounds were in the center. The hounds spoke, and tally ho! The coyote was viewed going east out of the north end of the beans. He ran several fields through cattle, and the hounds eventually lost the scent. It was getting hot so we called it a day. And what a day to begin with!
Grundy would have been proud of his pups, and his spirit shone in them through their honesty as a pack.
One other note of honor: the award for Last Field Member Out. This one goes to Cheri Clark, who graciously led Master Jerry Miller’s horse back to the meet, as he prefers to dismount wherever hounds are loaded–and it was a long hack back to the meet!
— Lilla Mason