He’s Mr. Foxhound now!

Paper on hound walk this summer. Dave Traxler photo.

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.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason and the hounds leaving the meet at Foxtrot on Jan. 30, 2011. Photo courtesy of Peggy Maness, who rode in the hound truck with us.

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.

The field and the hounds at the meet. Peggy Maness photo.

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.

Lilla Mason on Sackett at the meet. Photo by Peggy Maness.

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.”

Paper has taken the leap from playful puppy to serious working pack hound. Photo by Dave Traxler.

“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.”

Iroquois joint-Master Jack van Nagell gave a tally-ho when a coyote headed into Pauline's Ridge. Peggy Maness photo.

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.

Lilla and the hounds at Foxtrot. Dave Traxler photo.

“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.

Road whips Michael Edwards (foreground) and Alan Foy picked up two of Paper's compatriots: Sassoon and first-season hound Battle at the Jan. 30 hunt. Road whips are essential! Dave Traxler photo.

“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.

No more decoys for Paper: he's the real deal! Eloise Penn photo.

“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.

The field got a nice view at Foxtrot on Jan. 30. And welcome back, Brownell! Peggy Maness photo.

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.

Because, really, you can't have too many pictures of Paper. Lilla Mason took this one on a 2009 hound walk.

“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.

Whipper-in Hannah Emig on Comet at the Jan. 30 Foxtrot meet. Peggy Maness photo.

“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.

Hound of the Day: Sassoon

Sassoon, the giant woolly, showed his leadership qualities on Dec. 31, 2010

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.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla S. Mason. Photo by Dave Traxler.

“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.”

Baffle's first litter for Iroquois, the puppies now in their first year with the working pack, learned a valuable lesson about geese. Photo by Dave Traxler.

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.”

The gray fox can climb trees--a feat that probably will amaze the young hounds! Photo by Steve Wayne Rotsch/Painet Inc.

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.

The Iroquois hounds earlier this season.

“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.”

Another sort of gray fox, outside the Grimes Mill headquarters of the Iroquois Hunt Club.

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.

Iroquois Hunt kennel manager Michael Edwards spotted the quarry.

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!

Huntsman Lilla Mason and the Iroquois hounds

“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.”