It’s amazing how seemingly minor events can evolve into memorable experiences. Such was the case when I joined Ronnie Kirk and his 88-year-old dad, Hoby, for a morning rabbit hunt on Dec. 11, 2013.
Ronnie and I have been fishing friends for many years, and Ronnie had often talked about his dad’s beagles and his love for chasing rabbits. I had known Mr. Kirk only casually from running into him and Ronnie on the lake. I readily accepted their invitation for a rabbit hunt. Little did I know that a morning’s hunt would become an opportunity to look back on an outdoorsman’s almost nine decades of the changes—good and bad—in the hunting and fishing landscape of Georgia.
At 88 years young, Horace R. (Hoby) Kirk works his beagles year-round and has some fine dogs. His excitement over a new puppy, 6-month-old Molly, was obvious as we headed from Talking Rock to Coosawattee WMA.
“She’s a natural but did offer to run a deer our last time out,” Hoby told me.
Running deer is a no-no for Hoby’s beagles.
“I’m going to put the training collar on her this morning but won’t use it unless she runs a deer. You’ve really got to be careful with these collars. Use them wrong, and you can ruin a young dog.”
Ronnie reminded him that was the first time she had offered to chase deer and that one jumped up right in front of her.
“I never used a collar until the last few years. I always just handed my gun off and ran a pup down when it needed correction. I’m not as fast as I once was,” Hoby said with a smile.
When we arrived at our hunting area, I got my first glimpse at how well Hoby’s dogs were trained. As Hoby fitted Molly with the training collar, the dog box door was left open. The other three beagles, Abbey, the old matron of the pack, and the two sisters, Ruby and Sally, would stick their noses out of the box, but they made no offer to come out and off the tailgate until Hoby said, “Let’s go.”
It did not take Abbey long to pick up a trail. She was soon joined by Molly, Ruby and Sally. In a short time Molly was right up front with Abbey, and the race was on. Hoby, Ronnie and I spread out to cut off the rabbit as it circled in the holler to our right. Suddenly the yammering stopped.
“The darn rabbit’s run in a hole,” Hoby opined.
Ronnie shortly confirmed that the dogs were milling around a hole in an undercut ditch bank.
“Guess the coyotes have that one trained,” said Ronnie as Hoby called the dogs in to find another race.
We’d only gone a few yards when all four dogs picked up a trail and followed it into a thick patch of briars and vines. The rabbit and the dogs went out the other side and a long, loud race was on. This bunny was a runner. It ran wide circles, crossing the road three times in sight but just out of shotgun range. The race lasted a good 45 minutes before the rabbit evidently went into another hole in the same ditch as the first. Hoby was laughing.
“We sure had a good race and saw the rabbit several times. We’ll get to chase him again next time. Hearing those dogs run and working Molly is what it’s all about,” said Hoby.
At the top of the next hill, Abbey and Molly trailed in to a lespedeza patch. In a short while Molly opened-up with a vengeance. Hoby whooped out and yelled.
“I bet she jumped that one out of the bed. Listen to her tell about it.”
About that time Ronnie’s gun boomed, and we had Molly’s rabbit in the bag. Ronnie handed the rabbit to Hoby, who petted Molly while teasing her with the rabbit. I’m not sure which of them was having more fun. The three old dogs eyed the two of them with a look that said, “We got that one, let’s go find another one.”
We made a circle through a thick bottom where the Kirks said they almost always jumped rabbits. Today was the exception. We decided to head for the truck and lunch. On the way back to Talking Rock, Hoby shared some of his thoughts on training dogs and caring for them. You could tell his dogs were pets as well as hunters. He thinks his dogs want to please him because of how they are treated.
“I try to work or spend time with my dogs every day,” he said.
His brother Norman, 82 years old, has a 40-acre training pen fenced with small mesh welded wire. Along with their younger brother Kenneth, 75, they usually start their young dogs in the training pen. It’s also used to exercise all the dogs in the off season. Hoby was quick to remind us Molly had never been to the training pen. She had only been with the older dogs in the field. There is no doubt that puppies are one of Hoby’s secrets to staying young.
Later that afternoon we sat in the living room of the home shared by Ronnie and Hoby. They are both widowers. Hoby’s wife, Ina, passed away in 2002. Ronnie’s wife, Barbara, had a sudden heart attack in November of 2009. When Ronnie retired, they decided to combine households. Much of their time is now spent afield or on the water.
During the afternoon, Hoby shared how much the outdoors has impacted his life and the changes he has seen. He was born, raised and still lives in the Talking Rock community in Pickens County. As a boy he waded Talking Rock Creek and floated the Coosawattee River fishing for whatever bit. He and his brothers hunted rabbits, squirrels, raccoon and quail up and down the hollers and fields around their home place. Hunting rabbits and coons became Hoby’s first love.
WWII came along, and with many of his fellow Americans, Hoby went to war. He saw battle in France and Germany. At this point Ronnie interceded to let me know that, while his Dad wasn’t going to tell me, Hoby had earned the Bronze Star for combat bravery. He found the certificate signed by Brigadier General F.M. Harris citing Horace R. Kirk for bravery under fire while removing 11 wounded American soldiers from a mine field near Bennwihr, France. When I congratulated Hoby, his only comment was another soldier was the real hero as he located the mines so the rest of them could get out of there.
After the war, Hoby came back to Talking Rock and worked in the area marble quarries and in the logging business. He once again had his beagles and coon hounds. He married Ina, a young widow with two children who shared his passion for the outdoors. Ronnie came along in 1950. In 1953, Hoby went to work at Lockheed. For 31 years he made the three-hour round trip to and from Marietta. He was not about to move from Talking Rock where he had his beagles and coon dogs.
When Hoby first came back from WWII, there were very few deer in the far reaches of the north Georgia mountains, almost no turkeys and only the occasional bear. There was plenty of small game. There was no Lake Lanier. Most of his fishing was still in Talking Rock Creek, on the Coosawattee and in farm ponds.
The first deer stocking Hoby recalls was in the Burnt Mountain area east of Talking Rock. He thinks they released 20 does and five bucks. At this same time the state Game & Fish Division under Jack Crawford was doing other deer stockings in the mountains and around the state. The first huntable populations were on Blue Ridge WMA. The season was 10 days, and the limit was one buck.
Hoby became an accomplished deer hunter. He took his share of nice bucks in those early seasons. He shared with me a photo of several trophy bucks and large bass on the wall of a former home. Hoby still deer hunts today and has taken a buck and doe this season. Today, as he recalls the transition from no deer to today’s liberal seasons, Hoby has some definite thoughts. He thinks the coyotes, which were also not here when he returned from WWII, have in the last five years had an impact on fawn survival. He also believes the harvest limit and number of doe days need to be reconsidered. He feels too many individuals are taking too many deer. In his opinion, you should take only what you can reasonably use for food. Evidently our DNR is beginning to be in accord based on the recent reduction in doe days and concern over coyote predation.
Like the deer, Hoby has seen the turkey population explode. He enjoys chasing gobblers in the spring and finds plenty. What a change from his boyhood days when he remembers the huge fuss made when his grandfather killed a wild turkey.
When he was growing up, if someone saw a bear, it was the talk of the community for weeks. Now they wander through the neighborhood like stray dogs. Hoby enjoys watching them but has not become a bear hunter.
We discussed other changes Hoby has seen in almost nine decades. He noted that while he was never a big quail hunter, his brother Kenneth was, and birds were plentiful. Today, finding a wild covey is rare, but Kenneth has passed along his love of quail hunting to Ronnie, who works his Brittney, Diva, and his setter, Maggie, on released birds.
Hoby noted that when he came back to Georgia in 1946, there were few paved roads, no one had 4-wheel drive pickups, and ATVs were unheard of. Today our roads and transportation are better, but access to hunting land is much more restricted. In those days you could hunt small game anywhere. There were no posted signs. If you killed a few rabbits or quail, you shared them with the landowner. It was an easier and simpler time in the hills around Talking Rock. While he still has access to a few area farms, today most of his hunting is on the WMAs, especially nearby Coosawattee.
Another major change that impacted Hoby’s outdoor experience was the impoundment of Lake Lanier in 1957. He became a regular on Lanier. Each spring he took his vacation to camp at Lanier and chase bass. His wife and children were always included.
Hoby and his brothers have always involved their children in their hunting and fishing activities. Ronnie shares his dad’s passion for hunting deer, rabbits and turkey. Kenneth’s son, Danny, is an accomplished tournament angler. Danny has been a regular on the BASS and FLW national trails. Danny has appeared in GON articles and even on the old GON television show back in 2001. Danny, who now lives in southeast Georgia, inherited his Uncle Hoby’s love for coon hunting and has coon hounds. Hoby no longer keeps coon hounds, not because of his age. When his wife became ill, he did not want to leave her home alone at night.
Hoby, Norman and Kenneth Kirk have passed along a legacy of hunting and fishing to their children and grandchildren. While there have been major changes in habitat, hunting access and game populations, folks like the Kirks have helped preserve our outdoor heritage. It was a privilege to share memories of that heritage with Hoby. He is certainly not ready to slow down, and at 88 is always on the lookout for a new puppy to train.
I had one final question, “Where did you get the nickname Hoby?”
He laughed. It went back to the first grade when in a school play he played the part of a hobby horse. His classmates began to call him Hoby, and it stuck all these many years.