The cold air had my eyes just about in tears as Martin Johnson and I rolled down a wet four-wheeler trail straight for the Savannah River swamp in Screven County. Just off the road sat a very relaxed Mike Dotschay of Sylvania. He was leaned back on his four-wheeler with his back against a metal dog box filled with beagles, as he held one dog in his lap. Martin nodded good-morning, and Mike threw his hand back. Several hundred yards later Martin shut off his now-muddy ATV. We hopped off and each shucked three double-ought buckshots in our 12 gauges.
It was a cold, still, December 6 morning, and it was my first time on a deer hunt where hunters use dogs to chase deer before shooting the deer with shotguns. I was a guest with the Nanny Goat Hunting Club, a club where deer dogging has been taking place for 40 years. Never having been on a deer hunt with dogs, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I do have a passion for watching hunting dogs work, and I’d soon find out that deer dogs would find a new place in my hunting heart.
This hunting season was a turning point for all dog hunters across this state. With the passage of House Bill 815 in last year’s legislative session, dog hunters were hit with big changes for this hunting season.
Before this season, you could dog hunt with no special permit anywhere you had permission in a county that was open to dog hunting. Now, in order to hunt deer with dogs in an open county, you must have a minimum of 1,000 contiguous acres. Then, you apply to DNR for a permit number on that tract. DNR gives you a number, and that number must be on your deer dogs and on your hunting vehicle.
What spurred all this? Upset landowners were fed up with deer dogs chasing deer across their properties.
Bubba Sumerlin, who owns a 700-acre farm in Screven County, was one of the landowners who watched dogs run deer across his property for several hunting seasons. Bubba is president of the Georgia Association of Landowners and Leaseholders (GALL), and last spring he approached the DNR Board of Natural Resources with his problem. To make a long story short, HB 815 was written and passed into law during last year’s legislative session.
GON wanted to take a Saturday morning and hunt with a deer-dogging club. The club I hunted with is now having to abide by the new regulations, despite never once having a violation against them from a neighboring landowner.
GON also wanted to spend some time on Bubba Sumerlin’s farm. He invited me to spend an afternoon in the deer stand and then an evening around the supper table. I wanted to see if HB 815 has made a difference in the number of dogs he has seen from the stand this fall. More on Bubba in a little bit.
When Mike Dotschay knew everyone was loaded and ready he led his beagles behind his four-wheeler into a dense cluster of privet and briars. Within minutes Mike heard a deer jump up and head out. His dogs weaved over to where that deer had bedded for the night, and very quickly they were setting that deer’s hind quarters on fire with a good-sounding, loud-mouthed race. I’m sure everybody within listening distance pulled the shotguns off their shoulders and put a finger on the safety. My eyes were glued on the woods road in front of me as the beagles headed right for Martin and I.
“It’s just like one big rabbit hunt,” said Martin. “When you see the deer come out in the road, shoot it.”
It was exciting. Was it a young doe or maybe a big buck? Who knew, but I was ready to shoot when I saw deer. But, as luck would have it, the beagles turned and headed away from me toward a creek bottom several hundred yards below.
Relaxing a bit, I threw my scattergun back over my shoulder, sat back and enjoyed the race. When the dogs hit the bottom of the hill, another one of the pack of deer hounds that were released from a different location joined the race.
“That’s what it’s all about,” said Martin. “The beauty of dog hunting is that you can make a story out of any deer you kill. You can spend a half-day telling the story of a good race with just a young doe.”
The beagle music was now amplified 300 yards out, and in unison the two packs turned a hard 90 and headed for the Savannah River swamp. Standing on the edge of the swamp, a stander with a 12 gauge in hand was scanning the thicket, listening to the beagles, the approaching deer and his racing heart.
BOOM went the first shotgun blast of the morning. Nick Dotschay, Mike’s dad, eased up to a downed 6-pointer. Brian Thompson was the nearest stander to Nick, and he came over to tell Nick his side of the story.
“The deer was right there in front of me, but it wouldn’t come out of the thicket,” said Brian.
Martin and I hopped on the four-wheeler and rode to the swamp where I shook hands with two very happy hunters. Still shaking from the excitement, you’d have thought Nick had a 150-class buck laying on the dirt.
“I don’t care how big a buck you kill from a stand, nothing is more exciting than a race like that,” said Nick.
That comment comes from a guy who also spends his share of time perched in a deer stand every year.
Several other hunters began to show up in victory lane to participate in high fives and listen to the race recap. The two dog handlers gathered up their packs of dogs, and we all got back on the four-wheelers.
Back at camp there were 50 to 75 dogs in pens and dog boxes waiting their turn to run a deer. After each run, successful or not, everyone returns to camp to retrieve fresh dogs and develop a new plan. This plan is usually constructed and coordinated by Nanny Goat’s Hunt Master, Al Overstreet. Before each race, members circle around Al as he kneels in the dirt and draws a map on the ground with his pocket knife. He tells handlers where to release dogs and where the standers should be placed. It’s all about safety, success and the best chance for a good race and a dead deer.
With so many dogs and plenty of hunters to guard the hunt-club roads, Nanny Goat likes to run four to five packs of dogs at a time. Most of the dogs I saw were beagles, but there were some bigger, long-legged hounds thrown in from time to time. Several races could be going at once giving hunters more than one chance at a deer. However, Marvin told me his favorite race was when all the packs got together on one deer.
Dog handlers are spread out to cover more ground. The hunters, or standers, are spaced a safe distance apart. The general idea is to surround the area where the dogs are running. When the deer run out to the line of standers, hopefully it’ll be done within 12-gauge range. Nanny Goat members use shotguns loaded with buckshot for safety.
“Gather around,” Al hollered. “We’re going to try something we haven’t done in a while, so everyone get over here and listen up.”
As Al scratched out the plan in the dirt, hunters nodded their heads in agreement. A handful of questions were asked and one-by-one the four-wheelers cranked again.
Ten minutes into the hunt without hearing the first excited bark, I watched a pair of beagles cross the road 40 yards in front of me and glide into a privet thicket and bound off down a hill. Two minutes and 100 yards later the dogs got a whiff of deer and a race unraveled right on top of me. Unfortunately the barking was going the opposite way, so my shotgun barrel wouldn’t heat up, but Mike Dotschay’s gun would shoot three quick times at a good buck. It would be the day’s story of the big one that got away.
Another set of shots rang out from the opposite direction and five minutes later I heard a shotgun blast a quarter mile off. Then, silence fell over the club — the races were over.
Handlers began to gather dogs, four-wheelers were turning over and radios began to fill with after-hunt conversations. Word spread quickly that at least one deer, a good 8-pointer, was being strapped to the front of the four-wheeler. Martin and I headed toward camp and stopped half-way back where hunters gathered for another fifth-quarter chat.
Brian Thompson from Sylvania was the first to show up with venison. He’d taken a mature doe with a load of buckshot. Next, Jimmy Watson pulled up to check in with “a good swamp buck.” It was an 8-pointer with about a 14-inch spread that he said was slipping back into the race. While hunting the edge of some thick stuff on the edge of the Savannah River swamp, the dogs were out in the thicket when he heard a deer splash in the water behind him. Jimmy turned around to find the buck slipping back toward the race into the thicket.
My first dog-hunting experience was over, and I had a blast.
After a warm lunch, everyone headed back out while I stayed behind and talked with Martin about the new laws that dog hunters in Georgia must follow. Martin is president of the Screven County Sporting Dogs Club, an organization that meets with 18 Screven County dog clubs to discuss dog-hunting issues.
“The main dog-hunting complaint in Screven County was coming from one dog club,” said Martin. “At first everyone was mad about the new changes. In the 40 years that dogs have been running on Nanny Goat, we haven’t had one complaint that I know of and now we have to go through all the permits. But, I see both sides of this, too.”
Martin agrees that when there are bad apples in the dog-hunting community they should be punished, but he said that the general word from the dog-hunting community is that HB 815 needs to be relaxed.
“For example, I know one club had 956 acres, and they were denied a permit,” said Martin. “I think there should be some sort of flexibility. If that 956 acres is in the middle of town that’s one thing, but if it’s in the country surrounded by dog clubs, let them run. There are some cases that need to be looked at on an individual basis.”
I left Nanny Goat and headed outside of Sylvania to spend some time with Bubba Sumerlin, the Screven County landowner who said he was fed up with watching deer hounds cross onto his property every weekend.
Before we got into a discussion on the new dog-hunting rules, Bubba wanted to put me in a box stand to watch a food plot for the afternoon. He didn’t have to ask twice. There was a crew of seven other hunters who would be in the stand for the afternoon. Two of them, including Bubba, would be bowhunting. In fact, the majority of Bubba’s deer hunting is done with a bow. He’s got Pope & Young on his mind, and after hearing a little about the quality-deer management program that he’s implemented on his farm, he’s got a shot at it.
“We plant 40 to 50 acres of corn, and I have 16 green fields on the property,” said Bubba. “Then, we try to improve the natural habitat by harrowing. We shoot bucks outside the ears, and we shoot does.”
At 5:15, I heard a kaaa-boom, a hit for sure, coming from a back field on Bubba’s farm. It was Brook Jarboe, one of Bubba’s hunting buddies, who scored on a fat doe. Shortly after that I could hear a pack of deer dogs burning up the trail of a whitetail in the distance. At 5:50 I stood up to leave but caught a glimpse of antler coming toward my stand. I eased back down, grabbed my Browning and was able to ease it up and take a look. I followed him along the edge of some uncut corn as he headed straight for the same road I walked in on. He popped out and stood there in the wide open and looked my way. I got an excellent look at him. Tall rack right at the ears — beautiful, young 8-pointer. One, maybe two more years and surely he’ll be a dandy. I watched him cross the road and disappear behind the stand.
Back at the house I sat down with Bubba in front of a fire to talk about dog hunting. He wanted his message to me and everyone else to be strong and clear.
“Right up front, this is not about banning dog hunting,” said Bubba. “The only thing we’re about is their dogs trespassing on other people’s property. You do have a lot of clubs in these counties that are working fine, and they don’t have any problems. Dog hunting is a big tradition with a lot of camaraderie. It’s ethical, legal, and O.K. with me. Where dog hunting can be preserved, I think it should.”
Bubba said he’s very pleased with the early results of 815.
“It’s working,” said Bubba. “It has been a wonderful year, so far. We haven’t had a year this good since we started hunting here four years ago. Until this year, dogs were on my property every weekend. We could sit on the porch and eat lunch and here comes three deer in my backyard with five hounds behind them. How would you like that on your property if you’re thinking about hunting that afternoon? It just came a time that something legally had to be done.”
While I was talking with Bubba, there were two deer dogs below his house. Bubba wasn’t upset about it, in fact, he said if they’d come up on the porch he’d put them in the pen for the night and feed them. The dogs never made it to the porch, but instead they made it below several of Bubba’s deer hunters the next morning.
“They just left the dogs gone overnight and didn’t come get them,” said Bubba. “Sunday morning that whole hunt was ruined. But that was the first time this year we’ve had a real trespassing problem. Some occasional trespassing is O.K. I’m still very happy (with the overall season) — I was not that disgusted about that. I could deal with that. It could happen like that two or three times a year and I’d be O.K. with it. We still try to keep peace in the family, and I’m very open to talk with them.”
I asked Bubba what the difference was with fewer dogs crossing onto his property. After all, those folks are still dog hunting.
“The difference is that now they’re doing something about it,” said Bubba.
The roaring fire on the deer-dogging debate may have settled into a bed of warm coals in some areas, but this deer/dog fight may be a long way from over. Some of the dog clubs don’t want to jump through the hoops when they feel like they’ve never had a significant problem with landowner relations. In fact, GON reported on a new group in southeast Georgia called the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation (GHFF) that is taking steps to amend HB 815. The groups founder, Wayne Hutcheson, and some other club members, met with Bubba Sumerlin for a discussion on tweaking HB 815.
“We (dog hunters) don’t want to throw it (HB 815) out with the washwater, but we feel like we can amend it to a point we can live with it,” said Wayne. “We’re in about a 95 percent agreement between the landowners and the dog hunters.
“We agreed to drop the acreage and the permit fee. The only thing we’re disagreeing on is that they want to hold the hunting club accountable, and we want to hold individuals accountable in violations. That’s where we’re at. We’re trying to work that out.”
Bubba said he was agreeable to allowing landowners, not lessees, with less than 1,000 contiguous acres to be able to hunt deer with a small pack of dogs. Bubba said he agreed with Wayne that the current $100 permit fee was not necessary. The biggest disagreement is that Bubba feels strongly that a club should be punished for violations, not just individuals.
“Think about it,” said Bubba. “If you take it to the individual level you might be there for two seasons before you got enough individuals on a club to do anything about the problem.”
Although in disagreement on issues, it seems promising that two parties with different viewpoints are meeting at the table to work out a compromise. For more on the propposed amendments to HB 815, turn to page 78.