When I pulled up to where Michael Mashburn had turned out his hounds only a couple of hours before, I could see the little buck stretched out in the grass behind his truck. I had turned out on a hill of plantation pines across a powerline from Michael, and when I heard him shoot, I knew it was meat.
As bucks go, this one wasn’t much compared to some I had seen Michael drag out of the woods. The man has killed some sure-enough big ones just about every way you can kill a deer, but his favorite thing, above all, is seeing deer in front of a pack of hounds.
“How far was he?” I asked.
“About 75 steps running wide open,” Michael beamed, before revealing the real source of his happiness. “You should have seen Wilma!”
Wilma was a new addition to Michael’s pack of hounds. He had given me his original pack when he started graduate school, but he didn’t make it through the summer without a trip to southeast Georgia to pick up a few more dogs to start the season with.
“The buck went down in that row of bi-color down there and Wilma went right in after him,” Michael grinned, shouldering an imaginary Browning Auto-5. “She cold-nosed him, he got up and ran, and I rolled him.”
Michael was thrilled to get a deer on opening day, but nothing could match his pride for the way his hound performed.
I have Michael and his dad, Joe, to thank for introducing me to a sporting pursuit where the deer is a supporting-cast member in a passion play that is as much about fellowship and dogs as it is about piling up venison.
We all know that to kill a deer by any method takes skill and a little luck. However, nobody should be fooled into the false notion that shooting a running deer with buckshot is in any way easy.
I have seen first timers chuckling at the thought of an easy deer as they drew a stand in the morning only to come back to camp humbled by a stealthy, Mach-1 blur of brown hair and antlers. In fact, if they cut shirt tails at camp for missing deer, I would be topless by now, much to the chagrin of my fellow club members.
Essentially, dog hunters are still hunters who occasionally have a deer come by their stand in front of a pack of dogs. Rather than climb a tree, you sit on a dove stool, and instead of carrying a rifle, you take your favorite shotgun. To kill a deer, you have to be still, quiet and patient.
Without exception, the people I know who dog hunt are just as likely to head to their favorite treestand with a rifle in search of a deer. But when it comes to dogging deer, they speak of the elusive animal in reverent tones, referring to the deer’s almost supernatural ability to be where you ain’t.
“I love to still hunt,” Michael once told me before talking about what made dog hunting so special. “But when a deer knows it’s being pursued, every sense it has is totally tuned into getting away, and they can do some amazing things.”
Go to any deer-dogging club before the sun comes up on a Saturday morning, and you’ll see boys and girls, men and women, from kids barely taller than your average pair of snake boots to old, white-haired gentlemen who have been listening to hounds run deer for twice as long as I have been living. They all come for one reason. To listen to the music.
It’s not the type of hunting where you arrive before daylight, put your name on a board and stick a pin in a map. The next hunter is rarely a half mile away. Nope, on a dog drive, everybody goes to the same block of woods in an attempt to get the deer moving ahead of the dogs, and hopefully it will run where somebody can get a shot at it. Some days, several deer get killed, and sometimes no deer hit the ground for weeks at a time. Whatever meat is taken is often split up so whoever wants venison can take some home.
Changes in the way dog hunting is governed have been detrimental for some clubs. Perhaps what’s been worse on dog-hunting clubs, many of which have been around for 50 or 60 years or longer, has been the shrinking of huge, uninterrupted tracts of land. Nonetheless, on Saturday mornings, going to the woods for a lot of folks in Georgia means uncasing a shotgun and turning loose a pack of hounds. There are many clubs who are leading the way for dog hunting by doing things the right way.
Marvin Moore is a second-generation president of McLaw’s Hunting Club in north Effingham County. Marvin’s father, Franklin, served as the club’s huntmaster for some three decades as well. McLaw’s, like many hunting clubs, has seen several generations of the same families hit the same familiar woods each fall in pursuit of deer.
“I’m 46 years old, and I have hunted at McLaw’s my whole life,” Marvin said. “And the club was there a long time before I was born.”
Marvin said the move by International Paper to ban dog hunting on its properties in several Georgia counties has had a bigger impact on his hunting club than any law change could have.
“The permit thing didn’t hurt us a bit,” Marvin said. “Everybody puts the decal on their trucks and everybody puts numbers on their dog collars.
“Not being able to dog hunt on that IP land hurt us more than anything.”
Marvin explained that McLaw’s had nearly 9,000 acres at one time. However, after the International Paper crackdown on dog hunting, the club lost some members. As a result, they had to give up a couple of tracts of land leased from private individuals. The club still has more than 4,000 acres to still hunt, and over half that much to dog hunt on.
The story is similar at Busy Bees Hunting Club across the county in Kildare, where the land the group hunts has shrunk over the years as well. David Deason of Guyton, who oversees the lease, said when he was a boy the tract was part of more than 5,000 acres along the Savannah River that everyone in the community hunted. Over time, pieces of the land were sold or leased by other hunters until David’s club was left with a little over 1,400 acres.
David’s uncle Alonza Burns originally secured the rights to hunt the tract and has seen dog hunting change considerably in more than seven decades.
“It used to be that if dogs got off your land it wasn’t that big a deal because everybody was running deer, and we worked together,” Alonza said. “Nowadays it is different, and I would rather keep the dogs on our place than even having to worry about it.”
Though Alonza has enjoyed good and lasting relationships with neighboring hunters and landowners, the club hunts a little differently than many deer-dogging clubs where long-running Walker hounds are commonplace. At Busy Bees, the members who own hounds have bred them with bird dogs to slow them down, and after several generations have come up with hounds that have good noses and can run a deer very well. The difference is, the dogs will jump a deer and run it for a few minutes before they stop and look for another one.
On Saturday, November 12, I was at Busy Bees sitting on a beautiful stand with a huge ravine to my right and a large cypress slough to my left and behind me. On the other side of the slough was a stretch of woods, then the Savannah River.
Not long after the first drive started, I heard David’s dogs jump and head down toward where I was waiting to see the deer. I was ready to slip the safety off the whole time, but the deer stayed on the opposite side of the slough as it rambled down the long bluff, hit the river and swam to South Carolina. Undeterred the dogs jumped twice more that drive. As we walked back along the river to the truck, David explained the appeal of his hounds to me.
“They jumped and ran three different deer this drive, and they are still on our property,” David said.
Dogs running deer on other people’s property was just one complaint by opponents of dog hunting in recent years. The sport was nearly left for dead at the state capitol not long ago until a compromise in the Georgia General Assembly created new laws to govern deer doggers. After two years of dealing with the permitting process created by the new laws, incidents between dog hunters and neighboring landowners and still hunters have drastically decreased.
Many laud the legislation, saying it forced deer-dogging clubs to clean up their act and helped do away with many rule breakers. Others say acreage limits have put too many long-time dog-hunting clubs out of business. Last year, the Georgia General Assembly amended the law so that dog hunting could be permitted on private lands of 250 acres or more.
Capt. Scott Klingel, WRD law enforcement officer for Region VI, said complaints against deer doggers are down dramatically over the past two seasons, and he attributes much of the improvement to clubs better policing themselves.
“The dog-hunting clubs are making a lot of effort to keep their hounds contained,” Scott said. “The number of complaints, and the severity of them, are way down.”
During the 2003-04 deer season, there were 458 permits given to 384 clubs, covering 1.7 million acres. During that season, DNR received 219 complaints, mailed 11 warning letters to deer-dogging clubs and revoked two permits. Last deer season, there were 421 permits issued to 371 clubs on 1.62 million acres, and only two warning letters were sent out. No permits were revoked.
Scott says doggers and neighboring landowners are better about working with each other, and says the legislation was a victory for the tradition of dog hunting.
“Deer dogging hasn’t stopped in any of the counties where it was legal, and there haven’t been any days of dog hunting lost during the season,” Scott said. “That is a good thing.”
David agrees. As much as he likes to hunt with a rifle, it’s swinging a shotgun loaded with buckshot when he hears a deer coming through the woods that really gets him going.
“The excitement is not knowing what’s going to pop out of the woods,” David said.
Hunter Smith of Kildare, a 12-year-old member of Busy Bees, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s just exciting when you hear the dogs coming your way,” he said.
David and his sons — like a whole crowd of men in pickups with dog boxes in the back — meet at the IGA store in Guyton on Saturday morning about daylight and eat breakfast. At Busy Bees they stand around socializing for the first part of the morning, often not starting the first drive until 8:30 or later. It’s an all-day affair where everybody is part of the hunt. To David, that is the fun of it.
“Still hunters are lonely people,” David joked. “The still hunters are usually gone home by 9 in the morning, and we stay out of the woods for the first couple of hours of the day so they can enjoy it for themselves, and then we make a day of it,” David said.
That attitude is what keeps deer dogging alive. Another thing that adds fuel to the dog-hunting fire is family involvement.
Marvin has three kids and a wife who go dog hunting with him at McLaw’s every Saturday. His son, 13 years old, has sisters, 11 and 17. The youngest killed her first deer last season. And big sister? She’s along too.
“All they want to do is dog hunt,” Marvin said. “They have been around dogs all their lives, and it’s all they think about.”
At Busy Bees there are 14 adult members. David said on any given Saturday, there is likely to be just as many little kids. Several boys, including David’s two sons showed up, and there was even a baby boy in camouflage overalls. David’s niece came to the club between drives.
“I don’t care whether I kill a deer or not as long as these little guys have a good time,” David told me.
At McLaw’s there are plenty of kids and ladies running around, but if you want a sense of the history of dog hunting, look up one of the nine honorary members. The rule at McLaw’s is any person 70 or older who has been a member at least 10 years can join the club for 10 percent of a regular membership. At Busy Bees W.A. Rahn and Huron Smith, both near 80, make it to the woods almost every weekend.
Alonza has always worked to keep the image of dog hunting positive. He pointed out that too many people feeding hounds all year felt like they could turn them out anywhere they wanted.
It was just a few folks, but it put a bad light on all of us,” Alonza said.
Hunting opportunities of every stripe are shrinking because of the way property continues to change hands and land prices rise. For dog hunters, the chances to continue a tradition that is generations in the making, are slipping a little at a time. However, as long as it is legal to turn out a pack of hounds and chase deer, men, women and kids will gather for the fellowship and fun of listening to dogs do their thing. If everything comes together they might even get a shot at a deer.
Dogging can stay legal as long as hunters continue doing the right things and keep on working with their neighbors.
“I hope it’s around forever, but I’m not sure it will be,” Marvin said. “We’ll dog hunt as long as it’s legal.”
“It’ll take a lot of work to keep it around,” Alonza said. “We have to keep up the public relations like we have been doing.”