There’s nothing I love more than the sweet music a pack of beagles make as they hammer down on the trail of a cottontail. For those of you who have been, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And those of you who haven’t, find somebody with some beagles and try it at least once. You’ll never forget it.
I teamed up with Larry Marchinton, one of the most famous rabbit hunters in this state, on a cold, overcast morning last month. When you first meet Larry you see him as a gung-ho rabbit hunter who cares for his beagles and just loves to watch them work the track of a rabbit. That’s at least how I looked at him as he opened the dog box and hollered to the dogs. I watched the 64-year-old from Jackson County disappear into the short pines kicking briar patches as he went — “Look in here — he’s in here.”
Despite his passion for the sport of beagling, Larry is much more than a diehard rabbit hunter. Dr. Larry Marchinton, as many of his former University of Georgia students still call him, is one of the most recognized whitetail deer biologists in the world. This love he has for deer and the outdoors started at a very early age.
Born in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. in 1939, Larry grew up in a rural setting where hunting and fishing was part of the culture.
“I remember dad took me fishing and catching a bunch of bass when I was four or five years old,” said Larry. “Then he started me squirrel hunting and then deer hunting. Then, a neighbor, A.W. Meares, carried me on from there. He had dogs. Everybody hunted with hounds in those days down there, and that kind of developed my life-long addiction to hound music. I remember getting my first deer hounds after high school. They were Walkers and coon hound mixes.”
Larry went on to attend the University of Florida. While working toward his bachelor’s degree, he worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in south Florida during the summers. In 1962 he completed his bachelors and went on to get his master’s degree in 1964.
“I can remember I was in a wildlife-techniques class, and we were talking about how far deer moved — what their home range was,” said Larry. “I raised my hand and said ‘Has anyone ever thought of putting a radio on a deer?’ The class laughed and said, ‘What are you going to do, play them country music?’
“So, in my master’s research I put radios on deer, and I was the first one to ever do that on wild deer.”
Larry’s master’s project was done on a Florida WMA. It quickly became apparent that radios would fit best as collars around a deer’s neck. On a few deer Larry tried to mount the radio to the shoulder, but he said that never really worked. For Larry’s master’s project, he had three or four deer equipped with radios, but because the early radios were very poor, he was only able to get good, solid reading on one deer.
“It was all ground-breaking stuff, and it was very interesting to people,” said Larry. “Nobody had ever been able to find out where a deer was when they couldn’t see it. It was just absolute fascination. I remember right after I put my first radio on a deer I was out there in the countryside trying to track a deer, and I saw this whole caravan of vehicles winding through the dirt road through the woods. It was a whole bunch of game wardens. They said, ‘Hey, what is this? Somebody said you had a radio on a deer. Is that true?’ They didn’t seem to believe it. I said, ‘Do you want me to show you the deer?’ They looked at each other and smiled in disbelief and said ‘Yeah.’ They followed me out in the woods, and I homed in on the deer. They got a glimpse of it running off with the radio on its neck.”
After graduating with a master’s degree from Florida, Larry went to work for the Florida Game and Fish Commission. They got wind of this new radio research, and they hired him to do some work on deer-population analysis on Elgin Air Force Base.
It was in 1964 that Larry married his wife, Betty, who also came from a biology background. Her father, Deane Mather, was a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service and Betty had a degree in zoology.
While continuing to do some deer-tracking work at Elgin and several other places around the Southeast, Larry attended Auburn where he got his Ph.D. His dissertation was called “Movement-Ecology and Behavior of Whitetail Deer in the Southeast.”
Larry was offered a job at the University of Georgia in 1967 as an assistant professor in the wildlife program. He accepted and went up through the ranks to full professor. Larry’s deer-radio work would continue at UGA.
“As we expanded into the future we tracked a lot of deer, and we found their home ranges were much smaller than people anticipated,” said Larry. “They just didn’t roam all over the country. We found out their typical home range was less than a square mile, and those ranges tended to be long and slender rather than round. We also began to find out that deer were most active around dawn and dusk and least active in the middle of the day — for the most part.”
Larry also started research where he’d run deer with dogs. He found that dogs could run a deer out of its home range, but it came back very quickly.
“Dogs generally didn’t catch healthy deer and didn’t cause them a big problem,” said Larry. “We would monitor deer and take packs of dogs in and turn them loose on the deer. I remember in one case we ran a deer 13 miles from its home range, and the dogs finally gave out. We were over there trying to pick up his signal. I decided to go back and check its home range and six hours later the deer was sleeping in his home range.”
All through college Larry continued to raise and feed deer hounds. But after moving to UGA, in an area of the state where you couldn’t run deer with dogs, he gave up the sport and switched over to running fox hounds.
“The way I got into fox hounds was when I started the research on the effects of dogs on deer, and I started buying up hounds that were fox hounds but would run deer to use in my studies,” said Larry. “I soon had quite a pack, and when I was through with the research I continued to run fox with them.”
Larry, who ran mostly walkers, said it was almost taboo to shoot a fox in the South. It was a sport where you simply listened to a good race.
“We continued to run fox for 15 years,” said Larry. “But with development and an increasing human population it became impossible to do that without getting on someone else’s property who didn’t want you there. So, I finally quit and bought beagles back about 1980. It took me a little while to get hooked on them, but now I’m fully hooked.”
Larry enjoyed sharing his beagles with some of his students. Occasionally he’d have students out to his house in the evenings to listen to the beagles run a rabbit.
“I taught wildlife-management techniques for 30 years,” said Larry. “I’ve had hundreds of students go through that class. The class teaches students techniques you use for research and in management for wildlife — like how to age deer, turkey and quail, and radio telemetry and census populations. Way back, all students came to school knowing sign like what deer tracks looked like, but in the latter half of my career I found that students were more from urban areas and had to be taught those things. So, I started a part of the course on how to read sign.”
Larry worked with many graduate students, specifically the ones who were interested in deer. Just to name a few, Larry taught — Joe Hamilton, founder of the Quality Deer Management Association, Brian Murphy, executive director of QDMA, Dan Forster, assistant Director of WRD, Kent Kammermeyer, WRD biologist and one of the top deer biologists in the Southeast, Karl Miller, who is now a deer professor at UGA, Mickey Hellickson, biologist for the King Ranch. The list really goes on and on.
“I was extremely fortunate in having some excellent students to work with,” said Larry. “They’ve gone on to big things — especially with deer. They’ve gone on to make names for themselves.”
After 30 years at UGA, Larry retired in 1997. Now most of his hunting time is spent with his wife Betty. He still rabbit hunts with his father, who is 96 years old. He also hunts with his son, Buck, who works with the state’s Bobwhite Quail Initiative program.
To Larry, proper beagling is a year-round sport, and it’s that kind of dedication that makes a hunt with him so enjoyable.
“I found out you have to have a real good pack to make it sound right,” said Larry. “You have to have stars, and there has to be team players, too. I usually start training young dogs that are about a year old at the end of rabbit season, and I’ll have a group to add to the pack by the time the season opens in the fall. I spend my summers working a lot with them. You have to move some dogs out of the pack that don’t quite make the grade. That’s very hard sometimes, but I learned a long time ago never to marry a dog because you’ll never have a good pack.”
Larry spent 69 days last season in the briars and took 120 people hunting. Those trips resulted in more than 200 dead rabbits. Larry said killing a rabbit is just the hunt’s gravy. Mostly it’s all about that sweet music.
“You need to get some music out of the dogs — give them a chance to do their thing and the rabbit to do its thing and then take it.”
When I hunted with Larry, his wife and my buddy Joey Baldwin on December 5, the dogs and the rabbits got hours to do their thing. It was just so thick where we were hunting that we only killed one rabbit. We heard some incredible rabbit races, and to Larry, and to me, the No. 1 thing about good rabbit hunting is good racing.
It seems retirement is treating Dr. Larry Marchinton pretty darn good.
“When I retired I changed my priorities from research, teaching and education to hunting,” said Larry. “It was a high priority, now it’s the highest. My mission as a retiree is to introduce as many people as possible to quality hunting and to set an example for people who are going to retire and see what fun you can have when you get through with your life’s work.”
His goal has been met — at least through my eyes. A man that will spend his time hunting rabbits and deer until he just physically can’t do it anymore… that’s something worth working for.