Friday, June 15, 2007

Please, somebody talk me out of it...

Here's what I want:

Not this dog, but one like her. This is Whitey, a mountain cur owned by my buddy Donny Lynch of Marshall, Texas. She hunts squirrels and 'coons. When she occasionally trees a bobcat, Donny gives her a pat and sends her on. She would trail and bay wild hogs, but Donny doesn't want her cut, so he broke her from swine. I suspect that like her ancestors in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, she'd learn to pull rough stock herding duty if she had the opportunity.

I have always admired generalists, even though nowadays, the glory seems to go to the specialists - or at least breeds developed for specialized duty - English pointers, Labs, treeing Walkers - never mind that good examples of each of those breeds can perform tasks that specialist hunters discourage. Most decent Labs would be happy to root rabbits out of a fence row. There's absolutely nothing unnatural about a pointer pointing a cottontail, but he'd better not do it in the presence "serious" bird hunters. When I was a teenager, I shot plenty of bobwhites and even a few woodcock that had been trailed and flushed by my beagles.

My last three dogs, including Maggie, my current hunting partner, have been German shorthaired pointers. I chose GSPs because they're supposed to be versatile, and sure enough, good ones develop early, point naturally, staunch up with little formal training, retrieve enthusiastically, and love water. GSPs will hunt whatever you want to hunt and a few things you'd rather they leave alone. But then so will most hunting dogs. I've had hell breaking Maggs of deer and hogs.

But of course when we talk about a versatile dog or generalist, we mean versatile within some range. Your Lab will find quail, but she won't outperform a good pointer, especially in open country. That's because Labs were developed for heavy water work. There's a reason for that build and woolly undercoat. The best ones are very biddable, mark well - better then most humans - and possess tremendous retrieving drive. Likewise GSPs retrieve from water, but they're no match for the average Lab or Chesapeake. Maggie will paddle out in the stock pond (stock "tank" here in Texas) and fetch your mallard, but I wouldn't expect her to make a long, difficult retrieve in rough, cold water. And she'd drive you crazy in the duck blind or boat. She's built to run, with the temperament to match.

In Germany, GSPs are expected to point both furred and feathered game, track wounded big game, retrieve from land and water, and even dispatch small predators. The first ones brought to the the U.S. in the 1920s were large, ponderous, and poorly suited to American conditions and customs. Americans set about speeding up the GSP- basically making more it like the English pointer. (Molly, my second GSP, had a lemon patch behind her left ear. Hmmm... where could that have come from?) Today, most American-bred GSPs are primarily upland bird dogs. The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association does not require work on furred game in its utility tests.

Which is fine with me. I've been primarily a bird hunter for the past 20 years. I grew up with pointing dogs and can't imagine doing without one.

Problem is, good, affordable quail hunting is getting hard to find, even here in Texas, one of the last strongholds of wild bobwhite hunting. A good South Texas quail lease runs as high as $10/acre. Figure that two guys with good dogs need at least 2000 acres for a decent season. Do the arithmetic. West Texas prices are only slightly less. Most people who actually live in good quail country can't afford to hunt there because the land is leased by well-heeled folks from Houston, Dallas, and the other big cities, or by guides and outfitters who cater to the wealthy.

With rare exceptions, I hunt on public land. But as serious hunters of average means get priced off their leases, guess where they turn? At present, there are three wildlife management areas in the state that offer good bobwhite hunting - when we get rain in the right amounts at the right times. These have become crowded , and, the last few years, have been closed to quail hunters much of November and December.

Add the fact that I have to drive four and a half hours to reach the nearest of theses management areas. Further add the fact that I'm not getting any younger. Then consider that the woods close to home are full of squirrels and coons, and that most of the public land is in heavily forested East Texas. Also, I love to eat squirrels and the occasionally 'coon. An adjustment to my hunting life seems in order.

Yes, Maggie will tree squirrels, which is very embarrassing in certain company. But, being a bird dog, she's usually looking for woodcock when we're in the woods, and there are few if any woodcock in Texas in October and November. She might tree if she strikes hot scent or sees a squirrel on the ground, but for the most part, she's not a treeing dog, despite all that hound ancestry in the distant past. And when she barks, she sounds like she's being tortured with a cattle prod.

Curs, on the other hand, are to treeing dog work what the dock-tailed European pointing breeds are to upland bird work. Curs don't possess the beautiful voices and cold noses of blooded hounds, but most have a pleasant enough treeing chop, and over the course of a season, good ones will catch more 'coons than will hounds, tree squirrels, and actually hunt in the same county as their handlers.

Purist houndsmen write curs off as meat dogs. They're exactly right.

The mountain cur developed in the Southern Appalachians as an all-purpose hunting and stock dog. Mountaineers didn't want a dog spending hours sorting out a cold trail. Rather they wanted their dogs to strike hot scent, push their quarry to tree very quickly, then bark so that they could be located. Because they often trail silently, they'll sometimes catch game before it can tree.

Despite their toughness, most curs are very trainable and friendly toward people.

I want one. Bad.

But I already have a good dog that I love dearly, and a small backyard. As it is, I'm having trouble giving Maggie the work she deserves. That's not likely to change, given the shortage of affordable bird hunting, gas prices, and the shortened quail seasons on public land. If I got a cur, I suppose I could take Maggs along on squirrel and coon hunts. She wouldn't hurt anything, and she might even get reasonably good at it. If nothing else she'd get more field time than she's getting now. And I'd probably still quail hunt about as much as I've hunted in recent years.

(I can just imagine certain bird hunting acquaintances reading this and shaking their heads. He has absolutely lost it. Lettin' his pointin' dog run trash! And bark, for godsake! With a goddamn curdog! Next thing you know, he'll be wearing overalls and chewing Red Man.)

I don't care. I want to hunt with dogs. I can either adjust to new realities or sit around complain about the disappearance of affordable bird hunting while Maggs grows old. I doubt she cares what she hunts, so long as she hunts. And she'd enjoy having another dog around.

Still, the expense, puppy destruction, and barking that upsets my fussy neighbors. Like I really need a half-grown tree dog out back baying somebody's cat or a mockingbird perched on the fence. Honestly, I can't justify another dog. I know that.

Other people, however, are not so responsible. The other day Jane told me that I ought to go ahead get a cur pup. She said it could be an early birthday present. We could handle it. After all, way back when I was in my gung-ho twenties and thirties, we'd managed with two bird dogs and a beagle. Curiously, she told me this a couple of days after I'd shown her some photos of cur puppies on a website. My wife is so impulsive.

I said no, but thank you. I'm not serious about it yet. I'm just thinking about what I'll do when Maggs retires or passes on. Imagine - two young hunting dog in the burbs. With our schedules and travel. Let's be real.

As luck would have it, we're heading up to Kentucky to visit family later this month. We'll spend some time in our hometown, where there happens to be breeder of excellent mountain curs. Then we'll run down to far southeastern Kentucky to visit a beloved aunt. I know a guy just across the border, in Tennessee...

Just a little fact-finding. Talk to some hunters, look at some dogs. Make some contacts. Nothing serious yet. After all, I'm a grown man. I know the difference between want and need.


Matt Mullenix said...

Oh suuuuuuure you do.


Better stock up on the Red Man, Henry. You're coming home with a cur dog.

Henry Chappell said...

Oh ye of little faith! (And excellent character judgement)

Actually, we're flying into Louisville and renting a car, so I won't be able to bring a pup home this trip.

However, I will be visting the aforementioned cur men, so rest assured that if find the right litter of pups, I won't be able to help myself. I'll hop in the truck and blast off for the hills.

Matt Mullenix said...

Well I think it's a great choice and I really appreciate the "ecological" slant of your reasoning.

The fact is that when local conditions for hunting change, we're left with two choices: Go with what we have or get out.

I've never taken the idea of getting out seriously.

So my hawking has morphed as my life and location have changed. What I do now is nothing like anything I imagined 10 or 20 years ago, but it's fine, and sometimes (just often enough) absolutely perfect.

I think there's a chance for this kind of peak experience in every form of hunting. We might have to retool a bit and retrain ourselves to see it. But what else are we going to do?! To the woods!

Gregg Barrow said...


I’d take it one step further.
Lets Maggs run and tree; my old Rottweiler and Lab were allowed to run with the coonhounds back in Florida and they did a very respectable job and loved the exercise.
Then teach the mountain cur to point and “wipe the eye” of the specialists. :-)
This is Gene Hills “Brown Dog”.

My wife and I are really enjoying the blog.

Henry Chappell said...

Matt, you're not doing much to talk me out of it. Still, I know excellent advice when I see it. Many thanks!

Gregg, thanks for your kind words and wisdom. I've always believed that most of us under-utilize our dogs. Of course I'm delighted that you and your wife are enjoying my blog.

Ah, Brown Dog. That essay contains one of my favorite Gene Hill lines: "No farm can be said to be properly run unless there's a brown dog in some position of authority."

Steve Bodio said...

Get that pup!

As others here know, I run so called sight "hounds" now, utter generalists -- with hawk and themselves and even guns. They do the work, well.

BTW I have both the organic farm book and the Mark Derr one from your previous post-- thanks!

Henry Chappell said...

Steve, I always heed sound advice and yours is about as sound as it comes. I plan to visit some cur men and look at some dogs and pups while I'm in Kentucky. (We're catching a plane in a couple of hours.) I'm also in contact with a breeder in Tennessee.

I think you'll enjoy the organic farm book and I'll be especially interested in your opinion of the Derr book.

Steve Bodio said...

I am enjoying the farm book and intend to pasit to my stepson & his wife who are investigating the farming life (Mr. & Mrs. Peculiar in the blog world).

The Derr is a keeper with some small reservations-- his cliches on hunters, occasional self- righteous outbursts, not too up- to- date on dog evo (though no book is-- too much ongoing). Also could have used an editor. But basically sound and correct.

Meant to say-- agree 100% with Gregg-- let Maggie work fur with the pup. One good point Derr makes is that a smart generalist dog can do almost anything, and Magg's ancestors who ran fur aren't even that far back. My tazis and most good salukis can work close and flush birds, and most will retrieve without training.