By Bob Ford
Well, it was a matter of time, I suppose, before I entered the 21st century with reckless abandon. I am talking about technology. I have owned a Tri-Tronics shock collar for years, but I haven’t used it in nearly a decade. I bought it for Shadow, my nearly 12 year-old beagle who was almost impossible to catch in the woods. I trained him to “down” and he did it fine in the house and in the yard. He was not really a “downer” in the field, which was something of a downer for me. I must confess I learned that negative reinforcement would work quite by accident. I was standing on a feed strip at the beagle club. It was deer season, and my deer tags were filled, so I was running Shadow dreaming about the second small game season soon to arrive at the close of the rifle deer season. After a few hours of watching Shadow run some rabbits, I was ready to go home. I saw the rabbit cross a path, and I ran to that spot. When the dog appeared at the edge of the path I yelled, “DOWN!” By the time the final N was out of my mouth, Shadow was across the 10 foot wide path. This pattern repeated itself several times as the sun was setting. I would yell “DOWN!” and my head would be on a ratchet as I watched the hound flash by in the same amount of time that it took for me to yell the word.
It didn’t matter if the rabbit didn’t cross the path directly. On those instances where the rabbit emerged and travelled up or down the path before re-entering the brush, Shadow still bolted straight across, abandoning that rabbit in favor of finding a new one. He knew that if he slowed his pace to solve the check I would catch him, leash his collar and we would go home. I typically caught the dog by diving, rolling, and otherwise performing maneuvers that looked like a cross between combat rolls and a very poor gymnastics performance. On that winter day I made a snowball. I have heard that the Eskimo peoples have thousands of words for snow, describing different sorts of the wintry precipitation–powdery, hard pellets, big flakes, whatever. There is probably a single word for “the damn snow that I keep shoveling off the sidewalk and yet it drifts back by morning.” The snowball I crafted that day was one of those snowballs that you make in the afternoon as the sun has melted a bit of the top layer of the snow. The water oozed a little as you squeezed the snow and you could really get a good round projectile.
My glasses were in my pocket. They were covered in snow, water, and debris from the brush–all acquired and packed into the frame as a result of diving into the thick cover trying to get Shadow safely home for the night. In hunting season, I often had to shoot a rabbit to end the chase, which is another story altogether. Suffice it to say that a dead rabbit was the sure way to catch him.
I held the snowball in my hand. I was angry—the dog handles perfectly in the house, the yard, or wherever. Hell, I take him into nursing homes to visit sick people and he is a gentle soul and perfectly obedient. He will even ignore the patients’ food, a rare feat for beagles. Although, if you have ever eaten nursing home food, then perhaps you are aware of the need for many of the patients to be on dietary supplements! Not the tastiest stuff. Even so, most of the beagles I have owned would pounce on an elderly lap and use it as a springboard to get at the boiled, dry, chicken that seems to perpetually appear on cafeteria-served trays in hospitals and nursing homes. Shadow handles perfectly—in the absence of rabbit scent.
I saw the rabbit emerge from the thicket, run down the path towards me, and then re-enter the brush on the same side of the path from which it had appeared. I stood where the rabbit once ran. The big beagle chased the scent down the path along the line the rabbit left, until he saw me. He then ran across the path, and once inside the cover of some low-hanging hemlock he began to search for a new rabbit. I yelled “DOWN!” many times. He worked his way through the hemlock into a big opening. I yelled again, and hurled the snowball sidearm. Now, to say that I need my glasses is an understatement. I almost need my glasses to hear. This is why I always get the frames that are nearly indestructible—the ones you can bend and twist and they go back to their original shape without any problem. I have no idea how I hit Shadow with the snowball, with my snow packed spectacles in my pocket, but I did. It splatted and a bit of snow clung to the side of a tri-color blur. He stopped. He waited for me to get there and leash him.
This was encouraging. I often worried about him being out all night with the coyotes, or dying from heat in the summer. I went home, and ordered a Tri-Tronics collar from Lion Country Supply. I shocked Shadow once with the collar. He has never refused to lay down on command since, not even on jailbreaks when he has escaped into the rabbit laden yards of Ramey, PA! He will down at 50 yards away.
And I then went back to a low-tech life, as far as beagling goes. I use bells. I have been hunting veteran hounds that are not deer runners, listen well, and are now getting too old to hunt much. Some time ago, I purchased a Garmin tracking collar when the new model came out and the old one was cheaper. It then sat for over a year. My seasoned hounds went afield with nothing but a bell. There is something about the ringing bell that brings me comfort in the field. Then, I got puppies; fast, enthusiastic, pounding, puppies, and I did not always know where they were. I decided to try the collar. I called Andy. He works at Lion Country Supply, and knows his technology (and beagles).
“Hello,” he answered his cell phone.
“I need ya to help me figure out my tracking collar.” I said.
“What’s wrong with it?” he asked.
“Nothing, I don’t think.”
“You don’t think?” he asked, “Call me when it is broken.”
“I never used it,” I said.
“You never used it? At all? Not once?” he was amazed.
“Right. Gimme a class. Wouldya?”
“Dude, you are gonna love it. Welcome to the 21st century, or are you even into the 20th yet?” He asked.
“I am in the early 20th. My Fox 16 gauge was made in 1929.”
“Good Lord,” Andy said, “I will meet ya tomorrow. What time are you done churning butter and making homemade soap?”
“I ain’t that old fashioned!” I protested, “Wanna run at my beagle club before you go to work?”
“Sure, I will bring a pup or two.”
It was quite a morning—both his pups tongued on a rabbit for the first time, and I learned to use the tracking collar. There is nothing like the tentative, but bold voice of a newbie learning the ropes as he yips and shrieks with a new world of rabbits opened wide. I hope I didn’t make too much noise yipping and shrieking for Andy to hear his pups! Distance, direction, and all sorts of data to tell you were your dogs are and what they doing. Technology is great, but I remember when this was not the case. As the pups started tonguing with some of my old hounds, I was whisked away into a fog of nostalgia, and I remembered a day when I had nothing but the lowest of equipment.
I rabbit hunted at 12 years of age with a bolt action 20 gauge. Dad thought it was safer than a pump action, double barrel, or autoloader. It had more ammo than a simple hinge action single shot. Not that you would ever have time to work the bolt to get a second shot at a rabbit. By the time I ejected the empty casing and jammed the bolt back into position the rabbit had entered the next county. Grouse hunting was even worse. The gun was not light, like my favorite guns today which sport two barrels and weigh less than 6 (or 5) pounds. No, this old bolt action shouldered and swung like a battleship turret. By the end of rabbit season my forearms looked like Popeye’s from carrying that gun, which was a bit long for me, the stock apparently having been made from a load bearing rafter beam, with very little wood removed from the lumber.
“It’s too long,” I protested.
“Good,” Dad said, as I paid for the gun with paper route money, “You can grow into it.”
I chuckled out loud at the memory as a tick crawled over my pants and jumped away from the modern sprays on my pants. I was wearing long underwear on that day afield, and I was not overheated. The new long underwear wicks the water away and keeps the ticks at bay. When I went afield hunting rabbits for the first time the only long underwear options were cotton. The cotton made you sweat. Of course the blue Jeans were also cotton, and the combination of cotton undergarments drenched in sweat and snow soaked Jeans meant that you had to double the energy required to walk in them.
My boots were waterproof. When they are solid rubber, you can keep water out. The felt lining and wool socks also kept water in, and the combination created a sweatbox. As a result, my feet were also drenched. So, after beating the brush and getting my body overheated, the dogs would jump a rabbit and I would wait for the shot. This worked fine, unless the rabbit was able to evade being shot for a prolonged time period. If the chase lasted for several circles, the hot feeling that characterized your legs and feet from walking changed to numbing cold as you waited for the rabbit.
This too hot/too cold shift was a bigger problem when deer hunting. After a mile or so walk into the brush I was sweating bad enough I had to unzip my coat. After an hour on the deer stand, I was cold and had to walk around the tree to warm up. This packed down the snow around the trunk from the circles, and created an icy spot too slippery to stand upon. The solution to the slippery stand was to sit down so as to not fall down. Those cotton long johns drew the ice water right to your buttocks, which meant you had to stand again. I then moved to a downed log to sit upon and finished the day hunting from there, almost hoping that dad would return from his deer stand early and say we were done for the day. My lunch, of course, was comprised entirely of candy bars, that were jammed into the same green, bag-style fishing creel that had held dead worms not too many months previous. The candy bars were frozen. Biting through them required enough jaw strength that sometimes you broke through frozen caramel only to bite your tongue or the inside of your cheek, which caused a loud cussing to occur. I always wondered why I saw so few deer…
In the winter, the best part of hunting was to get to the truck, take off my boots and socks, and thrust them towards the blower vent under the dash. My hunting coat doubled as a coat for any and all non-school, outdoor activity—heavy cotton that worked well until you got wet. A cheap orange vest was added, and it typically only survived one season. Of course there were a few years when some out-of-state hunters from Ohio were in our area, and they were not the safest of hunters. No doubt the sensible Buckeyes would not let these guys hunt in their Ohioan forests, forcing them to cross the border for venison. Pennsylvania welcomed them with open arms, and they were known to shoot at deer legs that were running through the pines. Dad made me wear orange snow mobile pants for those years, hoping to keep me more visible. They made my denim pants and long johns combination feel like Gore-Tex in comparison.
“I sure do love Gore-Tex” I said out loud.
“What are you talking about?” Andy looked at me with concern as I was transported back to the present.
“What?” I replied, watching the pups chase a rabbit past us and into the brush.
“I was asking you about installing the topographic maps on that tracking collar’s hand-held remote. It is on a chip you can get. If you want to buy one, it will show you topography, roads, everything around.” Andy explained
“Yeah, I want it,” I said, “I like gadgets.”