Night fox hunting, the way they do it in Mississippi and other parts of the rural South and Midwest, is as far removed from fashionable riding to hounds, with its tallyho and view halloo, as a country square dance is from the courtly quadrille of which it is a rollicking parody. Night hunters in Carolina still chuckle over the story of one of their number, Bill Austin of Marshville, N.C., and how he got caught up in a fancy hunt during his hitch in the Army. "First thing I know," says Bill, when he tells the tale, "I'm bein' squeezed into some little bitty old white pants and plumped on top of a horse with dogs friskin' all around me. Then a man in a red coat blows a horn—toot! toot!—and all at once this sorrowful critter under me raises his head and bolts down the road after them dogs till we come to a fence five strands high. That old horse soared over that tall fence like he was on wings, and when we finally hit the ground I was hangin' on so tight, I declare I thought I'd split right in half!
"I tell you, that was the last time I ever done any fancy fox huntin'."
The form of fox hunting practiced by Austin and about 100,000 other night hunters in the South and Midwest is a far less strenuous and far more mystical sport. Not quite a participant sport, since the hunters are generally far removed from both the dogs and the quarry, and not quite a spectator sport, since it generally takes place in the almost total invisibility of nighttime, it is most of all a listening sport, and in it the hunters hear what they call "music."
Night hunters are great listeners. Gathered around a fire on a southern hilltop with rustling woods on all sides and their hounds released in pursuit of the fox, they listen and listen—to the night, to their dogs and to each other. They listen to the faint far-off baying that indicates the hounds are hard at work. They listen for the sharper note as one hound "opens" (i.e., gives tongue) as a signal to the others that he has jumped a fox. They listen as the other hounds hark to the first one, join him in trailing and then, as they close on their quarry, give voice together in excited concert. They listen in rapture to the result—a fearsome blend of dog voices, bawling, chopping, squealing, squawking, baying and howling; tenor voices and bass voices and voices in between, yip-yip-yipping and owk-owk-owking in a contrapuntal rhythm that sometimes reaches its climax only when the fox's own death rattle sounds a finale. The music of a pack of hounds in full cry, say the fox hunters of the South, is very much like grand opera.
January 29, 1962
As if to prove it, they even have a story—night hunters always have a story—of one old north Georgia fox man who got fairly carried away at the opera in Atlanta one night when the lead soprano let out with a loud, high-pitched note. The old man suddenly jumped up out of his seat, wildly waving his hat, and shouted for all to hear, "The little bitch done got it—and gone!"
"You'd be surprised," say hunters, "how close a soprana's singin' is to a hound's mouth if she's a good goin' hound with a good voice."
Night hunters, indeed, are quite prepared to argue that "good goin' hounds" with good mouths are easier to understand than any grand opera. A well-bred hound, according to them, can, by the pitch and timbre of its voice, communicate considerable information—the type of game it is pursuing (rabbit, gray fox, red fox or deer), how close it is and if it has managed to tree (or trap) its quarry. Because it is a matter of immense pride to own hounds that have good voices, hunters claim they can distinguish the voices of their own hounds from others in the pack and, having identified a dog, can tell whether it is in the lead or not by the excitement in its voice—a hound sounds more excited when it does not have to sight the fox through the legs of other hounds. The bark can also tell the hunter if his hound is caught on a fence—a major hazard in hunting fox—or if he has caught a fox.
When hounds catch and kill a fox their voices rise to new highs of excitement, but they don't always catch him and they almost never eat him. About 90% of the time the fox eludes the hounds and escapes or scoots into a hole before they can catch him.
Because the fox is more likely to be out foraging at night than in the daytime and because the voices of his pursuers can better be appreciated in darkness, fox hunting, southern style, is mainly a nocturnal pastime. But darkness can serve as well to hide a hunting dog's faults as to enhance his virtues, so every now and then during the year the fox hunters put their hounds to work in daylight to test their mettle before sharp-eyed judges in championship competition. In these trials the judges watch carefully for such faults as "babbling" (giving tongue without having scented the fox), "cunning running" (taking a shortcut to where the hound presumes the fox will go without bothering to follow him) and "backtracking" (running the line of scent in the wrong direction). Dogs that chase rabbits when they should be after fox are likewise committing faults.
The most exacting of all the annual field trials is the U.S. Open, which recently took place for the third straight year in a scrubby, woodsy, thorn-filled, hilly area near Durant, Miss., a town about 50 miles north of Jackson. With Nicholas Solovioff, the artist, I went to Durant for five days to have a look at it.
The site was selected because it affords good running ground for the fox and enough winding dirt and gravel roads to permit hunters to follow their dogs. This year, to make sure there were enough foxes to make things lively for the hounds and operatic for the houndmen, 21 red foxes were imported from Iowa, at $7 a head, and loosed in the woods near Durant. Red foxes are more interesting than gray because they travel in large circles and depend on speed to avoid the dogs, while the gray (with some characteristics of the cat, including the ability to climb trees) is less classic in his maneuvering.
There were 128 hounds entered in the competition at Durant, which was to last four days. They were mostly Walkers with a few Triggs and Julys. These, along with Goodmans, are the most popular breeds. The day before the race began was spent mostly in the official drawing, when the various dogs are given their numbers, and in exploration of the hunting area. In past years it had been thought so advantageous to have a low number that the hunters lined up at 3 in the morning for the draw. This year, since every owner was limited to two dogs in the trial, it was decided in the interest of fairness to give everyone a capsule containing two numbers, one high and one low. That way no one had to hurry to the draw, and everyone got more sleep—a precious commodity in the four-day trial.
When the drawing was over the hunters repaired to a kennel near the Durant Hotel to get the assigned numbers painted on their hounds. The paint generally used was fluorescent orange but, if a dog's coloring warranted, black and white were also used. One hunter painted his hounds' tails blue, the better to catch the eye of the judges.
After the painting was completed some of the hunters drove over to the area where the competition would be held. Others returned to their hotels or motels primarily to talk fox—that endlessly fascinating and, to a layman, often incomprehensible topic. When I got there the lobby of the Durant was filled with hunters. Some were admiring the silver trophies and bright blue ribbons that were displayed on a long table in the corner; some were exchanging notes on past trials.
One hunter, a small, elderly but gingery man—Dr. G. W. Bledsoe of Cullman, Ala.—was bemoaning the fate of a hound of his named Little Joker in an earlier trial. "Many men bragged on the dog because of its melodious voice and havin' such a good nose to run the fox when the other dogs couldn't," he was saying. "A number of men tried to buy the dog because he had proved so good late in the day, when most dogs had lost interest in the fox. Then I was surprised to look on the score sheet that afternoon and find that Little Joker had been scratched for openin' a little too long on the cast." Some of his listeners nodded; all at one time or another had dogs "scratched" (i.e., eliminated from a trial for bad performance). "Joker's real name was Cypress Creek Joker," said Dr. Bledsoe. "Dam was Ann Pickett. The sire was Joker G." Stories about foxhounds, I learned, almost always end with a quick genealogy.
"I had a hound in a Georgia state trial won after he was dead," said another hunter. "Scored so much on the first day that it didn't matter what happened after, but...."
Since we had to be up before dawn in the morning, I didn't wait to hear the genealogy on this dog, but I'm sure it followed sooner or later. It was cold and rainy next morning when I arrived at the casting ground (the open field where the hounds were to be loosed) with Stone Crane, a former president of the U.S. Open. We rode in a car driven by his old friend, L. L. Thompson of Cullman, Ala. The cast, particularly on the first day, is one of the most dramatic moments of a trial. The hunters rise about 2 a.m. to eat breakfast and check the condition of their hounds. They swarm to the casting ground with their dogs at about 6, when the sky is still dark. They come in pickup trucks, dog trucks, jeeps and passenger cars. In the gleam of auto headlights they have their dogs' numbers checked. Then, a sepulchral group of zealots, with their beasts on double leashes, they advance to the edge of the field to form a long, strung-out line, heads and bodies dimly silhouetted against the sky. There they await the signal to cast.
This morning, as always on the first day, the dogs were eager to be off—"full of go powder," commented one hunter—and barking more than their owners thought they should. One or two broke away and had to be rounded up. "I never seen a cast yet," said a lady hunter, "where some fool dog didn't get himself loose and run wild."
At about 6:25, when a vague gray light began to seep through the clouds, the Master of Hounds, Deward Henson of Brushyknob, Mo., welcomed the hunters to the trial, announced that the day's hunt would be over at precisely 11:30 in the morning and advised synchronizing watches. "I do hope the best dog wins," he said. He took off his hat, lowered it as a signal and the hounds were cast. They did not burst forth but trotted off, full of high spirits and unnecessary yapping.
"They won't be so dang energetic tomorrow." one hunter predicted. Mounted on horseback, some of the trial judges galloped off in the general direction of the hounds as the hunters chatted or strolled to their cars, awaiting the sound of a dog opening. In a few minutes all the dogs were out of sight, hidden by pine and oak trees. Dawn began to break in earnest, pink streaks lighting up sections of the sky. The remaining judges, riding in trucks equipped with radiotelephones, began to move out.
Neither Crane nor Thompson had dogs entered, but both are very knowledgeable about hunts and trials and were determined to get close to a working pack. We piled into the car and started off. After driving a few miles on the twisting dirt roads, stopping occasionally to listen through the open window, Thompson remarked he didn't think many foxes were out.
"No, Mr. Thompson," Crane agreed. "The red fox don't like to get his tail wet. It slows him down, don't you see, and in this kind of weather he'll just as like stay cozy in his den." We passed a trio of hunters who had gotten out of their cars and, unmindful of the rain, were perched on a bank by the road. Mud was on their boots. One of them was wearing a pair of rubber earphones to which two funnels were attached, wide parts facing forward. They looked a little bit like moose horns. "I call these my helpers," the man said. He listened with them.
"Hear anything?" Thompson asked a man in a heavy coat, a red hunting cap and lumberjack boots. We all listened. From far off came the faint bark of a hound.
"Just over yonder by the blacktop," the man said, turning and pointing. "Don't sound like they doin' a whole lot."
Farther down the road we heard barking that seemed to get louder as we stopped to listen. Crane's face suddenly became animated.
"The first ones have hit, I believe, Mr. Thompson," he said. "That's a strike!"
"I believe we can get into the race a little more," said Thompson, climbing back in.
We moved on once again, stopping to listen every few hundred yards. By the sounds Crane and Thompson could tell approximately where the hounds were headed, but some of the roads were nearly impassable. "Be careful you don't get stuck, Mr. Thompson," Crane warned at one point. "The roads are getting all churned up."
Some dogs came trotting by. Crane took down their numbers; later he would tell the owners that he had seen their dogs and would describe what they were doing. These particular dogs did not seem to be too interested in scenting a fox. If a judge had happened by and caught them loafing, they would have been disqualified.
"Fox are clever," Crane told me after we had once more piled into the car. "They know that carbon monoxide kills their scent so sometimes they pass right close behind autos. They know, too, that dogs don't pay much mind to cars when they're in pursuit, so sometimes they cross the highway just to get a dog killed. Sometimes a fox'll jump on the back of a sheep to make the dogs lose the scent or run along a stone fence or the road. Up North the fox will run out onto thin ice and when the hounds follow—kerplunk! A cold bath. Because the hound is heavier, don't you see."
The rain slacked and a wind came up. Fortunate for the fox, Thompson murmured, since it would waft his scent away. A pickup truck passed from the other direction.
"You hear anything?" asked the driver.
"Not a thing," said Thompson. The truck pulled away, and two judges came by on horseback. "They're in full cry over to Emory Road!" shouted one judge as he passed.
"Some breakneck races are on hand," Crane predicted.
"Sweetest music in the world," Thompson murmured as he shot the car into gear. We drove past old corn and cotton fields and woods partly covered with an ominous gray-looking growth called kudzu vines. "Look!" Thompson shouted, jamming on the brake. "Fox!"
"I declare," said Crane, peering through the windshield, "A big red."
About 200 yards up the road a fox was indolently trotting. "Knows the road don't hold scent," said Crane. "Don't get any closer, Mr. Thompson. We don't want to frighten him. You frighten a fox, he loses his scent. Nature does that for him. Here come some dogs." We got out and Crane dutifully wrote down the numbers. The fox slipped into the woods far ahead. The dogs came on in an irregular pattern, their heads bent close to the ground, their tails wagging. Finally, one of them opened in a kind of doleful way and made off in the direction of the fox. At first the other dogs seemed dubious. Then, reassured, they trotted after him.
Dr. Bledsoe and two companions drove up in a truck. Crane told them about seeing a big red and they got out. Dr. Bledsoe carried a cane, wore a fedora and a rubber rain suit. Over his shoulder was a stethoscope to which a funnel was attached—his helper, apparently. In answer to an unspoken question, Crane checked to see if he had spotted Dr. Bledsoe's dogs, then the Bledsoe party made off and we followed, leaving them at a fork near an old sawmill. A short while later we stopped at a tiny grocery store in the area for coffee. Several hunters, men and women, were sitting or standing around inside, some huddled by an iron stove. "Heard anything?" Thompson was asked.
"Heard some babblin', I guess," Thompson replied with a smile. Then Crane told them about sighting the big red.
After we'd had a chance to warm ourselves a little, Crane suggested we head for Dodds Pasture, a section of land near an area called High Ridge. "Nothin' like an old field to hold the scent of a fox," he said.
We drove to the pasture, but there was not much music in its vicinity or in the other places where we stopped. We decided to go back, since it was very close to 11:30. "Soon they'll be collectin' the dogs," said Crane. "It's a courtesy to pick up any dog you see and bring him back to the castin' ground, where the owner can pick him up. Some dogs are skittish in their ways, and their owners might be all night lookin' for 'em. If they don't make tomorrow's cast, they're likely to be scratched, don't you see."
We tooled along past the casting ground, seeing several dogs fastened to a long chain. They seemed tired. On one side of the road a hunter was blasting his auto horn to summon his dogs. On the other were two hunters blowing what looked like miniature Viking horns. All three blew at once, the auto horn loudest and furnishing the tenor music. "It's a courtesy not to blow your horn till after 11:30," Crane said. "Otherwise a hound might think he was bein' blowed in and find himself scratched."
Except for one exciting interlude on the second day, each of the three days passed similarly. We would attend the cast in the early morning darkness, move out as dawn broke, stop often for talk with hunters standing by the side of the road or get out of the car in taut silence to listen, trying to locate a working pack.
Sometimes we would hear the music from far off, sometimes we would listen in vain. Once, on the second day of the hunt, we suddenly found ourselves in the very center of things. We had trekked into a clump of woods when suddenly straight at us came what seemed like a regiment of dogs. Yipping and squawking, they were all around us. "They've made a bother," Crane said, meaning they had lost the scent. "The fox mojoed 'em here." He pointed to the evidence of a sharp sideward leap the fox had made, causing a change in the line of his scent. The dogs' momentum had carried them past that point. Now they were sniffing the ground in an eager, confused way. Some hunters came by.
"We almost saw the fox," Crane told them. "He manipulated 'em right here." One dog, No. 56, opened. "Fifty-six hit it!" shouted one of the hunters, moving forward and pointing. The pack streaked off after the fox, some barking, some running silent. A hound labeled No. 8 suddenly appeared, paused and took a different route—"running cunning." "That's the cuttin'est dog I ever seen!" Crane exclaimed, wearing a look of disapproval. We slogged off through the woods to return to the car.
The hunt was officially over at 11:30 on the fourth day. At about three o'clock the hunters assembled at the Durant to await the posting of the winner and runners-up.
Some dogs can be tired, explained a worried lady hunter in a lilting Kentucky hills accent, and "have their tails up, but my Honey Bee, she carries her tail low whether she's tahrd or not. Some judges are goin' to say Honey Bee is tahrd just because she don't carry her tail up."
But it turned out the judges knew their business better than that. Honey Bee finished first in speed and drive and first in trailing to win several silver cups. The hounds with their tails painted blue did not win anything. The overall winner of the trial, announced with a whoop, was No. 7—Yazoo Baby Rose, owned by A. N. Nichols of Vaughan, Miss.
As Nichols, a stocky man with a sunburned face, was being pounded on the back and noisily congratulated, Crane remarked that it was unusual for a bitch to win against so many males. "But she's a beautiful, compact female with a great heritage of careful breeding," he said. Then he added the inevitable genealogical note: "Baby Rose is by Yazoo Gray Ghost out of Yazoo Rose Bud."
On every side the owners of lesser dogs than Baby Rose were being congratulated, and cups and ribbons were being passed out to the popping of flashbulbs. The trial was over for one more year, but the day's sport was far from finished. Here and there in the crowded lobby offers to buy and sell were being made and accepted or rejected as the case might be. Plans and hopes for future races were crystallizing as stud fees were arrived at and meetings arranged. And everywhere the talk of foxes and fox hunting ran on and on. As we left the hotel we heard a tall, slender hunter telling of one fox who had fooled a whole pack of dogs by crawling back and forth through a wire fence. "And all the time those dogs was tryin' to follow, squeezin' in and squeezin' out of that fence," he was saying. "Big Red was settin' up there on that hill watchin' 'em. I swear," he concluded, "that fox was laughin' at them dogs."