Volume IV, No. 2, Winter 1976
by Doug Sharp
"The dogs'll likely have a hard time trailing today because of the frost," Comer Owen announced matter-of-factly as we were all sitting around his kitchen table drinking coffee early in the morning.
"Yeah," his friend Dan Lemore agreed. "The frost kills the scent."
My heart sank. The feeling of disappointment that I had known so well the past two times we had come and turned up empty-handed came suddenly back to me. But I was not totally defeated.
"The weatherman forecasted the temperature to be in the seventies," I said hopefully.
I guess Comer was in a kind of bad mood, because this didn't even stump him. He came quickly back with, "My dogs ain't been out since you was here three weeks ago. They ain't been out of the kennels. They're out of condition."
This really discouraged me, but as we all went outside to load the dogs in Comer's truck cage, I felt the warm rays of sun against my face, and I thought that maybe they would be warm enough to melt away the hated frost. Then I realized, too, that Comer was expressing the worst so we wouldn't be too disappointed if we had another unsuccessful hunt.
As we started to load our equipment into Comer's truck, Floyd Shockley and another man drove up in his truck. Shockley had his own pack of coyote dogs, but these were beagles, a rather strange breed of dog to be chasing the wily coyote.
We drove down to the dog pen next to a barn where Tonto Kissee was feeding some heifers. As we loaded the excited dogs, Tonto quickly finished his job and joined us. Steve Ludwig and I jumped into Tonto's truck while Danny Hough got into Comer's truck along with Dan.
As the three trucks drove across the fields, I could somehow feel a sense of anticipation that we might be successful in the hunt that day. When we stopped to unload the dogs, I was still in good hopes. Comer and Dan let out the wolf dogs, and as they sprang from the pen like shots from a cannon, I could see they were just as eager for the chase as I was.
The dogs spread out in every direction searching for the trail of a coyote. Suddenly, a lone dog gave a beautiful bawl which signaled to the other dogs and us that the hunt was on. In a flash the dogs were in a pack on the trail, making a beautiful song that we couldn't have appreciated more if it was an orchestra playing for us. They carried the tune on down the valley heading straight toward the Goat Ranch. As we quickly turned around and drove across the field to intercept the dogs, I felt like I was being beaten with a baseball bat from all the bumps in the field. We sped over the roads stopping ever so often to listen for the dogs to tell where they were heading. From what we could hear, the dogs seemed to be running in the general direction of the Goat Ranch, but when we got there, we couldn't hear the pack anywhere. We listened for what was probably only five minutes, but seemed like hours. Everyone was straining to hear the dogs first. Slowly Dan said, "I think I hear them coming up the holler."
Comer disagreed, "Naw. That's only the dog farm."
We all listened again, and slowly, ever so slowly, the volume of the "dog farm" grew louder and moved our way. With the volume, the excitement grew also, as we realized we hadn't lost the dogs as we had done so easily in the prior hunts. Parked on the hill above them we could see the dogs as they moved on up the valley out of the woods into a clearing.
I could tell by looking at the dogs that they felt the excitement that I felt. But also I could tell that they were feeling something else. I have hunted dogs many times, and I recognized the way these dogs were acting. They were losing the trail. As quickly as the race had begun, it ended. The dogs scattered from their organized pack onto the far hillside running around like children hunting for a lost toy.
One of Dan's dogs left the disorganized group and wandered off down toward a creek in the hollow. Suddenly he let out a cry and began running quickly back towards the woods. The other dogs followed in behind, trying also to pick up the scent. My excitement returned for I thought that we were back in business again. But Comer said, "That ain't the bawl of a dog running a coyote."
Though I couldn't see how he could tell, I didn't say anything. As the other dogs came in behind the lead dog, something strange happened. They didn't start barking. The dogs followed a few more paces, then one by one began leaving the trail, until only the lead dog was left. Comer said, "The dog's probably running a rabbit, or some other trash. A well-trained coyote dog wouldn't run nothing but coyotes." All day long he and Dan were baiting and teasing each other about their dogs and their hunting abilities.
The other dogs scattered over the hillside hunting for the trail of the elusive coyote for what seemed like hours until the dogs began to look a little defeated. In fact, Susie, one of Comer's dogs, came back to the truck.
"Your dogs can't take it," Dan taunted.
Ignoring him, Comer called Susie in and instead of being angry with her, he talked to her like he would a young child. He picked her up in his arms and put her in the cage, setting her down with care. "She's old," he explained to me. "She can't keep up with the young ones now. She's the best they is, but if I leave her loose, she'll run herself to death."
The dogs continued searching for the trail of the coyote until Comer's dog Kelly gave a cry and started running down the creek that ran through the field into the woods on the other side of the clearing. But he didn't simply run down the creek. He would run the trail on one side a few feet, then seem to lose the trail, then pick it back up on the other side of the creek a few feet on down from where he had lost it.
When I saw what Kelly was doing, I knew what the coyote had done. He had crisscrossed the creek all the way down. The creek ran for miles, and I bet that coyote knew it. He had found the way to gain the valuable time and distance he needed between him and the dogs. This old timer really knew what he was doing.
This maneuver of the coyote was really giving the pack fits. But soon they too figured out what the coyote was doing and were shortening the time it took to find each new trail. With every switch the coyote was getting just that much farther ahead of the dogs. Now I could see how Comer came to respect the coyote like he does. The coyote to him isn't an enemy like it is to the farmers and cattlemen. The coyote is more of a rival that Comer understands and respects.
It wasn't long until the dogs were out of sight and almost out of hearing distance, so we all loaded back into the three trucks and headed out after the dogs. Like a field commander, Comer told each truck what roads to take to look for the dogs. Then if we were unsuccessful, we were all to meet at Battlefield in an hour or so. Tonto, Steve and I took out for the James River Bridge. We were to stop every mile or so to listen for the dogs.
Listening for the dogs is really a chore, but it must be done. You must stop, turn off the engine, yell at the dogs in the cage to shut up, and likewise to everybody in the truck, and then listen. Listening may sound like the easy part, but really it isn't. You sit there straining your ear muscles, trying to make your ears stick out more, so you can hear better, trying not to move in the least, because even the slightest noise can drown out the very faint sound of the far away barking pack.
Then when you are all quiet, sitting in a very strained position, and when you just begin to think that you might hear the dogs, a truck will drive by, or a tractor will start up making so much noise that you don't stand a chance of hearing the dogs.
I later talked to Dan about this. "I'll tell you what happened here to us last year," he said. "We was over on a man's place a-hunting and he was back there with a chain saw a-sawing wood, and Comer went and asked him if he'd stop his saw as we was having a wolf race and we can't hear it. Honest to golly he did, and the ole boy stopped the saw. Comer said, 'How'd you expect us to hear this wolf race with that chain saw a-running?'"
We continued listening for the dogs, all the way to the James River Bridge and back again until we met Comer and Shockley at Battlefield. Comer said, "I ain't seen hide nor hair of the pack." He was worried that they might have caught the coyote. Everybody was confused about what to do until Comer quieted us all down. "We best just keep on driving around and try to find the dogs."
From that point on the hunt was just one big run-around where the coyote always had the upper hand. Everything we did seemed to be wrong. Comer said, "Nine times out of ten what you do is in favor of the coyote."
That statement pretty well sums it up. Though Steve, Danny and I were inexperienced, we were with some of the best coyote hunters in the country with the best bred and trained dogs. But with all our man and dog power and our equipment we hunted unsuccessfully two times before this, and today's hunt so far seemed to be a repeat performance. The coyote can run straight across the fields and woods, while the ill-equipped trucks have to drive around the fields hoping to intercept the coyote at the point where it crosses the road. Sometimes we would get to the road only in time to see the dogs run by. I, even more than the other guys, wanted to see a coyote because I dearly wanted to take a picture of one.
We continued stopping, listening for the pack, driving around all over the country back and forth, seemingly on an endless merry-go-round, eating our lunches whenever possible.
When we came onto a cattle guard on a gravel road we noticed Shockley parked up ahead. "I heard the dogs on that far hillside and I think the coyote will cross the road up there ahead of us," he said.
We all stopped talking and listened for the dogs. I heard them coming across the meadow, bringing the coyote up the hill. As we all were listening with mounting excitement to the beautiful chorus of the pack, the sound suddenly stopped. We couldn't understand what had happened.
Since we all were standing there for some time in total confusion, Shockley decided to let his beagles out to exercise. He snapped lead ropes on each dog and led them down the road where there was a small herd of Holstein cows grazing on the right side. Though the cows seemed nervous, I thought it was our dogs. AS I walked along taking pictures of Shockley's dogs, I saw there was something else bothering the cows. A coyote was loping toward us. The cows parted for him as he ran easily straight for us, stepping over obstructions in his path as if they were only inches high.
Suddenly Shockley's friend right beside me yelled, "Coyote!" The coyote stopped, throwing his whole weight on his hind legs. Startled in seeing us, he quickly turned around and ran back the way he came as fast as he could. When I finally got over my surprise, I snapped off a few shots of him, but even with a 300 mm lens, he didn't show up very well.
The coyote ran back into the woods, making a bee line for the next county. By this time the dogs had found the trail again and ran after the coyote in close pursuit. We all loaded into the trucks and drove to a farm where we thought the coyote would cross. There we met another coyote hunter equipped with a CB. He said, "Comer Owens is the best coyote hunter around this whole area. And good as he is, he still hasn't converted to using CB's." Using CB's to talk with your partner instead of having to meet him somewhere to confer made a lot of sense to me. It seemed like they would save a lot of running around.
At first I couldn't see anything in the corner of the field, but when I looked closer, there loping across the field was our coyote, looking as confident as ever. He continued running diagonally across the field until he was almost out of it and into the brush on the other side. There was no way we could get a picture of him because he was some 400 yards away. Ail we could do was just watch.
All the time we could hear the dogs coming on up the valley. They crossed the field only 200 yards behind the coyote, taking him up the side of the far hill and back again, and then back up the valley the way he had come. From where we were, we could see the dogs running along the edge of the woods, but we couldn't see the coyote for he was so well camouflaged against the trees. We all loaded back into the trucks and headed back to try and get where the coyote would cross.
But no matter where we would go, we could never seem to get another glimpse of the coyote. We would always just get to a place in time to hear the dogs go out of range. Or sometimes we would park the trucks at a place where the coyote would probably cross. Everybody would be as quiet as mice. Then we'd hear the dogs coming, so we knew the coyote had to be pretty close to us. But we would never see him, and when the dogs would get there, we would find out why. The dogs would come running straight for us, and then the trail would veer suddenly to one side and run parallel with the road several hundred yards, then cross the road. That coyote knew we were there, and he knew he had to cross the road, so he would go down the road out of sight to cross.
Nobody can ever tell me that coyotes aren't smart.
We kept looking until everyone had just about given up. We all drove around trying to get in front of the dogs. Surely this was as bad as it could get, I thought. But I was wrong.
Suddenly we couldn't hear the dogs. They just disappeared. No matter where we went we couldn't find them. We kept driving around until Tonto had to get gas. We told Comer that we would be right back. By the time we had driven to the gas station and back again, Comer and Shockley's trucks were long gone. So we now had one lost coyote, a pack of lost dogs and two lost trucks to find.
As we were driving around looking for them, Tonto slammed on the brakes on top of a hill, jammed the truck in reverse and backed onto the shoulder. He stuck his head out the window and looked around excitedly. "Shucks, it's gone.
" What's gone?" I asked.
"There was a coyote sitting right up there on that bank just watching cars go by." And probably laughing at us, I thought.
We spent the rest of the afternoon hunting for Comer, finally spotting the two trucks pulled over on a gravel road. Everybody was out of the trucks laughing and running around excitedly. I jumped out and asked, "What's going on?"
"You dummies," Danny said completely put out. "The dogs caught the coyote and you guys with the cameras weren't even here. They first caught him over there in that field, but he got away and headed down this ditch running full tilt. But then he stopped for a second to relieve himself, and they caught him! That was the end."
"What coyote?" I asked.
"This one here." And with that
Comer lifted a full grown coyote up out of the ditch. It had a beautiful tan and yellow coat that shown golden in the sun.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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