Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992



Winter 1991

Fox Hunting and Fish Gigging

Conversations with Seaman and Swiney Rayfield

Shannon County, Missouri



Fox Hunting: Seaman Rayfield

OZW: Seaman, what is fox hunting? Seaman Rayfield: The term "fox hunting" is misleading and confusing. I've hunted foxes all my life and I never killed a fox. It's really just a fox chase. It's just listening to your dogs on the chase. No true fox hunter ever killed a fox. You go to hear those dogs run. You build a fire, socialize with your fellow fox hunters, and listen to the dogs run. Fox hunters take pride in their dogs. Each dog has a different "mouth," and every hunter knows his own dogs' mouths, as well as the different mouths in the pack.

OZW: How do you know that?

SR: It's just something you learn. Sometimes you can see them run. But as a rule, you just know by listening. Every hunter knows his own dog's mouth. That's what it means to be a fox hunter.

And you know where each dog is in the pack, on the chase--whether he's ten foot ahead, or ten foot behind. You'll know if that dog's a-carrying the lead, by the change in his mouth.

OZW: How does the note change as the dog goes ahead or falls behind?

SR: It will change a little by the aggressiveness. If he's going ahead, its a more eager, more excited. You can visualize the drama of the chase in your mind by what you hear.

OZW: How do you describe the differences in dogs' mouths?

SR: There are fine mouthed dogs and coarse mouthed dogs. They will keep their own mouths all right on the chase, but they vary the voice. You can tell if they're paralleling, or coming toward you, forging into the lead, whatever. Nothing else quite like it. All the dogs together, it's kind of like a chorus, always changing. And every hunter listens for his own dogs, to know how they're a-doing.

There may be more than one pack out there at a time. We'll say, "a pack is coming up Sutton's Creek," and "another pack is coming over Coot Mountain," "another one is coming up Granny Holler," and so on. Each one sounds different. We know all the places. They all have names, and we can tell within a hundred yards where the packs are.

OZW: You mentioned "fine mouthed" and "coarse mouthed." What's the difference?

SR: There will be fine, clear mouths, and then there will be high tenor mouths, and some like a coon dog mouth, low and coarser. Some have a raspy mouth, some a long mouth, some a Iow, bawling mouth, some a sharp mouth. You'll never claim another hunter's dog as yours. I guess each hunter thinks his hound has just a little the best mouth!

OZW: How big is a pack?

SR: Could be any size, like a covey or flock of birds. My dad liked to have five to seven hounds. Then we would hunt with fellows who would bring two, three, four more. Sometimes we would wind up with twenty, twenty-five dogs in the pack.

OZW: Could you hunt with a single dog?

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SR: Yes. But if a hunter went out with just one dog, he might be out to kill the fox. And he would be out in the daytime. Back in the Depression of the thirties, some men needed to hunt for money. A red fox skin might bring from eighteen to twenty-five dollars, a lot of money back then. Some of the boys had to pay their taxes, buy a little sugar, or something. And red foxes got scarce back then, just like the deer. It wasn't just sport. But Dad never did hunt to kill, and neither did I.

OZW: Will a fox hound chase other animals?

SR:If a hound chases anything but foxes, we call it "trashing." If he chases rabbits, deer, a coon, we say he's chasing trash. You can usually tell. His mouth changes some. You can also tell by the terrain he's covering, and by how fast he's a-running. He will chase a red fox faster than a deer or a rabbit. Foxes run faster.

I'll tell you a little stow about trashing. During deer season a couple years ago, the law picked up the dogs of several of my friends, all charged with "running at large" during deer season. Dogs aren't supposed to be out running uncontrolled during deer season. The judge asked Jerry Platt, "Jerry, was your dogs running at large during deer season?" Jerry said, '1 don't know what 'at large' is, but if it makes a track, my dogs'll run it!"

OZW: Where do you find foxes?

SR: Well, it's a funny thing. Red foxes actually like to be near fox hounds! Used to be, I would ride a horse from the north end of Shannon County to the south end, and there would be fox hunters and fox hounds all the way. And there were foxes around those hounds. Now in a lot of that country nobody lives anymore. There are no hounds, and no foxes. You keep hounds, and pretty soon there will be foxes a quarter, half a mile away. I don't know how to explain it. I live in the city limits of Eminence, have always had dogs, and I've always had a den of red foxes nearby, from two hundred yards to a half mile of my dog pen. They come right up near the pen at night. My neighbor called me yesterday and said, "There's a gray fox sitting out here right now, right by my dogs." His dogs were penned up, but that fox was just a-sitting there.

OZW: If not many foxes are left out there anymore, where do you go to chase them now?

SR: Hunting has mostly gone to pens. Deer hunters resent fox hounds running out in the open, any dogs out that might run a deer. Deer lay down a good scent, especially in fall and winter. The public doesn't like for dogs to run deer. So fox hunters have built pens. There are hundreds of pens, most of them east of the Mississippi.

Pens are a dedicated, private area. You pay five dollars a night per dog, and you can run as long as you want. Sometimes there will be fifteen or twenty of us on a given night. Most field trials for fox hounds are held in pens now.

The Conservation Department goes along with pens, because in that kind of hunting the dogs don't run at large--that is, out in the open country. They're not bothering the other man's sport.

We have one pen here in Shannon County, several hundred acres. Jim Smith--he bought sixty foxes out of Minnesota.

OZW: Sixty? That's a lot of foxes!

SR: He got them for only ten dollars apiece from a fox farm that raised them for fur. But they went out of business. You know, so much opposition to using fur. They were raised in small pens. Jim put them in a fifty acre pen to start with. Take some pups in with them. At first they're so gentle they follow the pups around! But then, in those big hunting pens, they go wild. Those foxes are a cross between a red and a silver fox--they call them "gingers."

OZW: How many pens in Missouri and Arkansas?

SR: About thirty-five, I would say. Some of them in Arkansas run up to 2000 acres.

OZW: Can a group of hunters, or a club, reserve a pen?

SR: Oh yes. This pen down here, its just an open house two nights a week. You can reserve it--say "I'm coming with twenty dogs," or "I've got friends coming from out of state--we want to reserve it." It's a good way to go around, visit friends, have races in different places.

OZW: Is there much pressure from animal rights groups on fox hunters?

SR: Not around here. There is on trappers, but not hunters. It may come to that. But we take good care of them in these pens. In Florida, there are lots of fox pens, and nobody bothers them there yet.

OZW: How many fox hounds are there in Shannon County?

SR: I would say about 250 hounds. About a hundred in the Eminence area alone. Probably thirty hunters keep hounds in Shannon County. At a coffee table in the restaurant sort of reserved for us fox hunters, they won't let you talk about much else but a fox race! Everyone doesn't hunt in pens, you understand. A lot of those dogs will run in the open.

OZW: Seaman, how did you learn fox hunting?

SR: I went with my dad, horsebacking. Fox hunting and riding seem to go together. They're big sports here. I'd put on behind my dad when I was just a little fellow. The dogs would trail along behind. Not very many foxes then, and we might ride four, five miles before the dogs would pick up a scent.

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Most every little holler had somebody a-living in it, and they'd get the message to folks like us, "there's a fox den here, and they're getting our chickens." Not a lot of social life back then. So the word would go around, and a half dozen men would meet in that area, and have a big fox race. The foxes seemed to run better then. No deer, and the foxes wouldn't leave out of the country.

OZW: All you fox hunters are dog breeders and keepers. Is fox hound behavior entirely instinctive, or is it trained?

SR: It's entirely instinctive. They'll run a fox the first time they smell it.

There are several strains of fox hounds, and each hunter thinks his breed is a little the best. I keep July hounds myself. There are Walker dogs, and Triggs. They were named for Colonel Trigg of Kentucky--as is Trigg County. He was a Virginian, came over to Kentucky. Walker, Trigg, and Goodman hounds were all named for their developers. Julys came from the name of a hound. Two famous Irish hounds named "June" and "July" came over. June came in heat, jumped out a barn window and hung herself. July was a very strong breeding dog, became very famous. Now thousands of July hounds. Julys came from Ireland and Walkers from England, so you know they would disagree!

OZW: What about Blue Ticks?

SR: Blue Ticks are coon dogs. Coon dogs and fox dogs are entirely different.

OZW: Seaman, it's great to talk to you. Our readers will appreciate your sharing this special knowledge!

SR: My pleasure.

Swiney Rayfield: Gigging

OZW:Swinney, in fox hunting, the object has little to do with foxes. What's the object in gigging?

SR: The object of gigging is to kill the fish, run that gig right through him, and get him into the fry pan. Gigging is a lot different from rod and reel fishing or fly fishing. It's pretty much a country boy's sport. Most giggers grow up with it from a boy.

OZW: What kinds of fish are gigged?

SR: When I started, years ago, we gigged bass in the rivers. What we called jack salmon, too--walleyes. Boy were they good! I suppose it was illegal, but we didn't know it. No game warden around then. At one time spoon bill, or paddle fish, were legal for the gigger. We used to kill them .by the boat load in these rivers [Current and Jack's Fork]. What we used to call "shovel bill catfish," up to about twenty pounds.

We wouldn't get the real big ones like are in the Osage River. I suppose they came up from the Mississippi. The rivers were full of them. In the winter we could see to gig them in thirty feet of water.

Now, bass and all other game fish caught on reel and rod are off limit to giggers. Rough fish have become the target--drum, red horse, carp, most of the sucker family that wouldn't be taken with artificial lures. Bottom-running fish.

OZW: Where do you find the fish?

SR: They congregate in the big, deep holes of water. 'Course, the holes are not as big or deep as before the rivers choked with gravel, before the timber was cut; so the fish are not as big as they once were.

In the daytime, when the sun gets high, we can see them easy in ten, twenty feet of this clear water. We put the gig way down in the water, then--punch 'em! When they're shoaling, we get them in that shallower water.

OZW: The gigging I've seen is at night.

SR: When I was a boy, we used pine torches. We split pine, like you'd make a pine post, all that resin. You'd split that good, tie it into torches about three foot long and a foot in diameter. We scattered them along the creek bank in the daytime, for lighting at night to fish by.

Suckers shoal when the dogwood blooms, about April. We waded the creeks, and gigged on the rivers from boats.

OZW: How did you light the boats at night?

SR: We called it "fire fishing." We'd put a fire jack in the middle of the boat, put clay mud down. For the jack, take an old worn-out wagon wheel rim, or tire rim, to make a circle about sixteen inches in diameter. You'd have two of those. Then stand those torches up, anchored in the jacks. You'd light your torches and float the boat downstream crossways of the current to give maximum light ahead of you. Pole the boat, have three or four giggers along, haul in those shoaling suckers.

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We'd go upstream in the daytime, and would tow the boat from the bank. Then drift down at night. We'd light those torches on the bank, or in the boat, and drift with the current, managing the boat with poles. Used to be it would take all day and all night to kill us a mess of fish. Planning how you're going to do it is a big part of fishing--like talking about it afterward!

OZW: When did electric lights and gas mantles come in?

SR: Torches were used until the late thirties. Then a Baker Burner, a gasoline jet affair, factory-made, four or five inches in diameter. It got real hot, started generating. Next, we graduated to the incandescent gas mantle. Now, they've got sophisticated--electric generators run by gasoline engines. They light up the rivers with two, three thousand watts of power. The gigger stands in the shadow, and the suckers can't see him.

OZW: Did you gig a lot when you were a boy?

SR: Yes. Dad would take us out maybe around noon, then come back and get us the next morning. But usually there would be an older man who would take a boy with him, or a group of boys. There was an old bachelor named Tom Edd. It was easy to get him to go along. He was an old gigger, seemed always to have time. We learned from him.

OZW: Do you see young people out gigging now?

SR: After they become men, yes. But first, they court the girls. When they get married, they're able to settle down to a different sport, an outdoor sport.

OZW: What about the skill needed to gig a fish?

SR: Takes lots of practice, like any skill. You have to allow for the movements of the current and the boat, lead a fish if he's running and compensate for the refraction of the water. A novice tends to gig behind and above the fish, because the refraction tricks him. You have to lead a fish just so.

OZW: How deep is the water where the current runs fast?

SR: Three or four foot. But you learn how to do it, just like a lure fisherman learns how to cast a lure to a spot.

OZW: Is gigging a skill that needs to be learned from youth?

SR: Boys may spend a lot of time gigging. Few adults would fish enough to get the hang of it. It's like flying--lots of time, to get the feel of it in the seat of your pants. There are so many adjustments to make for balance, boat movement, fish movement, current, and refraction; you can't think of all those things at once. It has to get automatic.

OZW: Do newcomers to the Ozarks pick up gigging, or does it remain a thing mostly done by natives?

SR: Newcomers will take a gig, cast it a few times, then sit down and are content to watch.

OZW: Does gigging have a future? Are the sons and grandsons of giggers carrying it on?

SR: My sons are not, but many are. I've pretty much quit. Things have got sophisticated, with fancy equipment, and lots more people out. The last time I went, seems like there were about four boats in every hole of water. Not the same experience it used to be.

OZW: Where is the increase coming from?

SR: Well, it's an easy way to get a mess of fish, and a lot to brag about. People plan big on this every year in the fall. It's a seasonal event. Used to be, the ones who lived on the river were the ones who fished. We lived on the river, and while we fished two or three nights a week, we fished only a short stretch of water, unless we made a big expedition of it. Now with good roads, trailers, and boat motors, people cover a lot more territory.

OZW: Why the fall gigging season? Why does the gigging begin at noon and end at midnight?

SR: It's what the game fishermen left us. In the early days of the Conservation Department [begun in 1937] they closed gigging down all together. Said it was disruptive to the game fish, what with gigging bass, walleyes, and the like. Then we formed a giggers association in Shannon and Reynolds Counties. Every kind of fishermen it seems formed associations for political action, so we formed one too. Went up to Rolla, met with I.T. Bode, the Conservation Department Superintendent in open meeting, represented to him that it was a sport with us. But the fly fishermen and bait casters outvoted us pretty bad; said if we had to have a season, let it be January, February, and March! Well, that wasn't very desirable. So we finally got the last three months of the calendar year. Now we have the last two weeks in September too. The noon to midnight time is so we won't disturb the early morning fishing of the bass and trout folks. That was all right with us.

OZW: Are most bass and trout fishermen outsiders?

SR: Yes. Most of us here on the rivers are live baiters--we use worms, minnows, crawdads. Not many of us use artificial lures.

OZW: Why is that?

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SR: We've learned it's the best way to catch fish. We fish to put food on the table.

OZW: So it's a thing that hangs on from the past, when people hunted and fished for food more than for recreation?

SR: Right. My dad wasn't a hunter or a fishermen, but I remember he would go shoot a mess of squirrels to put on the table that night. Same about fishing. He'd take me and Tom Edd to the river to put out a trot line, do some gigging, then put the cleaned meat in the cold water of the spring. It would keep for two or three days.

OZW: Your mother, Anna Swiney Rayfield, was a great cook. I know she served famous meals family style in her hotel in Eminence. Did she serve fish caught in the rivers?

SR: Mom would put anything on the table I would bring home. It was illegal--you weren't supposed to sell game fish that way--but no one ever objected. One time when Boss Green was prosecuting attorney, Bill DeSpain was probate judge, and Ben Searcy was defense lawyer, they were all eating dinner at mother's. Some city people eating there too. A friend of mine, Tom Morgan, had killed a little illegal deer, and he brought in two hams--hind quarters. I'd gone coon hunting and brought in a couple of coons--they was legal, I believe. It was all family style, and one of the city fellas kept saying "pass the meat, pass the meat," and "what kind of meat is this anyway?" All three of those officials knew what kind of meat it was; and directly Ben Searcy grinned and said, "If you like it, why don't you just go ahead and eat it, and shut your mouth?

OZW: Is gigging a social event?

SR: Yes. It's common to gather on a gravel bar at midnight, clean the fish, roll them in cornmeal, and drop them into a gas-fired cooker of hot fat. Break out some beer, and socialize. But it was real uncommon in the past.

OZW: How much do women participate?

SR: Maybe half the parties will have women, But it's more of man's sport. It's work for a woman. The gig and pole is heavy. I don't know of any woman who gigs. Might run the motor though.

OZW: How long is a gigging pole?

SR: Twelve to fourteen feet. We used to make them by hand, taper them from thick at the top to slender where the gig is fitted on, for strength. Now you can buy them at the lumber yard. Usually white pine. We used to make them out of the native yellow pine. It was heavy and strong. I'd say it would weigh maybe three pounds. But in the winter, when ice would freeze on it, it would be heavier.

OZW: What is a gig like?

SR: A gig is like a fork, with usually three prongs, each of them sharp pointed and barbed.

Some big gigs have four prongs.

OZW: Are gigs durable? Do they need to be replaced often?

SR: Some people throw a gig to death, with that heavy pole. Spread the prongs in every direction. It's pretty easy to break a gig. You can take a broke one to blacksmith and he'll repair it--but it will never be the same again. I don't gig like that. i swing it down 'til I line up with the fish, then I just punch it. I don't break gigs. If I'm gigging against a solid rock bottom, I just "plink" the fish.

OZW: Is gig making a highly specialized craft?

SR: Yes, it takes a lot of skill to make a fine gig. The master gig maker here was Erb Eller-man. He made gigs throughout a long life of blacksmithing. I've had an Ellerman gig for fifty years. The prongs are only about four inches long, but it's still the best gig I ever had. But you can buy gigs at the store.

OZW: Do gigs vary a good deal in size?

SR: The biggest gig I ever saw was a monster--four prongs, probably six inches wide with six inch prongs. Erb EIlerman made any size you wanted. He had no pattern. I had Erb to make me a little creek gig once, four pronged, that wasn't more than three inches wide. I made a little pole about the size of my thumb, and I'd slide that down between the roots of a tree along the bank and a bass would come along or yellow sucker or hog sucker. When he came under that gig, I'd punch him! I couldn't pull the gig with the fish on it back up through the roots, so I'd reach my other hand down and get him. I always liked little gigs and slender poles, because I handle them light.

OZW: What did you pay Ellerman for a custom gig?

SR: Oh, at one time, a dollar. The most lever paid him was fifteen dollars. Toward the end, people wanted an Ellerman gig, and would pay forty, fifty dollars. Erb's hands got so bad with rheumatism he couldn't lift that eight pound hammer any more, so he told his wife just where to hit, and she helped him a lot that way. rd say he was eighty.

OZW: What would you like to say to wrap this up?

SR: A trout fishermen, say, is a sophisticated fishermen. A gigger has no sophistication at all! [laughter] If a trout fishermen catches a small mouth bass on a fly, that's trash to him. But to a gigger, there's no trash fish. He will kill about anything, and eat about anything, that lives in the river. We used to gig eels here, lots of eels. Gigging is meat fishing. Not many people are going to come down from St. Louis for that. To run these rivers at night, you have to know them by heart.

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