<
>

Need a wounded-deer tracker? Get a beagle

5/18/2004

SUNBRIGHT, Tenn. — Billy Swafford thinks the perfect salve for a
deer hunter who has lost the trophy of a lifetime could be a beagle.
Specifically, a 7-month-old beagle named Mossy.

Swafford hunts the rugged hills of Morgan County, Tenn., and in the
past three years he and some of the hunters who share his lease have
shot trophy bucks only to watch them disappear. An experienced hunter
who knows how to track a deer, Swafford has spent hours crawling
through the undergrowth looking for the smallest signs that could lead
him to his deer.

"Last year I shot a big 8-point during bow season and I mean this
was a really nice deer," Swafford said. "It was probably 18 inches
wide and had 9-inch brow tines … about a 130-class deer … and
I never found it.

"From then on I said I was getting a dog."

That's where Mossy — full name Mossy Oak Camouflage — comes in.

It's against the law to hunt deer with dogs in Tennessee, but it's
legal to use a dog to track a wounded deer as long as the tracker is
unarmed. Swafford had used dogs to both hunt and track deer in Alabama
and he knew a canine's nose follows trails human eyes miss.

"A good dog can really make a difference," he said. "I guess we
used dogs to track 20 deer and they found 18 of them. That's a pretty
good percentage."

Swafford decided he wanted a beagle and then set about visiting a
variety of breeders. He would take a deer heart or lung from the
previous season and drag it 10 or 15 feet to leave a trail for the
beagle pups. The one that showed the most enthusiasm was the one he
bought.

"In Alabama I had a plot (hound) and they would be good for about a
half-mile then they would run down," Swafford said. "A beagle just
keeps going and going. That's what I was looking for."

To train Mossy, Swafford has gotten help from John Jeanneney's book
"Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer." The book covers the
different types of dogs that make good trackers — dachshunds are very
popular — and lays out a plan for training them.

Swafford laid the groundwork for training Mossy during deer season
by saving blood, hearts, lungs and tails from deer he and his friends
killed. He started Mossy on small easy-to-follow trails and has
gradually made her work more difficult.

Swafford takes blood and deer parts into the woods and lays out a
trail that would be similar to one that would be left by a wounded
deer. Every few feet or so he drops a little blood and at the end of
the trail is some deer meat and a tail that serves as Mossy's reward.

"It's not just blood she's trailing but the smell of the deer as
well," Swafford said. "Eventually I want her to be able to follow a
trail that's 48 hours old."

Her best job was two weeks ago when Swafford and Ty Ballinger put
down a trail in the Morgan County mountains that ran for nearly a half
mile. They then waited for 24 hours before letting Mossy go to work.

"It took her about 50 minutes," Swafford said. "I don't think
she lost the trail one time."

A trail Swafford and Ballinger put together for her this past week
was like throwing Barry Bonds a hanging curve.

Deer blood marked the path Mossy would follow and some fluorescent
orange paint on trees allowed Swafford and Ballinger to make sure she
stayed on course.

Even though the trail included several 90-degree turns, jumps over
logs and briar thickets Mossy barely paused as she wound her way
through the woods. She works in silence and doesn't go after a deer
baying like her rabbit-hunting counterparts.

"That was too easy," Swafford said. "I think she's about ready
to try one that's 36 hours old now."

While tracking deer with dogs might seem novel to many Tennessee
hunters, in some areas it's big business. Several northern states host
field trials for deer-tracking dogs and dogs-for-hire to track downed
trophies are commonplace.

Swafford will have Mossy around for his hunting club's use this
season and will also make her available to other hunters who can't
find a trophy buck. If she performs well enough this fall he may start
advertising her services.

"How much do you charge? I guess it depends on how far you have to
go," Swafford said.

At the end of the trail Mossy gobbles down the bits of deer meat
and walks off with the deer tail as a prize. Although the pup usually
shows off an agreeable personality, when Swafford or Ballinger try to
take the deer tail Mossy does her best "Cujo" imitation.

"That," Ballinger says, "is something we're going to have to
work on some more."

Bob Hodge is a sportswriter for The Knoxville News Sentinel in
Tennessee.