By Nick Simonson
The traditional image of a hunting dog on the prairies of the upper Midwest may suggest the statuesque shorthair holding point over a covey of grouse, or the staunch vigilance of a chocolate lab watching the skies from the cover of a duck blind. A growing number of hunters, however, are taking to the field after furbearers and more dangerous big game, such as mountain lions, on the heels of their trusted hounds of varying breeds that don’t typically come to mind when field dogs are mentioned. But as the popularity and excitement grow around such opportunities, the North Dakota Houndsmen Association (Houndsmen) has formed to help pursue and preserve those prospects, advance public knowledge of hound hunting, and detail the changes in the sport from its inception hundreds of years ago across the Atlantic.
While the pursuit of raccoons and coyotes with hounds has had a minor following for many years in North Dakota, the expansion of mountain lion populations both in their range and in the number encountered has brought with it more excitement in pursuing the large cats during their limited seasons. This in turn has brought more hunters and their hounds into the fold, according to Cody Hilliard, President of the Houndsmen.
“It’s gained popularity, but hound hunting and hound hunting mountain lions is not just something you jump into. You’ve got a lot of work that goes into it, with keeping your dog and keeping them hunted,” Hilliard states, adding that the Houndsmen serve as a resource for those hunters looking to find their way up the learning curve regarding their hounds, tracking tactics, and turning them loose on the tracks they do find.
In addition to fostering the use of hounds for furbearer hunting, the Houndsmen have a strong public outreach arm, working to educate young and new hunters alike on the pastime of hound hunting. Whether it’s a blue tick or a walker or any number of breeds used to track their quarry, the various types of hounds provide a strong connection to those people not experienced in the process. Whether at a youth program, woman-focused hunting events, or the Houndsmen’s own spring field trials for owners of various hounds, the organization is focused on connecting with as many people as possible and showcasing the skill and talent of their members and hounds.
“Getting into hound hunting, it’s a lot of talk with a lot of other hound hunters. I encourage people if you want to explore the world of hound hunting, get ahold of us at the Houndsmen, we’ll see if we can get you out and see if it’s something you’d like to do. It’s a fun world,” Hilliard relays, adding, “We do a lot of promoting to youth. We were up to the Greenwing Days in Kenmare and I believe we had 70 kids that we did a demonstration on hound hunting to. We also go up to the Turtle Mountain State Park to the women’s outdoor weekend up there and we took groups of women hound hunting.”
The Houndsmen also support those hunters who run sight dogs, such as greyhounds and Irish wolfhounds, after coyotes across the region, though most members run tracking hounds that chase after racoons, bobcats, and mountain lions. While the pursuit of coyotes usually results in a harvested animal at the end of each hunt where greyhounds are involved, there’s a new mantra taking root for those looking to work their hounds without having to harvest a raccoon, bobcat or mountain lion, and that is the idea of “treed and freed.” Akin to angling’s catch and release, licensed hunters are able to track their targets during season, tree them and then pull their hounds off without harvesting the raccoon or cat, effectively accomplishing the same goal, and extending those seasons for bobcats and mountain lions which are limited in time by a quota of animals that can be harvested. When the last one in the quota is reported to the North Dakota Game & Fish Department, the season is closed by public announcement. The concept of treeing and freeing, especially for those hunters aware of the current season count, can help extend the opportunities to watch their hounds at work.
“Treeing and freeing is getting more and more popular. We’re trying to keep the season a little longer so we can run a little longer. A guy is seeing a lot more treeing and freeing of cats out there.” Hilliard explains, suggesting a turn in the tradition of pursuing furbearers with hounds, “Hound hunting has a reputation like it’s kind of a blood sport, and that’s not at all what it is.”
More information on the Houndsmen can be found on the group’s Facebook page (search “North Dakota Houndsmen Association” on Facebook) and in the flyers for their upcoming field trial this spring to be held in the Bismarck-Mandan area in April.
Featured Photo: Cody Hilliard, President of the North Dakota Houndsmen Association, pauses for a photo with his Walker Coonhound, Missy (L) and Patterdale Terrier, Crockett, after a successful raccoon hunt. Photo Submitted.