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The Tradition of Hunting with Hounds

Chasing furred game with hounds is a cherished American pastime.

The Tradition of Hunting with Hounds

A deeper look at one of hunting’s oldest and most beloved pursuits with hunting dogs. (Photo By: RHIMAGE/

Hound hunting was common in the United States long before the nation achieved its independence from Great Britain. In 1659, Robert Brooke, an English citizen, sailed to the Virginia colony and brought with him his pack of foxhounds. George Washington was also a great fan of foxhounds and owned a pack with members named Vulcan, Tipsy, and Drunkard. During the Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette sent seven French hounds as a gift to Washington, which the future president accepted graciously, although secretly he never cared for the slower tracking style of French hounds. As colonists pressed farther across this continent, their hounds accompanied them and soon the foxhounds that descended from original colonial stock were being trained to hunt American game including raccoons, bears, deer, and mountain lions.

The Early Days of Hound Hunting in America

The development of original American hound breeds was driven in part by the fur trade. Raccoons were of particular interest because they were common throughout much of the country and a prime raccoon pelt fetched top dollar at fur markets. Over time, specific strains of raccoon hunting hounds, or coonhounds, were developed from European foundation stock. Foxhounds offered stamina and speed on the trail, and breeds like the French Gascogne and the Saint Hubert Hound (the progenitor of the bloodhound) improved scenting ability. The crossing of these breeds and a handful of other European hounds resulted in the development of the six of the recognized coonhound breeds: the treeing walker, English, bluetick, black-and-tan, redbone, and the American leopard hound. A seventh breed of hound, the Plott, doesn’t trace back to the foxhounds brought to this country from France and England. Instead, the Plott breed was named after the German immigrant, Johannes “George” Plott, who brought his Hanoverian hounds to North Carolina to hunt bears.

Coonhounds were already well established in this country and being used to hunt not only raccoons but bears and mountain lions in western states when General Richard Rowett of Illinois began importing short-legged scent hounds known as beagles for hunting rabbits. Though the beagle breed arrived long after the larger scent hounds, it would quickly become a popular hunting and companion breed. The beagle remains one of the most popular dogs in the United States.

rabbit hunter with beagles preparing for a hunt at the truck
The beagle breed was brought to the United States and quickly found a new home as a popular hound for rabbit hunters. (Photo By: Benny G)

In the early 1940s, raccoon prices jumped to $5 for prime pelts, which is nearly the equivalent of $100 today. Since raccoons were abundant and a good dog may tree three or more raccoons each night, it was possible for hunters to make good money with their dogs each year. Coon hunting became more than a hobby—hounds became an important tool that could generate funds to support families in the years following the Great Depression.

Because of this earning potential, good hounds became popular and were in high demand. The best dogs garnered premium stud fees and soon coon hunting competitions were established to recognize champion lines. Local coon hunting competitions were organized as early as the beginning of the 20th century, but the United Kennel Club had its first modern competition coon hunt under the modern format in the 1950s.

Today’s Hound Hunters

“The bear must have gone in somewhere around here,” said Robert Romm as he paced along the edge of a gravel logging road in northern Maine. “I’m not seeing any prints, though.” Behind him the brindled heads of two Plott hounds extended through circular windows in the aluminum dog box in his pickup. Romm decided to release his best track dog, Goodnight, a hound that over the previous two days had unraveled eight hour-old bear tracks and treed two mature boars. Like all Plotts in America, Goodnight traces back to the dogs Johannes Plott brought to the United States from Germany in the 1700s to pursue bear in the hills of North Carolina. When Goodnight began to work the track, Romm released a female Plott, Little Magic, to help sort out the trail. Both hounds wore Garmin GPS tracking collars and after they disappeared into the dark forest, we followed their progress on the screen of a Garmin DriveTrack. We could see that Goodnight and Little Magic were moving steadily north. Then, suddenly, both dogs turned to the west and moved out quickly.

“They must have picked up the track,” Romm said. “They went in right where Mike said he saw this bear cross.”

Soon the deep howl of a hound on the track filtered back through the forest.

“That’s Little Magic,” Romm said, looking down at his DriveTrack and back up toward the woods. The hound bawled again, louder this time, and soon Goodnight’s deep base mixed with her call. The sound grew as the tracked warmed, and we stood at attention listening to the dogs carry the track away from the road. As minutes passed, the voices of the hounds grew more intense as they closed in on the bear.

“He’s circling back,” Romm said, and at that moment the bear raced across the gravel road a hundred yards from our position with Little Magic at full voice less than ten yards behind. Romm turned and began unlatching doors on the dog box, and other hounds—Trump, the bob-tailed Plott; Sam, the broad-chested youngster; and Chase, the lanky Treeing Walker—all raced down the road in a rush to join their packmates. Soon the woods were ringing with all their voices, a sound that, like the bugle of an elk or the drumming of a flushing game bird’s wings, quickens the heart of any hunter. The chase was on.

beagle baying and cur dog climbing pine tree
In recent years, hounds have been getting a false reputation from anti-hunting and animal rights groups for being vicious, blood-thirsty predators that terrorize and destroy wild game. (Photos By: Joe Ferronato)

Why Hunt with Hounds?

Hound hunting has received a great deal of negative press, and most of that is undeserved. Most serious hound hunters are dedicated to their dogs and make certain they receive the best care, and scenes of dogs running to ground and ripping apart prey are largely contrived for anti-hunting audiences. In truth, many hound hunters enjoy their sport not for the killing but for the enjoyment of simply seeing and listening to their dogs work. I own beagles for rabbit hunting, and as part of a long-term survey on cottontail population fluctuations and the impact of hound hunting on non-target game species, I’ve been keeping records of how many rabbits my dogs jump annually and how many cottontail I kill. Last year my dogs jumped and chased over 190 rabbits, and I killed less than a dozen of them. If the objective of hound hunting is the utter destruction of game, as those who decry the sport assert, I’ve failed miserably. And I’m not alone. I know a full-time mountain lion hunter that has guided hundreds of cat hunts but who has never killed a cougar himself, instead leaving the cougars his dogs tree to run another day.

So, what is it that sets the hook so deeply in hound hunters that they will venture into the dark woods each night in search of raccoons with pelts that now fetch about a dollar? What makes hound hunters spend so much money and time training and maintaining dogs or drive thousands of miles a year to compete for prizes? What prompts a hunter to refuse to jump-shoot a rabbit and instead allow his beagles to give chase, knowing full well that the cottontail may outmaneuver the dogs somewhere along the trail and the shot opportunity might be lost? Quite simply, hunting with hounds is its own reward. As with upland hunting, it requires coordination and teamwork on the part of the dog and the hunter. The real thrill of hound hunting is watching the dog run with a fresh track ahead of them and a hundred generations of instinct behind them.

Hound Hunting Disciplines  


I’ve owned both bird dogs and beagles since boyhood, and the two dogs compliment one another. Hunters can haul a brace of rabbit hounds along with their pointing dogs to upland fields, and if the birds aren’t cooperating or they want a change of pace, they can simply unleash the rabbit dogs and watch these jovial little hounds burst in and out of briar patches and overgrown slashes in search of rabbits. The high-pitched harmony of a tandem of beagles is a joyous sound, but you must listen closely to what the dogs are telling you: Rabbits have small home ranges and circle back, oftentimes running almost directly back to the place where the dogs jumped them. The cottontail hunter knows to pay attention to the direction of the chase—have the dogs turned? Is the rabbit making its circle and, if so, which path is it most likely to follow? Cottontails prefer to follow brush and tree lines, so you’ll need to position yourself on the route the rabbit is most likely to use as it returns, and you must be ready—you may only have a few seconds for a shot.

two rabbit hunters with beagles on a fall hunt in a cornfield
Hunting for rabbit and hare behind a pack of beagles is a popular American pastime. (Photo By: Kali Parmley)

Snowshoe hare hunting is similar to hunting cottontails, but hares tend to make much larger circles and in dense forest may take the dogs out of hearing range. Prime hare hunting destinations include Maine and northern Michigan. Grouse hunters who own beagles can make the most of a trip to the northwoods, chasing birds for part of the day before switching gears for a more relaxing afternoon of hare hunting.

As with other hounds, beagle field trials make great off-season activities and allow you to meet other hunters. If you’re interested in buying a beagle, attending a field trial near your home is also an excellent way to learn more about these dogs and speak with local breeders and trainers. Because rabbit hunts are laid-back affairs that generally don’t require a lot of walking it’s a great hunt for kids, and rabbit hunting is an excellent way to recruit new hunters to the sport. Even non-hunters find it hard not to appreciate the amiable beagle and this breed’s passion for pursuing rabbits.


As a boy, I spent hours in the dark woods sitting around a campfire with friends and waiting for the first loud locate “bawl” as a coonhound found a fresh track. Coon hunting with hounds is a tradition that dates back to the 1700s in many parts of the country, and dedicated hound hunters are as committed to their sport as the most ardent retriever trainer or upland hunter.

Fur prices have declined, but participation in coon hound competitions is at an all-time high. Last year, the United Kennel Club sanctioned over 4,500 competition coon hunts, and events like the annual Autumn Oaks competition held over Labor Day weekend in Richmond, Indiana offer an opportunity for coon hunters to gather, talk to breeders, and watch bench show competitions.

three coon hunters releasing their coonhounds into the night
Coon hunters cast their dogs off into the timber under the veil of darkness at night. (Photo By: Benny G)

All seven of the recognized coonhound breeds compete in these “Nite Hunts,” and mountain and blackmouth curs are also excellent at treeing raccoons. Curs, which trace their lineage back to the earliest farm dogs raised by American settlers to hunt, herd, and guard their homes, tend to be silent on the track and many of these dogs are also used to hunt squirrels in the daytime.

Removing raccoons is also extremely important for upland management. In a 2005 Journal of Wildlife Management article examining nest predation on bobwhite quail, it was determined that raccoons targeted quail nests as a food source more frequently than any other mammal or reptile species. Reducing raccoon populations can have a positive impact on upland bird populations. The simplest way to improve numbers of quail, pheasants, or grouse on your property, then, is to invite a coon hunter with a pack of well-trained hounds to remove these predators.

Big Game Hounds

There’s a popular belief that hunting big game with hounds is easier than hunting from a blind or by calling but chasing a pack of lion or bear hounds can be one of the most physically taxing hunts in the country. On our Maine bear hunt, the hounds jumped a bear in a swamp and the chase lasted several miles, crossing ditches and washouts. We had to climb mountains and cross creeks and tangled deadfall as we listened to the chase unfolding before us, and by the time we found the treed bear, it was on the top of a mountain and far from the nearest logging road.

In the mountains of the American West, hound hunters pursue bobcats and mountain lions, and these hunts take you into some of the most remote and breathtaking landscapes in the country. What’s more, these hunts often take place in winter when there’s heavy snow. Mountain lion hunts usually begin well before dawn by scouring snow-covered logging roads and searching for the fresh track of a large lion. Once a track is found, dogs are set on the trail and as the race heats up, more dogs are added until the mountains echo with the roar of the dogs and the hunters set out through the forests and over mountains to find where the cat has treed. If the lion bails from its perch, the hunt continues, and the hunters are left to follow on foot.

hunter with cur dogs chasing mountain lions in the snowy mountains
Hounds and curs are used to track and tree bear, bobcats, and mountain lions in the snowy peaks of the mountain west. (Photo By: Joe Ferronato)

Big game hounds are common in the United States, but hounds are used for hunting and wildlife research in other parts of the world. Last summer I joined my friend Coenraad Scheepers to help him collar leopards at night in the coastal forests near the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. Coenraad, who owns a large pack of leopard dogs he follows into the darkness barefoot with only a short stabbing spear as defense, has helped collar several leopards in Mozambique’s Coutada 11. Without his talented pack of bluetick coonhounds and foxhounds it would be nearly impossible to track the movements of these elusive cats in this remote corner of the world. When the leopard is treed the sedation team moves in under cover of darkness, the veterinarian darts the cat, and the researchers catch the sedated leopard in a net when it falls from the tree to take measurements and collar the animal before release. Once, as the hounds were at full cry on the trail of a leopardess in the dark woods, I told Coenraad that this reminded me of hunting raccoons at night back home in Ohio as a boy. Soon after, a lion began roaring far out on the floodplain to the east, the sound mingling with the howls of the dogs as they rushed through the mist-shrouded trees.

“Still remind you of Ohio?” Coenraad asked.

“No,” I said as I turned on my headlamp and scanned the dark understory all around. “Not anymore.”

For decades hound hunting has been under attack, but those who have participated in the sport understand that the portrayal of hounds and hound hunters by the media is inaccurate and has been used as a divisive tool to isolate dog owners and chip away at the foundation of our hunting legacy. If you’re a hunter, and particularly if you like hunting with dogs, you owe it to yourself to spend some time following a pack of howling hounds. Your heart will quicken at the sound of their cry and you may regret that you’ve waited so long to join the chase.

How Hounds Are Saving Rhinos in Africa

Rhino poaching has become a major problem in South Africa, but there’s hope for a new solution to the problem: hounds. Conservationist Ivan Carter has teamed up with the South African Wildlife College (SAWC) and Joe Braman of Texas Canine Tracking and Recovery to import hounds to South Africa to track down poachers in Kruger National Park.

Though the program has only been in existence for a few years, the results have been outstanding: Packs of hounds trained by the SAWC have run down and captured over 100 poachers, a major step toward conserving Africa’s remaining rhino populations. SAWC now houses over 70 hounds in five packs that are available to be dispatched any time there’s a suspected rhino poacher in the park. For more information on the SAWC’s anti- poaching hounds visit:

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