After four days of drizzling, misty rain and unseasonably cool weather the first day of the eastern deer season opened as one of those days outdoorsmen dream about.

For the deer hunters who chose to have their hounds chase the deer the conditions couldn’t have been more ideal. It was damp enough that the deer’s scent hung close to the ground and it was cool enough to make it comfortable for both the hunters and the dogs.

That’s why I was surprised to find relatively few deer hunters out there with their dogs on the opening day of the season. Ordinarily we’d see truck after truck loaded with dog boxes, two-way radio antennas, tracking antennas and elevated stands lining the roads in the more rural areas Down east. I started to wonder just what was wrong here.

Some of my fondest memories of deer hunting in the eastern part of North Carolina were when I spent some time hunting on an abandoned railroad track that led through a swamp. Sandy and Leon were two black farmers from the Aurora area that had a couple of accomplished deerhounds and they allowed me to go along with them. I stayed on the old railroad bed to hunt because they were afraid that I’d get lost in the old Bay City pocosin.

These guys would follow the dogs into the thick woods and, in the absence of two-way radios, communicated through blowing bugle-like calls through the barrels of their single shot shotguns. At the end of the hunting day and if the dogs were still in the woods, they’d call their dogs to them by blowing notes on the same gun barrels. It was rare back in the late 1940s to even see many deer and to hunt with these guys was a treat. They were good hunters and good teachers who stressed gun safety as well as sportsmanship.

Asking around in the dog hunting fraternity as to why there were so few hunters on our roads opening day I started to find some answers.

The national economy is playing a large part in having a change in the way deer hunters carry out their sport. This seems to be particularly true in the case of the deer hunters who choose to hunt with the aid of dogs.

Dog owners who formerly owned several trained deer hounds found the price of keeping these dogs was getting really expensive. Between the price of dog food and the medications that keep the dog healthy the hunters simply found themselves in a financial pinch. When it comes down to a choice between feeding and keeping healthy their families versus several large hunting dogs, the families won out.

A morning’s visit with the local hunt-master of the local deer hunting with dogs fraternity supplied even more possible answers to the question of why there were so few hunters on opening day.

Earl Bonner started hunting deer with dogs some 70 years ago and has several hunting dogs himself. He’s now 82 years old and, being fully retired is able to spend a great deal of time looking after his deer hounds, bird dogs, a fine airplane and a loving wife. He does still enjoy hunting deer with his 13 year-old hound, “Bozo” and keeps some of the finest bird dogs in the state.

Earl feels like a lot of the younger deer hunters that used to take the opening day of the eastern deer season off to run their dogs and hunt simply are afraid to take a day off (the major industry in the area runs at full speed 24/7/365) to go hunting. Good jobs are hard to come by these days and to take a sick or vacation day to go out chasing deer isn’t always a good idea. You might not have a job waiting when you come back to work.

A lot of these down-east deer hunters make no apologies about hunting deer from elevated stands mounted on the backs of their trucks. There’s no law prohibiting this in lots of areas of North Carolina and it’s one of the best ways to be able to see well into the thick brush where the deer bed up. Since their trucks need some type of road to run on, you’ll often see these hunters standing on top of their trucks using binoculars to try and spot that big buck trying to stay hidden in the woods.

To many of the “citified Tar Heels” who see hunters with rifles standing on the back of trucks along our public roadways is a bit scary. This practice (again, legal in lots of counties) is surprisingly safe when you think about it. The riflemen are positioned at an elevated angle from their targets and any bullets are directed downward. Secondly, it’s frowned upon to shoot into a road.

Because the price of gasoline is a major factor to many of us, this also may be playing a big part in the declining numbers of deer hunters who depend heavily on mechanized transportation to practice their sport.

The economic situation and the fragmentation of the ownership of the land are real problems to the dog hunting groups in our state.

Where you used to have vast tracts of land that the owners made available to dog hunters, you often find smaller tracts of land where hunting with dogs is permitted on some land and frowned upon on other tracts. Of course the dogs can’t read the signs and when they’re in hot pursuit of a big buck they often charge onto lands where they’re not welcome. This causes some problems with landowners.

Another factor that may be coming into play with the declining numbers of dog hunters is the fact that many former dog hunters are turning to still hunting to harvest their deer.

One former dog hunter recently told me that he was “spent-out” on paying the high fees for belonging to hunting clubs that specialized in dog hunting and was turning to still hunting next year to save money. He knew that there were literally thousands of acres of public hunting lands that he could hunt for the price of his hunting license and these lands were some of the best deer country around.

Of course there are conflicts between the dog hunters and the still hunters who value the solitude of sitting in a tree and waiting for the deer to come to them instead of having a dog push the deer in their direction.

Hunting deer with dogs is one of the time-honored southern traditions that’s been around since Europeans came into the New World that’s now called America. I’ve seen many hunters who follow their packs of hounds just to hear the “music” of the dogs as the chase the deer. The hunters sometimes are without a gun and get their sport simply by observing had hearing the chase. This is their sport and it’s a part of living where we live.



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