The Versatile Beagle

Bob Ford | | All Hunting Articles
Posted 09/16/2023

There is a lot of emphasis on versatile hunting dogs in recent years, and guys like me have been running them for decades. What am I talking about? Why, the ever-popular beagle is what I am thinking has been the versatile hunting dog par excellence for centuries. Growing up in the Northern Appalachian Mountains, specifically in the Alleghenies, there were lots of hunters who kept a beagle or two for rabbit hunting. Beagles are hounds, with a powerful nose, and a strong urge to pursue game. Typically, the biggest problem faced by owners of beagles is ensuring that they do not chase off game—deer being the most tempting and problematic off game species. A cottontail rabbit might run in a circle a few hundred yards in diameter. A deer chase might take a pack of beagles so far away that you no longer hear them baying, and it ruins a day afield. Experienced houndsmen do not venture afield for a hunt with a beagle that will run off game.

So, the real question is what is off game? I’ve always allowed my beagles to chase birds and squirrels in addition to their preferred prey, rabbits. Now, if you are small game hunter, what does this mean? Well, squirrels will typically go a short distance to a tree and bark a warning from the limbs. The old timers swore that a good rabbit stew needed one squirrel to make it perfect. A fox squirrel falling from the tree canopy to the leaf litter lands with a loud thud, the larger bodies of these squirrels being substantially larger than a grey squirrel. My game vest might hold squirrels and rabbits. A squirrel on a limb chattering away at the beagle often never sees me.

Seasonal flights of woodcock will rest in some of my hunting spots. Think of a versatile beagle like a flusher that might get excited enough to bay on its quarry. A beagle will work a line until the timberdoodle decides to make a break for it, flushes straight up and lines out. At the apex of the rise, I will often add a woodcock to the vest. The same holds true for doves at the edges of crop fields. Sometimes I will have a beagle scent trailing a dove, mute, with a wagging tail when the bird will burst out of the thickets at the edge of the field. At other times, I will be awaiting a rabbit while the hound is chasing it, and the barking of the chase gets close enough to a dove or two that they decide they must vacate the premises and arc out on an aerial escape from the terrestrial clamor of beagle and bunny. When the dove clears the thick cover and is over the adjoining field, that is my chance to maybe get a shot.

Grouse, of course, are one of the favorite birds for upland hunting. While I can’t claim to have great success on grouse in recent years (population decline) I have managed to bag a few. The fact that a beagle is a hound means it may push harder than the average flushing dog. I tend to get more wild grouse flushes that are heard, but not seen. You will routinely hear beagle owners brag about their success with little hounds on pheasants. Ringnecks leave a lot of scent and will often run until they are forced to fly, especially if they are stocked birds. I have owned beagles that tongue the line (bay) on pheasants with a voice that sounds different than when chasing a rabbit. I have also owned beagles that get so accustomed to chasing pheasants that they will sound just as they do on a bunny. I sometimes hunt state game lands, where pheasant are stocked. Like any such location, you get large numbers of hunters, some with dogs, others walking the cover without a canine companion, hoping for a flush. Some of those dogless guys get excited about a big cackling rooster flying over low goldenrod, unloading the shotgun as the bird touches down in the distance, never to be found.

On more than one occasion I have had pheasant make multiple circles, running like a rabbit trying to elude the persistent hound in pursuit. I shot a pheasant after four circles one day, and a guy with a setter came down, upset, telling me that I should have let it fly before shooting. “I agree sir,” I said, “But this bird has no tail, I am guessing he was shot at by too many dogless hunters at fifty yards. To be fair, if I saw a flying rabbit, I would shoot it too.”

Oh, the merry beagle will never admit to being too small for any job. I have even shot a couple of turkeys in from of a beagle. Naturally, you cannot hunt turkey with dogs in the spring gobbler season, but here in Pennsylvania, it is completely legal, now, to use a dog. The most common strategy is to take a Labrador or another bird dog breed into the field to flush and break up a flock. The dog then goes into a portable, fabric, camouflaged blind where the canine remains silent as the hunter calls, utilizing the tendency of turkey to flock back together after distress. How do I do it? Usually with a beagle looking for a bunny, when a sight chase ensues and the dog is barking with a fierce intensity, the turkey is running through the briars and brambles, and at some point, it takes flight, looking like a plane that just might not have enough runway for takeoff. Okay, I have only taken two turkey this way, but man what a rush! The little beagle, versatility indeed. I simply teach them what they cannot chase and let them pursue the species I hunt. Oh, there are state game lands near me that border a bird hunting club. It is a good spot to put my beagles on bird scent and get them accustomed to being versatile hunting dogs. Those club birds wander on to public ground all the time.

About the Author : Bob Ford
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Bob Ford has lived all but three years of his life in the hills of Pennsylvania. The three exile years were spent attending seminary at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio where he lamented the lack of topography that characterizes the central portion of the Buckeye state. He purchased his first beagle for $75 in 1985 with money earned delivering the Erie Sunday Times. This first beagle committed Ford to the company of hounds, and has resulted in a life that has gone to the dogs.

Bob has hunted rabbits and hare throughout the country, ranging from Northern Alabama to the Quebec border, and he is always looking for new places to hunt and new species of rabbits and hare for his hounds to pursue. He is an ordained pastor in the Susquehanna Conference of The United Methodist Church and currently resides in State College, PA. Ford believes that American-made, double barrel,16 gauge shotguns from the previous century are the best firearms available to the small game hunter, and that few things compare to the sound of a pack of beagles chasing rabbits on morning dew in a foggy valley. He writes a monthly column for the American Beagler, Better Beagling, and Hounds and Hunting. Bob is an active member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, The Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He has won Excellence in Craft awards for humor and hunting.




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