Following The Hounds

Following The Hounds

As this Volusia County hunter proved, hunting deer with hounds can provide some real surprises. Here's a look at this sport -- and the hunt that produced a trophy buck. (August 2008)

For Jarrett Lance Rimel, a long-time hunter from Weirsdale, Dec. 26, 2007, dawned far too early.

Having spent Christmas Day in North Carolina with family members, he had driven almost all night to get home in time to hunt on that Wednesday morning.

"I was anxious to get home," he recalled, "so got in at about 3 a.m."

A member of the Smokey Hunt Club in Volusia County, Rimel and some of his buddies started out that morning in an area of the club's property where they don't usually hunt.

"After hunting for a couple of hours -- unsuccessfully -- we moved to anotherarea," he recalled.

"We had been dog-hunting the entire time. We had run several deer, but most of them were does."

Next, the party moved over to another block of property and started again. Their quarry was a specific buck, one that had recently been captured on game cameras set up at a number of places in the woods.

"We knew he was in the area, and we were trying to locate him," Rimel explained. "He was very nocturnal. No one sitting on a stand would ever see him, or at any time except on a camera at night. That's why we went after him with the dogs."

After everyone was in position, the hunters released the hounds -- which immediately jumped two large-racked bucks that had bedded down close together.

"The two deer split and went in two different directions," Rimel said. "I was on the ground in the woods. One of them ran by me about 100 yards away. But I couldn't see the deer, I could just hear him running."

Using his handheld radio, Rimel let the other hunters in his party know that the deer was headed for one of the roads on the property.

"He got to the road," Rimel said, "but he didn't cross it. Instead, he turned back and ran a couple of hundred yards, and then turned right back toward where he came from.

"This time, he came within about 50 yards of me, and I could see him. I emptied my shotgun on him, and he disappeared.

"I didn't know if he was down, or if he was still running. I waited for the dogs to come through, and they stopped right where I had shot."

The president of the hunt club was the first to walk to where the deer was lying. When he called Rimel to see it, the hunter couldn't believe what he had shot.

"The deer was a 9-point, but he scored 129 1/8 when we scored him," Rimel noted. "That's a lot for any Florida deer. He's a shooter in any state."

Biologists estimated he was 5 1/2 years old. The buck weighed 160 pounds, and garnered quite a bit of attention in the central Florida area.

"I won first place in the Safari Club International Big Buck Contest for Florida," Rimel offered. "Actually, there were bigger deer shot in Florida last season. But mine was the biggest one entered in the contest."

He added that his buck is the biggest deer killed on the Smokey Hunt Club lease in the 35 years that the club has been in existence.

"My father hunted that lease for most of his life, and I've hunted it all my life," he said. "It's the biggest deer we've ever seen on it."

At one time, the Smokey Hunt Club comprised nearly 30,000 acres. But as development has encroached on the area's traditional hunting lands, the size of the lease has shrunk to about 13,000 acres.

"In our opinion, the reason we had that deer in our club was because of the development," Rimel suggested.

"He just kind of showed up there. As many cameras as we have set up, we'd have seen him before if he had been there all along.

"But there's been a lot of development around us recently, and he showed up this year. So we think he got pushed into our club."

Last season, in fact, the Smokey Hunt Club had a record year all the way around. The 70 members killed a total of 102 bucks, two of which made the Florida Buck Registry.

"We don't shoot a lot of does," Rimel pointed out. "We just manage them as the biologists tell us we need to. We've noticed a big increase in the buck-to-doe ratio, and we've noticed an increase in horns. Over the past five years, we've been doing a heavy feed program on our property, and it's really paid off."

Rimel's passion as a hunter is following the hounds. It's a Southern tradition, he noted, but one that is rapidly disappearing.

"My father was an avid hunter, which I am as well," he said. "But dog-hunting is at the root of my passion. I'll hunt anywhere, any time. But if you give me the choice, I'll be dog-hunting."

The appeal, Rimel said, lies in the excitement of it all.

"You can sit in a tree for six or eight hours a day and not see anything," he said. "But with dog-hunting, you never know what's coming. If you have good hounds, you can pretty much guarantee yourself a fun-packed day.

"If nothing else, you're going to be able to move around and chase the deer and chase the dogs."

Hunting with dogs has changed over the years, according to Rimel, because today's hunters use modern electronics to keep track of where their dogs are and what they're doing.

"We use tracking collars so we can pretty much pinpoint where our dogs are," he explained. "Some hunters have even gone to GPS collars, so we can tell exactly where each dog is, and whether he's running or sitting -- pretty much everything he's doing.

"Technology has moved into all areas, and this is no exception."

Despite the increased use of gadgets, however, today's passionate dog-hunter still feels the same connection with his hounds as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather did.

"In my kennel, I currently have n

ine dogs," Rimel noted, "and I've had as many as 14 at a time.

"They're tools for hunting, but they're also a big part of my life. I spend a lot of money on them every year, and I spend a lot of time with them. I train puppies every chance I get, and if I have a young dog, I put it on every deer I have an opportunity to put it on.

"It gives me a hobby, and something to do during the off season."

Rimel and other dog hunters breed their dogs to try to create high-quality deer hounds and improve bloodlines.

Although the laws regarding the use of deer hounds have undergone some changes, those shifts haven't affected the Smokey Hunt Club very much as yet.

"Changes in the law have affected other people a lot more, particularly in north Florida," he said. "We don't have any restrictions on the size of the hounds we use. We have a split club. By that, I mean about 80 percent of the club uses Walker hounds and black-and-tans and bigger dogs. The rest of our members use beagles. Both have their advantages."

If the lease continues to shrink because of encroaching development, members may have to make the change over to beagles.

To ensure good relationships with their neighbors, members of the Smokey Hunt Club have been proactive in getting to know surrounding landowners and maintaining contact with them.

"As the old saying goes, dogs can't read 'Posted' signs," Rimel mused. "They do cross our property lines once in a while and get onto other people's land. But it's important that each club and each dog owner takes the time to be respectful to surrounding neighbors. We know 90 percent of the people who border our property, and we've made arrangements with them.

"We even have shared land that people own that we're able to hunt. And in return, they're able to enjoy activities on ours such as equestrian riding during the off season."

Those kinds of relationships are the key to the survival of dog-hunting, Rimel believes.

"As soon as hunters start trespassing on people's land to retrieve their dogs, or hunting land illegally with their dogs, that's the stuff that gives dog-hunting a bad name," he added. "We try to do the best we can, and we've been pretty successful at it."

According to him, dog-hunting is just like everything else: You have responsible, ethical dog hunters, and you have the ones that create problems for the rest of them.

"Particularly in the area of the Ocala National Forest, there's a big dog-running area there," he said.

"There, it's buck wild. Anyone who can afford a hunting license can go out and do whatever they want. It's hard to contain or control, and a lot of people just don't care.

"That's what's going to take dog-hunting out for everybody. If you get too many complaints about anything, no matter what it is, it's going to raise eyebrows. I hear about a lot of people who have been dog-hunting all their lives, and now they've being told they can't do it any more."

Obviously, Rimel and hunters like him would like to see dog-hunting continue to be a part of the sporting tradition in Florida."We want to continue to have the option. And we want to see there continue to be places you can deer hunt with dogs," he said. "It should be treated just like archery hunting or any other kind of hunting. There should be an area for everything."

Despite the hunt club's efforts to maintain good relationships with their neighbors -- and the steps the Florida Freshwater Fish and Conservation Commission has taken to ensure the future of dog-hunting in the state -- Rimel is not optimistic about sport's long-term survival.

"I see dog hunting out in 20 years, tops," he said. "I think we're going to see it decline rapidly over the next 10 years, and by 20, it will probably be gone. But that's just my opinion.

"I'm seeing all of the solid dog-hunting clubs around central Florida being squeezed and feeling the pressure and losing land. A lot of guys have given up on dog-hunting because of the loss of land. When you start getting down to 2000 or 3000 acres on a lease, dogs don't do you any good any more."

Rimel also thinks that ultimately, central Florida dog-hunters will have to follow the changes in the northern tier of counties, where hunters have had to go to shorter-legged hounds if they're going to continue to dog-hunt.

"A lot of guys are already converting in that direction. A lot of the old-timers who hunt with us have already done that. Even me! There are plenty of days when I wish I didn't have the high-powered hounds that I do have

"It's hard to stay in front of them, and if they get out headed toward the highway -- our club borders I-4, Highway 44, and Tomoka Farms Road almost all the way to Highway 92 . . . " His voice tailed off, not mentioning the consequences.

"If we have to get out on the highway to catch them," he resumed, "sometimes that takes time, because they can move pretty fast."

When his dogs get near the highways, it scares Rimel half to death.

"We had one dog get hit last year," he said. "But if a deer decides to cross I-4, it's all over. None of the dogs are going to make it across.

"I really care about my hounds, and I'm with them daily. It takes a toll on me to lose a hound. I know, there are hunters to whom their dogs are strictly tools. And if something like that happens, they just move on. But I do whatever I can to protect my dogs. If that means I blow off the rest of the day hunting to track down my dogs, that's what I have to do."

Rimel has gone to fitting GPS collars on some of his dogs, which makes that part of the process easier.

"Garmin has come out with a pretty good product, so I can tell exactly where the dog is," he pointed out. "That saves me a lot of time, and it also saves dogs from getting off property. With a tracking collar, you're just following a beep. You can't tell whether the dog is a mile away or six miles away, which makes it tough -- although it's better than nothing. But the GPS is leaps and bounds ahead of that. It lets you get in front of them better."

At the end of the day, according to Rimel, dog-hunting is just like every other variety of sport, in that participants face the loss of hunting lands and opportunities. Emphasizing that common bond in the face of the pressures facing our tradition is the key to preserving it.

"T

hose who don't conform are going to bring it down for everyone," he concluded. "Ethics are ethics, and you have to keep that in mind, no matter what kind of hunting you're doing."

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