By Justin Hunold
When I made my southern migration in my early 20’s to see what North Carolina had to offer, the move came with the best intentions to understand and embrace as many southern traditions and ways of life as my thick northern blood could find tenable. We all know about sweet tea, grits and NASCAR. Fish Fry? Country Music? Pickled Okra? Dove Hunting? Those are all easy things to check off the list early on. Yet, there was a southern hunting tradition that I was pretty steadfast on not embracing : Hunting deer with dogs.
I walked into my first morning shift as a Team Lead in the Hunting Department at a major big box outdoor store and I met him. There stood a middle aged man, shorter in stature, well kept, green shirt tucked in and jeans without a wrinkle, Merrell slip on shoes on his feet. I would later learn that this was the only style of shoes I would ever see him in with one exception. “You must be our new Yankee” with a true southern accent, stuck out his hand and said “I’m Barry Ridenhour, I run the morning crew”
After some short intros to the morning crew “ That there is Spider and Raid Man” turn the corner into the ammo aisle “ This here is Larry Beaver, we call him Beav” Barry pulled me aside and said “Listen here, You don’t go F$!@ing with me and I won’t go F@$!ing with you.” He poked my chest a little harder than he poked his own while saying that. This was the most honest anyone had been with me since I moved south. The sentiment was as serious as the poke was hard. Barry had retired from tree work to then spend another couple decades as a bricklayer before starting his retirement job of retail supervision. His callused finger brought that life to a point on my sternum.
I closed every night and Barry opened every morning, so all in all our interactions were brief but normally really filled with humor. Barry had a quick wit, and a very different perspective than mine. He was normally done around 2:00pm and I began my shift at 1:00pm so we had about an hour of overlap a few days a week. In about 3 years of working together we had only one real cross interaction. And the sentiment of the chest poking conversation was at the heart of the matter. Other than that, mostly laughs and picking on any poor coworker that walked by. I could, and maybe someday will, write a story about this man who might have been 5’4” but lived life like he was 10 foot tall and bulletproof.
Some things I had to get used to when it came to deer hunting in the south were the heat of the early season, corn feeder and piles of feed, dodging snakes and spiders, gas lines, thick thick woods, no snow, and always hunting from an elevated position. None of these things were normal to me, neither was the hard scrabble living the deer piece together in the different areas I was chasing them in. I had never hunted a beanfield, small chunks of woods in completely urban settings or box blinds that have names like “The Hotel” with deer coming to bait as reliably as a Timex Ironman tells you it’s time to get out of bed. Set it right and it works all the time.
As I got adjusted to these things I started paying more attention to the culture of deer hunting around North Carolina.Although the Piedmont was now rich with whitetails this wasn’t always the case. I ran into a lot of people who bird hunted, doves, quail and waterfowl and then occasionally deer hunted, or were just getting into deer hunting. Hunting has deep roots and rich traditions in this area, but whitetails were fairly “new” still. With all of my coworkers chasing whitetails, ducks, geese and other small game we were constantly sharing pictures and stories of our adventures. Barry was no exception.
As the first fall we worked together began to take hold I got my first peek into hunting deer with dogs. Barry belonged to a club “out east”. So,on his days off Barry would drive the almost two hours before daylight to be at the club early and hunt deer with the people he shared the club with. He didn’t own a deer tracking dog, but the guys that he had been hunting with for 30+ years did. And that was part of the story and tradition of the club. A lot of the Dog Handlers didn’t bring a gun to the game, just the dog. Barry just brought a shotgun and buckshot. He would tell me about the big buck his buddy shot, or the doe days where everyone got a deer. Those stories were at the time, different and altogether more enticing to me than even my own. I was hunting over bait, and we sold more feeders and corn than I could shake a stick at. Could hunting deer with dogs be a more traditional, wholesome, and sporting way to chase whitetails than what I was doing?
One Sunday that following summer I went to Barry’s house to work on my car. That again is another story altogether. Barry invited me into his house, and there in the living room with bows tied around their necks were two shoulder mounts. The bows were Barry’s wife, Kay’s way of getting them pretty enough to hang and as interesting as that notion is, I wanted to know the story of the bucks. They were both small, not much to speak of for antlers. I knew for certain these weren’t Barry’s biggest bucks, but for the man who at one time owned the fastest Cadillac in the world, these were the ones he chose to display with pride.
Barry told me those were the first whitetails he had ever shot at his club. In fact they were the first whitetails he had ever seen while hunting years ago. Mind you he had hunted his whole life and these deer were taken in his adulthood. He told me the story about these bucks creeping through the black jacks and pines with dogs in tow. Between that story and the previous fall tales I was intrigued.
“Hey, you think I could tag along with ya some time.”
“ Hell Yeah Dawg”
It was early when I met Barry in the parking lot at work. I got in his Chevy 1500 and we started the trip to get to the club. It was abusively early, like 3:30 AM. It would take us about 2 hours to get to Rockingham. That name might strike you as familiar, that’s because of the world famous speedway the ROCK. So, there in a Red Chevy I sat eating my Bacon and Biscuit sandwiches, drinking my coffee, listening to the original world’s most interesting man on our way to hunt deer over dogs, in the shadow of a world famous speedway that was once a crown jewel of the NASCAR schedule. This was as southern an experience as anything my carpetbagging mind could wrap itself around.
We pulled up to the camp which was a pavilion with a trailer next to it. Barry Jumped up on the tailgate of his truck and shouted out instructions. “We’re doing the cornfield hunt first”. All of the set ups we hunted that day had a traditional name. The plans for those hunt’s weren’t decided that morning, the night before or even the weeks prior, these setups have been decades in the making. So we rode over to the corn field. Shotguns and stools ready to go we set up in an “L” shape along the field with safe zones of fire understood. I was told to shoot any buck, if it had horns I was to shoot. You see, the meat gets shared between everyone, any buck would be split between everyone there. This was proven when one of the sitters shot a spike buck almost immediately when the dogs took to the field.
With the first run being made in a cornfield I wasn’t able to really see what was going on with the dogs. These dogs weren’t any fancy breed or particular lineage that I could tell, so much as a mix of beagles and other hounds. They were small. And able to weave their way through a lot of this very tight, thick, snake filled, sand bottomed cover.
We set up on a sand road, I was sitting on my dove stool looking into the woods, trying to see through the black jack oaks and mixed pines when I could hear something coming. I got ready, hoping to see horns, but instead a big doe came to the road I was sitting on the other side of. When she hit the road she bounded over it and easily hit the other side without touching the manicured sand. Then she trotted out of my life at 7 yards.
A few minutes later I heard bells and some barks and one of those short statured hound mixes came sniffing the exact path that doe had taken to the road. Then I watched the damndest thing, that dog went to the spot where the doe took off for her leap and walked across the road in a direct line and nosed down in the exact spot she impacted on her first earthward step. He then followed her off into the brush on the other side of the road. I have no clue if he was intuitive enough to guess the path, if his nose was good enough to track a gap that big, or if he just remembered every hunt on that road, but that dog missed nothing. And as fast as they both appeared, that dog disappeared into the sandy, snake infested, spider filled forest.
A friend and coworker, Trey, had been hunting with Barry before. So, when I told Trey I was going he said, “ You’ll have fun with Ol’ Barry, just remember if you can hear the dogs the deer is already past you.” He wasn’t wrong. That is exactly what happened with that one encounter. And just like when I had hunted birds or small game with dogs, hearing their howls and barks coming through the country was as exciting as seeing the deer. There is something primal about the sound of hounds and the unknown outcome that that report signifies. It was strange to have the idea of these two things, the sight of the game and the sound of the dogs having to be in conjunction but slightly detached. It’s like wrapping your head around fraternal twins, you know they go together, but you can’t quite understand how that all works.
We kept rotating through different sets, or hunts as Barry would call them, The Corn Field, The School House, The Race Track. These were traditional pushes, and everyone understood their place and job. We were set up on some thick low pines with grasses mixed in when I heard the blast of a shotgun in the distance. And after the dogs filtered through and were gathered up we went over to see a nice 9 point buck that had succumbed to the 00 buckshot.
Eventually, we went back to the camp, which was a trailer and a pavilion. With a few deer hanging up from the pavilion, I watched as they used a rock, rope and truck to skin the deer. Making standard caping cuts around the hide, the “butcher” then inserted a rock just under the skin where the necklace cut rides over the spine. Then with the rope that was tied off to the truck’s trailer hitch, he tied that rock into place. This appeared to be a similar way as you would affix a roc to a stick when you were trying to make a spear as a kid. Once the knot was deemed tight the truck drove forward and the skin all came off in one piece. From there the deer were pieced out, with the shooter getting some choice cuts but each buck got spread out through the club members piece by piece. And at the end of the day, this made sense to me in a way it wouldn’t have when I got in Barry’s truck earlier that morning.
In a crazy way I went from having no attachment to this style of hunting, in fact I’ll go as far to say a disdain, to an admiration for everything it represented and an understanding of the culture that surrounded it. This understanding is slight at best but it is a tangible line on the grains of my inner vinyl record that is deer hunting. The dogs were shared, the spots were shared, the jokes were shared, the culture was shared, and so were the plenties of the harvest.
As I grow older I find that I better understand the ins and outs of different and wrong. We often do things differently that someone else deems as wrong. Those lines are subjective. In the hunting community we need to start taking in the experiences of others, try to understand that other hunter. You are both a part of a dying breed, we are wolves. So understand that although you might view someone hunting by legal means that you don’t agree with as wrong, in the end likely they are just different. There aren’t enough wolves left to start making members of our pack outcasts. Even when those members use a pack of real dogs to pursue whitetails.
And by the way this was the only time I saw Barry wear anything other than those damn Merrells