Versatile Hunting Dogs are those that can point, retrieve on land and water, and track wounded game on land and water. I have an all-around hunting dog that can mostly meet these requirements—a beagle.
In opposition to the typical worldview that characterizes rural Pennsylvania rabbit hunters, I do not discourage my dogs from chasing anything, so long as it is small game. That means birds and squirrels go into the game vest as readily as rabbits. I got my first beagle in 1985. Rebel, was a good dog, but nothing like his pup, my current dog Duke.
A pointing beagle? I have seen him do it. This is usually while he is pinpointing scent as it blows in the wind. I can’t say he holds the point every time. Indeed, he never holds a point when he is winding the odor of a rabbit in an adjacent brush pile. Nevertheless, I have killed pheasants, grouse, doves, and woodcock by walking in front of his point. Sure, it isn’t the traditional bird dog, but I have seen many half-trained bird dogs that are less competent.
Duke also flushes a lot of birds while searching for rabbits. The only time I have seen him leave bird scent is if he encounters rabbit scent while sorting out the scent trail left by a feeding bird. The early morning is great for rabbits, and the mid-morning hours have been productive for birds. I hunt rabbits at dawn and then relocate to a spot that may hold birds that have come off the roost and are feeding. I then transition back to rabbits for the last few hours of daylight.
Retrieving is one of Duke’s specialties. Most beagles won’t retrieve a rabbit, but will eat them. I have often shot bunnies that fell into briars and was unable to reach the dead quarry before the pack.
Not with Duke, who is a genuine retriever of game. He has done this since he was a pup. I have video footage of him retrieving, and other houndsmen enjoy seeing him retrieve because so few beagles do it.
In fact, it was the retrieval of a pheasant that I think really turned him into a birdy beagle. I was hunting an area with stocked pheasants when he brought one to me by the wing. I presumed it was wounded, and took it in my left hand to dispatch the bird. It flew into my face, knocked my hat onto the ground, and disappeared over the hilltop horizon behind me. It wasn’t wounded; rather, the bird was just not wild enough to evade a small beagle in a brush pile.
Tracking wounded game is one of the things that this dog does well, and it always impresses me. There have been many times that I thought I missed a rabbit, only to have my faithful canine companion bring it back to me.
It always happens the same way. The chase ends abruptly and his rolling bawl voice stops. A few seconds later I hear his bell* as he approaches me. Whenever a chase ends abruptly and the bell starts getting louder, I know that the rabbit is on the way to my vest.
The same thing holds true for birds. If I knock a pheasant to the ground and it runs, unable to fly, Duke ensures that the bird goes in the freezer.
I have killed hare and four different species of cottontail (Eastern, Appalachian, New England, and mountain) with Duke. The dinner table has acquired both gray and fox squirrels as they scampered up a hardwood in front of his persistent tracking. I have routinely harvested dove, woodcock, grouse, and pheasant, either as they flushed or I stepped in front of his “point.”
I even got a jake turkey with Duke once. He was tonguing the line and the turkey was coming out of the undergrowth, preparing to take flight, when I made a left-to-right shot with a Lefever 16 gauge. The bird added the featured entrée to our Thanksgiving dinner, as it is legal to hunt fall turkeys with dogs in Pennsylvania.
I can’t claim that Duke is a water retriever (as per Versatile Hunting Dog requirements), unless you count bringing a hare out of a cedar swamp in the North Woods. Naturally, the intention of that rule is waterfowl. Maybe I will consider taking him to a duck pond next year and see what happens . . .
*I utilize bells, which is rare in beagling circles. My dogs wear bells for a couple reasons. First, it is safe. There are far too many guys that disgrace hunting and shoot at moving brush. A bell tells them it isn’t game moving the weeds and briars. Second, I think it deters coyotes from coming in on my dogs. Finally, I almost always know exactly where my dogs are, even without looking at my GPS.