The sound of hounds hot on the trail of deer is fading into Lowcountry history.
The sport, referred to as dog hunting, is a Lowcountry tradition that dates back hundreds of years. But urban sprawl and cultural changes in the South are squeezing out the practice, and some local hunters predict dog hunting eventually will disappear.
Deer hunting with dogs dates to colonial times and remains a historical link many local hunters celebrate. The concept was simple - hounds were released into the swampy forests along the coast to flush out deer as hunters waited along the perimeter. The concept has changed little in 300 years although technology is different - pickups instead of horses, shotguns instead of muzzle loaders, CB radios and tracking collars.
Building elevated stands and sitting in trees to hunt - known as still hunting - is a relatively new concept, said Charles Ruth, Deer Project Supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
"Folks determined you could build stands, climb trees and don't have to have dogs to effectively harvest deer," Ruth said. "Still hunting became the vogue and is the predominant way deer are hunted now."
While still hunting has overtaken dog hunting in popularity, dog hunting continues to be practiced in coastal areas from Virginia to Louisiana. Regulations differ from state to state. In South Carolina dog hunting is not allowed in the upstate. In Georgia, the property owner or lease-holder must obtain a state permit, and dogs and vehicles used to hunt on permitted land must be identified with a permit number. In five of Louisiana's eight game zones, dog hunting is not allowed during still hunting season.
Most of the laws passed in South Carolina that have affected dog hunting have dealt with hunting from roads or right-of-ways. The most recent legislation focuses on "un-permitted hunting with use of a dog on property without hunting rights." Hunters whose dogs stray onto property where they do not have permission must end their hunt.
Property development, complaints about abandoned or straying dogs, and a shift from dog drives to still hunting all are contributing to the demise of the sport.
Most hunting clubs, dog or still, operate on land leased from farmers or timber companies. Those landowners increasingly are reluctant to lease property to dog hunting clubs, said retired Department of Natural Resources biologist Mark Bara of Hemingway. Bara was awarded the Deer Management Career Achievement Award this year for outstanding contributions to white-tailed deer management in the Southeastern United States.
Late last year, MeadWestvaco sold about 200,000 acres in South Carolina to Plum Creek Timber, a Seattle-based company. MeadWestvaco retained 110,000 acres, most of it in an area known as East Edisto, to be sold to individuals or developers.
The East Edisto area consists of roughly 72,000 acres and is primarily east of the Edisto River between old Savannah Highway and U.S. Highway 17A and between S.C. Highway 165 and the Edisto River.
Prior to the sale, MeadWestvaco sent letters assuring hunt club members that their leases would continue uninterrupted and that the company considers "our hunt clubs an extension of the MWV family." The company thanked them for being the eyes and ears on the ground.
In February, MeadWestvaco sent another letter telling most of the clubs that "as of Jan. 2, 2015, deer and fox hunting with hounds will be discontinued on all of East Edisto." Dog hunting on several areas was discontinued immediately.
Ken Seeger, president of MeadWestvaco community development and land management, said the East Edisto decision affects about 21 hunting clubs. While dog hunting is a tradition in South Carolina, Seeger said, it has become less critical that a hunting club have the ability to dog hunt. Dogs straying beyond property lines was a factor in the decision.
"We felt having existing dog hunting leases in place for prospective new purchasers of the property would create marketing problems and probably would not be compatible with what a new owner might want to do," Seeger said. "We wanted to make sure we gave existing hunt clubs plenty of prior notice of what our thoughts were and start the process of converting the hunt leases from dog hunting to still hunting.
"This rural land at East Edisto is land we intend will stay rural. We are in the process of putting density restrictions and the intent is to remain recreational property and agricultural property."
New property owners, should they want, could allow dog hunting on the land, Seeger said.
As large tracts of land have been subdivided, more non-hunters are moving to the country looking for a rural experience and are surprised to find hunting on neighboring properties. They have a different point of view from traditional landowners and don't see the need for hunting. Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or the Humane Society of the U.S. reflect that attitude, saying "sport hunting is cruel and unnecessary."
Bara said South Carolina's population when he went to work for DNR in 1970 was somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.2 to 2.5 million. The Census estimate for 2013 was about 4.8 million. "We've become a very urbanized state," Bara said.
"With the change of land ownership patterns, you're having conflicts between still hunters and dog hunters, between land owners and dog hunters. If you have good people involved, the problems are minimized."
Currently, there are about 145,000 deer hunters in South Carolina. In a 2008 study by the S.C. Department of Resources, 85 percent of hunters surveyed indicated they were still hunters only, 11.6 percent said they did both still hunting and dog hunting, and 3.3 percent said they were exclusively dog hunters.
The only two state Wildlife Management Areas where dog hunting is allowed are in the Francis Marion National Forest, which consists of nearly 259,000 acres in Charleston and Berkeley counties, and in Manchester State Forest, almost 29,000 acres in Sumter and Clarendon counties.
Ruth said still hunting is a relatively modern method for hunting deer in South Carolina.
"Prior to the late 1950s, (dog drive) was the only way to deer hunt in South Carolina, and I would speculate much of the Southeast," Ruth said, noting that most of South Carolina's deer population was in coastal habitat, much of it thickly wooded swamplands that could not be cleared for farming and is almost impossible to penetrate on foot.
"Climbing trees and building deer stands, that was something no one ever heard of until our generation. Once deer populations, and I'll use South Carolina as an example, really started to come on in the 1970s and 80s, hunters started still hunting. Hunters determined that it worked. They could go out as an individual and have pretty darn good success in harvesting deer without approaching it from a true dog hunting standpoint."
'A real thrill'
John Steinbrecher's late father worked for Westvaco and 45 years ago founded Rush Pond Hunting Club in Ravenel. Steinbrecher is now president of the club and his 30-year-old son also hunts there. The club had 22 members last year, he said, and this year it's shooting for 25. The club leases 2,185 acres from MeadWestvaco for about $19,000 per year.
Members of Rush Pond primarily use dogs but also still hunt. Last season, hunters there killed 38 deer - 12 does and 26 bucks. The majority of those deer were taken during dog hunts.
"I do it because I love it," said Steinbrecher, who bought property and built a house near the club. "I've had dogs all my life. Right down the road on Papermakers (another hunt club), I killed my first buck at 8 years old with a .410 shotgun with hounds running it."
Steinbrecher said there has never been a hunting accident at Rush Pond, and they've never had a complaint about their dogs. He said Rush Pond has good relationships with the hunt clubs around them as well as a private landowner adjacent to part of their leased property.
"Listening to those hounds running is something. And if you ever hear those bushes cracking and that deer coming to you, you have to make a decision if it's a buck or doe," he said. "To shoot one running wide open" - a whitetail can sprint about 30 mph - "with a pack of hounds behind it is a real thrill. Nine times out of 10 they get away. The dogs never, ever catch a deer."
Freddy St. Laurent, the president of the local chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association, said it's in the best interest of deer hunting if both factions get along.
"Ninety percent of the people that still hunt don't like dog hunters, and the dog hunters don't like still hunters," St. Laurent said. "I grew up dog hunting. Do I dog hunt today? No, I hunt private land. Am I against dog hunting? No, it's a heritage."
The conflict often can be traced to the size of the property on which people hunt. Dog hunting requires larger tracts of land than still hunting.
Tim Smith of Isle of Palms, who grew up dog hunting for deer in south Georgia, said dog hunters drove him out of a hunting lease in Williamsburg County and he has continued to experience problems on a lease in the ACE Basin.
"I have absolutely no problem with someone hunting with dogs on their own property. I don't have any bias against it as it relates to fair chase. My biggest thing is how it affects the stand hunter," Smith said.
"You get up two hours before the crack of dawn, drive an hour and sneak into the woods. You sit there and right about the peak movement time for deer, here comes a pack of dogs to completely annihilate all the work, money and effort you've spent."
Bara said dog hunting clubs can reduce conflict by meeting with adjoining landowners and offering contact information if problems arise. He said sometimes still hunting clubs or landowners will put a dog box on the edge of the property and put strays they catch so the owners can retrieve them.
Marcia Atkinson, executive director of the Doc Williams SPCA in Moncks Corner, said there are hunters who treat their dogs like family members and hunters who abandon their dogs.
"At the end of hunting season we see many individual dogs that we know were used to hunt," Atkinson said. "They either got lost after they were running and their owners didn't find them or they didn't have tracking devices. They come in emaciated and are in poor health.
"During hunting season we do have folks who come looking for their dogs but it pretty much drops off after that. That leads us to believe that the ones that come through that no one has looked for have been abandoned."
'I knew it was coming'
Steinbrecher said he intends to keep Rush Pond Hunting Club going as a still hunting club. He hunts deer from Aug. 15 until Jan. 1, which is the deer hunting season in 23 South Carolina counties including Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester, and then hunts hogs from Jan. 2 to Aug. 14.
Steinbrecher said he and other hunters knew changes were coming - they just weren't ready for the finality.
"A lot of it is the hunters' fault, just the actions of a few that hurts us all," he said. "They run dogs all over the place and MeadWestvaco doesn't have to put up with that. That's not the majority. You have a few bad apples, but they're going to shut the whole East Edisto district down.
"I knew it was coming. I just wasn't ready for it. It's our heritage, something else we're losing."
John Steinbrecher (left) and Randy Burbage spend some time at “Caw Caw Swamp Hilton,” the clubhouse used by members of Rush Pond Hunt Club near Ravenel.×
Using dogs to drive deer was the norm for hunters, like the late Sammie Bootle of Charleston, throughout the Southeast during the 1940s and ’50s.×
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