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Tracking Systems -- how they fit into rabbit hunting

Featured: April, 2002

Why would someone go to the expense of buying a tracking system for Beagles? Are they really necessary? My dogs handle great: aren't they only for big woods hunters? These are some of the many questions that I've gotten about tracking equipment as it relates to beagles and rabbit hunting.

Tracking systems and rabbit huntingEach year I rabbit and hare hunt all over New England. Many times we're a hundred miles from home and 15 or 20 miles from a pay phone or cellular service (yes, these places still exist -- thankfully). Occasionally I run into other hunters looking for a dog. Quite often I see them the next day, or two days later, and they tell me that they found their dog -- but now they're missing another one. They spend a lot of time looking for their dogs, when my guess is, they'd much rather have been hunting rabbits -- instead of hounds.

Most hounds handle fairly well and the problems aren't too frequent, but problems aren't always confined to handling, or circumstances within our control.

Tracking collarsAs added insurance I prefer to run tracking collars on as many dogs in the pack as possible. In my tracking system I currently utilize 3 collars, with the option of adding more. I'll get more into the details of the system I have chosen later.

One afternoon in early October of last year, I was running three dogs near the Canadian border when I ended up with a split race with less than 30 minutes of daylight left. The logical thing to do was to get the two dogs that stayed together first, then focus on Katie if time permitted. As luck would have it I made it to the other two dogs fairly quickly and easily downed them and got them on lead, but it was now dark as I stumbled out of the hemlocks. I put magnets in their two collars to turn off the signals, so there's no interference with the remaining dog's collar, and put the two dogs in the dog box.

Tracking collars and BeaglesMy attention was now turned to Katie, a young bitch that's coming along nicely, who was still hammering to the West, but was nearly out of hearing. I went down the road toward the truck, stopping to take readings with the receiver every few hundred yards until I got a real good idea which road would be the best bet to hope the hare crosses. This was made even more difficult because of one of New Hampshire's nutty regulations about using tracking equipment. The regulation states that you cannot operate your tracking equipment from a road. Now, that's bad enough, but the law goes on to further state that you cannot operate your tracking equipment within 300 feet of the center of any passable road. Yes, that's right, every time a reading is taken in NH, you must be a complete football field from the center of any road or path that is passable by anything or anyone -- even a foot trail. Do you suppose it was the state's governing bodies that succumbed to the pressure of the anti's with this regulation? Obviously it was, because someone at sometime must have had a fit seeing someone locate their dogs. So what's the solution? Force hunters out of sight. Out of sight out of mind, right? Wrong, but that is a topic for a different article.

My dogs handle well above average, but there is no way that I'm going to call her off that chase. I've heard it's possible to call a dog off of a driving run, but I have yet to find out how. She was basically deep into a large, swampy piece of mixed softwoods. I waited from dark until after 7 o'clock, which was over two hours with Katie never getting closer than three or four hundred yards to the road. She was making big circles and never had enough of a check within hearing to even attempt to call her in. Even with a flashlight there was no way that I could maneuver fast enough to cut her off, so I went back to camp, knowing that I could find her at daybreak -- thanks to the tracking collar that she always wears. Unfortunately, I also knew that coyotes were a potential problem in this particular area, due to the amount of scat and tracks that I'd seen. The chance of her becoming an hors de' oeuvre certainly did exist.

We started out the next morning at first light and drove for 20 minutes or so to the spot where I had last heard Katie. Nothing on the receiver -- zero. Not good. I drove around to where we cast the dogs the previous day to the jacket and bowl of food that I had left -- nothing. The food was untouched and I couldn't even get a tiny blip with full power on the receiver. Now, I was beginning to come to the realization that one of my favorite young pups was a gonner. I called home and checked the answering machine hoping that maybe a logging truck had picked her up, because chance were no other vehicles would have cause to be up there. There were no messages. My unit is one of the more powerful receivers available. It's supposedly good for 8 to 12 miles in open country, but as I've found out from regular use, the range is about 2 or 3 miles in this type of rugged, thick, softwood-choked terrain.

I took a gamble and drove around a mountain on the only drivable road in the area. I got out of the truck and listened -- nothing. I got out the receiver and turned it to the highest sensitivity. I waved it around and got a very faint signal off to the North. I had mixed emotions because it meant that I had some idea where she was, but she definitely didn't get picked up by a logging truck; which would have been the preferable occurrence. There was no way to tell if she was OK, or even alive. The reason why I got no signal at all from where I had last `beeped' her the previous day was because she was currently on the other side of a very steep, rock-faced ridge. It wasn't all that far as the crow flies, from there -- maybe 2 or 3 miles, but the steep, rock-faced ledge stops any chance of a signal. The faint signal that I got wasn't quite good enough to commit to hiking in, due to the bounce that you sometimes get from the steep ridges. I decided to drive around to what would be the opposite side of her. I knew that there was a passable road over in that direction, but wasn't sure if it would be closer to her or not. I got out the GPS and locked in my current position so that I'd have some reference to compare to. When I arrived to where I estimated, I got a little bit better signal, so I decided to go in from there. Due to the terrain, the hike in was nasty and I hoped it would be short. I once again locked in my location on the GPS, before I headed in. I could see that I was a little over 5 miles from where I had last 'beeped' her. I estimated that she was a couple of miles in from where I was and headed toward her with the tracking receiver, yagi antenna, first aid kit, handgun and small military shovel (for obvious reasons) in my pack. I made it over the first ridge and luckily struck a tote road that headed in the right direction. I let out a few yells for her and went a little further. After five or six hundred yards I took another reading and the signal was much better; she was probably within hearing of my calls, so I began to yell to her again. At this point I kept going on the path toward her while taking occasional readings. I felt better when it was apparent that she was coming closer to me. The attenuator (lowest sensitivity) was on and I was getting a good signal. This meant that she was close. Within a few minutes we met on the path. Katie's eyes were swollen shut from the branches and briars that she had run through all night. Her legs were swollen and she was bleeding from various places. I could see all of her ribs because she had lost at least 2 or 3 pounds after going for nearly 24 hours. I did my best to clean her up and carried her a few hundred yards. She stumble alongside me the rest of the way back to the truck.

I washed out her eyes again before putting her into the dog box. When I got back to camp I fed and watered her, and flushed her eyes again. After nearly two full days of lying in the dog box, only getting up to take some food, water or to relieve herself, she was back to normal.

My tracking system is the Wildlife Materials TRX-64S. It is capable of handling up to 64 collars, and is one of the more powerful units available. For collars, I prefer Johnson's smallest and lightest collars. They are the sealed battery version and weigh only 4 ounces, total.

Tracking collarA note on collars: There are two basic types; replaceable batteries and internal, sealed batteries. The replaceable kind is usually good for around 200 hours. The sealed types are good from 2000 to 16000 hunting hours. Now, one question comes to mind in this regard. How will anyone know how much life is left in their replaceable batteries? Maybe there are 20 hours left on your battery and the low battery light hasn't come on yet. I'd hate to think that you had to worry about almost finding a dog and having the collar battery die. I'd much rather send them back to the factory after 3, 4 or more (depending on the internal battery) years and pay the $40 or so to have a new long-life battery in there, than guess how many hours are left on a replaceable battery. I prefer to play it safe. That's the whole reason for the system in the first place.

I am not recommending Wildlife Materials and Johnson collars over other brands. I get no endorsement from either company (but would certainly accept one -- smile). But, I have checked around and believe this system fits my needs better than the others. I am somewhat intrigued by the Tracker brand of receiver because it's smaller and you can carry it with you easier, on your belt. Maybe I'll report my findings, on that receiver, to you in the future.

Thanks to the tracking system I was able to recover Katie in a timely manner, and sleep a little better on numerous other occasions when it's usefulness proved itself. I have no doubt that my tracking system has saved the life of more than one dog.

Tracking systemIf you can't afford the price tag of an entire system (less than $800 to outfit two dogs), then at the very least you should buy the collars and run your hounds with them. If you need to use a receiver, chances are you may know somebody with one that you could use; in a pinch. Just be sure to match the frequency of the collars that you buy to the most readily available box. If you use it once per year it is well worth the investment. As my dear grandmother used to say, "It's far better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it." The way the world is today, it is penny wise and pound foolish for a serious hunter to be without one. On this subject, for you Internet surfers, here's a link to some absolutely amazing information and recovery stories that tracking systems have been responsible for here.

Without the aid of the tracking collar, I have serious doubts as to if I would have ever seen her again. Any number of things could have happened. A good outfit for two dogs can be had for an approximate monthly cost of $14 -- spread out over a 5-year life. When you'll need it isn't really the point. The point is that you have it when you finally do need it. It provides peace of mind, and is sure to come in darn handy sooner or later. Let's all hope it's later.

Enjoy your hounds and be safe.

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