Posts Tagged ‘bluetick’

blue tick

It was that time in winter when the sun seems to rise for no other reason but cast down a few pallid rays and then sink below the horizon. It was a time when the gray clouds would come barreling in with snow squalls, but today the sky was cloudless. The land was covered in the dormancy and death of gray drab winter.

A pothole encumbered country highway follows the course of river. It follows it not because the river provides bucolic and pastoral scenery, which it certain does in the more roseate seasons of the year, but because the hilly land of rural West Virginia demanded that the roads be laid out along the paths of least resistance..

The road is meant to be a smooth-skinned snake of asphalt winding its way along the river, but the years of salt trucks and overloaded hauls of timber have cut chunks in its hide.  Some course are smoother than others, and a motorist can reach great speeds before bouncing a few tires in the tank trap that suddenly appears at the end of a straight stretch.

The river is wild. It flows down from the High Alleghenies on meandering tour of the hills, as it passes from the realm of the brook trout to the lair of the flathead catfish. Otters roam along its banks, their spraints marking their little highways into water where the suckers and the river redhorses are harried and killed.  In summer, the belted kingfishers line the willow and birch trees, diving down like winged javelins to spear minnows and shad.  During those same summer days, the long-nosed gars flit just below the surface of the water, slashing at any small fish that dares come near that jagged maw. Hidden in the murkiness, the Chautauqua muskellunge, the great river pike, lies in wait of mallard ducklings that might stupidly swim within striking range.  Soft-shelled turtles and stinkpots and snappers fill the river on those summer afternoons . Sometimes, they climb onto logs that half submerged to sun themselves before another good bout of fish-hunting in the murk and muddy.

But on this winter day, none of those things was stirring. The otters were asleep in their holts, and all the river fishes and turtles were hibernating. Nothing was about. Only a few vehicles zipped along the highway that day. Hours passed between them.

At one bend in the road was a bit of bottom land, where the river never flooded, and here, were several dog houses. Tied on a twelve-foot chain to one of them was a long-eared bluetick coonhound. His home was a dog house, and the chain compelled him to stay. Behind him flowed the wild river and its various denizens, but he cared for them not at all.

His name was Banjo, and the only thing he cared about was following the trails of raccoons.  He had learned from an early age that his neck would sting like a thousand static shocks if he tried to chase a deer or fox or opossum. The only quarry worth his time was the raccoon, which he’d run and run until it took refuge in a tree. And then he would let fly his baying at the tree trunks, the master would come with his fire stick, which would fire, and the raccoon would fall down where a hound could give its corpse a good mauling. In previous years, he’d run with three other hounds, who were also tied to houses in his dog lot. But the master was called away to work, and his time spent running hounds became shorter and shorter every year. He sold one hound, then another, and when left with only two, he’d sold the bitch and kept the dog. Banjo cold be used at stud and make a few dollars that way.

Banjo lived for the raccoon track. As soon as the fragrance of raccoon spoor would rise into his nostrils, he’d become so intoxicated with the fervor of chase that he’d bay out in excitement. All the best coonhounds do this. The Germans call a dog that bays on the track spurlaut, a feature that true houndsmen savor like the finest Champagne.

So driven was Banjo for the night quest after ‘coon that he had to be chained to a dog house. Virtually every fine scenthound is kept tethered in this part of the country. They are so driven to go off on a long trail that they soon find themselves miles and miles from where they started, or they might go trailing off so hard that they find themselves under the tires of a speeding pickup.  His desire to hunt perhaps exceeded that of his lupine ancestors. He loved his master, but he loved the hunt more.

All Banjo could do on these short winter days was to lie out in front of his dog house and let the weak sun rays warm his dappled coat. He would close his eyes and dream and dream of long nights running along the crayfish-invested feeder creeks that trickled into the wild river, where the raccoons made their trails out of the laurel thickets to the repast of the bottom-dwelling pinchers and freshwater mussels.

And on this day, Banjo slept lost in his hunting dreams. At times, his legs kicked as if he running some old trail, and occasionally, his lips would let loose a few moaning whimpers.

Thus was the life of working man’s hound dog. His breed has been typecast as running  with Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and later, Jerry Clower and Jimmy Martin.  But now his lot is cast with the working-class, native-born white prole, the people now so despised for their Trump votes and the fact that they see their noble existence in toiling with callused hands and hard shoulders and not in class struggle.

But through his veins coursed far nobler blood. His ancestors were the hounds that tracked the red deer and fallow through the king’s forests in Medieval England.  He also had ancestors who ran the boar and the murderous wolves in the South of France. These are the wolves that attacked peasant shepherds and cattle-herders in the forest and lifted children from firesides. His kind were never kept by anyone of low birth. They were the dogs of the king and stately duke or lord. Their “blue mottle hounds” and Grand bleus de Gascogne were transported to the wild country across the Atlantic and became the common bayer of the fierce monkey-badgers that roamed the cornfields and river bottoms.

However, when Banjo stood at the end of his chain in the winter sun, his noble bearing was hard to conceal. It was as if he belonged in a baying pack of wolfhounds, reading to go catch the murderous howlers that plagued the land. That hard hunter’s stare in his eyes  made him look so eternally different from the sloppy bloodhound of cartoons. His muscles rippled under his looser skin. He was more than a simple hound. He was a beast.

As the sun began to sink in the western hills beyond the river, the hound rose from his slumber and moseyed over to the water bucket. He drank in slushy laps that splashed hollow against the buckets sides.  Soon, the lady of the house would be coming with dinner. The master and his wife lived across the pothole road from the dog lot, and every evening she would come with a bucket of food. She would look both ways and scurry across the asphalt and dump out feed and run back home. She was not into hounds, but she loved her husband and so did her daily drudgery of feeding Banjo and checking his water bucket.

Banjo knew that if dinner came, there would be no hunt tonight, but if it came, the pungent taste of dog food and table scraps would break up the horrid monotony of the day– a win either way. So best to lap some water now and prepare for something.

As Banjo lifted his head from the water bucket, another smell wafted into his nose.  It was the sent of a skunk dog, the little red fox that he’d learned that he should never chase. Up the river about 100 yards, a young red fox came loping. He was born the previous spring in the great expanse of hayfields that lay south of the river, and he’d spent much of the winter fighting with big dog foxes and running from wiry Walker hounds.

His kind were no more native to the land of the wild river than the blueticks were. They were long-believed to be an English import, but we now know they came wandering south of out the boreal when they discovered that European man had created a bounty of mousing meadows when the forests were cleared.

And at this moment, the young red fox had come looking for some mousing meadows to call his own. Beyond the master’s house was an expanse of grassland that once contained a herd of stately polled Herefords, but now that pasture land was kept solely for the growth of hay. Twice a year, mowing machines and balers would come calling. The roars and clanging din of the machinery would fill the whole river valley, and then they be gone and the grass left to grow again.

It was a paradise for voles and mice and a small number of cottontail rabbits, and as a paradise for those creatures, it should have been a smorgasbord for a red fox on the hunt.

But for whatever reason, no fox had claimed it. It was perhaps too isolated from the pasture and cornfield kingdoms that the red foxes rule, and it took a particularly brave one to venture this far into the river country. Now, the young fox had only to cross the road and he would have his own estate. And the mice and the voles and the rabbits would soon have something else to worry about.

Banjo stared hard down the river bottom and when his eyes finally registered the movement of the approaching fox, he let loose a deep primal growl at the intruder.

The fox, approaching downwind, froze in his tracks. A dog was nearby. That couldn’t be good.  He sat on his haunches and tried to scent the dog. He then rose, trying to cast himself out of the wind’s current and in a direction where he could figure out where that dog growl was coming from.  After five minutes of casting, his eyes finally locked onto the canine form of Banjo, and he froze in terror.

Here was a dog much larger than the running Walkers who’d harried him all winter. This was a fell creature that could make short work of him, but then he noticed the big dog wasn’t lunging toward him at all.  It was as if it were somehow bound to that bit of earth on which it stood.

And his youthful curiosity suddenly kicked in. This was the first time he’d really had a good look at a dog.  A fox rarely gets a chance to examine that which might kill it. Its life is paranoia. It must always be ready to bolt at the slightest twig snap.

The great hound sniffed the air again. He breathed in the skunky smell of a red fox.  He’d never really had a chance to smell one for so long. He began to detect familiar odors emanating from the fox. The fox had a canine base to its smell, but it was not of the true dog kind. He’d smelled a fox a before, but never had he been able to catch these canine nuances before.

After a few minutes of study, the red fox knew his time was up and skip-loped across the asphalt and climbed the opposite embankment into a hedgerow of autumn olives.  When he crossed the hedgerow, he soon found himself in the big meadow– and there was not another dog fox to be seen or smelled!

The red fox is bound by the territories of other foxes. Coyotes might run him off or kill him, and humans do so on occasion. But his life, though short and paranoid, is relatively free.

Banjo, the great bluetick, might wish for such an existence, but he must live the bulk of his life on the chain.  But he truly lives when he’s let loose on a cool autumn night and the scent of boar ‘coon is rising along the creek bank.

The noble hound now lives the ignoble existence on a chain, yearning for his chance to  go night questing again for the old monkey-badger with the ringtail.

But in those moments when he runs the quarry and bay it treed, he experiences the profound ecstasy a hunting being in pursuit of prey. It is a joy that surpasses all the other joys in his life. He is a beast, and all his bestial energies are let loose in one great orgasm of chase.

The chained hound becomes the fell wolf dog once again.


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This image of three brace of Grand bleu de Gascogne hounds comes from Gilbert Valet’s La chasse du chevreuil (“Deer hunting”).

These dogs are used to hunt deer in the traditional French way, which is very illegal in most of the United States. Running deer with hounds is a tradition in most of the South, but most states in the US have banned hunting deer with running hounds. Many states, like New York, allow leashed tracking dogs to track wounded deer, but the state doesn’t allow hunters to release every strong dog in the county into the woods in hopes of driving out a big ‘un.

The French still have a tradition of running hounds on deer, and they still celebrate their deer hounds– every bit as much as Southern white-tailed deer hunters do.

This particular breed is from the Midi region in the southwest of France. Gaston Febus, Comte du Foix, is said to have run packs of ticked hounds on deer, wolves, and boar in the fourteenth century. Traditonally, it is said to be the primary ancestor of the bluetick coonhound in the United States, and there is even a type of heavy bluetick-type hound that is called the “American blue Gascon hound.”  It is the original heavy hound type that was once common in the bluetick coonhound, but because coonhound trials require a particularly fast hound, the functional conformation standard for that breed required a rangier, harder driving hound. However, there were splinter groups within blueticks that fought to preserve the  original heavy type.

But here’s the thing:  Although the old-type bluetick looks a lot like a Grand bleu de Gascogne, I have not seen any evidence that these dogs are of the same lineage.

One problem that I have with the theory is that the number of French settlers to the southern United States that came directly from France was very small. Most of the French Cajuns in Louisiana came to Louisiana via Acadia– in Maritime Canada.  There are no indigenous blueticked hounds in Quebec or the French-speaking parts of the Maritimes.  And when the French colonized these regions, these types of hound were not readily accessible to the majority of the populace. It is unlikely that any free French yeoman could easily procure hounds from a nobleman and take them to the New World.

Of course, the other theory is that the blueticks all derive from Grand bleu de Gascogne that were given to George Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette.  This is possible, but the pack was only two and half brace– and the bluetick coonhound is far too common and not inbred enough to have derived from just that small number of hounds.

The center of this breed’s development has been Tennessee, not Virginia or Louisiana.  That state has no real connection to widespread French colonization, though there were French trading posts in the state in the early eighteenth century. The bulk of the state’s population has been Scots-Irish in origin, and the French trading posts disappeared before Anglo-American settlers moved in. It is doubtful that packs of French hounds could live wild in the Tennessee wilderness until the Anglo settlers arrived in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Because of they think another more parsimonious origin is that the dog is derived from a British dog.

And we do have a breed that fits the bill– the Southern hound of England.

This breed was very common in England south of the River Trent until the middle of the nineteenth century, when it disappeared. It partly was absorbed into modern scent hound breeds, but it was very common in England. It would have been widely imported to the American colonies, for it was such a common hunting dog that it would have been very common for well-to-do colonists to bring over large numbers of them.

What did a Southern hound look like? Well, here’s the best known image of one. It comes from The Dog in Health and Disease (1852) by Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh):

This image clearly shows a dog of the heavy scent hound type. It appears to have been between a foxhound and a bloodhound– two breeds that absorbed it.

This same description also fits how we understand certain more “bloodhoundy” coonhounds to be.  In addition the American blue Gascon hound type, there are plenty of black and tan coonhounds that are of this type. Granted, most of these black and tans are actually AKC show stock and are not widely used as hunting dogs.

Very few sources talk about the color of the Southern hound, but I came across this gem in Henry Anderson Bryden’s Hare-hunting and Harriers (1903).   In the text, Bryden discusses the origin of the “blue-mottle” (bluetick) coloration in the harrier and traces it to the Southern hound:

The colour of the Southern hound has been much debated, some asserting that it was originally black and tan, while others maintain that blue mottle was the true Southern hound colour. Personally, after a good deal of research, I am inclined to think that the old Southern hound ran in many colours, black and tan, red, the varied colouration which we now attribute to foxhounds, blue mottle, badger pie, hare pie, pure white, and even slate colour. In Devon and Sussex, which seem to have been always strongholds of the Southern hound blood, blue mottle is still a very noticeable colour in some of the best of the old harrier stock, which owe their ancestry largely to the Southern hound strain.

I think this description suggest that the heavy black and tans and blueticks/American blue Gascons (and perhaps the Redbones) are actually derived from this blood, not any French hounds or the bloodhound.

Some sources describe the primary color of the Southern hound as “blue mottle.” Henry William Herbert described the Southern hound in The Complete Manual for Young Sportsmen (1857), which included a description of the various scent hounds of Britain:

The Southern hound, though somewhat lighter framed and not much, has the same general characteristies [as a bloodhound], but is often, if not generally, blue mottled with patches of black and tan (pg. 226).

That description sounds very much like the old bluetick coonhound type or the American blue Gascon hound.

The large immigration to England’s North American colonies from the British Isles also coincides with the large-scale adoption of the foxhound as the primary pack hound in England. Prior to the adoption of foxhunting as the primary rural sport, the southern hounds were more common, but they were not nearly as good at chasing foxes as the lighter foxhounds were. With these heavier dogs being replaced by the foxhounds, it would have been easy for settlers to the American colonies to procure these dogs and establish strains of them there.

Judging from the descriptions of the dogs, perhaps the heavy blueticks/American blue Gascon hounds are the closest things to living Southern hounds.

This theory is much more likely than the Grand bleu de Gascogne theory that is so widely promoted.

There just weren’t that many French colonists and settlers, and those that did come were mostly of Canadian origin.

There is very little evidence of large packs of French hounds being brought to this country at any time.

And because blueticks are so common, it would have required large-scale importation– much more than the hounds that Washington received. There is no evidence that these French hounds were Grand bleu de Gascogne either, and there are plenty of other French hound breeds that these dogs could have been.

It’s just a very murky story. The evidence just isn’t there, and there is another competing hypothesis that has not been considered more carefully.

In the end it, it may be that the French origin of the blueticks may be as fanciful as the Russian origin for the golden retriever.

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Most of the blueticks looked like this when I was growing up.

When I was a boy, most of the blueticks were of this type.

When I was growing up, one of the most common dogs in West Virginia was the bluetick. It wasn’t always used as a coonhound. It was often kept as a general varmint hound and farm dog, but they all had a distinct appearance. They were all rather large dogs with heavy dewlaps and long-ears. They resembled the Grand Bleu de Gascogne hound from which we know that all blueticks descend. Perhaps the best way to think of them is of a somewhat less exaggerated bloodhound with black or black and tan spots and heavy roaning  (or “ticks”).

Today, the old-fashioned blueticks are not as common as they once were. Indeed, a lot of blueticks now are built on racier lines with less pendulous dewlaps.  The dogs are not nearly the size they once were, with most dogs weighing not much more than 75-80 pounds (and that’s for a big dog) and some bitches falling as small as 40 pounds.

The standard for the breed reflects the current style, which makes some sense. At least the coonhound breeders get functional conformation. That’s more than I can say for other breed clubs. Smaller dogs don’t overheat as easily as big dogs do, and more gracile frame is more advantageous when you are wanting a dog to run fast and hard for a long distance.

However, I don’t think that such a form would have ever existed but for the existence of coonhound trials.  As we have seen, trials have totally changed the conformation of the Labrador retriever, which used to be a relatively beefy animal. I call some of the trial-type Labs “Labrawhippets,” because that’s what they look like.

In response to the change in the bluetick, a group of breeders of the old-fashioned blueticks has formed their own registry. Their registry is the American Blue Gascon Coonhound Association. The name they take is of the old Grand Bleu de Gascogne. This breed very closely resembles the old-fashioned bluetick, and it is believed to the primary ancestor of the breed.  One theory goes that the French imported these dogs were supposedly imported to Louisiana, where they existed among the settlers for centuries. It’s also possible that Grand Bleu de Gascogne was the primary ancestor of the southern hound in England, which was common south of the River Trent and is believed to be major ancestor of the British foxhound and harrier breeds. The Southern hound existed until the nineteenth century, and it or some variety derived from it could have been the ancestor of the bluetick.

Another theory is that the Grand Bleus were the hounds given to General Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette, and these dogs were the ancestors of the bluetick. However, I take a more holistic approach. It’s very possible that all of them are true to a certain extent. The bluetick was a landrace hound of the American frontier for centuries. It’s only been in the past few decades that we’ve tried to parse this breed into a standard form with a standard history and appearance.

The American Blue Gascon Hound standard calls for a bigger dog with much longer ears and more of a dewlap. These dogs can stand 30 inches at the shoulder, and the minimum weight for a dog is 90 pounds.

Now, these dogs are probably not going to be run at the same speed and at the same temperature as the smaller hounds. It’s just physically impossible, but I can see why someone would want one of thes dogs. They are a heritage breed with a very good nose that can detect cold trails as well virtually any bloodhound.

My cousin recently purchased a dog of this type. He’s three months old and weighs nearly 30 pounds. He looks a lot like the cartoon character “Goofy,” but he’s already baying the masked quarry. In a few months, he’ll be in serious coonhound training, running with the more disciplined older dogs.

And although we may never have a consensus on this breed’s history or conformation, it is good to know that these dogs are still worked. I think the world be a sorry place without “Ol’ Blue.”

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