On a chilly Friday afternoon, we gathered outside of Jim Fahey’s pickup truck as he strapped a tracking collar to his dog, Chum, and explained the plan of action.
We’d walk down a grassy path for a bit, he said, and eventually arrive at a thicket of young evergreen trees.
“It’s thick in there,” the affable part-time guide said. “So thick that we’d have a hard time walking through it.”
Then he glanced knowingly at the low-slung beagle at his feet.
“That’s where we’ll start Chum,” he said.
For six months of the year, Chum is a wonderful house pet who gets along well with everyone, Fahey told us. But for the other six months — from October through the end of March — Chum looks forward to days like this, when he’s invited to tag along and put his world-class nose to work hunting snowshoe hares.
In a hare hunt, Fahey said, the dog does much of the work.
That’s Fahey’s story, at least: After observing Fahey during the hunt, friend Pete Warner and I quickly realized that the dog-owner also expends a lot of energy at times, redirecting the dog and making sure it’s not getting into areas it shouldn’t.
And us hunters? We stood where Fahey told us to stand and waited for a hare to show up. And waited … and waited.
As dogs go, Chum is neither the most energetic nor the speediest you’ll find.
His gait is shambling, and he gingerly hops, rather than vaults, over fallen trees.
But he’s a good-natured fellow, and has a grade-A nose. And as we learned, he’s absolutely tenacious (in a decidedly deliberate way) when he’s on the scent of a hare.
Fahey took us to a spot not far from his Bangor home, released Chum, and before long, the dog began to bark.
If you’ve never hunted snowshoe hares behind a dog before, barking is good. It means the beagle has found the scent of a hare.
The pitch and frequency of that barking, Fahey told us, can tell him whether the scent is fresh, or older. And when Chum is truly on a fresh scent, there’s no mistaking the eagerness in his voice.
There’s a common misconception among those who haven’t hunted hares, and some who have, Fahey said. Many think that the dog actually herds the fleeing hare back toward the hunters.
“That’s not what happens,” he said. “All the dog is doing is following the scent, wherever it goes.”
The hare, however, will often circle back to the patch of heavy cover it had originally been hiding in. That predictability can aid the hunters, who set up — or “post” — in spots along that line of travel.
On this day, Warner and I got several chances to post, as Chum kept up a steady track (and low-speed pursuit) of a hare for about three hours.
There were a few intermittent breaks in the barking when we began to wonder what was going on, but each time, before long, Chum picked up a fresh scent and began barking anew.
After a few laps around the hunting grounds, Fahey said, the scent trail gets muddled; Chum may cross over a patch of old scent that the hare left 15 minutes earlier and get a bit confused.
When confronted with that complex scent problem, Fahey said the dog doesn’t tend to barge on and hope for the best.
Instead, Chum tends to stop, regroup, and try to figure things out on his own.
And figure things out, he did … eventually.
Both Warner and I had fleeting glimpses of hopping hares during the chase, but neither of us got off a shot until much later.
Still, the flash of white fur — hares are just beginning to return to their summer brown coats — provided both of us some much-needed encouragement.
At the end of an afternoon of posting and waiting, Chum circled in front of me, not visible, but fairly close. Fahey smiled, repositioned me a short distance away and showed me the GPS tracker in his hand.
“He’s chased the hare through here three times already. Chum crossed this path right here each time,” he said.
About 100 yards away, Warner stood on another path that the hare-and-hound combo had crossed multiple times.
“This could be good,” Fahey said, before vanishing back into the woods to check on Warner.
About five minutes later, as I listened to Chum’s barking continue, a shotgun blast rang out. The hare had finally made a mistake, and Warner was in the proper spot to take advantage. Then, on cue, Chum showed up at the downed hare to receive his hard-earned rewards.
Chum took center stage in the ensuing celebration. Praise was handed out. Photos were taken. And Chum was the star of the show.
That was only proper, of course: He, after all, had done all of the hard work.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke.