Text and photos by C.R. Nelson
“Listen – you can hear their voices.”
It was a cool gray November afternoon, with fox grass adding a rusty halo to the field that stretches into State Game Lands 223 near Kirby. Sixteen-year-old Brayden Kidd stops and points towards the sounds – a combination of the classic howl of a hound, a raspy series of barks and another burst of sound more high pitched than the rest, speaking almost as one.
“That’s Heavy Duty, he bays. The low bark, that’s Zoe. I just got her and she’ll be in competition tomorrow. And the high pitch, that’s Angel. They caught the scent of a rabbit.”
This Waynesburg Central sophomore was spending one last after-school hour getting ready for a weekend of competition beagle hunts in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It wasn’t because he needed more points – he’s already the United Kennel Club National Youth champion for 2017.
It’s because this kid loves running beagles.
The air is still now, except for the sudden squawk of a pheasant. Heavy Duty, Zoe and Angel were busy tracking the rabbit as it circled and dodged them in the brush.
Kidd holds out his smartphone and shows a cluster of scribbles on screen. “If they had their Garmin collars on, this is what they’d look like. The rabbit doubles back, runs in circles, sometimes gets back to the hole. If they lose the scent …”
At that moment Zoe, tongue dangling, pops out of the underbrush into the grass of the mowed pathway and begins nosing the ground.
“See, they lost the scent and she came back to pick it up.”
Zoe disappears into the thicket and a moment later, her choppy voice announces she is back on track.
Kidd smiles. “She’s good.”
Running beagles draws all the senses of the hunter into the mostly invisible world of the hunt, and the dog that does the things that bring the rabbit circling back to the hunter is what dog owners – and judges – look for.
Zoe’s ability to be the first to return to relocate the scent is one such winning trait. So is the dog that picks up the scent first and gives voice. It’s up to the handler to say “Strike! That’s my dog!” when this happens. A hesitation can cost points if another calls his dog first, Kidd points out. Once the scent is found, things start to happen fast. The first dog to be seen behind the rabbit when it finally emerges into view also gets extra points – points that can add up to a winning score.
At competitions, entry cards are laid face down, then divided up into random groups of four-dog “casts.” These are the groups that go into the field with their handlers, a guide and a judge with a clipboard, to hunt rabbits in the native habitat of the area – fields and underbrush filled with thickets, thorns and sometimes meandering streams.
The South West Pennsylvania Beagle Club meets at the old brick school community center in Kirby and hosts a series of yearly hunts between April and October. This is where Kidd won his first trials in 2016, working with dogs his mentor, Terry Lemley of Spraggs, helped him to buy. The nearby state game lands are a valuable resource for the club and so is Joe and Pat Walko’s Lone Star Farm next door. It has six acres of mowed paths and brush piles to shelter rabbits from coyotes and hawks. It also includes a safety zone between the house and the game lands where guns are allowed, making it a safe place to train and compete. In the world of beagle competitions, the UKC quips on its website, the only lead to be found is in the pencils of the judges.
“I keep it mowed in memory of my father-in-law Richard Neal. Hunting with dogs was his passion,” Joe Walco says. Neal, who wrote his college thesis on cottontail rabbits, bought the last few acres of the pre-Civil War farm in 1983, but died of a sudden heart attack two years later. The Walcos began mowing paths and stacking brush five years ago and now, “rabbits are everywhere. They’ll nest under sheds and sometimes I’ll see one run between the barns, then the dogs and behind them guys with clipboards,” Walco says, grinning.
As hounds go, beagles are short – around 14-15 inches tall – and fast, able to negotiate tight places and have the stamina to run miles. Other beagles are bred to be longer legged and faster for serious rabbit hunters, but it’s the smaller dogs that can hunt and then be brought onto a bench to be judged for conformation that continue to bring new generations of kids into the world of working dogs.
UKC formed in 1898 and set the rules that judge the “total dog,” for the work the dog was bred to do, as well as its conformation to breed standards. The organization hosts and sponsors family friendly competitions that keep alive the tradition of the older hunter mentoring the kid who loves dogs, just as the older dog teaches that special pup that loves to hunt.
Lemley was part of the group of area gun hunters drawn to the sport more than 20 years ago by the late Dale Prunty of Shinnston W.Va. His champion White River bloodline was legendary and the Kirby club sponsors an annual Dale Prunty Classic every year in his honor.
Good bloodlines count and Kidd, Lemley and many club members also keep the Shenango Trigger bloodline, started by the late Bill McFarland of Brookfield, Ohio. His Shenango Kennel produced Trigger, a sire to many of the champions running today.
When Kidd and Angel won Total Dog and Champion at the McVay Memorial Hunt and Show in Coshocton, Ohio, in August, his win gave him more than enough accumulated points to make him the top Youth First Strike Handler in the nation. The American Beagler Magazine took note: “Brayden is currently the golden boy on the podium in the Hunting Beagle Senior Division.”
Kidd has been out almost every weekend this season, pleasure hunting and competing and both Angel and Heavy Duty qualified to compete at the UKC World finals, held this year in LaGrange, Ind.
On Sept. 27, Kidd and his dogs caught a ride to the event with Washington police Officer John Miller and his family.
“I met Brayden two years ago at a competition when we were both starting out – he was 14 and I was 31. I’m a gun hunter and wanted something I could do offseason with my two daughters. We had a great time at Worlds. The girls loved it, and Brayden did a fine job. He competes against adults, but his points are counted as youth and he was the only youth that made it to the quarter finals.”
Kidd made it into the quarterfinals with Heavy Duty and came home that weekend with a trophy and products from Purina Pro dog food and other UKC sponsors. Then, he and Lemley were back in the field the next day after school, getting to know the voice and the moves of new dog Zoe. On Nov. 5 and 6, she took first place in the registered dog division in Uniontown and Ellensboro in W.Va., making her dam Kita the UKC number one champion producer of winning pups.
“I wish I could get some of the kids I see at work involved with beagles. It keeps them out of trouble and kids develop a bond with the dog,” Miller says.
Bonding with a beagle couldn’t be easier for area youth with a family willing to pitch in and help, Kirby Club president Chad Carpenter says. He and step brother Duke Bennington are avid hunters, and so is Carpenter’s 7-year-old son Brody, a second-grader at West Greene Elementary. The tailgate of his dad’s truck, parked along a beagle friendly field on McQuay road near Rogersville, had turned into a competition bench and Brody was ready to show the work it took to win the trophy sitting beside him. His dad had a firm grip on one back leg – it was a fine day and Lily the beagle was ready to go.
“Any youth interested in getting into beagles we’ll give them a puppy that has good blood lines,” Bennington says. “At 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, in all kinds of weather, Brody’s standing between us. He could be watching cartoons, but he’d rather be out listening to the dogs run.”