If you’ve ever hunted deer with dogs, you know that one of the biggest problems that a hunter has is losing his dog. But the longest a dog has ever been gone for me is 1-1/2 days. If the dogs get into one of those restricted areas while chasing a deer, oftentimes they’ll run the deer for a very long time - even after the hunt ends.
GPS collars help me keep up much better with my dogs than I once did. Before GPS collars, we used beeper collars. After a certain time, the batteries would go dead in those collars, and then we couldn’t find our dogs.
On one day, one of my dogs stayed gone for 1-1/2 days. I took my shirt off, laid it beside the road where the dog had crossed and gone on the restricted area. I learned that trick from my dad and was the only thing I knew to try and recover my dog. The last time anyone saw my dog was when he was going into a restricted area at 5 p.m. I stayed in the woods hunting for that dog until midnight but never could find him. When I came to look for my dog the next day, he was laying on my shirt.
Although anyone can hunt anywhere they want to on a WMA open for deer hunting, everyone who hunts the WMA where we hunt respects each other’s areas. In other words, we’ve been hunting this WMA for many, many years, and the other hunters who hunt near us know where we hunt and won't hunt there. We know where they hunt and don’t hunt there.
We know the members of the groups that hunt with dogs around the region where we hunt. If our dogs are running a buck that goes into their hunting area, we switch our CB radios to the channel that group of hunters use and tell that group, “Hey a buck’s coming from our area into your area, from this direction. We hope y’all get him.” That group knows their hunting region better than we do, and where a buck usually will cross the road.
Here’s the etiquette we use. The hunter who’s found the buck gets the antlers and the cape of that buck and half the deer. The hunter whose hounds have been running the buck gets the other half of the deer. If a deer my dog is running is killed by another group of hunters, I generally donate my half of the deer to our camp. We will finish butchering the deer and have that meat for supper after the hunt.
Our camp was built in 1943. My grandfather, my father and I were raised hunting in that camp. I’m about to be a daddy, and I’m planning to raise my child in that camp. As in many states, there’s a big push in Florida to stop hunting with dogs. Since I’m the third generation and about to have a fourth generation coming on, hunting for deer with dogs is part of our tradition and our way of life. If it’s banned in Florida, I probably won’t hunt deer as much as I do now.
The main joy I get out of deer hunting is listening to my dogs as they run a deer. I’m even happy if someone else takes the buck that my dogs are running. But the life at the camp and the camaraderie we all have with one another and with their families is really the reason most of us deer hunt. I tell people every day, if your objective is to harvest a buck, then don’t go hunting with dogs. You’ll probably take more deer sitting next to a pile of corn in a tree stand.
Last year we took 15 bucks for 30 hunters off 20,000 acres. The year before that we only harvested one buck. The year before that we took 25 bucks. Some years we have a lot of bucks on the property we hunt, and other years we may not have very many.
Something else we’ve learned about deer hunting with dogs and hunting the same property year after year is there are certain places on that land that are special to the members of the club who hunt there. We have a tradition in our hunting camp that any time one of our members passes away, we put up a sign with his name or his CB handle on or near that special crossing.
My dad’s name was Joe Ellis, but his call name on the CB radio was Produce Man, since he had a produce business for more than 30 years. We had put a 4x4 post in the ground with the sign, Produce Man, on it in 2011. So, the first hunt that year I backed my truck to my dad’s sign and turned my dogs loose.
My brother, Chandler Ellis, has a pack of dogs also. I told Chandler, “OK Chandler, let’s turn our dogs loose on opening morning of dog season at our dad’s sign.”
The man who runs our camp was checking cameras that morning, and he called me on my CB handle (Cornbread) and said, “Cornbread, you may want to bring your dogs into this block where your dad’s sign is. The camera here showed a big 8-point that left this block yesterday at 5:30 p.m. and returned at 5:45 this morning.”
So, my brother and I put our dogs out. I took a stand on the trail where we’d gotten the trail-camera pictures of the buck. The dogs jumped the deer about 500 yards down the trail. The 8-point buck made a circle and came back down the same trail he’d used earlier. I took him at 7:15 a.m. The memory of my dad’s sign and that hunt will remain with me as long as I live.