Hunting with Hounds in Africa

Posted On : Mar 25, 2017

Posted By : Nick Muckerman

Searching for tracks

Hunting with Hounds in Africa

Hound hunting is often misunderstood as a method of pursuit. There is a misconception that it is easy or even unsporting. Both assertions couldn’t be further from the truth. Africa has a variety of very unique and difficult to obtain trophies that can be effectively hunted with the use of hounds. Hound hunting in African is unique, adrenaline-packed, and very rewarding. It is still hunting, and even with hounds no hunts are a slam dunk. The main species hunted with hounds in Africa include leopard, caracal, serval and bushpig.

For those not familiar with hound hunting, the premise is simple. Hounds are used to trail the game by smell, jump it from where it is bedded up for the day, and put it up a tree or stop and bay it on the ground until the hunter can come in for a shot.

Leopard Hunting with Hounds

Leopard hunting with hounds is fast paced, exciting and not without an element of danger. While leopards are comparable in size of a mountain lion, they are much different to hunt with dogs due to their ferocity, propensity for violence to dogs and humans, and general abhorrence of being bested and caught by hounds.

Hounds were used more readily a century ago before telescopic sights had the light-gathering capabilities that they do now. But that does not mean that this traditional method of pursuit should be looked over by sportsmen keen on collecting Mr. Spots.

Leopards can be run from tracks that are cut driving roads, but more often than not leopards are run off of baits. This is for several reasons. Many concessions do not allow shooting at night. If a leopard is nocturnal and only hitting baits at night, as many big males do, dogs can increase the odds considerably for the hunter. This is often the case on educated farm land cats. Because hounds cannot be used in areas with Tsetse flies, they are most often used in southern African ranchlands.

One of the biggest advantages to running off of a bait is the ability to know what is being run. Either by trail camera pictures or tracks around the bait, the PH can make the decision to turn dogs loose if he knows it is a male that has just hit the bait. Likewise, he can keep the hounds in the box and continue moving to the next bait site if only a female has visited. In leopard hunting with hounds, things happen fast and no PH wants to accidentally kill a female or have to shoot one in self-defense. Obviously, this is not full proof as the dogs can’t tell the difference in a female or male track because they are operating on scent, not the size of the pad mark or stride of the cat. As an example, if the bait was hit at midnight by a male but a female passed by more recently, the dogs will likely turn off of the older track for the fresher track. Similarly, a tom chase can turn into a female chase if a female recently crossed the tom track even without hitting the bait and showing up on a trail camera. There is excitement in the mystery of hunting with hounds, but it is important to be aware that the tree may hold an unexpected surprise.

Hounds with a trophy leopard

Photo courtesy of Theunis Botha

Because most leopards are run off of bait, the actual trailing of the cat is usually not long. Once a leopard has been feeding off of a bait, he probably will not go far from the bait during the day. He has no reason to. If he eats and drinks at night and then lays up 300 yards off of the bait, the dogs only have to track the cat that far before it is jumped. A leopard acts completely different than a mountain lion when pursued by dogs.

When a mountain lion is jumped by hounds, it will usually run 100-400 yards and then climb a tree. This happen 95% of the time. The lungs of a mountain lion and leopard are designed to run very fast for a few hundred yards. They are not meant for prolonged running. Simply put, they run out of air and have to climb or fight. Mountain lions usually climb. Leopards, whose lungs are similar, do not always just climb a tree quickly. They are much more aggressive and volatile than a mountain lion and will often back themselves against a tree, cliff face or dense brush and turn and fight dogs instead of climbing a tree. This is where it is extremely dangerous for both dogs and the hunters.

A leopard is a very fast animal with a nasty arsenal of claw and fang that he is not afraid to use. It is not uncommon to lose a dog to leopard. This is the unfortunate reality. The hounds love what they do and do it well, but the leopard is simply a stronger and more effective fighter when he can single out a dog and pull him in.

Approaching a bayed up leopard is dangerous and things happen quickly. Stay where your PH says to and do what he says to do You may end up shooting a leopard as it leaps over the pack to try to get to you because they decide the bigger threat are the approaching humans rather than the hounds. In the excitement, remember that keeping the hunting party and hounds safe from your bullets is your number one responsibility before killing the cat.  

Caracal Hunting with Hounds

The caracal is a very interesting cat and unique trophy. Lithe and tawny brown, they look like a small mountain lion with a shorter tail. The most striking part of the caracal’s appearance is the long, black tufts of hair on its ears. Often called a lynx by locals, the caracal weighs in between 20-40 pounds. They are an amazing animal and extremely effective predator. They can leap 10 feet in the air to catch a bird and can also kill springbok or young kudu that are way larger than themselves. Although not common, they have been documented dragging large kills into trees as a leopard would do.

While more leopards are shot without hounds than with hounds, far more caracal are shot by visiting sportsman with hounds than without them. While caracal can be called in like any predator and sometimes are shot by chance or with spotlights, most are killed over hounds by visiting sportsmen.

Just like leopards, the lungs of a caracal are not meant for a long run. However, caracals do not usually climb a tree quickly because they have a sort of trick they use to conserve lung capacity. When a caracal is jumped by the dogs, it prefers a brisk, long-strided, stiff-legged walk rather than a bounding jump to keeps distance between him and the dogs. The bounding jump that they use for catching their own prey wears them down in a very short period of time. This is very similar to how a bobcat or Canadian lynx acts when pursued by hounds, which, like the caracal, are a challenge for the hounds to catch. Caracals are clever and they will pull different tactics out of their repertoire of tricks to stump the dogs.

When hunting caracal with hounds, a houndsman might check water holes or dusty roads that will hold an actual track, but generally he will walk his dogs through areas that look like good caracal habitat in hopes of a hound picking up a trail to run. In the hound hunting world, this is called casting the dogs.

Hunting Serval with Hounds

Servals are a strikingly good looking cat. They are spotted, leggy, and similar in size to the caracal. However, unlike the caracal, they do not prefer larger game. They are rodent specialists and feed primarily on them. They are killed with less regularity than caracal and there are not a whole lot of outfitters who really specialize in them. Usually, they are spotlighted in fields at night where they can be found hunting mice and other rodents.

However, to a hound, a cat is a cat and they will run a serval trail just like they would a caracal. PHs and houndsmen are pragmatic. If you are targeting servals, they will cast dogs in areas that they frequented by them and hope that a scent trail can be picked up. This usually happens in the morning when the trail is freshest. This includes brushy draws between fields and other areas servals are known to be hunting mice and other rodents.

Hunting Bushpigs with Hounds

Bushpigs, like leopards, are generally hunted one of two ways: over bait or with hounds. Bushpigs are nocturnal (just like the cats) and daylight sightings are rare. Just like a cat, hounds scent trail the pigs to where they are resting for the day, and then the chase begins. They may also be run off of baits set specifically for the pigs, which isn’t that difficult considering that they eat almost anything.

The hounds’ job is to locate the pigs and then stop one for long enough to get a hunter there by baying it up. Hunting pigs over hounds is fast paced and it also requires a bit of physical effort because keeping up with the dogs can be strenuous depending on the terrain. Additionally, when pigs are pursued by hounds, they like to go to the nastiest, thickest, thorn cover jumbles of brush located on the hunting area.

Archery Hunting with Hounds in Africa

All hound hunting in Africa can be done with archery equipment. However, not every tree or bay up situation with every animal will offer an opportunity for a shot with a bow. Be prepared to use a firearm if necessary. Most cats that tree are shootable with a bow, but not all. Anything that is bayed on the ground is iffy and you will have to follow the instructions of your PH and houndsman. Arrows are dangerous to hounds. A broadhead sticking out of the backside of a bushpig is lethal to a dog. Also, because broadheads kill by hemorrhaging rather than the massive tissue damage and shock of a bullet, even a good archery shot leopard is more likely to take a hound or two with him in his dying breath than one that has just been drilled with a 300 Win mag through the lungs. Again, trust the judgment of those entrusted with your safety and the safety of the dogs. If hunting the small cats, use a reloaded solid in a high-powered rifle unless your PH has a .22 or shotgun handy you can borrow.

Hound Hunting – It’s About the Pursuit

If you are physically capable to hike with the houndmans, I recommend doing it. Otherwise, you may be robbing yourself of a very special experience. The majority of hunters will usually just go to the tree once the animal had been caught, depending on the species. Some will even hunt other animals until this happens. Hunting days on safari are precious, so this is understandable. However, hunters miss out on the excitement of the chase this way. Listening to the sounds of a couple of cold-nosed hounds grubbing out an old caracal track is something to behold.

A caracal hunt looks something like this: As any other day on safari, you will wake early. At daybreak you will hike with the houndsman and PH through air chilly enough to see your breath. If you are fortunate, in time you will see a hound or two start to act “gamey.” Their tails will wag and they will be frantically covering ground with their noses just inches from the ground. They know a cat was there last night, but the track is old and cold and the dogs have trouble lining it out. Soon, you will hear the first bawl break through the cold air and reverberate from the hills around you. It will bring chills down your spine. The hounds will move out and others will chime in with their distinct barks, yelps and howls.

Getting the hound pack readyResting the hound pack

Photos courtesy of Theunis Botha

You will try to keep within earshot as the intensity grows as the track gets fresher. There will be times of silence when you, the hunter, think that the trail is gone and that the trophy is out of reach. Then you will hear the distant howl of an old, cold-nosed, floppy eared bluetick as he finds the out and the track continues. Suddenly, like a flip is switched, the hounds explode in a cacophony of music. They have reached the cat and jumped him from his bed. The chase is on. The hounds sound like a freight train going through the hills as they gain on the cat while the cat uses his back of tricks to elude the dogs and buy precious time to put distance between himself and the hounds in full pursuit.

Eventually, you will hear a new sound. Some of the hounds’ voices will turn over into long, mournful bawls while others with start short, fast, choppy barks. You won’t recognize each hound like the houndsman will, but you know something is different. The cat is treed.

You will make your way to the tree and behold the cat above them, brought to bay by the pack of excellent hounds. Your houndsman will have a sheepish grin of pride on his face. Even the dogs will look proud as they continue to bay at the cat, occasionally eyeballing you as if to say, “look what we did!” You couldn’t have done it without them. But, you have truly earned the cat you will shoot by keeping up with the chase and being a part of the action. You will have earned the respect of the houndsman and PH because you were there for all of it. Through the experience, the truth of hunting with hounds will reveal itself to you: the chase is everything compared to the actual kill.

About the Author: Nick Muckerman lives in Idaho, USA and is an avid outdoorsman, international hunter and traveler. He has hunted multiple African countries and has traveled to over 40 countries of which half were in Africa. He hunts with his own pack of big game hounds which he pursues mountain lions, bears and bobcats with.