A True Houndsman: It’s More than Hunting with Hounds
Lifelong houndsman Forrest Parker shares his passion for hunting big game with hounds, the difference between hound bloodlines, his hound training style, and what he’s learned over the years.
By Art DeLaurier Jr.
Scent hounds follow their noses, and houndsmen follow the dogs. It’s an ages-old partnership steeped in tradition and a mutual love of the chase. Those who pursue big game with hounds feel that it’s not so much their sport that has changed over the years as it is public perceptions and attitudes about hunting animals such as bears and mountain lions with dogs. To modern sensibilities unused to the rhythms of the outdoors and the sounds of barking and baying hounds, this form of hunting can seem unsporting. But for a houndsman like Forrest Parker, former USA director of conservation and communications, the chance to pursue bears, mountain lions, and bobcats with his dogs is the reason he gets out of bed every morning.
“So much of who I am is related to hunting with hounds,” says Parker, a USA consultant and former employee. “It’s my journey, my culture, and my heritage. I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like without these sporting dogs. They’re my buddies, my teammates, and my best friends.”
A Passion for Plott Hounds
A third generation houndsman from western North Carolina, Parker grew up hunting black bears on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in the Great Smoky Mountains and says there wasn’t another house between his father’s home and the Appalachian Trail, which was about 14 miles away. He still resides in the area. “It’s brutal country,” he says. “If a dog can perform at a high level here, she can hunt game anywhere.”
Parker hunts for black bears in his home state and for bears, mountain lions, and bobcats in several other states and Canadian provinces. He and his hunting partner run Plott hounds and currently have 11 dogs in their kennel. The breed was developed in North Carolina and is the state’s official dog. “Plott hounds are tough and fearless because they originated in rough bear country,” Parker says. “They’re great hunting dogs with a lot of energy and drive.”
Ironically, his bloodline didn’t originate from kennels close to home but from Plott breeders in Michigan and Wisconsin. Hounds from these particular breeders tended to have colder noses, which means they’re better at cold-trailing game. Since Parker hunts a variety of game in different parts of the country, he wants a hound that is more versatile than most eastern-bred Plotts.
“A bear hunt is typically a much quicker, more action-packed chase,” he explains. “Whereas your mountain lion and bobcat hunts tend to require a lot more cold trailing and a slower pace until the animal is jumped.”
The pups he originally got from the north country proved to be more personable than other hounds he had trained. Personality isn’t a characteristic that most hound breeders focus on. But Parker says he works hard on “handle”—teaching a dog to respond to his commands in the field.
“I want a dog that wants to be around me because that’s where the action is going to be,” he says. “This is a learned trait, but you can cheat that code if you start with a dog that has an affectionate personality and wants to bond with someone.”
Born to Hunt
“If I were to turn these dogs out and they got to run around of their own free will, every single one of them would do the exact same thing,” Parker says, meaning they would hunt game on their own. “It’s what they do. It’s in their genetic makeup. Some dogs have more desire and heart, and those are the ones that are usually more successful.
“The best dogs, the ones with the most heart, also tend to do the most work. That’s why there are so many country songs about the old dog that died. The dogs with the most ability have the highest level of confidence and drive. But what gets them in trouble, especially in thick country, is that some of the other dogs in the pack might be standing around, not exactly committed to the task, and they clog the escape routes.”
To mitigate these dangers, Parker works hard to ensure that each of his hounds develop into a complete hunting dog. “I take those puppies out early on, and the first thing they learn is how to trail on their own,” he says. “I want to spend time on them up front, so I can discover not only who has the most focus and most drive, but also make sure they’re ready to contribute to the hunt when they get with a pack of dogs.”
This dedicated houndsman uses words like “pure” and “grace” when discussing his interactions with the pack. He claims he can distinguish individual dogs from as far as a mile away by their barking and baying and the other unique sounds they make when trailing prey.
“When a dog jumps an animal, you hear that voice change. You hear that intensity, the frequency, the types of barks. The team hears it. They’re communicating, so I know exactly what’s going on. Then that voice will change when a dog bays or trees the animal. I’m listening to this entire story unfold. I’m interpreting the sounds.”
When he hears this ancient music, he feels an intense connection to his dogs, the landscape and his heritage as a hunter. “It’s a primal feeling when you’re out there in the wild listening to them doing what they love to do,” he says. “You know that other hunters were hearing similar sounds hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago. The stakes might not be as high now as they were for my grandfather and father, who hunted primarily to put food on the table. And maybe I see the dogs not so much as tools but as my buddies, my friends. But I’m sure my ancestors were stirred by the same sounds and the same experiences that inspire me to want to go out and hunt every day.”
A New Way to Measure Success
For Parker, hunting big game with hounds is all about the dogs and the special bond he shares with them. “When you have a relationship with a dog, you want to see her succeed,” he explains. “I really enjoy when my dogs have treed a bear and I walk in there. It’s not uncommon for most of my dogs to leave the game and come to me. They’re so proud, so excited. The dogs run up to me and look at me like a bunch of goofballs—their eyes wide open and their tails wagging. They want to show me what they’ve done.”
Parker admits that some older hunters have scolded him for allowing such behavior, which they fear might give prey the opportunity to escape. But, for him, these brief encounters are proof that all the time he has put into training and building connections with his dogs is paying off.
“If that dog can leave the game even for a few seconds and look to me to show me what they have done, that means my relationship with that dog is stronger than its desire to catch that animal. For me that’s a win. Those are the trophies I care about.”
Parker’s approach to handling his hounds evolved even further a couple of years ago during the earliest days of Covid-19 pandemic. His outfitting business was shut down, and while that affected his livelihood, it was also a liberating experience. Freed from the pressure of harvesting game, he began to focus more on his young dogs.
“I didn’t have any expectations for them,” he says. “I just let the puppies play and have a good time. As soon as I changed the expectations I had for them—so all that mattered was we were having fun—I began to have fun again, myself. For the first time ever, I removed those pressures to harvest game. When I started focusing only on my relationship with my team, I realized what I had been missing. I care more about those dogs having opportunities to learn and grow than I do about them catching anything. My ultimate passion is the challenge of the hunt, overcoming hurdles, and being part of a team.”
A Cold-Trailing Pup
Perhaps Parker’s compassion for and commitment to his dogs comes across most ardently in an unguarded moment when he relates a story of a recent hunt in Virginia. He has an eight-month-old puppy with him, and she is doing an outstanding job. She strikes a bear track that all his more seasoned dogs have missed and is cold trailing the animal through rugged country and somehow ends up by herself. Parker immediately recognizes the precariousness of the situation—a young dog trailing a bear on her own in unforgiving terrain riddled with holes and caves.
“My biggest fear is caves and holes,” he says. “It’s usually the best dogs that decide to get into the cave or hole, and the dog is always at a disadvantage. There is no bear that can’t dictate what happens in close quarters, even if you have 20 dogs.”
Figuring he needs to get his puppy some help, he puts out his best female hound and two others. They pick up the trail on the other side of a river and are soon in on the chase.
Parker takes up the narrative, “We catch up to the dogs three hours later, after walking nine miles. To get to the dogs, we have to scale down these rock cliffs. As soon as I get to this rock, I see the other three dogs—over the rock—but I can’t see the puppy. It takes me 30 minutes to go 20 yards, and the whole time, I can’t see the puppy. There are no trees. The bear isn’t bayed, so I figure it has to be in a hole. The GPS says she’s right there, but I can’t see her anywhere. It’s a terrible feeling.”
This is a puppy that Parker raised in his own house. She’s a hunting dog, sure. But she’s also a pet. “At those moments, you don’t know if it’s worth it sometimes,” he says philosophically. “You don’t know if it’s worth putting yourself out there to be hurt. You don’t know if it’s worth putting the dogs through it. You’re asking yourself all these questions.”
Then, five minutes later, the puppy pokes its head out of the hole. It’s a moment of elation for Parker, who confesses, “You have never loved the dog more in your life than you do right then. And you say, ‘Please, don’t ever do that again!’”
But Parker knows there will be more moments of joy and even sadness up ahead on the trail somewhere again someday. It goes with the territory. To love dogs as deeply as he does is to be willing to follow them to the ends of the earth. At the same time, he recognizes that a true houndsman always keeps the welfare of his dogs foremost in his mind.
“There is a monumental difference—it’s the only difference that matters—between a houndsman and a bear hunter, or a houndsman and a lion hunter, or a houndsman and a bobcat hunter,” Parker says, “because you can go with the intent of harvesting that animal but never experience the magic or the relationships I’m talking about. Hunting big game with hounds requires too much work and commitment, and it’s ethically and morally wrong not to commit yourself to the health and happiness of the dogs because they don’t get to make that decision—you do.”