Tracking expert Thomas Müller lists the equipment needed for specialist blood hounds and their handlers when following up wounded game
When tracking wounded deer or wild boar, it is important to use the right equipment. Depending on the weather and the terrain, the handler’s clothing choices can vary. When tracking wild boar I usually prefer thorn-proof waxed cotton jackets and trousers, because a wild boar search usually ends somewhere in dense bush, bramble or black thorn thickets. Anything less durable would end up being ripped to pieces very quickly, as would your skin.
When tracking deer or chamois in the alpine region, I prefer light and durable stretch fabric clothing, like the type worn by lumberjacks. Layering clothes, depending on the temperature, enables you to strip off a layer or two before you start perspiring too much. This is important to prevent you from getting wet, and hence chilled. Starting off shivering slightly is usually the best way of staying comfortable and healthy while tracking.
The same principle applies to the cap you wear. Ideally, it should have a visor and fit fairly tightly, so you won’t lose it when crawling through thick bush. However, I personally prefer the old grey mountain cap worn by the mountain troops and forest rangers in Germany. It protects you well, can be worn in summer and winter and I hardly ever lose it. Some of my colleagues even wear climbing helmets with a chin strap, but personally I find them too noisy.
Heavy-duty leather gloves are very important – with or without insulation, depending on the weather. They will protect you from cuts when entering bramble fields or black thorn thickets. I advise you to buy them large so you can get rid of them with the flick of your hand when you have to reach for your rifle to take a shot.
Depending on where you hunt and what the legal situation is, I advise wearing clothing in blaze orange or another signal colour. Too many deadly accidents have happened because the handler was trying to approach the hound at bay or the wounded animal and was shot by another hunter eager to help, because he wasn’t clearly visible. If tracking or controlling tracks close to public roads, especially when the light is fading, I also advise reflective material sewn onto your jacket. Signal vests and jackets of the type used by cyclists, or indeed anyone dealing with traffic, are also becoming relatively easy to get hold of for a reasonable price.
For your scent hound partner, you will need a special scent hound collar with a swivel leash attachment. These collars are usually two to three inches wide, and some have additional padding, but most important is the swivel attachment. This ensures your leash won’t get twisted all the time and can run freely on the ground. They can be made of leather or a synthetic material, as long as they do not put too much pressure on the hound’s neck and the leash can be secured safely to it – without the danger of holding the leash and the hound taking off with the collar because some rivets broke on the attachment.
For the past five years I have used a chest harness to release the pressure on the hound’s neck and keep the throat free to allow it to breathe properly. If you let the hound loose to chase wounded game, the collar or the harness should be taken off to prevent the hound being hooked up by a branch. This can make him hard to find if you do not use a recovery collar, or if the hound doesn’t speak.
The leash should be between 30 and 36 feet long. Traditionally, a 1 to 1.5in wide leather leash is used, but in the alpine region I come from, a waxed climbing rope tends to be favoured. Leather has to be dried after its use and kept supple with saddle soap or leather oil, which is why most people around here use modern climbing ropes with a snap hook attached, or a rubberised synthetic material leash as I now use. The bright orange colour helps you to see it in high grass. They are a low-maintenance tool that has been field tested for years, and I can highly recommend them. Most important is to use a leash appropriate to your hound’s size.
If your hound has been sent to chase a wounded animal, it is good to use a signal collar, or even better, a signal vest with additional reflective material and your phone number and the hound’s name on it. If strangers pick it up, they can easily inform you where the hound can be retrieved.
Scent hound handlers now use hound radio retrieving collars. However, all the hounds mentioned in this series will usually find their way home sooner or later. My hounds have stayed away for up to four days, way up in the Alps when chasing a chamois up a steep cliff and there was no way to come back on the same route. They eventually waited for me where I originally let them loose, sitting on an old overcoat I left there. If you want to retrieve a lost hound quickly, I advise you to buy a radio or GPS retrieving collar, but make sure it works in your area and type of terrain (watch out for deep ravines and the like).
When coming up to wounded game you will have to decide on how to kill the animal. Usually, it is more humane to keep your distance and give the coup de grâce with your rifle or a powerful handgun. That said, there are situations when the use of a firearm is not advisable.
When dispatching an animal next to a road, with spectators – not to mention the danger of a ricocheting bullet – you will have to use a good hunting or military knife with a blade of five inches or longer. It has to have a sturdy blade and a proper sheath securing the knife properly, yet that allows quick access when needed. It is best worn on a belt above your jacket.
The same applies for your handgun, if you decide to use one. Most professional trackers in Germany use a pistol or revolver only as a backup gun. The calibre should be the biggest one you can comfortably handle, so you will still hit something when under pressure. Usually 9mm Para, .45 ACP in pistols and 3.57 Mag or .44 Mag in revolvers with four-inch barrels or longer will be sufficient. Use high-quality hollow-point ammunition to ensure enough stopping power.
My personal advice would be to leave the handgun at home if you are not confident in your proficiency with it. It is a lot of dead weight to toss around, and much more dangerous in a tight situation than a short rifle.
I prefer to carry a shortened bolt-action rifle in a medium calibre with a fairly heavy bullet, like my old Mauser 98 in 9.3×62. Using a heavy round-nose bullet I can shoot through thick bush as well – but good stopping power is most important. The barrel can be cut down to 18in, but the front sling attachment should be mounted as close to the muzzle as possible to prevent it from getting hooked in branches when carrying it over your back. The sling should be attached to the side of the rifle – I find that this way it is more comfortable to carry. The sling used should be strong and checked regularly for any weak spots.
A good old Lee Enfield in .303 or Mauser 98 in 8×57 or .308 Win will do the job perfectly. The rifle has to be reliable, with a well functioning safety catch that secures the firing pin rather than the trigger. I prefer to put one up the spout only when I believe I will need the rifle soon. Detachable magazines must be avoided, or at the very least secured properly; there is nothing worse than trying to cycle a round in the chamber, to find out that you have lost your magazine. As an alternative, lever action rifles like the Marlin Guide Gun or pump guns with slugs can be a good choice.
Lastly, if looking for blood or hair that the hound is interested in, a pocket magnifying glass and white tissue paper (to dab the area) can be quite useful.
When the weather is hot and dry, or you expect a long ‘follow up’, always take a canteen along to ensure that both hound and you will be supplied with enough water. The same applies to energy bars – following wounded game requires good kit, a keen hound, and a tenacious tracker. It can entail hours of hard work, but a successful find is more than worth it.