TAYLORSVILLE, Miss. (AP) — When a Taylorsville man lost a deer he shot, he decided to buy a dog and train it to track. Now, his dog has recovered almost 500 deer for hunters
"About seven years ago I shot a big buck I couldn't find," Heath Walters said. "I didn't know anybody with a tracking dog.
“It was horrible. When you trail one for probably half a mile without a dog and the blood trail stops — it was horrible. It was probably the biggest buck I'd ever shot. I decided to buy me a dog and train it myself.”
Walters didn't need to think long about what breed he wanted. He bought a chocolate Labrador retriever and named him Gage.
THE MAKING OF A DEER-TRACKING DOG
"I've always liked Labs," Walters said. "They're smart. "They're easy to train. I just love the breed."
Walters began working with the puppy and by 6 months of age, Gage was tracking deer. Soon, Gage was working for other people and making a name for himself.
"It was about the second year I realized just how good he was and started tracking for other people," Walters said. “He became Facebook famous. There's some good ones out there, but he's really good.”
And Gage's number of recoveries is growing. Now 6 years old, he has found almost 500 deer.
"He's going to have about 470 lifetime recoveries so far — something like that," Walters said. “I'm at 101 for the year right now. I'll probably be at 110 to 125 by the end of the season.”
Walters said Gage would have found more by now, but the two needed some rest recently because of this season's demand for Gage.
CALLS KEEP COMING: TRACKING DEER DAY AND NIGHT
"I was pretty much running ragged," Walters said. "We missed a couple of days.
"All day I could track deer. On the weekends I could get 16 to 17 calls. On a weekend it's nothing to get calls 30 minutes after daylight and not get home until one or two o'clock in the morning and have to be at work at 7. Sometimes we've found six or seven in one day. Word just spreads. I stay busy seven days a week. It takes a lot of dedication."
The calls and requests for his service through Facebook are sometimes overwhelming and Walters often refers hunters to other trackers he knows and trusts.
"I had nine calls yesterday and I gave most of them away," Walters said Jan. 10.
Thomas Garland of Crystal Springs also tracks deer and said not only are 100 recoveries in a season unusual, it's a full-time job.
"It's a lot," Garland said. "For the average person (handler) it's 20 or 30 deer a year.
“When you get to 40 or 50, that's a full-time job tracking deer. There's a couple of guys I know that have gotten to 100. I think two years ago I found 70. That's a lot. It's a full-time job day and night.”
AWAY FROM FAMILY AND LITTLE TIME TO HUNT
And the job lasts all of deer season, which is from October through the end of January in most of the state. During that time, 44-year-old Walters works weekdays at his job as a land surveyor with most of his off-time spent tracking deer. That takes him away from his wife and daughter much of the time, but he said his wife is understanding.
"She knows the passion I have for getting out there and tracking deer," Walters said. "Most women would throw a fit as much as I'm gone and coming home late, but she don't."
It also leaves little time to hunt.
"Between this and work, I just don't have time," Walters said. "I could make time if I wanted to, but I love watching that dog work. I love finding deer for people."
WATCHING THE DOG WORK AND HELPING HUNTERS
Although Walters accepts tips, his and Gage's services are free if he isn't required to drive more than two hours, which he typically does not. So what would drive Walters to spend so much time recovering deer?
"I enjoy working that dog — going out there and finding a deer people can't find," Walters said. "They think it's gone forever.
"I love watching that dog work. That dog's going to put in 110% effort every time I turn him loose. I don't question that dog when I turn him loose."
But for Walters, there's more to it than watching Gage work.
"A lot of the people I've tracked for are now my friends," Walters said. "I found a kid's first deer this year.
"I found a woman's first buck not long ago. That's real rewarding."
How dog tracks a deer: It's all about the scent
According to Walters, almost all of the deer he's tracked would have not been found without a dog. In part, it's because Gage isn't tracking a blood trail, he's following the scent of an individual injured deer.
"That's what he's trained to track," Walters said. "There are some that don't bleed (externally) at all. I went on one that went 800 yards and never had a drop of blood."
Wayne Atwood of Laurel was in a similar situation in November.
"I just shot him with a bow and it was a bad shot," Atwood said. "I couldn't find any blood or my arrow.
"I backed out and called Heath. It's amazing what that dog can do. He does wonders. It took just a few minutes and he made a recovery. I probably would have never seen him. I haven't seen a dog like that before. That dog's a wonder, for sure."
Some of the tracking jobs are easy and only take a few minutes, but some are much longer. Walters said the longest track Gage has made was 2.89 miles.
However, Gage doesn't find them all. Some of the deer he's tracked did not have life-threatening injuries, some ran to adjacent lands where permission was not granted to track them and others were apparently not shot. Even so, Walters said he'll probably never have a dog that can track like Gage.
"I'll probably never have a dog as good as that one," Walters said. “I could train 15 dogs and never have one like Gage.”