Each issue of the Russian Hunting Magazine features two stories in condensed translation into English. This is one of these stories from June 2017 issue.
Text and photo by Katarina Stern, Latvia.
What’s that? The enemy of the people, the alarm clock? No, that’s my friends, calling to tell they’re late. A thick fog caught them midway to me. So there’s enough time to pack up – a thermos with coffee, some sandwiches, a rope, two knives, gloves and spare socks go into a big black plastic tub, and the tub goes to the trunk. I’m ready.
I’m ready for my first beaver hunt with dogs. One of my friends has been bugging me to let me hunt beaver on my hunting grounds, to give his dogs some more practice. All huntable land in Latvia is divided into hunting grounds, on which clubs rent hunting rights from the state or landowners. The system works: the State Forestry Service counts animals and issues licenses, hunters watch over their territory, feed the animals, build high stands, and control animal populations – including beavers. If you let them multiply enough to cause damage to forests or waterways, the landowner or the Forestry Service may fine you. Beaver hunting is actually pest control, and if some of your friends are enthusiastic enough about it to volunteer to help you, it’s an offer you can’t refuse!
The way to hunt beaver in Latvia is in a group of a few people and at least two dogs, terriers or dachshunds. One dog isn’t enough – they get tired, can be injured, or suffer from hypothermia. On that day we had three jagdterriers and my 8-mo old wirehaired dachshund. It was the first beaver hunt for my dog, and it was amazing to see her progress from a rookie who couldn’t even connect the smell of the animal with her direct duty to a passionate huntress, willing not only to get the beaver but to protect her trophy from other dogs.
By 8 a.m. we reached our destination – a forest with clearings and a land-improvement ditch blocked by a beaver dam. We destroyed the dam by pulling out the bigger branches that held it together, and then digging, until water could run freely down the ditch. Now we had to wait until the water level dropped enough to show the underwater entries to the beaver hut. A powerful wave went up the ditch, suggesting that a beaver was escaping by diving; a hunter followed and marked the spot where it stopped. But the dogs showed no interest in the hut, and the hunters proclaimed it abandoned.
About a kilometer up the ditch we found another, much bigger dam, some 5-6 meters across and 120 sm. high. We dismantled it quickly – even the dogs helped tear out branches – but then things went slow: the ditch was wide and deep, and it took a couple of hours until the water got low enough. We passed the time sharing coffee and sandwiches – what could be more pleasant than that, in good company of hunters, after hard work?
The break ended as soon as we could see the entries to the beaver holes. It was time to form two teams and investigate both sides of the ditch. Here you have to trust your dogs’ sense of smell; one by one the experienced jadgterriers check out each ventilation hole until they come on a fresh, warm smell of the giant rodent. Then they start to dig frantically, growling and whining with impatience. The hunters help them with their shovels, and it’s funny how they talk with their dogs in the process, up to asking directly where to dig.
The dogs should enter beaver huts from ventilation holes on top, rather than from underwater entries. A beaver is usually preparing its escape through one of the lower channels, and a direct face-off with the dog will put it on the defense. This may result in a fight, in which a dog can be hurt, or in a beaver’s taking a last stand in a dead end, from where it’s hard to retrieve. But when the rodent sees danger from above, it flees – and shows itself to the gunners. Latvian hunters go after beaver with shotguns and slugs – you often get to shoot a diving beaver, and a shot charge doesn’t penetrate water well enough. If the animal survives the volley, a stream of bubbles on the surface shows the way it escapes; the hunters follow and watch until they make out the beaver and try to shoot it again. You can also used nets blocking the stream up and down the hole.
We got six beavers that day. Two of the stories are worthy of telling. One beaver showed its head out of the hole right under the boot of the hunter who was trying to break through the “roof”, as if asking “hey, what is going on here?” Then it left its hole quickly, but nobody could shoot because the dog and the man were too close. The beaver went away and we followed in its wake; after a while the wave it left behind smoothed over, and we would’ve lost it but for one of the dogs. The dog kept swimming in the ditch, narrowing the circles, until one of the hunters managed to see the beaver’s nose over the water and make a one-shot kill.
The other we dubbed a zombie beaver. It was also a one-shot kill – or so we thought. A hunter took it by the tail and carried ashore – where the rodent managed to bite him by the boot! Good thing the teeth didn’t reach the leg. It went quiet then, and we left it for dead, figuring that we’d pick the carcass up on our way back. As we were returning, me first with the shotgun on a sling and a camera in my hands, I noticed the beaver was lying in a different posture – and breathing! From then on, it looked like a good action movie: I cried “It’s alive!”, the hunters looked at me, at the beaver, at me again, the dog bit the beaver’s rear end, it came to life, made a couple of clumsy leaps, dived into the ditch and swam off, leaving behind a trail of enormous bubbles. We ran after it, firing shot after shot into the water with no success. I didn’t try to shoot, because I ran out of slugs and had only small buckshot left. Finally, a log blocked the beaver’s way, and, as it was getting around it, I shot and finally killed the zombie beaver.
In the end of the hunt, according to the Latvian tradition, we made a display of our six trophies, with a three-pointed fur branch over the back of each animal, and took a few photos. The main beaver season in Latvia runs until April 15; hunting resumes in July 15 when the young beavers are big enough, but most hunters prefer to wait until autumn, when the pelts are in good condition.
The original Russian version of the story see here.