By. Krystle S. Morey
It’s tough work trudging through the woods, climbing over rocks and navigating swamps – try doing it while chasing a dog who’s sprinting to the end of his 30-foot leash, following a trail that you can’t see.
This is a daily workout for Tim Nichols and his Bavarian Mountain Bloodhounds, Bruno and Mars – at least during hunting season.
“You’ve got to go where that dog goes,” Nichols said.
Nichols helps hunters in New York and Vermont recover their big game. When sportsmen shoot a deer, bear or moose and it runs off, leaving a faint blood trail, he and his dogs can usually find it.
A Granville resident, Nichols gets anywhere from 125-140 calls each season. He usually goes on 80-90 calls.
“I refer some to other trackers, because I can’t take them all, as much as I would like to,” Nichols said.
During the day, Nichols works as a meter reader for Green Mountain Power in Vermont. Almost every evening – during hunting season – he’s trekking through the woods, across brush and swamps, to find wounded deer, bear and moose until midnight or later. Then he’s back to work at 7 a.m. at GMP, where he’s been for almost 28 years.
Nichols used to be an avid hunter in his younger days, but he gave it up to help other sportsmen.
“I used to, but now it’s all tracking. And when I am not tracking, I am resting and getting ready to go out,” he said.
Nichols, who has spent the last 20 years tracking, fell in love with the trade when he was in high school. He was reading an article in Outdoor Life magazine about John Jeanneney, a veteran tracker who uses European wirehaired dachshunds to find wounded game. That was in the 1970s, when tracking was just being introduced in the U.S.
In the late 1970s tracking was legalized in New York, so Nichols moved from Vermont to New York to get a permit. In the mid-1990s, he played a role in getting leashed dog tracking legalized in Vermont, eventually growing an expansive roster of local trackers.
There are several other trackers in the area to whom Nichols refers calls. He is part of VT/NY Leashed Dog Tracking Service, his own organization which has about 25 trackers; Deer Search, a Vermont group with about 60 on its roster; and United Blood Trackers, a national service that hunters can access online.
Nichols’ son Travis Nichols and his wife Laura are also trackers. Nichols took Travis out on calls with him starting when he was six years old.
“When a hunter calls, he has tracked it with his eyesight as good as he could,” Nichols said. Even when a hunter has lost a visible blood trail, Nichols’ dogs can pick up on the animal’s scent.
Upon calling, Nichols will collect a bit of information from each hunter including name, phone number, address and tag number. He’ll then notify officials of who he’ll be helping and the location of where he’ll be tracking. This step makes sure that the hunter is properly licensed and that if people hear shots after dark, police will know that there’s a tracker in the area.
“There have been times that the information doesn’t make it into the system and as soon as I shoot, we’ve got police there, we’ve got the game warden there and everything,” he said.
Nichols went on a call in Hebron a couple of weeks ago, which took him through thick brush.
“It was just so thick where the deer went and the only way we could get through was on hands and knees,” he said.
Nichols said each call comes with its own set of challenges, the No. 1 challenge being that “each hunter thinks it’s a killing shot.”
“As soon as they see blood on the ground, they think it’s dead,” he said – but that’s not always the case.
These last few weeks, during archery season, it’s been easier for Nichols to determine how a hunter has wounded the animal.
“If they find the arrow, a lot of the evidence is right on the arrow,” he said. If stomach material, blood or hair is found on an arrow, that tells Nichols the type of wound and approximately how far the animal will travel.
“It’s almost like a doctor’s call,” Nichols said. “It’s either ‘I think we can do this,’ or ‘oh, man…we’ll never find this thing.”
Hunter Clint Hazelton enlisted Nichols’ help after he shot a deer on opening day, Oct. 1.
“I looked for a long time, and wasn’t having any luck finding it,” he said.
With the help of Nichols and his pup Bruno, Hazelton, of West Pawlet, recovered his 4-point buck.
“I wouldn’t have found it without the dog,” he said. “…he found it within a matter of minutes.”
This wasn’t the first time Hazelton has called on Nichols and his dogs for help. He’s used the tracking service a handful of times during his 20-year hunting career.
“He is a great guy, and really good at it,” Hazelton said. “He is very knowledgeable about where a deer will go and his dogs are well-trained. We usually have pretty good luck finding the deer.”
With deer, there are four things the dogs are looking for: a blood trail, blood scent (steam from a wound), the scent gland in their front hoofs and bucks in rut.
“Once he gets on one, the dogs will go by a regular deer because they can scent identify the one that they want,” Nichols said.
Nichols helps hunters recover their kills free of charge, but accepts donations. All donations go back to training the dogs and maintaining their vet bills.
It’s not just big game tracking that Nichols does. Sometimes police will call on him and his dogs to help with missing persons cases. When a young autistic boy went missing in Comstock a few years back, Nichols’ dogs were able to track his scent. They found him sitting on a rick in the woods after a six-hour search. Another man who was lost near West Mountain for four days was also found.
“You may get one or two calls a year with that,” he said.
Nichols trains the dogs himself. He bought Bruno in Poland in 2006. Mars came along when Bruno was bred with a female in Cooperstown.
The dogs train with deer tails and get venison meat as treats. Nichols will take the pups to the Little League Field, drag a deer tail across the ground, hide it and send them off to find it. Sometimes he’ll wait 24-hours before sending the dogs out to find it, to make sure they can get the scent just like they would if they were tracking an animal after its been shot by a hunter. Then all that’s left is to make sure the dogs don’t get distracted by cows, other dogs and more.
“You can’t beat the nose of a dog,” Nichols said. “You’re just the dummy on the end of the line.”
Bruno, who will turn 10 on Christmas day, has found more than 200 deer.
“He lives for this,” Nichols said.
Hunters seeking Nichols’ help should call 518-642-3012 or 802-353-6020, or reach out to him online at Facebook.com/ Leasheddogtracking.