When someone mentions the word “wolf” in Oklahoma it would be safe to stand back, especially if you are among mixed company. That is because the legacy of wolves and the mixed emotions of their impact are buried deep in the history of North America. Generations of stakeholders have passed on the stories of burdens more so than the blessings of their past presence. Even today, unproven sightings still run rampant in Oklahoma where they are geographically extinct. Whether settlement day sentiments originated from a dust bowl destitute rancher, hunter, houndsman, or bounty hunter, the mention of the word “wolf” will surely dig up old bones from tales that were buried decades ago.
The stories of old that continue to stimulate discussion among many are not without merit. You see, Oklahoma once was home to one of two known species of wolves in North America. Unlike their more adaptable northern counterpart the timber wolf, the red wolf once roamed the prairies and hills of Oklahoma. Somewhat smaller in size and usually darker in color, they were thought to originate as a cross between a timber wolf and a coyote. The last documented hold outs of their fragile existence were found in the gulf coast states of Texas and Louisiana back in the sixties. In 1980, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trapped the last know specimens in the wild in a futile effort to save them from extinction. Through a rigorous breeding program, pairs of red wolves were released seven years later in 1987 in North Carolina. The USFWS now estimates that this remnant population is holding steady at 100 animals. All that is left in Oklahoma is evidence of their hidden past in the genetic code of some coyotes.
However, as most wildlife professionals know, many antagonists fail to recognize the non-existent status of the wolf in Oklahoma. Instead, they remain loyal to their ancestors and keep the legacy of the wolf alive without regard to the more adaptable coyote that has long since taken its place. Despite which side you take, we all have a story to tell and mine involves a first-hand encounter with real life “wolf hunters”. My story provides a unique perspective on the legacy as an eye witness to a story that a pack of running dogs cannot tell.
In 1989, my partner, the late Jerry Cole took me under his wing and taught me just about everything I needed to know to catch poachers, hunting, and fishing and about life in general. Jerry had received a report of deer poaching on the old ‘Doc’ Vaughman ranch in far northeastern Cherokee County. An adjacent landowner had reported that he kept seeing lights and hearing gun shots at night near an old abandoned apple orchard well into the middle of the ranch. With only one known gate to the area (that would have alarmed the suspects had we used it), we had to come in from another way. The reporting landowner showed us an old abandoned gate that adjoined his property that we could use. After un-tying a few strands of baling wire and a quick shift into 4-wheel drive, we were in.
Jerry made his way across uncharted fields and into the direction the landowner pointed us. Within a mile we were within view of the orchard. Fresh laid-down grass revealed that a vehicle had been in the area recently and we knew that it was just a matter of being at the right place at the right time. But who knew when the suspects would return? Then, just as the sun was going down, Jerry found a great vantage point for us to park and our stakeout was set.
Prepared as usual, a thermos full of coffee and some convenience-store snacks would sustain us till well into the night. It didn’t take me long, staring into the darkness in the middle of nowhere, to become bored and start playing with the radio. I was unable to locate a decent radio station on the standard equipped, department pickup radio. This prompted Jerry to break out a portable TV that he’d bought from a garage sale somewhere. FM radio’s were available back in those days but for some reason the wildlife department only bought AM radios for the law enforcement division trucks. Some of the more cynical game wardens surmised that they (administrators) probably requested the standard equipped, (factory installed) FM / AM stereo cassette players be removed and then paid extra for the AM-only radios just to make life miserable for us. Well, whatever the reason, it worked. I couldn’t find anything to come in clear that night or at least that was in English. After about thirty minutes of tinkering with the TV, Jerry used some tin-foil to extend its ‘rabbit ear’ antennas. With some fine tuning adjustments, I was shocked to see the old black and white TV pick up a late night movie that was just beginning to start. We both celebrated Jerry’s success and then kicked back in our seats with hot coffee and snacks. There, together, we watched the “Blue’s Brothers” until well after midnight.
Occasionally having to exit the truck during commercials, I told Jerry that I kept hearing coon dogs nearby on a track. With his window rolled down, he advised me that he’d been listening to them for almost an hour. Then, he informed me, they were not coon dogs but “wolf hounds”. Now, I knew Jerry was a seasoned Game Warden and all, but I had to question his thinking or at least his use of terminology. I said, “wolf-hounds”? Learning from collegiate studies that we didn’t have wolves in Oklahoma, I said it in such a way that he knew I didn’t believe him.
Building on his confidence, he informed me there were very few “wolf hunters” left in the country and their name carried over to a dying breed of hunters who’d now resorted to chasing a lesser quarry, the coyote. He said he’d bet me anything, that on that nearby county road would be a group of old men, proud to be known as wolf hunters. They’d be sitting in the middle of the county road listening to their dogs just like we were. He claimed each hunter could identify his specific dog by its bark, could tell whose dog was in the lead when striking a trail (following the quarry’s scent) and, whether or not they were in ‘hot pursuit’ or on a ‘cold track’.
Now I was for sure, thinking I would have to question his mental stability and told him I needed to take a stretch. The October, harvest, full moon had now made its midnight appearance and with rays beaming down intently on the meadow, I could see the tree tops of the orchard in the background. I told Jerry I was going to walk over and check out the orchard and might get us some apples if they were ripe. With the onset of fall, they should be ripe and ready I thought, but having not been cared for, I suspected they might not be any good. As I took off walking, he scolded me for turning my flashlight on, telling me not to use it unless I was about to arrest someone. Jerry had been teaching me all those things a good game warden needed to know. And, the number one rule at night was: never use your flashlight. My thoughts reflected back, thinking of the (imaginary) pair of night vision goggles that all game wardens were believed to have at their disposal. Disappointed with the reality of that thought, as I took off into the eerie night, I was soon amazed how well I could see in the moonlight. My eyes had finally adjusted from the glare of the TV, especially considering how I’d endured only an hour of movie but what seemed to be two hours of commercials.
Making my way intently towards the orchard, I could hear the hounds getting closer. I crossed an old pasture fence and then stumbled into another. The secondary fence was made of withered, old oak posts that occasionally supported a strand of barbed wire. I’m sure at one time it protected the orchard from livestock searching for greener pastures. Sneaking an illegal peek with my flashlight, I found the best looking, dark red apples. They were hanging from a dozen or so, of the oldest, weather-torn trees that I’d ever seen. Using my flashlight sparingly again, I examined one intently for worm holes. Finding none, I quickly polished it with my shirt and took a bite. As I tasted the crisp, bitter-sweet taste of palatable paradise, I momentarily felt as though I was in a midnight madness hallucination. It was a feeling that took my mind back to the days of the Garden of Eden. Immediately, I knew this was no ordinary apple. I had never tasted such a delicious-tasting apple in all my life and I wanted more. But just like Adam and Eve might have experienced, I felt guilty. After all, we broke through a wired shut gate, drove across someone’s field, and now I was stealing apples like a thief in the night. Having already tasted one of these ‘forbidden fruits’, I rationalized how I could blame it on all on Jerry just like Adam blamed Eve, and began loading up my shirt full of apples.
As I began making my way back to the fence line I could tell the so called “wolf hounds” were now getting really close. I crossed the old orchard fence and as I was about to step across the higher pasture fence, I heard something that caused me to stop dead in my tracks. The sound grew louder and louder. Still salivating, and feeling a slight sense of inebriation from the sweet apple cider, I envisioned how I was hearing the pounding hooves of the ‘devil’s herd’ coming my way to get me. Then it struck me, those wolf hounds must have spooked some cattle and they’re causing a dang stampede! With nowhere to go, I glanced up at the moonlight wishing it would give me even more light or that if I could just find a free hand to shine my flashlight, that might keep me from being trampled. Finally, the source of the thundering sound became visibly evident in the moonlight. Three big coyotes were racing down the fence line straight towards me and at a high rate of speed, one right after the other. Suddenly, they saw me, causing them to scatter in three directions just like a covey of quail! Standing there amazed, a second round of mental images reappeared from the sound of stampeding hooves that revealed a bumbling pack of huffing hounds that were hot on the trail. Just like the coyotes, the dogs were just as surprised to see me as I was to see them. The result was an exploding pile of dogs that sent ‘streamers’ of whimpering dogs in all directions. Standing erect in total amazement and holding a shirt full of apples, I regained my composure to jump the fence and ran all the way back to the truck. As I dumped my stash in front of Jerry, my rapid, exclamation of words from the “you’re not going to believe this story” finally caught up with my overloaded senses. Finally, I was able to calm down enough for Jerry to figure out what happened. As my story unfolded, I hadn’t realized how I was opening myself up to an unrelenting barrage of “I told you so’s” from Jerry.
Later and to further prove his point, as we made our way out of the field, Jerry drove around to the nearest county road. Sure enough, just as he’d bet me earlier, gathered there in the middle of the road was a group of “bonnified” wolf hunters. We visited with them for awhile or at least long enough for them to inform us on how the ‘wooves’ are getting too over populated! The winner (of the chase) also bragged to us how his dog (later identified by its raspy bark) had been leading the chase most of the night. That was… until the chase surprisingly fell apart and all the dogs came mysteriously running back to their trucks. I sarcastically popped off “it was probably a mountain lion they ran into!” But ironically, and much to my surprise, they all agreed. Giving up on that issue as quickly as it surfaced, I instinctively realized I should put my wildlife biology degree aside for the night. I figured out that I’d likely learn as much about Oklahoma’s wildlife and these ‘living legends’ in one night afield than many professors or text books could ever have revealed. Maintaining our silence about our stakeout location or my unintended interference with their ‘wolf’ hunt, we eventually said good-bye and called it a night. All that I had to show for a long night of work was a midnight revelation, a shirt full of delicious apples, and a gloating partner who must of wondered how he ever ended up with such a ‘college boy’ for a partner.
It took a few days and several inquiries to locate a qualified horticulturist who could identify the apples that had impressed me so much that night. Abandoning all modern-day grocery and fruit stand sources, I finally found someone who knew exactly what variety of fine fruit these were. He was a 70 year old man who quickly identified them with a single bite. “Stamen Winesap”, he said, “isn’t that the best apple you’ve ever tasted?” The ‘Winesap’, apparently, was an old time cooking apple that seemed to have faded away with time, giving way to the varieties offered in our modern day, mass supply grocery stores. I could see a gleam in this knowledgeable old man’s eyes as he did more than simply identify the apple. I saw what seemed to be a twinkle of his youth and the ‘good ole days’ long gone by. It was as if memories that were buried for years in the far recesses of a fading memory were resurfacing with each bite he savored. He said, “Come here son, I want to show you something”. He led me down into an old musty cellar and there, among others he had for sale, were some bare-root seedlings labeled “Stamen Winesap”.
Now, twenty years later, Jerry has passed away. The wolf hunters have disappeared and likely few people have ever heard of a Stamen Winesap apple. However, Jerry still lives on with the Lord and in the hearts of all who knew him and keep his legacy alive and, there’s still a small remnant population of pure bred, Red Wolves still clinging to existence somewhere in North Carolina. And, if you search hard, you might be able to mail-order a Stamen Winesap, bare-root seedling or better yet, taste the indescribable fruit it bears.
Now it’s my turn to pass on the skills and knowledge I’ve obtained to our younger sportsmen and the new ‘college boy’ game wardens who have just hired on. Unlike me and others who’ve had to learn many things the hard way, our new game wardens go through rigorous education and training before ‘hitting the woods’. Then they’re intentionally assigned a field training officer for many weeks before being ‘released’ to work in the field all on their own. As an FTO, I have had the privilege of training four new game wardens in recent years. Despite all of the text book procedures, law enforcement training, and advances in modern technology, the most important thing I think I can give them today is a history lesson. The historical heritage and social traditions learned about Oklahoma’s wildlife has been revealed from years of dealing with our sportsmen. Their participation and pursuits for generations has been what’s kept many of our outdoor sports ‘alive’. And, it’s been those historical pursuits that have formed many of our modern hunting and fishing methods used today. Activities and sports such as these have often survived and even thrived where ‘legends’ were allowed to live and operate under the watchful eye of Oklahoma Game Wardens; the game wardens who’ve provided protection for both quarry and sport now, for over 100 years.
As old as some pursuits and legacies may be, game wardens still have to learn and adapt to new trends in our fast-paced, ever-changing world of modern hunting and fishing. With the arrival of every new issue of spring fishing or fall hunting, mail-order catalogs, I can see how the new technologies they contain are still based on these age old pursuits. But, some things do change with time and so must the Game Warden in the world of modern day wildlife law enforcement. So, for me, it’s just like that old adage, “it’s never too late to teach an old dog a new trick”.