BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – It didn’t take long for Shon Butler and his girlfriend Chrissy Lemasters from building the first – and only, thus far – licensed tracking business in West Virginia. Once the state legislature passed House Bill 4116, amending the state code to allow hunters to utilize a leashed dog to track mortally wounded game, the two began the tedious process of becoming a licensed outfitter and tracking company.
“This is something that we really lobbied hard for, attended all kinds of DNR Commission meetings, talked to delegates and finally got a compromise,” Butler said. “For some reason, the West Virginia Bear Hunters Association was really standing in the way of it, but we got a compromise with them, got it passed and got us into the first year. We’ve been tracking, we started in Kentucky and Ohio and then hit West Virginia, and West Virginia was amazing for being the first year. I think we took 42 tracks, just ourselves, in West Virginia and had five other trackers that worked for us throughout the state and were right at 100 tracks total as a business. I’d say a pretty successful year.”
Butler’s business, Longspur Tracking and Outfitting, is centrally located in Buckhannon. He and Lemasters covered the western and north-central parts of the state, while Ray Clark (Williamson) covers most of the southern part of the state and eastern Kentucky, John and Jesse Hockaday and Aaron Miller (Keyser) share the Eastern Panhandle, parts of Maryland and some of central West Virginia and Sarah Braham (Preston County) covers north-central West Virginia. As for their dogs, Butler uses a Jagdterrier, Clark runs a blue lacy, the Hockedays have a blue tick and bloodhound, Miller uses a blue tick and Braham runs a basset hound.
In total, Longspur had nearly an 80% accountability rate for deer in 2020. Additionally, they had a 60% recovery rate.
“We either found them or we determined the deer was on its feet, and they [the hunter] got pictures of it or confirmed it because they saw the deer alive or killed it later in rifle season,” Butler said.
“I’ve probably tracked over 500 deer in my lifetime and Chrissy and I work together as a team. She’s come on as a really good tracker, and we sit there and listen to people, she listens to them on the phone, we talk about it and if they don’t need our services we’re honest with them. We don’t just run out and track to make a couple hundred dollars. We could – I know there’s a lot of trackers that do that – but we want to be honest with people.”
Butler was previously an outfitter in West Virginia from 2000-05, but now after much more experience and technical know-how, his first half-year tracking wounded game has shown major success. The success lies in the model he’s created, utilizing a network of trackers who work in the Mountain State as well as neighboring states Kentucky, Ohio and Maryland.
“We travel statewide if we have time, but we’re working to set up a network of trackers throughout the state,” Butler said. “After seeing the license requirement was going to be there, we were going to track whether the outfitting license was required or not. When that requirement hit, I had a feeling nobody was going to get a license this year, just for expense purposes. So we jumped into it. We figured the first year getting into the ground floor, there was going to be a high demand, and there was. I only see it going up from here as people get more acclimated to calling for dogs.”
The total startup cost – license, insurance and required equipment – is between $1,500-2,000, according to Butler. Still, for those willing to spend the money and get into the business, the payout can be well over the start-up cost. It also helps that the model is self-serving to those who buy into it, as the use of tracking dogs is incredibly successful.
For example, according to a study done with South Carolina bowhunters, the use of tracking dogs was paramount to curtailing the waste and suffering of an animal. The study was conducted with 22 hunters who shot 61 deer. Of the total number of shots, 41 deer did not fall within sight of the hunter, therefore dogs were brought into the area to track the wounded animal. Of those 41 deer, 40 were found within 24 hours of being shot, and the average time for a dog to find a wounded deer was 30 minutes. Further, 95% were found within four hours and 95% of the deer were found dead.
As Butler noted, the more folks become acclimated to having a tracking dog service in the state, the more they’ll be apt to call. With the success rate for well-trained dogs above 90%, that leads to happy customers who suggest the business to others, therefore increasing profits over time.
“We’ve seen two or three good reasons why it’s important,” Butler said. “No. 1 is because of the waste. We’ve recovered multiple deer this year that was still usable and didn’t go to waste. No. 2 was to make sure more tags aren’t being used. A hunter claims his kill, checks it in and that tag’s gone. He’s not out there taking or wounding another animal. The third reason and some people don’t like to hear it, is trophy recovery. People put a lot of time and money into hunting and whether it’s their first small buck or a very large trophy buck they want to recover that.
“We made some recoveries and saved some trophies. There were instances this year where we found deer three days after the shot that weren’t usable in terms of the meat but we recovered their trophy for them. Which is another tag being checked in.”
Although trophy recovery is a major concern for some hunters, meat wasting away is a concern, arguably, to more hunters and non-hunters alike. Butler doesn’t want to see meat go to waste either, which is why he pushed educating people hard in the first year.
“You make a bad shot? Give us a call. Don’t hesitate,” he said. “The guys that hired us this year, we were incredibly successful finding their deer and the guys that went out, tracked and ran and ran their deer, the success rate wasn’t so high.”
Butler also noted that a large majority of his tracks were for bowhunters. It’s the nature of the beast – gun hunting is objectively easier than bowhunting, and because of multiple different factors, an arrow can miss the mark much easier than a bullet. Of the 100 tracks, five or six were from hunters using rifles and out of those, only one actually turned out to be a track.
“With a rifle, everybody tells you they made a perfect shot, and if you made a perfect shot with a rifle then you should be standing over your deer right now,” Butler said. “Archery hunting is definitely where our calls came from.”
Deer weren’t the only animals Longspur tracked this year: the team tracked bear and deer in West Virginia and elk in Kentucky. Additionally, the company offers a primitive hunting experience on their private tract of land in Upshur County, and they also own a tracking dog training school. The primitive hunting experience takes on 25 acres and is a true DIY experience. Butler points campers to public and private lands open to hunting and “turn them loose.” He hopes to expand that in the coming years. There’s no hand-holding involved and is open for anything – turkey, squirrel, deer or trout fishing.
The blood tracking school takes in puppies from around the country in the winter, spring and summer, and then in the fall, they take in older dogs who need to be tuned up. The older dogs go on live tracks as secondaries to Longspur’s dogs. Currently, they are training four pups.
The Mountain State’s first tracking season ends Jan. 17 with the closure of the Mountaineer Heritage Season, and going into Year 2, Butler has big goals to meet.
“I’m hoping to add two or three trackers. We had some dead areas in the state such as the Greenbrier-Pocahontas area, the Point Pleasant area was kind of dead space for us, so if we could get trackers going in those areas we’d have really good coverage and handle more calls for people,” Butler said. “Also, we’re going to start having our own pups out of our line, so we’re going to offering those for sale and throughout the east coast from franchise opportunities for people to run Longspur tracking businesses with our dogs.
“That’s what I look for in Year 2 and hopefully we’ll double or triple our calls.”