The raccoon is not a farmer's friend. One masked nocturnal rascal of a coon can go through a watermelon patch taking just one plug out of every melon, as slick as a man would with a knife. And the raccoon is the dog's best enemy—one to be respected. A 20-pound boar or sow coon can whip one good dog or two halfway decent ones. So, for the men and dogs in the South, Southwest, Midwest and as far Northeast as upstate New York, coon hunting is a deep-rooted and fast-growing sport, and one of the few that may run on in organized form until 6 in the morning.
Even though five or six dogs tearing into a coon in the glow of their owners' hunting lights in the night woods do make a glorious tangle of color—redbone, bluetick, black and tan, treeing Walker and various brindles such as English and Plott—the killing of a coon by dogs is one of the uglier, not to mention least equitable, sporting scenes. The coon makes crazed hissing noises and the dogs seem to despise it. The justification given by coon hunters is this: if the dogs don't get to fight a coon every now and then they will lose interest in the sport. And the point of most coon hunting is not killing coons. It is the feeling of getting close to animals. Not closeness to the coon so much, though many coon hunters take pride in their ability to climb any tree a coon can.
"Bob finally made it to the swaying top," reports Nick Sisley of Apollo, Pa. in American Cooner magazine, "and after some poking was able to knock out the coon—alive. It hit the ground and four dogs piled in. Men were grabbing dogs, and dogs were biting anything that looked like fur. Woe the fellows with a little hair on the back of their hands."
And then there is the musical aspect. Kelly Bragg of Hinton, W. Va., advertising in American Cooner some pups sired by his dog Blue III, writes, "I would rather hear Blue III open at night than to hear Tennessee Ernie sing Peace in the Valley."
To "open," it should be explained, is to begin "bawling" or "giving out that mountain music." And that music not only charms, it communicates: "...for when Blue III opens," continues Kelly Bragg, "he is moving on, and a coon is going to climb."
That is something: to catch the exact drift of a dog way off in the distance, maybe two or three miles, in the dark, in wild country, following its instincts and training through thick cover, running as hard as it can. A good many men go coon hunting three or four or five nights a week, sometimes all night long, in good weather and bad, year-round. "In 1964 me and my wife got into it about coon hunting," says John L. Smith of Garland, Texas, a dry-wall contractor and father of four. "She got mad and said, 'All right, you just go on and hunt, then!' 'Well, that's good,' I said. I hunted 42 nights in a row, and she never said anything more about it."
Neither coon meat nor coonskins are of much economic value today, and many inveterate coon hunters profess never to have tasted coon. Even most of those who prize the meat highly—barbecued or baked with collards and sweet potatoes—look down on the kind of dog that is best for a meat hunt.
Such a dog is known as a silent or semisilent cooner. Low-bred, maybe three-fourths cur, the silent or semisilent dog sneaks up on a coon with little warning and is therefore more likely to make it settle for a low tree. The dog will then be held back while the hunter shoots and retrieves the coon. Not much pleasure to that.
For the pleasure hunt, a few friends go out in the woods at nightfall with their dogs, turn them loose, build a fire and sit down on a log to tell stories and listen for the dogs to tune up. It is best if the dogs strike the trail of a strong, wily and experienced coon that will lead a long and melodious chase.
Melodious because as soon as the dogs pick up the scent they begin to bawl, and they continue to bawl—"aooo, aooo," each dog in its own distinctive tone—until the coon is treed. The hunters know when the dogs are "on tree," because the dogs so signify by changing the music. Ideally a dog will "chop" on tree: a brisk, tenacious "yo yo yo...yo yo yo," or "rowa rowa rowa uh rowa rowa uh rowa," or "hru hru hru...hru hru...hru hru hru." The pattern varies.
"Bawl on track, chop on tree is your perfect dog," says T.K. Chilcoat of Ash-down, Ark., who is president of the Saline River Coon Hunting Association. "But some dogs may bawl on tree. If I had a good coon dog and he meowed at the tree like a cat, and I could hear him, it'd be fine with me."
When the coon is treed, it is time for the pleasure hunters to get off the log, douse the fire, button up their heavy coveralls and strike out through the brush, brambles, creeks, bogs or even rivers between them and the tree. The hunters locate the coon by making coon-squall noises while shining lights up into the tree. Coons are smart, and will scrunch up in the crotch of a limb and even cover their eyes with their paws, but unless the leaves are too heavy or it is an old den tree—a hollow tree inside which coons live or hide—the coon's eyes will eventually shine in the light.
Then the coon may be shot, or one of the hunters may shinny up and shake it down for the dogs. But if the coon has run a good race it may be granted a reprieve and the dogs will be pulled off and led away to strike another trail. For it is pleasurable just sitting on the log and saying, "There goes old Brumby," or "There goes old June," and telling about the time an old rough coon ran for four hours, perhaps back and forth through the corn when the roasting ears were just coming out, or up and down a railroad draw as the hunters sat listening, the coon passing near enough that they could hear the patter of its feet.
A business hunt brings people and animals together on only slightly different terms. The first step is for the owner of a distinguished dog to place an ad in American Cooner. There will be a picture of the owner holding up the tail of a stiffly posed redbone, and another picture of the same dog barking its head off at the base of a tree. The text might run something like this:
"AT STUD. Elvidge's Red Marvel. I have owned this hound just one year and have the names and addresses of 94 men that have bred their females to him. Boys, there must be a reason. Marvel is a beautifully made hound; tight cat feet, big-headed with long, wraparound ears and the most beautiful redbone coat you will ever see. His daddy was Louisiana Bugle and his mother was Far Cry Ann.
"Red Marvel has been straight on coon from a pup up. He is good-natured, a gritty kill dog, and will take any water a coon will cross. Boys, this Marvel dog has a tenor bawl that will make the little hairs stand up on the back of your neck. He is not mean or fussy in any way and he trees with a machine-gun chop that will drown out the average dog.
"I may sound enthusiastic about this young hound and I am. Come on down and I will hunt with you any night except Sunday until you are satisfied Marvel is all I say. If Marvel don't show you coon eyes, then I will buy your gas.
"RED MARVEL'S STUD FEE IS $125.
"I want to say that Wayne Sudduth and his brother Worley were down here hunting last month with their dogs Red Girl and Rose, and I have never met any two finer sportsmen. Wayne, you and Worley are always welcome at my house to hunt or visit.
"A.O. ELVIDGE, Rt. 1, Box 5, Furnis, Tenn."
In response to the invitation in such an ad, a man from maybe a couple of hundred miles away will drive down with his gyp (the standard coon-hunting term for a female dog; bitch is no word to use around ladies), and the two men and the two dogs will go out hunting. If the gyp's owner likes what he sees, his hound will show up at the house of the stud's owner, in a crate, the next time she is in heat.
Some good coon hounds get to be worth a lot of money. For example, Danny Boy, a treeing Walker owned by J.P. Tyree of Lewisburg, Tenn., which in 1971 became the first dog ever to win both the American Coon Hunters Association and the United Kennel Club world hunts in one year. Tyree says he has turned down an offer of $10,000 for him.
The ACHA world hunt (which has been held recently in such places as Oblong, Ill. and Van Wert, Ohio) attracts some 300 entries, lasts for five nights and rewards the first-place dog's owner with what may be the most imposing trophy in sports: a seven-foot structure, four tiers of bronze and walnut supported by 10 columns of the same materials, topped off by a bronze globe from which sprouts a bronze tree on which a bronze dog is treeing a bronze coon.
Other competition hunts are more modest in scale. The duration is only one or two nights, maybe 50 or 60 dogs are entered and the trophies are no more than waist-high. A local coon-hunting association places an ad in American Cooner: "Nite Hunt and Bench Show," on some forthcoming Saturday or Friday and Saturday. Everyone invited, dinner on the grounds, plenty of trophies, drinking forbidden.
The assembly point is some community meetinghouse. In Spanish Fort, Texas, at the very end of a dirt road on the Oklahoma border due north of Nocona, it is a renovated 97-year-old building owned by Virgil Hutson, the Spanish Fort Coon Hunters Association president, who uses it as a clubhouse and a store for the sale of coon-hunting sundries: "Dog Bloom VM250, The Supreme Conditioner"; "Cooneye Shiner Light Fits Cap Bill or Belt"; "Coon Drag Stick"; "Carhartt Insulated Coveralls"; "Brown Canvas Hats, Jones Style with Coon Face on Front"; "Bandy Tri-Wormer."
The host club's wives open the kitchen for a two-day hunt on Friday morning and keep it open—serving chili, eggs, sausage, steaks and French fries without ceasing—straight through into Sunday afternoon. Pickup trucks, station wagons and campers carrying caged dogs start arriving Friday morning.
The crowd of hunters and dog traders and onlookers grows into the afternoon. Included are contractors, janitors, roustabouts, carpenters, college students, farmers, high school kids with peace symbols on their clothes, millworkers, car dealers and what have you. One or two hunters may be black. The arrivals are likely to represent three or four states, and one or two may have come from 400 miles away.
There is some idle introductory joshing, but most of the talk concerns which breed of dog is the best. Say the location is Dierks, Ark., the piney-woods headquarters of the Saline River club. T.K. Chilcoat is liable to come over to where past president Dale Thomas is talking to someone and say, "Only thing Dale'll lie to you about is a spotted dog." (That is, a treeing Walker.) "Then, too," Chilcoat goes on, "that is about all he'll talk to you about."
This does not discourage Thomas: "A black and tan is loose-eared. A Walker's ears're growed onto his head better."
"I don't know whether Walkers tree coon better or not," adds another Walker man. "I know they do it more often."
Despite the prevailing tone of bland objectivity, such arguments may grow heated. But they do not reflect directly on a particular man's dog.
"Evra man is proud of his dog," points out Chilcoat.
"That's right," says Thomas. "You don't run a man's dog down. You might as well say. 'Your baby's ugly.' "
The preliminaries to a competition hunt used to include coon-on-a-log, coon-in-the-hole and the waltzing keg. In these events a coon is put, respectively, on a log floating in water, in a hole whose opening is just the size of a dog's head, or in a keg suspended in the air on ropes. Then all the entered dogs are turned loose on it. The dog that seizes, holds and removes the coon wins. Especially in the hole, the coon has the initial advantage, but this hardly makes up for its chances in the long run, and Humane Society pressure has forced such activities out of UKC-licensed hunts.
The rule now is that there can be no direct contact between dog and coon in a preliminary event. This leaves room for water races and treeing contests. In a water race, a coon is towed across a pond in a Styrofoam boat suspended from a cable, and the dogs, divided into heats, swim after it. A redbone of T.K. Chilcoat's once jumped into the wrong heat and finished creditably even though it got a late start and had to tow the big piece of pulpwood it was tied to. The swimming dogs in the pond and the tied-up dogs around it are all bawling; dogs are getting loose, jumping in, splashing, dragging little girls into the water; the little girls are yelling "Stop! Daddy, come catch your dog!" and Daddy is yelling, "I told you to hold that dog."
A treeing contest is also tumultuous. A caged coon is set up atop a sapling or pole. All the dogs in the contest are given a good look at it. They bark and lunge at the pole and sometimes get loose and ascend it about halfway. Maybe the cage hasn't been pulled up to the top and one dog is able to grab it with its teeth. The treeing-contest officials pull the cage up to shake the dog off but it hangs on until it is four feet off the ground and even then it has to be pried off. Then one dog at a time is loosed to show off its tree form. In most contests the winner is determined purely by the number of times it barks—100 chops in a minute is good.
Now comes the bench show, in which dogs are judged solely on their looks. But looking good and hunting good are known to be two different things. It is when dark is falling, and men start saying things like, "This old dog can't find enough woods to hunt in," that the real action develops.
The entries hunt in casts of four dogs, which hunt together for three hours, with a local man along as guide and score-keeper. Right. A man carrying an official scorecard. Coon hunting has been refined to that point. Scoring high requires close teamwork between dog and handler. As Everette Endsley, who handles Danny Boy for J.P. Tyree, puts it. "You got to really call like your dog is doing. And he's got to really be doing it, too." The reason Danny Boy is the incumbent best coon dog in the world, says Endsley, is that he is a good honest dog. "If he smells a coon he'll bark. If he don't he won't. If the coon runs off through yonder he'll run off through yonder after him. He won't fool around."
The testing of such honesty gets underway as follows: the different casts fan out over, say, a 40-mile radius. It takes a few hours to get gear and dogs together and drive over dirt roads to an isolated spot. The dogs in a given cast are turned loose.
As soon as Danny Boy bawls once, Everette Endsley will call "Strike Dan," but a less distinguished dog handler will probably want to wait for the second bawl to make sure. At any rate, the first man to say "Strike my dog" is accorded 100 points on the scorecard. The second striker gets 75, the third 50, the fourth 25.
A problem that may arise here is that two men may strike the same dog. Since every man is supposed to know his own dog's voice like he knows his wife's, this is ticklish. Ten or 15 years ago, "when coon hunting had a rough name," as one hunter puts it, two men claiming the same bawl might have fought. But today one man will make a semigracious concession. "If another man jumps in on my dog," says Everette Endsley, "that's his chance to take. If he can call my dog better than I can then he's welcome to it." But you know Everette won't like it.
After the striking comes the treeing. The handlers head out in the direction of the bawling dogs. Along the way they speculate on the type of coon they are dealing with. "He been crawfishing up and down that creek," one may say. "and they running back and forth following that feeding trail." Or, "They got an old ridge coon goin'. Them ridge coon're long-legged coons. He'll run like a deer."
Maybe one dog still hasn't opened. "Gerald, where's your dog?" somebody may say.
"I guess he fell in a well," says Gerald, listening.
"He might not like that coon, you reckon?"
"He might not," says Gerald, "if he does, he'll let you know."
There is no telling where the coon's trail may lead. "A dog running a coon would be no race at all right out on the highway," points out Everette's cousin John Henry Endsley, who won the World Hunt in 1964 with Sailor Jr. "I can outrun a coon myself. But a coon can get through a fence where a dog has to slow down. A coon can run up the side of a tree and a dog has to stop and check to see whether he stayed up or jumped down and ran on. A coon can make the walking rough."
Then some dog may begin to chop and its handler will say, "I'm gonna hafta tree old Rebel." Or old Rowdy, or old Girl. The first man to call tree gets 100 points on the card, and so on, just as in striking.
Usually all four dogs will be found together at the bottom of a mighty oak, chopping and jumping up and down and chewing on the bark. The question is, is there a coon in that tree?
If coon eyes shine, well and good. All the points on the card count plus. But the coon may be up inside the tree. In that case, if the hole in the tree is low down, the hunters may get down on their hands and knees, after pushing the dogs away with some difficulty, and peer up inside with a flashlight, or poke up with a stick. This is a good time for stories about the man who started messing around in a tree like that and a whole hive of bees took off up his shirtsleeves, or the time someone shot a coon out by disassembling a .22 rifle, reassembling it inside a hollow tree with the muzzle up and pulling the trigger. But many a cavernous or heavy-leafed tree refuses to yield a glimpse of a coon. In this case no dog makes points.
Then again sometimes a tree's limbs are all visible, its trunk is solid and there is no coon anywhere. This means the coon has jumped down, maybe from 50 feet up, and slipped away. The dogs are chopping at a "slick tree." Or, even worse, they may have scared up something other than a coon—a bobcat, a possum or a housecat. If a dog trees "trash" or comes up with a slick tree, it is a "minus dog." Its points all stand, but as a deficit.
In the space of three hours there may be four or five more trees to recoup on, but minus points are not good for a coon hunter's spirits. After a slick tree the talk may well be of bygone dogs that were better. Ben Childress of Fair-field, Texas tells of Sugarfoot, a redbone grand champion who was still hunting at the age of 19. "Sugarfoot had a choking chop, from deep down in his chest," says Childress. Then, while negotiating a creekbed, he lets his own voice go soft saying, "It was just an outstanding privilege to go out in the woods with that dog."
It is at this point that the limits of a competition hunt become evident. Just walking through the woods reminiscing and hoping the next tree won't be slick or trashy is too passive. The compensations are trophies and points toward champion and grand champion status if your dog is one of the top 10 in points for the whole hunt.
All the fun is over for the dog, which is led off to pose for pictures—its toenails scratching uneasily on the clubhouse floor—and doesn't get to kill any coons. And the man has run up against section 15 of the official honor rules: "No shouting encouragement to the dogs."
That is what's missing. That is why there is no recourse for a competition hunter but nostalgia when his dog is not doing its job.
But it may be that while all the official plussing and minusing is going on around the countryside a man swings into the hunt headquarters who isn't entered but is looking to stir up a pleasure hunt. Let us say that, unlike any of the competitors, he has had a little something to drink. This is a man who before the night is over is going to be shouting encouragement to his dog.
Call this man Troy. The dog he brings in looks as if it needs encouragement, or even a doctor.
"See," explains Troy, "his hair's right. But his flesh ain't right. But my flesh ain't right either." He grins at this. Troy is short, gristly and loose-jointed. His overalls hang loose around his next inner layer of clothes. He is feeling good, and in spite of appearances he is proud of his dog.
"He ain't too good to look at," Troy concedes. "But I tell you what, dear dad, when I turn him loose you won't be looking at him anymore. He'll strike as soon as he smells. He ain't a pretty dog, but a pretty dog don't tree coon. I ain't a pretty boy, either, Mr. Man, but a pretty boy don't have that."
Troy holds up his right forefinger, which is half missing.
"That ain't from saying good morning, dear dad, that's from grabbing coon. Feel that dog's ears. They're chewed, Mr. Man, and that's birdshot stuck in 'em. That is a dog there that's been hunted. Now feel my ears."
Nobody does, but one bystander who is staring at Troy's dog goes so far as to say, "They ain't supposed to be pretty to run coon. They look kinda woolly when they run coon."
"I don't give a damn what they run," says Troy with obscure logic, "from a mare mule to the Queen of Sheba—that black and tan, when I strike him he'll be trailing coon, dear dad, and when I tree him he'll be on the tree. And in one hour or two months or the next morning, when we go back, Mr. Man, he'll have his toenails jabbed into that tree."
So Troy gets up a hunt, with a man who has a dog that digs out so fast after coon, he maintains, that you better not put it down on a gravel road or it will knock the windshield out of your truck.
On the way to the woods in the pickup, Troy mentions a few of the wild and bloody fistfights he has been in with people. "I ain't never met a man I was scared of," he says in conclusion. "But I have met a few I wish to hell I had been scared of." When someone asks him if his dog is really as good as he claims, Troy says this: "My daddy told me, 'Son, I got one ol' boy I could never tell nothing about, whether he was lying or not,' and that was me. He sure couldn't whip it out of me. 'Cause he tried that, a plenty of times."
And then Troy is out in the woods with his dog out farther, and the dog isn't opening yet, and still isn't, and here is what Troy says when he is encouraging his so-far silent, distant dog:
"Lemme hearrrrr ya holler." And, "Talk toooo 'im." And, "Get them coooooon."
Troy is not just saying these things, he is bawling them, and he is in good voice. Also he moves well in the woods or the underbrush, he is noted as a climber, he fights bigger men ferociously. Troy might be too inclined toward inscrutability to be a top honest coon dog, but he would be an interesting one, and in still another life he would make a line rough coon.