Last week I went coon hunting twice. Once with the alligators in the swampy lowlands outside Benndale, Mississippi, and the next night in the hills of Alabama’s Talladega County. I didn’t know much about the sport before I went. Here’s how it works:
The hunters go into the woods at night and release their dogs, hounds have been bred for hundreds of years and trained since birth to know exactly what to do, which is sniff out a raccoon and chase it until it is forced to take refuge in a tree.
Each hunter works with just one dog and as the dogs work, the hunters stand still and listen. They can tell exactly what’s happening just from the sounds the dogs make, a chorus of chops, bays, and bawls that sound just like their names. Each hunter can say with certainty if his dog has struck a line of scent, whether the dog is sure, if the trail ended in nothing or the dog changed his mind, and when he’s got a raccoon bayed up a tree.
Once the hounds tree something, the hunters bushwhack through briars. They wade through swamps and streams, using the direction of the hounds’ voices to guide them, until they find the dogs standing on their hind legs at the base of a tree, howling, trying to climb it. They try to find the raccoon, shining lights at the branches and imitating raccoon noises, attempting to startle or interest what might be up there, to catch a glimpse of its glinting eyes.
In competition hunting, hunters don’t kill any raccoons. Dogs earn points for being the first to strike a scent line, the first to tree. They lose points for being the first to strike a scent line that goes cold, for treeing a “slick” (a tree with no coon in it and no leaves in which one could be hiding) or, worse, a possum. Once the raccoon is sighted or the tree declared empty, competition hunters take the dogs to a new patch of woods and cast again.
The dog with the most points at the end of the hunt wins. Accumulated wins can eventually earn your dog a title, which can mean a little bit of money if you decide to get into breeding. But, the hunters told me, it’s not very much money. More often, it’s about a sense of pride, knowing you’ve done well with breeding and training and contributed to a line of really effective hunting dogs.
One of the things that interests me most about nighttime is the way we fight and submit to it. We light the dark, make it useful, grabbing up extra hours for work and play. But we also lie in the grass and stare up at the stars. We let it take us over, let it frighten and awe us.
Coon hunting, I think, holds a similar tension. The breeding of coonhounds began out of necessity, humans working to shape the evolution of dogs to better help us hunt down food. Today most coon hunters either don’t kill or don’t eat their quarry. It’s pure sport, they say. It’s about working the dogs, watching them work, working alongside them. It’s about taking something wild and seeing what it can do, and what you can do with it.