The small wood campfire penetrated the surrounding darkness but offered little respite from the winter weather. The cold bit noses and ears while frost shrouded the trees of the surrounding forest. My father, Loyal Turner and three other men huddled on rocks talking and drinking coffee from the thermos. Off in the distance, we would hear the occasional bark from one of the animals. “That’s old Betsy, she’s searching for a scent,” explained Loyal. A few minutes later, the bark turned to a deep mellow baying which was joined by the excited barking of the other dogs in the pack. “Boys, she’s onto one, let’s get out there and see what she’s found. She’s hot on the trail and that coon is on the run. They will have her treed any minute now.” Loyal had that ability to identify every one of the dogs and what it was chasing by the sound of the baying.
The men quickly threw out their coffee, gathered their gear, and turned on their lights. We were equipped with a large flashlight but the older men were still using the old carbide lights bought years previously. Off into the darkness, we trudged, picking our way between trees, dodging vines and saw briars as we went. Our speed increased proportionally to the volume and intensity of the baying. When the animals got close to the raccoon, it would attempt escape by climbing into the high branches of the tree where it would taunt the inability of the dog to capture it. That’s where we hunters became of importance. Those wishing to eat the coon would simply shoot it from the tree with a 22 rifle but, seasoned sport hunters would climb the tree, poke the animal out with a large stick, and let the dogs and coon battle. Often the coon would escape or be rescued by the hunters who would release it for future hunts. On this night, that is exactly what happened and we trudged home through the woods reliving our experiences, pulling our hound behind us on a rope to prevent them from taking off on another hunt.
There are six different breeds of dogs used for coon hunting. Carrying unique names like red-bone and blue-ticks, they all appear to have the common lean, rangy appearance and lazy or indolent look in their eyes. Most are pretty docile, lay around in their pens or under the front porch of their owners but they come to life when placed on a trail. They are fast, have endurance, the ability to pick up a scent and, most of all, a deep baying voice that carries for miles. Successful great hunting dogs might have the value of a small car; especially those that competed and won in the big hunting tournaments held yearly across mid-America.
Coon hunting is a sport still practiced throughout the mid-west and south. Men of my community would sit on coke crates or rickety chairs around the pot-bellied stove at the store and elaborate on the abilities of their prized hound. Some of the elaborations would compete with the best fish tales ever told. Recently, the Reverend Bob Freeman of Russellville shared his experience of competing in a contest. As the most inexperienced member of a crew consisting of a hound and three men, his task was to climb into the tree and knock the coon from its perch. The two men and dog below would then pounce upon the coon, place it in a tow-sack and submit it to the judges. Rev. Freeman climbed to the top branches of the tree, pursuing the coon who was anything but the friendly little rascal we see on T.V. programs. Perched precariously on some of the upper branches, he grasped for the rodent. The animal, hearing all the commotion created by the hound and two men waiting below, decided his best option was to fight the good reverend. During the ensuing battle, won by the raccoon, Bro. Freeman tumbled from the tree, striking every limb on the way down. Having no team successful in bagging a coon, the judges awarded the bruised and battered reverend the trophy for surviving his fall.
Good days, good times, and good memories of growing up in the South.