The wispy clouds try in vain to cover a brilliant half moon on a cool, humid February night. The spring peepers can’t help but croak in the evening air that hangs lost in limbo between winter and spring. The outdoor world is cautiously calm with the knowledge that certain natural night life is about to begin its evening foray for food.
Suddenly, the silence is broken by the rustling of hackberry, hickory and oak leaves. A raccoon’s search for supper has been interrupted with the knowledge that possible danger is near. A dedicated coon dog issues a hungry bark, signaling that he has just picked up the scent he was born to track. The chase ensues, and the barking travels hundreds of yards away before becoming abruptly stationary, increasing in intensity. He has treed the object of his pursuit.
A tradition that once enjoyed more popularity as a means to procure food and fur when other game species weren’t as plentiful, coon hunting remains popular today as a wildlife management tool, a hobby and a competition sport. Any coon hunter will tell you the appeal of this pastime is more than just the satisfaction of knowing the life history and habits of a wild animal well enough to outsmart it, it’s also about the cooperative connection that is cultivated between man and beast.
“Coon hunting is primarily about the gratification of working your dogs and charting their success,” says avid coon hunter Bucky Barrett from Selma, Ala.. “You train your dogs as much as possible in the woods. Sometimes the dogs might tree a coon as soon as they leave the truck. Other times, you may wait all night for them to find the scent.”
Although training time and patience are inherent attributes vital to a productive hunt, coon hunters must also employ their knowledge of the raccoon’s feeding habits, its preferred habitat and the effect of the landscape on the dogs’ ability to track the scent.
“The dogs have to be tough enough to handle all kinds of terrain—from thick briars to steep gullies to swampy bottoms,” Barrett says. “Weather can also play a factor. Snow and rain can diminish the scent and create more of a challenge for the dogs.”
Barrett says having a trained ear is also essential to knowing what the dogs are doing and which direction they are heading. “When you hunt more than one dog, you have to be able to recognize each individual bark,” Barrett says. “Plus, the dogs use different barks when they find a scent versus when they tree a raccoon.”
While the true spirit of the sport revolves around knowing how to train the coon dogs to do what they were bred to do best, advances in technology have helped usher the sport into a new era.
From the specially-designed hunting lights to the high-tech dog training and tracking equipment, all of the gear coon hunters use is engineered to make the sport more user-friendly. Even the GPS tracking devices attached to the dog collars allow hunters like Barrett to determine exact locations of dog travel routes. “The system makes finding the dogs much easier, but I still use my ear to determine the location of the dogs,” Barrett says. “That requires more of a connection to the dogs and to the hunt itself.”
Barrett especially enjoys sharing that bond with his family, particularly his two daughters, Kacey and Morgan. “It gives us a chance to spend quality time together doing something we all love,” Barrett says.
It’s that same connection that will continue to impassion hunters like Barrett to return to the dimly-lit swamp bottoms with his dogs and loved ones every fall and winter, fostering the sport as a time-honored tradition, an opportunity for teamwork and a chance to strengthen man’s relationship with the both the natural world and his fellow man.