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More Coons Than Ever
Because raccoon hide prices are low and they have few predators, these masked bandits are roaming all over the Bama woods.
 
By John N. Felsher
Originally published in the February 2018 issue of AON
 
Wesley Coan watches his dog as it barks at a treed raccoon during a hunt near Tuscumbia.
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Nearly a mile deep into the dense woods, we paused to listen. Moments later, frenzied barking from several excited dogs erupted and echoed through the previously silent, dark forest. With help from GPS systems on the dog collars, the owners quickly determined the pack’s exact location.

“They got one treed about a quarter-mile away. Let’s go,” commanded Sam Hatton, one of the dog owners.

Armed only with headlights, I raced with Sam, my son Daniel and Franky and Wesley Coan through the northern Alabama wilderness punctuated by small creeks and numerous water-filled potholes oozing with fog. Sounds the barking dogs made told us they treed a raccoon and which direction we should go but could not tell us about all the nearly impenetrable brambles, thickets, stumps and fallen logs we needed to traverse to reach them. Dogs can more easily and quickly cover rough ground than humans.

“Coon hunting is all about the dogs and who has the best dog,” Franky explained. “Owners know the sound of their dogs and can tell what the dog is doing by how it sounds. To me, listening to dogs is no different than talking to someone on the phone. If someone I know calls me, I hear the voice and know immediately who it is. Each dog also has its own voice.”

As we crashed through thickets to reach the frenzied pack, Sam and Wesley argued in a friendly, yet spirited, competition over whose dog “struck” first, or sounded the alert that it found another raccoon. The longtime friends would do anything for each other—except let the other one get credit for finding a raccoon or reaching the tree first!

“There’s a lot of camaraderie and friendships made among coon hunters,” said Allen Wyatt of the Alabama State Coon Hunting Association in Clanton. “Many stories are told following the dogs through the woods. There’s a lot of banter back and forth about who has the best dog or which dog struck first. Coon hunters are always picking on their hunting companions, but it’s all in fun. Nobody gets their feelings hurt.”

Navigating around the watery patches on this moonless night, we finally approached the ruckus as the barking and howling grew more intense. At the base of a tall oak tree, dogs howling with agitated cadence leaped as high as they could go to get at the raccoon hiding somewhere in the spreading canopy and gnarled branches of a tree pockmarked with numerous potential den holes. We each shined our lights up through the fog in an attempt to spot the masked bandit.

“It’s hard to see a smart old coon in a tree like this,” Sam advised. “He can be anywhere looking down at us in all those leaves and branches. The dogs know he’s here somewhere. He might have slipped into one of those holes. Sometimes, coons close their eyes when the light hits them, so we can’t see their eyes shining.”

After scrutinizing the tree for a while, Sam and Wesley recalled their dogs to search for more raccoon trails. For coon hunters, the thrill comes in the chase, not the find. During the next few hours, we slogged through the black swamps and forests following the dogs as they treed several more cleaver ring-tailed raiders, but we didn’t fire a shot.

“We seldom kill coons,” Franky said. “It’s about the chase and training the hounds. Hides used to bring $30 to $40 apiece, but hides don’t bring nearly as much money anymore.”

Since colonial days, trappers and hunters prized raccoons for their luxuriant pelts. The word “raccoon” originally derived from the Algonquian word “arakun,” which means, “he scratches with his hands” describing their deft, human-like paws. When Europeans landed in Virginia, they transformed the term into the English word raccoon, frequently shortened to just coon.

Always common along rivers and lake shorelines, the raccoon population really took off as great predators like wolves and mountain lions largely disappeared from much of North America by the early 20th century. In the 1920s, wearing a full-length raccoon coat became a status symbol. Some photos even show such luminaries as W.C. Fields, President Woodrow Wilson and Babe Ruth sporting lavish raccoon coats.

During the Davy Crockett craze of the 1950s, every kid wanted to wear a coonskin cap. In the 1970s and early 80s, many people trapped or hunted raccoons for their hides, but the fur boom crashed in the late 1980s under pressure from animal rights activists.

“People used to be able to make some good money trapping and shooting raccoons for their furs,” Wyatt recalled. “Now, there isn’t much of a market for coon hides in Alabama. Coon hunting today is all about the chase and the dogs howling, seeing the dogs work and hearing it tree a raccoon. It’s also about hanging out in the woods with some good friends and having fun. We only kill coons if some people we know want to eat them.”

Today, great horned owls or hawks sometimes prey upon young coons. Coyotes or bobcats occasionally grab an adult raccoon or an alligator might snatch one swimming across a stream, but once a coon reaches about a year old, not many things in nature will mess with these feisty fighters. With few natural enemies and fewer people trapping or shooting coons, little keeps the population of these prolific and adaptable animals in check—except automobiles. Consequently, the coon population in Alabama exploded in recent years.

“In some areas, coons are becoming so common they are a nuisance,” Wyatt said. “People who hunt deer don’t want any coon hunters on their property during deer season. When deer season ends, they want coon hunters to come in and kill all the coons that are eating the deer feed. All the time, I have people asking me to come hunt coons on their property, but we just can’t turn the dogs loose anywhere, particularly not around neighborhoods or highways.”

Consummate “hunter-gatherers,” these bear-like omnivores eat almost anything and can live almost anywhere. Raccoons could live in a backyard tree and the landowners never even know it. Raccoons range from central Canada to Panama and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They thrive in practically every habitat type except for the highest Rocky Mountain peaks and parts of the southwestern deserts. In Alabama, the highly intelligent creatures flourish from the coastal wetlands to the forested highlands.

“Raccoons can live anywhere,” Franky said. “There are more coons today than ever. More people kill coons now to get rid of them than by actually going coon hunting.”

The agile black-masked bandits can also get into almost anything. In suburban or urban areas, they frequently use their dexterous fingers to lift the lids off trash cans or other containers to get at pet foods, table scraps and anything else they find too irresistible to ignore.

Native Americans did not hunt raccoons with dogs, preferring the more customary stalking and trapping methods. However, European settlers began chasing raccoons with dogs during colonial times. English colonists carried their fox hunting traditions across the Atlantic and used foxhounds to hunt this new quarry. Foxhounds ran coons, but red foxes don’t climb trees. These hounds had trouble finding coons hiding above the ground. Coon hunters needed dogs that would tree animals and keep the critters at bay until the hunters arrived. Therefore, they started selectively breeding dogs to come up specially trained hounds.

Perhaps the most famous coon hunter of all time was George Washington. He loved the sport and owned some of the first dedicated coon dogs, French hounds given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. By the mid-1800s, several breeds of dedicated coonhounds evolved. Popular breeds today include black and tans, redbones, blueticks, English coonhounds and Plott hounds, which descended from English coonhounds and treeing Walker coonhounds.

“When I was about 5 years old, I started hunting with a Plott hound,” Wyatt remembered. “Not many people hunt with them anymore. Today, probably 80 percent or more of the people in competitions use treeing Walkers.”

Good dogs inherently track raccoons because of their breeding. With a great dog born with superior bloodlines and genes, trainers just need to hone those instincts and instill discipline. They need to teach the dogs to obey certain commands and break them from chasing deer, rabbits or other game. A champion coonhound can cost more than $40,000. Most coon hunters train their own dogs, but some pay as much as $20,000 for a professional to train a dog.

“It takes a lot of sweat and hours to work with a young dog, even one with good genes,” Wyatt said. “If it’s bred in the dog, just continue taking it to the woods consistently and hunt with it. If the dog has it, it will come out. Just because it has a good bloodline doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a good treeing dog, but the odds are always better with a good bloodline.”

The sport of running raccoons with dogs today doesn’t differ drastically from when Washington hunted his estate at Mount Vernon, Va. in the 18th century. But the technology sure improved. Hunters long ago used lanterns or torches, while modern sportsmen strap on battery-powered headlights. In the biggest difference between hunting today and in Washington’s time, most modern hunters attach electronic tracking devices to the dog collars, so they know exactly where those animals are at any given moment.

Today, just like in Washington’s day, hunters gather in the evening to head to their chosen area. In a good spot, they release the dogs and start listening for the hounds to start singing after sniffing hot scent trails. When a dog starts baying, the ring-tailed arboreal bandits instinctively seek refuge in the branches of tall trees as the dogs bellow at them from below.

“To coon hunt, someone must have a love for the sport and love for the dogs,” Franky said. “That’s just how I was raised. It gets in the blood. I started coon hunting with my father when I was 4 years old. His father taught him. My son now hunts with me. He’ll pass this tradition down to the next generation.”

Many people begin coon hunting by following their fathers, grandfathers or other relatives into the dark woods. Outwitting the cagey critters almost becomes a family addiction that spans generations. For people who love running their dogs after cunning animals, all the discomfort of busting through brambles and thickets vanishes when they hear their dogs strike a hot trail and then sound the treed bark.

“I’m a five-generation coon hunter,” Wyatt proudly remarked.

“Anyone who goes coon hunting the first time will either love it or hate it. If things don’t go that well, they might not want to go back. However, if it’s a good hunt with ideal conditions and things work out just right, people get caught up on the adrenaline rush and excitement,” he said.

“They get the bug.”

When not hunting and arguing about who trained the best dog, many houndsmen try to prove which is best by periodically gathering for competitions. The Alabama State Coon Hunting Association will hold a major event on March 16-17 in Jemison. Dogs earn points for first striking and treeing coons, but they lose points if they bay at a tree without a coon in it.

“The purpose of the association is to promote coon hunting around Alabama,” Wyatt explained. “We put on competitions throughout the state. We also try to get more young hunters involved. We usually have quite a few people come out to watch the activities and see the dogs. All the kids like to see the dogs.”

In Alabama, sportsmen hunting on private land can chase raccoons all year long and kill them without limit. On public properties, seasons and laws may vary, so check the regulations before hunting anywhere. Some better public properties for coon hunting in Alabama include Talladega National Forest, Barbour, Black Warrior, Blue Springs, Choccolocco and Skyline WMAs.


Alabama’s Unique Coon Dog Cemetery Is Now More Than 80 Years Old
 
On Labor Day, Sept. 4, 1937, Key Underwood grabbed a shovel and headed out to the woods near his hunting camp in northwestern Alabama to bury a beloved companion, Troop, a mixed redbone coonhound. Over the years, other hunters laid their coon dogs to rest near Troop. Thus, Underwood unintentionally established the only memorial sanctuary set aside specifically to pay homage to dearly departed coon dogs.


Today, the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, more commonly known as the Coon Dog Cemetery, honors more than 300 such faithful companions like Troop from all across the nation. Open to the public free of charge, the only coon dog cemetery in the world sits at the end of a country road on the 33,539-acre Freedom Hills WMA near Cherokee.


Not just any dog can be so honored in this hallowed ground. This sacred parcel of wilderness remains set aside strictly for bona fide dogs of recognized coon-hunting breeds who have proven they can tree the illusive ring-tailed marauders on countless dark nights in the forest.


For more information about the coon dog cemetery, contact the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau at (800) 344-0783 or (256) 383-0783. Online, see http://coondogcemetery.com.
 
 
 
 
 
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