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Young Generation Sustains Old Tradition of Raccoon Treeing

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Heather Duncan
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It’s deep in the woods, pitch dark, 40 degrees. A distant howl starts low and rises.

 

Three men stand ankle-deep in leaves, listening.

 

Then they stride toward the sound.

 

As they rustle through ankle-deep leaves, branches bang their hard hats. The unblinking eyes of their headlamps glimpse a landscape of vertical shadows. Silvery trunks flicker into view, then disappear. All the while the choppy baying gets closer, more frantic.

 

Finally they can see an animal that rises into the air along with its voice. A hound is leaping against a tree, reaching heights above a man’s head. She knows what’s above. She wants to reach it so badly, she practically grips the trunk with her paws.

 

The hunters in this Tri-County Coon Club hunt crane their necks. There’s a racoon up there somewhere. The dog’s nose is better than their eyes. But they’ll find it.

 

None of these guys have guns. “You can’t even bring guns to these competitions,” said John Stiles, who organized this Professional Kennel Club-sanctioned hunt on a friend’s land in Kodak. “All you’re doing is treeing them and then going and going to find another one.”

 

Clubs like this one still hold three or four of coon hunts monthly across East Tennessee. Although there are fewer hunters than there used to be, a new generation is on the scent. And they’ve taken the sport high-tech and high-stakes.

 

“It’s amazing what all goes into these dogs,” said Stiles, whose hound Jay V is the one trying to fly. 

Trained coon hounds can cost $5,000 to $25,000, plus about $3,000 in starting equipment, Stiles said. For example, these dogs are all fitted with Garmin collars that allow hunters to track them by cell phone. The collars use the same GPS satellite technology as car navigation systems.

 

“That’s big, because we’re running out of hunting ground,” Stiles said. “When they get on somebody else’s property, we’re able to see who owns that place on our Garmins, and we’re able to go through the door and address them by name and be real respectful so we can retrieve our dogs from their property.”

 

Those knocks sometimes come in the middle of the night. And an increasing number of the homeowners didn’t grow up around this rural sport.

 

“There’s some people that want you to come in and have dinner with them, and there’s some that want to chase you off with a gun,” Stiles said. “You literally never know what you’re gonna get.”

 

During December hunt, the dogs stay deep in the woods. Johnny Dake and his son Austin drove all the way from Ten Mile with their hound Frankie. Johnny, who’s manning the truck while the others hunt, remembers when the club included about 60 dogs. It’s now about a third that size.

 

“It’s a dying sport, if the younger group don’t get into it,” said Cody McBroon, 22, from Englewood. He’s here with his dog Rufus, who at age eight is the canine senior statesman.

 

On the upside, all the hunters tonight are in their 20’s. Stiles and another young man, his friend Spencer Anderson, took over running the Tri-County Coon Club a few years back as an older generation retired. The two spend around an hour on the phone every day talking about buying, selling and training hunting dogs.

“Racoon hunting is a very social sport. I mean, it is steeped in Southern lore,” said Mike Butler, CEO of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. “These dogs have almost a hero status, some of them.” Butler has recently heard a little increase in interest in coon hunting, as well as squirrel hunting with feists.

 

Austin Dake, 21, is at least the fourth generation in his family to hunt with dogs. He started at age 5.

“I used to go with my grandpa and my dad when I was younger. We always hunted blueticks and black tans,” he said. “Through high school it kept me out of trouble.”

 

His grandfather still comes along sometimes. But things have changed. This fall they traveled to Illinois to hunt at a world championship, which pays out as much as $30,000. Dake’s dog, and one Stiles took, each placed around 80th out of more than 1,300 dogs.

 

Stiles’ dog was financed by a partner. As in horse racing, some coon hunters work with an investor who pays for the dog, entry fees, and sometimes other expenses. That dog is now in Kansas, priced at $10,000.

 

Stiles has shifted his attention to hunting with Jay V and training a new puppy.

 

“You get you a coon hide and you drag it around, or you let your little brother or sister or something take off with it through the woods and then run it through creeks,” he said. After the dog gets older and bolder, Stiles shows it a racoon in a cage. Then he releases the animal and lets the dog chase it up a tree.

 

None of this is a strain on the state’s raccoon population, which has rebounded after a dramatic decline in the middle of the last century, Butler said. Johnny Dake remembers that. He says his grandfather mostly hunted rabbit and fox because there weren’t many raccoons.

 

Raccoon numbers had dwindled mostly because their habitat was heavily logged, Butler said. That trend coincided with a lack of standardized hunting regulations. (Even the racoons that weren’t being killed were birthing fewer kits, because they were stressed when dogs chased them during mating season.)

 

Many forests have now regrown and matured, providing the den trees raccoons need. The animals are now plentiful, to the point of being pesky in some places. Hunting -- including actually killing the raccoons for their meat or hides -- is allowed year-round on private land.

 

Most coon hunters do chase racoons all year. But in summer when it’s really hot, sometimes Stiles lets his dog run on a treadmill inside, or takes her to swim in the river. He “only” hunts four or five nights a week since getting married, but spends time with his dogs daily.

 

“I feel the closer you are, the more bond you have with your dog, the better they perform for you,” he said.

 

Learning your dog is key to winning competitions. When the dogs are loosed, the sound they make crashing through the leaves fades quickly. One by one, they begin to bay -- a haunting wail, already far off. Then it changes to a rhythmic bark as the dog jumps against a tree. A hunter must know his animal’s sound from a distance, and among the tangle other dogs. Points are given to the hounds that are fastest to pick up a racoon’s trail, and the fastest to run it up a tree. The dog won’t get credit if the owner doesn’t recognize it, and it loses points if the hunter is incorrect.

 

Once the hunters all agree some of the dogs have treed, they hurry to confirm. The men scramble quickly down steep banks, splashing through creeks and vaulting fallen trees in the dark.

 

On this night, Austin Dake’s dog Frankie trees first, but loses points when the men can’t see the racoon. A majority of the hunters have to lay eyes on it for the dog to win points, which not only win competitions but increase the dog’s cumulated standing. That in turn boosts the value of its future pups, which can sell for thousands of dollars.

 

At a different tree the hunters find Jay V leaping wildly. Stiles ties her to a sapling, which she chews in a frenzy while the hunters circle the tree. They blow into a tube that makes a squalling static sound. They want to attract the coon’s attention, so they can spot its eyes reflecting red in their headlamps. 

Rufus has treed one, too, although all they can see is its fuzzy butt in the crook of the branches.

 

When it’s time for the second hunting round, the dogs run a short hundred yards and all clamber at the same hollow, dead tree trunk. The men agree it’s probably a den. Dake sticks his cell phone camera into a hole at the base of the tree, trying to spy the sleepy raccoon. No luck. No points for anyone here.

 

But the dogs keep going, treeing one racoon after another for an hour. The hunters see about four -- a good night.

 

In the end, Jay V wins, and Stiles takes home 45 bucks.

 

But he and his dog aren’t done. Jay V scrambles into a metal pen in the truck bed, then they drive to another hunting spot. No competition this time. Just for fun.

 

Occasionally they go all night, especially when Stiles works second shift.

 

“Sometimes I’d come home, and I would literally get in the shower and change clothes and go to work at 6. And not even sleep or nothin,’” Stiles said. “And I’d be at work dragging all day telling myself how much I hated hunting. Go home and take a nap -- be right back out that night,” Stiles said. “It literally is addicting.”