Once upon a time, I was lucky enough to have a brother-in-law who was a fanatical fancier of hound dogs.
We started the evening at Dave’s house in an east Stockton area more commonly known as Okieville. After a dinner of pan-fried pork chops and hash browns, we headed out back to the kennel to load up the hounds.
I thought I knew a little about hounds, since I read a number of outdoor publications and have heard all about such exotic hound breeds as blueticks, redbones and Walkers.
“What kind of dogs are these, Dave?”
Dave looked at me as though I must be incredibly dumb. “They’re hounds.”
“I know that,” I replied, “but what kind of hounds are they?”
I got another one of those looks.
On the third try, I asked what breed they were and whether they were registered with the American Kennel Club, or something like that. After a last incredulous look, Dave patiently explained that no “true” raccoon hunter would have much to do with pedigreed dogs. Pedigreed dogs, it seems, are just pretty animals for rich folks to enter in dog shows and really aren’t worth much when it comes to real ’coon hunting.
Dave told me in the truck as we drove to meet the other ’coon doggers at Johnnie’s Waffle Shop that Hank Johnson never had learned that purebred dogs are next to useless. It seems Hank had an entire pack of purebred Walkers.
Dave observed: “Now, you watch what happens tonight, and you’ll see I’m right. I’ll guarantee you, not one of Hank’s dogs does as well as mine. His fancy Walkers with their pretty black and white colors will be lucky if they get to the tree before we humans do.”
Treeing, for those of you not initiated in the sport of raccoon hunting, is the apex of the sport. Not only must a dog follow a cold trail (one that’s quite old), until it turns hot (which means you’re getting closer), but to ever be a really good ’cooner, your dog has to get to the tree in which the raccoon takes refuge ahead of all the other dogs.
After riding the last ferry out to the island, we were ready to hunt. I expected a fast and furious chase. Boy, was I surprised when the guys began to scatter and look for firewood to build a campfire.
“Aren’t we going to go hunting?” I asked.
“Patience, boy, we’ll get to that part.”
Soon, the fire was blazing merrily and the dogs were turned loose. I expected we’d take off after the dogs, but they all went in different directions, and the hunters began to settle in around the fire. As the dogs worked farther and farther out into the darkness, the hunters began to relate tales of hunts long past. All the while, one could hear an occasional yip or snort from some distant dog.
We laughed ’til we had tears in our eyes at tales of hunters who had to jump in the river to save some worthless dog from being drowned by a wily ’coon, and who almost got drowned in the process. We got more tears in our eyes as we heard the story of the old ’coonhunter who wanted to go on “just one last hunt” and who died from a heart attack that very night. Everyone agreed that the fellow died in the second best way possible.
Someone passed a fruit jar around the fire that contained a concoction guaranteed to cure junglerot, or anything else. Suddenly, in mid-story, Dave jumped up as though he’d been snake-bit.
“Hot damn!” he cried in delight. “Ole Singer struck a hot trail — it won’t be long now.”
Soon, Fred’s Blue joined the chorus, followed by a pair of dogs owned by an old boy named Will. Everyone was listening intently to the dog music now.
Fred nudged Hank in the ribs and said, “Still haven’t heard your Walkers yet, Hank. They get lost?” Everyone got a real laugh out of poor Hank’s embarrassment.
Then it was Will who broke the spell of the distant dog music: “You hear that? Do you hear that? That was my Queenie that just barked treed.” Will was ecstatic. “Don’t you fellows wish you had a real dog like my Queenie?”
Dave chimed in, “Yep, that’s Queenie all right. Congratulations, Will.”
One by one, the other dogs began to chime in, and one by one, the hunters knew whose dog got there second, and third, and finally last.
“Let’s go, guys,” someone yelled, and we took off into the darkness toward the sound of the baying dogs. I got more and more excited as we got closer and closer. Before I knew it, I was on a dead run. Wham! Something hit my ankles that felt like a baseball bat. I was falling. My god, that water was cold! I had run into a downed sapling and fallen into a ditch. Fortunately, all of the others were too busy trying not to make the same mistake, and they’d have to wait ’til later to laugh at my plight.
Finally, we arrived at the bedlam that had to be where the ’coon was treed. Sure enough, shining a light up into the tree revealed a pair of eyes shining back at us.
“Oh, it’s only a little one,” someone lamented. Everyone agreed we ought to let him go. The dogs were leashed and appropriately praised, and we headed back to the campfire to await the coming of dawn.
Cost? Almost none, just a tankful of gas and a jar or two of moonshine. Rewards? Plenty, as well as camaraderie, laughter, excitement and exercise.
No, sir, there’s no two ways about it: Hunting is a poor man’s sport.
Until next week, tight lines.
• Don Moyer, outdoors columnist for the Tracy Press, has been writing Tight Lines for more than 30 years. His book, “Tight Lines: Observations of an Outdoor Philosopher,” is available online at www.createspace.com\3452025, and he will be doing book signings at local bookstores and libraries in the area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.