T. Edward Nickens Goes Coon Hunting

In northern Alabama, chasing baying hounds in the middle of the night is part hunting, part competition, and pure adrenaline...

Field & Stream Online Editors

Rowdy has a pretty voice, a high-pitched chop that turns into a frantic, yodeling bawl when the coon goes to tree. "Kinda like a souped-up beagle," figures Ronnie Baker. He is layered in cotton duck, with his belt sagging from the weight of a headlamp battery pack, remote electronic collar controllers, a radio tracking system, and two knives. Baker turns his head at an angle to the sound, trying to glean the details from Rowdy's baying. "Tell me about it, Rowdy," he whispers. "Talk to me."

We're in a damp stretch of black-dark woods somewhere west of the Sinks of Bluewater, which is somewhere east of Muscle Shoals in that part of northern Alabama that lies between the Tennessee River and Tennessee proper. But where we are doesn't matter nearly so much as where we're going: straight to the dogs.

On a bitter February night with ground fog shrouding the woods, a foursome of Alabama coon hunters-Baker, Mark Carroll, Greg Johnston, and Kenny Holden-are here to loose the hounds and let 'em run. Coon hunting is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. A growing interest in competition coon hunting, in which dogs and handlers compete for titles or cash, has helped bring in a generation of younger hunters to this old-time staple of rural life.

But none of that matters at the moment. These hunters aren't here for points and prizes. Instead, they seek what remains the heart and soul of the sport: a small group of friends, a handful of hounds, and a dark night full of possibility. By now, Rowdy has changed his mind four times in the 15 minutes since Baker slipped him off his leash. He's ranged to the left, over and beyond a high ridge that turned his steady, trailing barks into barely audible pings, and then coursed far right through the cutover swamp and nearly out of hearing range. Now, his voice rolls through the woods like distant cannon fire. Rowdy has struck, and Ox and Buzz join in the chase. Their voices coalesce into a strident, ringing pinpoint of steady barks, an urgent, ancient rhythm that even a newcomer to coon hunting can interpret: It's time to go. [pagebreak] "Boy, them dogs are in a place, too," says Baker. "Way across that swamp. You know it?"

"Oh, yeah," grouses Holden. He switches on his headlamp, which lights a grin as wide as the gibbous moon overhead. "Don't this suck like a bucket of ticks." And we're off.

In the dark, Alabama's big woods fly past. We cross field ditches and pastures, blast through hardwoods, tear brush pants on rusty barbed wire. We chase the dogs down cow paths and deer paths but mostly down no path at all. In the light from my headlamp beam, I catch pieces of the landscape-wet forest bottoms layered with oak leaves, streams unning clear over broken mussel shell and cobble, fingers of wild grapevine that claw at my face.

We break out on the edge of a pasture covered in a fog dimly lit by moonlight. Beyond a line of cedars silhouetted in the mist, a knoll rises from the creek. Rowdy and Ox are there, treed, incessantly barking. Headlamp beams slash across the oaks and hickories high on the ridge, as other hunters scale the bluff. Just a few weeks before, Baker tells me, he hunted a raccoon that climbed an oak growing on a bluff like this one. Pushed by the dogs, the animal ascended the tree, ran out along a branch, and stepped out onto the rising ground. "This country," he says, "will fool you."

I wade a swift, clear stream that reaches nearly to my knees and start climbing, grasping saplings to pull my way skyward. At the base of a giant red oak, Rowdy is "stretched out": back paws on the ground, front paws on the tree, shredding its bark with his claws. His barks are clanging bells, loud enough to hurt my ears. Aark! Aark! Aark! Aark! Aark! He is frantic. Rowdy circles the tree on his back legs, standing as high as my shoulder, flanks and muzzle streaked with blood from a cut from some thorn or old wire, musclecorded, eyes flashing in my headlamp, spittle and bark flying as he attacks the tree. Aark! Aark! Aark! [pagebreak] "Get on him, Rowdy, get on him," Baker coaches. "Talk to him, boy." Johnston and Baker hiss and shriek like fighting coons, trying to get the animal to move, but after 10 minutes, it's clear the raccoon has curled up in a den, safe and snug, and is certain not to show.

Baker snaps a thick wire lead to Rowdy's collar and pulls the dog off the tree. "Late winter is a hard time," he says. "The easy coons are gone, and the boars are in the rut. Most of the time they go to a den tree. A hard time. But that don't make it a bad time. Not with a coon dog in the woods."

A Coon Hunting Conversion
"Coon hunting saved my life," Mark Carroll tells me the next morning. It is 7 a.m., but a coon hunter's bruised shins and bloodied cheeks make it seem like the end of a long day. We're back in the truck now, driving through oak-clad ridges. As a younger man, running deer with dogs was Carroll's consuming passion. But somewhere along the way, he says, "I took up drinking and sinning on a full-time basis, and that didn't leave much time to hunt." He also took up a pair of dogs that cared nothing for deer. "They'd run the fire out of squirrels," he explains, "so I thought, maybe they'll tree coons." That's how it started.

"Once I got going, it burned in me something fierce. I'd walk off and leave a steak on the table and a good-looking woman wanting my attention to go coon hunting," says Carroll. "It changed everything. I quit drinking. I quit everything but smoking and coon hunting. I counted up one time, and I went for more than 400 days in a row, except for Sundays. That's why I can tell you: Coon hunting saved my life. If I'd-a kept on whooping and drinking like I was, I'd be gone by now."

As it turns out, Carroll has plenty of company. Coon hunting takes place at night, in the back of beyond, where small groups of hunters huddle off the side of the road. They require a gathering place, a place where the younger hunters can plot out the next night's hunt and the old hunters can spin their lies. They need a place like Square B Tack & Feed. [pagebreak] Carroll and I pull up at 8 a.m. The coon hunters have been there since dawn, cooking whole hog sausage and yard eggs. "Not that store-bought crap," one tells me. The old stories, tall tales, and outright lies come quick and fast, scented with cigarette smoke and old coffee.

Square B is a standard-issue country feed store-white cinder-block walls and a gas stove, on a rural intersection outside Florence, Ala. There are halters, bits, and saddles. Bags of cattle dewormer and catfish feed, swine feed, chicken feed, gamecock feed. Gene Frazier runs the place. He wears a T-shirt under long johns under a denim shirt under clip-on blue suspenders.

"Daddy carried me hunting when I was 6 years old," he says. "No tracking systems, no remote collars. We used carbide lights, and hell, now we have lights like you won't believe. I have a Sunburst Eagle that cost me $395. Tracking system cost $800. Dog collars are $160. A decent truck is $30,000. Back then, we hunted out of a '51 Chevrolet. Stick a 2x4 out of the trunk and tie it down to leave a little air vent for the dogs, and we were gone."

That's not all that's changed over the last half century of chasing hounds chasing coons. Frazier figures he didn't see a posted sign until he was "a grown man." To hunt, you simply drove up in people's yards and waved. If you got lost, there were no GPS units or cellphones to get you out. You lay down in a dry spot, went to sleep, and walked out the next morning.

At the feed store and elsewhere, nothing raises hackles, albeit good-naturedly, more than talk about a man's dog. You can run coons with a wide range of breeds and a fair number of dogs with pedigrees that polite folk wouldn't discuss. But for most coon hunters, and these Alabama dog men in particular, the only real choice is between treeing Walkers, black-and-tan coonhounds, and bluetick coonhounds. [pagebreak] "If it ain't black, don't take a sack," declares Scotty Phillips, his back against a counter stacked with pickled okra and paper towels.

"If they're blue, they're true," parries J.R. Puckett.

Phillips leans close. He wears a Red Man cap and a greasy Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt. "Let me tell you 'bout them blue men," he growls. "Most of 'em, they hunt blues all their life, they end up killing theirselves."
The other men hoot and slap the table, sloshing coffee, and it's fuel on Phillips' fire.

"You want to hear 'bout a dog?" he asks, leaning forward with rheumy eyes. "I'll tell you 'bout a dog. A bluetick dog. Now, this was a sure-nuff pneumonia dog. Turn him out and you'd come down with pure pneumonia before you'd get him back. So cold-nosed he'd put his foot in the coon track for three minutes to warm that track up, then throw his head back-baaaoooh! He'd pick the leaves up to smell 'em. That's the truth."

It's the dogs that hold the center of coon hunting. The dogs bring the hunters to the sport, and sometimes bring them back. "I lost two dogs to a car in '79," says Wayne Gean, a carpenter and minister in a zip-up camouflage parka and black cowboy hat. "It just wiped me out. I quit for about 15 years, but once or twice a week, I'd be up in the middle of the night, walking the floor. So I finally bought another dog. I figured if I was going to be up and walking, I might as well walk in the woods."

In the woods or out, the talk rarely strays far from the competition hunts. Few things have changed coon hunting as much as the growing influence of the United Kennel Club (UKC) and the Professional Kennel Club (PKC), organizations that sanction competitive coon hunts in which dogs are awarded points based on their ability to strike fresh trails and tree coons. Founded in 1898, UKC is by far the older of the two. In UKC hunts, hounds and masters compete for titles (Grand Champion, Night Champion, Grand Night Champion, and the like) and trophies-bragging rights, essentially, and diehard coon hunters can name generations of UKC champions that have contributed to the bloodlines of their dogs. [pagebreak] The new kid in town is PKC, restructured in 1998. PKC hunts are as much about cash as status, and they attract plenty of attention. The PKC has doubled in size in the last nine years and now sanctions 8,000 night coon hunts each year. Both groups claim a growing number of young hunters, but it's the PKC that seems to draw the most attention from the next generation. (In both cases, the hunt is about the chase. Coons aren't shot during sanctioned hunts.)

It's likely that most "recreational" coon hunters participate in competitifor most coon hunters, and these Alabama dog men in particular, the only real choice is between treeing Walkers, black-and-tan coonhounds, and bluetick coonhounds. [pagebreak] "If it ain't black, don't take a sack," declares Scotty Phillips, his back against a counter stacked with pickled okra and paper towels.

"If they're blue, they're true," parries J.R. Puckett.

Phillips leans close. He wears a Red Man cap and a greasy Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt. "Let me tell you 'bout them blue men," he growls. "Most of 'em, they hunt blues all their life, they end up killing theirselves."
The other men hoot and slap the table, sloshing coffee, and it's fuel on Phillips' fire.

"You want to hear 'bout a dog?" he asks, leaning forward with rheumy eyes. "I'll tell you 'bout a dog. A bluetick dog. Now, this was a sure-nuff pneumonia dog. Turn him out and you'd come down with pure pneumonia before you'd get him back. So cold-nosed he'd put his foot in the coon track for three minutes to warm that track up, then throw his head back-baaaoooh! He'd pick the leaves up to smell 'em. That's the truth."

It's the dogs that hold the center of coon hunting. The dogs bring the hunters to the sport, and sometimes bring them back. "I lost two dogs to a car in '79," says Wayne Gean, a carpenter and minister in a zip-up camouflage parka and black cowboy hat. "It just wiped me out. I quit for about 15 years, but once or twice a week, I'd be up in the middle of the night, walking the floor. So I finally bought another dog. I figured if I was going to be up and walking, I might as well walk in the woods."

In the woods or out, the talk rarely strays far from the competition hunts. Few things have changed coon hunting as much as the growing influence of the United Kennel Club (UKC) and the Professional Kennel Club (PKC), organizations that sanction competitive coon hunts in which dogs are awarded points based on their ability to strike fresh trails and tree coons. Founded in 1898, UKC is by far the older of the two. In UKC hunts, hounds and masters compete for titles (Grand Champion, Night Champion, Grand Night Champion, and the like) and trophies-bragging rights, essentially, and diehard coon hunters can name generations of UKC champions that have contributed to the bloodlines of their dogs. [pagebreak] The new kid in town is PKC, restructured in 1998. PKC hunts are as much about cash as status, and they attract plenty of attention. The PKC has doubled in size in the last nine years and now sanctions 8,000 night coon hunts each year. Both groups claim a growing number of young hunters, but it's the PKC that seems to draw the most attention from the next generation. (In both cases, the hunt is about the chase. Coons aren't shot during sanctioned hunts.)

It's likely that most "recreational" coon hunters participate in competiti