I’m at the World’s Largest Raccoon Hunt, held each year at the Parsons, Tenn., fairgrounds, where I’ve arranged to meet hunt contestant Mike Hickerson after the community breakfast. Under the pavilion, I sit down at a long table of strangers to a cardiologist’s nightmare of biscuits, white gravy, and scrapple, and strike up a conversation with a hunter named Stan, who is sitting next to me.
“My dad always says he’s gonna whup me at this hunt because I made him miss it once by being born the same weekend,” he says. “That was 28 years ago, but Dad don’t forget.” A few seats away, an older man bobs his head once in confirmation and keeps on eating.
“Dad and Mom got married on the weekend of the hunt, too. Stopped to see the judge on the way over and honeymooned coon hunting the next two nights.” Stan himself got married this weekend. “April 9, 2009,” he says. “We had a hunting honeymoon just like Dad and Mom’s.”
The hunt’s official name is the Decatur County–St. Jude World’s Largest Coon Hunt, raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. But it’s not the world’s largest. Thirty years ago, it was right up there, attracting 700 or more entries. Now 100 or so hunters come for the night hunts on Friday and Saturday. The world of raccoon hunting has changed over the years. There are competing circuits, big prizes, professional hunters, even cheating scandals. After 41 years, the World’s Largest Coon Hunt plugs on more or less unchanged.
In addition to the hunters, a thousand or so spectators show up. They come to follow the main event but also to enter or watch dogs compete in other contests. There are water races in a timed swimming event; treeing contests, where judges measure the cadence of dogs barking at caged coons; and bench shows, which are essentially beauty contests for the various raccoon hunting breeds. People come for the free White Bean Supper on Thursday, the ATV raffles, and the girls’ beauty pageant. Hunters and spectators alike come because it’s tradition, because their friends are here, because they can’t imagine not coming. Cash prizes for the hunters top out at a few hundred bucks, a pittance by today’s standards. The real prize here is bragging rights, something that still counts in this part of Tennessee. While it’s not good manners to appear overeager, there’s not a raccoon hunter here who isn’t itching to say he won this one.
Stan is hunting an English redtick this year. “I just think they’re more honest than other dogs,” he says. The relative honesty of canines has never crossed my mind, but apparently it’s a thing. “Some dogs—Walkers sometimes—will try to convince you they’ve treed a coon even when they know it’s really just a possum. But not an English.”
After breakfast, I set out across the fairgrounds to find Hickerson, a well-regarded hunter and my host for the event. Walking through rows of exhibitor tents, I overhear snatches of conversation that bespeak a level of dog knowledge unknown to me.
“That boy ruined a good dog. Used the collar too much. Fell in love with that button.”
“Even with the best blood, you’re lucky to get one dog out of a litter that’s got the instinct. A dog like that, you just get outta the way.”
“If he liked you, he’d hunt hard for you.”
Eventually, I find Hickerson. He’s 52, short, stocky, and dressed in full camo. By day he’s a lineman and supervisor for an electrical co-op. He also raises a few beef cattle and sells a few dogs. More nights than not, he hunts. When I ask when he sleeps, he smiles and shrugs. He’d rather coon hunt.
Hickerson is entering Buck, his 2-year-old bluetick, in the hunt. He unfolds the dog’s papers. It takes me a while to understand that they document Buck’s lineage on both sides for about 30 generations. In human terms that’s like knowing your people back to the 13th century, which is roughly when soap was invented. Before he’ll compete with any dog, Hickerson takes it out 30 nights in a row. “To win, you got to know what he’ll do in every situation. You got to know him just like you know your own wife.” I’m wondering if he knows his wife as well as he knows Buck.
Cut to the Chase
It’s the day before the main competition starts, and Hickerson offers to take me “pleasure hunting” along the Tennessee River with a couple of his friends. I pick up a pair of Yoder Super Chaps at one of the tents, and we head out just after 9 p.m.
At the farm, Hickerson loans me a Sunspot headlamp mounted on a lightweight hard hat. I flick the switch and the beam emanating from my forehead looks like something solid, a luminous rail. You could light up a runway at O’Hare with this thing. You could start a fire by looking down at dry leaves. I vow to be careful. Hickerson’s friends Mike Tally and Danny White put tracking collars on their dogs and check their Garmins.
“Ready?” Hickerson asks everyone. “Cut ’em!”
The dogs catapult down the path and disappear into the night. We turn off our lights to listen. A sliver of moon hangs in the sky. The brighter stars are already out and winking. From far down the Tennessee River comes the sound of a distant barge’s diesel engines. For the next three hours, I follow the men following the dogs. I follow them through thigh-deep sloughs. I follow through brush and stands of trees bristling with thorns. I follow up and down ridges so steep I feel as though I should have a climbing harness. If there’s a raccoon here—or anywhere—these guys are going after it.
Forget Buster barking at the mailman. The cries of the hounds echoing through the woods for miles are something else entirely. They’re drawn-out primal bays, a mix of mournfulness and hysteria, relentlessness and resignation. It’s a sound unchanged since the beginning. It’s the sound of the hunt.
Eventually the dogs tree a coon and it takes us 10 minutes to make our way there, the chop of the dogs never wavering. The men drag hounds, leaping and straining, off the tree and tie them 20 yards away. They point their lights skyward, and 40 or 50 feet up the coon’s yellow eyes float in the glow for a moment. Then it averts its gaze and—like the Cheshire Cat—dematerializes. We gather the dogs and go looking for another.
After three hours of hunting, we’ve treed two raccoons. Never have I seen hunters work so hard to find quarry, only to let it go. Tally says that killing raccoons is banned in virtually all competitions and that few serious raccoon hunters kill them at all.
“Oh, I’ll take one every now and then,” Tally says. “Just to help the dogs connect the dots, make sure a young one understands what it’s about.” He also knows people who eat them, and occasionally will leave one on their porch. “But kill them just to put on the tailgate and show people?” He shakes his head. Bad form. And it’s one less raccoon to hunt next time.
The last chase of the night is a dead end. Hickerson thinks it was a possum. He says he heard a hint of doubt in the dogs.
“You tired?” I ask him.
“Well, I guess you could say I’m right limbered up,” he replies. “Let’s call it a night.”
It’s well past midnight. It’ll be 1:30 A.M. by the time I get back to my motel.
These guys will hunt 10, 20, 60 nights in a row. They just get used to being tired, they tell me. The dark secret of raccoon hunters is that they are most alive when the rest of the world slumbers, when they are deep in the night woods and the dogs have just struck the hot trail of a raccoon. The men become slightly uncomfortable when I ask what it is about raccoon hunting that speaks to them so deeply.
“It just gets in your blood,” one of them says. I slowly realize that my question is actually a statement, a declaration of cluelessness. I might as well be sporting a sandwich board that reads DOESN’T GET IT. NEVER WILL on both sides. But they are gentlemen. They put up with me.
RULES OF THE GAME
The United Kennel Club’s “Official Nite Hunt Honor Rules” cover 12 pages. Greatly simplified, it all works as follows.
Each dog in a cast of four is awarded points (100, 75, 50, and 25) for the order in which its barks indicate it “struck” or “opened” a coon trail. A dog is also awarded points (125, 75, 50, and 25) for the order in which its bark changes to indicate that it has “treed” the raccoon. Points are “minused” for mistakes, ranging from quitting a trail to treeing a “coon” where there clearly is none, to fighting with another dog. Points are “circled” when proper scoring can’t be determined, such as when there might be a raccoon in a tree, but it cannot be seen. If two dogs are tied when time is called and all other factors are equal, the dog with the most circled points wins. —B.H.
Play It by Ear
Hickerson and I join the other hunters in the pavilion just before dark, when the competition officially begins. Casts are being chosen by lottery for the first night’s hunt. A cast is four hunters, each hunter with one dog. At this level, raccoon hunting is a gentlemanly deal. The organizers choose a judge for each cast from among the hunters, by seniority or experience. Hickerson is named the judge for our group. His job is to award, deduct, and tally points for each dog-and-handler pair, including himself and Buck. If you disagree with a call, you can appeal to a higher authority back at the pavilion, but such cases are the exception. We meet the other hunters in our cast, and 10 minutes later, our four trucks convoy to the farm we hunted the night before. We cut the dogs loose and listen in the dark.
It’s a confusing evening, but Hickerson tries to explain the rules to me. In the most basic terms, a hound’s score is based on two barks: one when it “strikes” a hot trail, another when it “trees” the animal. The first dog to strike or tree a raccoon gets the most points, last gets the least. Points are also “minused” for any number of reasons, including a “slick” tree where a raccoon should be visible but isn’t. But there are more exceptions to the rules than there are rules.
What is abundantly clear as we listen to the dogs’ voices is that I’m even further out of my league than normal. All I hear is a cacophony of undifferentiated barks and bawls, ricocheting through the night woods. But the hunters can hear every detail of what’s happening. It’s hard to fathom. The men in our cast have barely met, and yet not once do they question which dog barked or in what order or whether it struck or treed. They know instantly how hot or cold a trail is, and whether—God forbid, because it’ll cost you points—a dog is running “trash,” which denotes any animal that is not a raccoon. I hear none of this. Not only do I not speak the language; I don’t even know the alphabet.
Hickerson’s dog Buck is the last to strike but the first to tree. He’s far off, and the shortest path is through 300 yards of slough. Five steps in and the water is an inch from the top of my waders. But the bottom is sandy and flat, and we all make it to the other side without incident. From there we push on through briers and poison ivy. In cover, the headlamp illuminates each leaf in its immediate path but obscures everything else beyond. I have no sense of where we are or which direction we came from.
After 20 minutes, we finally reach the dogs, which are still attempting to climb their respective trees. The consensus is that there probably is a coon at Buck’s tree, but we can’t see it. The three other dogs are all on a different tree, but again, we can’t see a raccoon.
“It’s hard whenever the trees are leafed out like this,” Hickerson says. This happens twice more. You can feel the frustration building among the hunters. In the end, the whole cast seems to be tied at zero for the night. At first I’m relieved that the trek back avoids the slough, but our route takes us through so much mud and over so many downed trees that I’m rethinking this by the time we reach the trucks. If I’m more tired than I am confused, it’s only because I’ve never been this tired.
By 1 A.M. hunters are returning to the pavilion. I run into Danny White, Hickerson’s friend from our Thursday night hunt. He and his 7-year-old treeing Walker, Billy, have won their cast with 375 points. You have to win your cast both nights and also place in the top four in combined points to advance to the four-man hunt-off to determine the winner. The hunt-off is a one-hour event that starts after all the results are in on Saturday night. In other words, it starts at about 3 A.M.
Bruised and Confused
At the fairgrounds before Saturday’s hunt, I run into the other guy from Thursday night, Mike Tally. He, too, “sells a few dogs on the side.” This is like saying Adele sings a little. Tally can’t walk 10 feet without someone approaching him to buy or sell a hound. He works the fairgrounds like a savvy politician, joking with some as he passes, thumping a guy on the chest and inviting him to stop by later, trading good-natured insults with others. I ask him his secret to convincing someone to buy a dog, and he mangles a metaphor as magnificently as anyone I’ve ever heard. “It’s like riding a bike,” he says. “You got to learn it all over again each time you get on.” Somewhere up there, Yogi Berra is tipping his hat.
That evening, as casts are chosen, Hickerson insists that I leave him and Buck behind and go out instead with the overall leader, Timmy Pratt, who trains and boards coonhounds. Pratt has won the World’s Largest Coon Hunt five times and has a score of 650 from Friday. He’s hunting Steel, a 2-year-old English redtick whose full name is Stone Cold Steel. “He ain’t no account,” Pratt says of the dog. But when he scratches Steel’s ears, his affection for the dog is obvious.
The Saturday night hunt is no less disorienting than Friday’s. We’re hunting thick woods where the farmer’s fields succumbed long ago but not his barbwire fences. I tear my shirt crossing one, and cut my hand on another. The bawls of the dogs are coming from all different directions. I gather from Pratt that they have split up and are pursuing two or more raccoons.
Halfway into the hunt, I think Pratt’s dog Steel is doing well, but I can’t say anything for sure. At each tree the dogs’ chop is so loud and of such a skull-vibrating frequency that I either plug my ears with my fingers or retreat to a safe distance. One of the hunters gets disqualified when his dog trees a possum. At another tree, I go blind for a couple of minutes when somebody unwittingly shines me full in the face. The hunt becomes a blur of bright light and black shadow, of dogs baying and men chasing and then manhandling their hounds off the tree so they can shine for the raccoon. It’s not until much later, when we are driving back to the fairgrounds, that Pratt tells me the night’s score. Nobody in the cast does particularly well, but Pratt wins by a small margin. Having won both of his casts, he’s got a shot at the hunt-off, but there’s no telling whether he’ll have enough points until we find out how the other hunters did.
It’s more than an hour’s wait at the pavilion, while hunters trickle in and officials tally scores, but sure enough, Pratt is in. So is Danny White. Both men allow themselves small smiles and a few pats on the back from friends and fellow hunters, but it goes against form to make too much of getting into the hunt-off. A veteran judge is chosen to oversee the final four-man cast. While people are getting ready to hit the woods again, I manage to catch a wink or two, I think. But then everyone heads for the door all at once, and I have to scramble to catch up to them.
An Ugly Win
It’s past 3 A.M. by the time the hunters release the hounds again, by which time I’ve consumed enough energy drinks to revive or embalm a dead man. I feel more embalmed than revived. The finalists start at zero for the last hunt, which is one hour long in the same way a football game is, constantly interrupted by timeouts to regroup or interpret rules. Because it’s the finals, there are spectators following the hunters through the woods now—so many that after a while I can’t tell who’s competing and who’s not. I’m clearly not the only one who’s fatigued and addled. One competitor is disqualified early on for the rare blunder of calling a strike made by somebody else’s dog.
I more or less attach myself to the judge, thinking he’ll explain what’s going on as we walk, but he’s got his hands full sorting out the chaos. At one point, there are half a dozen of us—hunters and spectators—in a small pasture above a bottom that, from the faraway and widely distributed calls of the dogs, seems to cover many square miles. All turn off their lights as if sound can be heard more clearly in the dark. The crescent moon makes its way through the clouds. The judge is reluctant to head downhill until all the dogs are treed, probably because the sound will be more muddled in the bottom. But finally, we make our way down.
My initial impression is that we’ve descended too soon, because now it sounds as though the four dogs are bawling from six directions. Hunters and spectators break off every which way and before I have any sense of what’s going on I lose the judge. (One guy with a 100,000-lux beam coming out of his forehead looks pretty much like the next.) For most of the rest of the hunt, I’m following a lone stranger in camo only so as not to be alone.
After an hour of acoustical bedlam, the headlamps turn uphill and move toward the pasture. As I meet up with others, the buzz is that White has the lead, but it has not been an elegant hunt. More points have been minused than awarded. White himself apparently lost 50 when his dog quit a track and another 50 for quitting a tree. I find the judge in the pasture, with a cluster of guys around him as he pores over his clipboard. Finally, he looks up from the numbers and declares Danny White the winner—with a score of minus 100.
“It wasn’t a pretty win,” White will tell me later. “But it happens that way sometimes.” Bragging rights are bragging rights. He can’t even remember how much the check was for. “Maybe $300. I didn’t even look at it. I donated it back to St. Jude. I don’t have much money, but if there’s a chance it could help some kid, then that’s where the money should go.”
X X X
As I drive to the airport in Nashville the next day, I keep thinking of a story Mike Hickerson told me. More than 20 years ago, he’d spent $1,500 on a dog for his son, Jason, who is now a schoolteacher with a family of his own. He hadn’t planned on the purchase. There was just something about the dog that made him think it would be the right one for the boy. He’d had to borrow the money, not something a man like Hickerson would normally do.
“My wife was furious,” he remembered. “She said, ‘You spent fifteen hundred dollars we don’t have on a dog?’” He’d told her that if it kept the boy out of jail and off drugs, it would be money well spent. Jason went on to hunt that dog for 10 years. He didn’t go to jail or get on drugs. He went to the woods and followed his dog after raccoons. Eventually, Hickerson said, even his wife had to admit it was money well spent.
Not too long ago, Hickerson offered to take Jason out raccoon hunting. Jason turned him down flat. “He said, ‘Daddy, I can’t do it. If I got started again, I’m afraid I’d want to go out every night.’”