A little night music
A coonhound's bawl is music to the ear of competition coon hunters.
Kathryn A. Kahler
"When a coondog sniffs, there's a total involvement of the blood and sinews as though the scent flows like electrical current through him and sets him aquiver from whiskers to tail. On a trail or at a tree, he becomes as pure a creature as there is, driven and timorous, made whole by his union from centuries of breeding. But the chase revives the hunt in a man’s blood too, mixed with a kind of diluted longing and fear that defines his kinship with the dog and the raccoon too." — O. Victor Miller
Best laid plans of coonhounds and hunters often go awry. That was my conclusion when after half an hour of pleasant conversation beneath the stars, my companions kept assuring me that this wasn't the way things were supposed to happen. I wasn't complaining, but I knew they wanted to show me a typical competition coonhound nite hunt, one full of excitement and adventure. Apparently the coonhounds – or coons – had other plans.
Ken Nehrkorn (Bristol, Wis.) and Ted Feeler (Vienna, Mo.), and their Grand Nite Champion coonhounds, Lonesome Patches and Beast, were competing in the Wisconsin State Championship Coonhunt on Memorial Day weekend. Patches is a treeing Walker breed and Beast, a black and tan coonhound. Erika Froeming, Edgerton, the guide for our group, had taken us to a section of prime raccoon habitat with plenty of swampy river bottoms, corn fields and tree lines. As we jumped from the trucks into the pitch black night, the only sound was the thump-thump-thump of the hounds' tails against their cages in the bed of Ken's pickup.
The night held plenty of promise as the two seasoned hunters let their hounds off leash into the dark to do what comes so naturally for them and their noses. Beast quickly found a trail and let out a distinctive bawling howl.
"Strike, Beast," announced Ted. Patches soon followed suit with a similar announcement from Ken, "Strike, Patches." In the periods of silence that followed, interspersed with distant howls from Beast and Patches, my companions explained how things were supposed to happen on a competition coon hunt.
The 80-member Jefferson County Coon and Fox Hunting Club, founded in 1952, sponsors nite hunts from its clubhouse on the banks of the Bark River, eight miles east of Ft. Atkinson. It's one of 26 clubs statewide that sponsor such events. The deadline for entries for this particular competition was set at 8 p.m. on the last Saturday in May. Twenty-two entries were in the hat by the deadline and randomly assigned to groups of four dogs, called casts.
Under United Kennel Club (UKC) rules, one of the handlers in each cast is designated the role of judge, to apply rules and record scores for the group. Each group has two hours of "scorecard time" during which they can accumulate points for "striking" (finding a fresh trail) and treeing raccoons. The first dog to strike a trail is awarded 100 points, with 75, 50 and 25 points awarded to the second, third and fourth places. The first dog to tree the coon gets another 125 points, with 75, 50 and 25 points awarded to those who follow.
Each cast is assigned a guide who is responsible for the hunters’ and dogs’ safety and takes the group to likely hunting spots. Guides have a wealth of personal knowledge of the surrounding area and good relationships with landowners whose permission they seek for access. Some guides also take their cast to public hunting land in the area.
Once the dogs, handlers, guide and spectators (each handler can bring up to two) are on the ground at the first hunting spot, the dogs are simultaneously let off their leashes and the judge starts the clock. Dogs run freely in search of a scent trail and as soon as they find one, "open" on the trail with a long drawn out howl. Each handler knows his or her dog's voice, and as soon as they hear the first bark on track, they announce it to the cast – "Strike, Beast" – and the judge records the score.
The group stands quietly, intently listening for their dogs' voices to join the hunt. If they do, the dogs are assigned subsequent placements and scores. Once the coon is treed, the dog changes over to a short, choppy bark as it stands, circles or sits at the base of the tree barking up at the coon. When the handler hears his dog's bark change over, he announces it – "Tree, Patches" – and points are assigned. The members of the cast then walk to the tree and shine their headlamps up in the branches to locate the coon. Once the group confirms the presence of a coon, the clock is stopped and points are added up for that tree. No firearms are permitted on these competitive nite hunts, and raccoons are not harvested.
The process starts all over at the next hunting spot selected by the guide as the hounds are set loose and the clock is started again. The event ends after two hours of active hunting time. The group then returns to the club house and turns in their scorecard to the Master of Hounds, or hunt official.
Sometimes dogs split up and follow different trails and end up "split treed," or are found barking up a tree where no coon is found, a so-called "slick" tree. While a slick tree is a rule infraction, a split tree is not and just means the dog doesn’t have to share its points with the others. Infractions cost points that are deducted from the dog’s scores. Dogs will also lose points for running or treeing animals other than raccoons; molesting game; leaving a tree before the hunter has arrived to confirm that the raccoon has officially been declared treed; quitting a trail for more than eight minutes once they have been declared struck; babbling (when a dog barks and no track is evident); or a variety of other infractions. Dogs can also be scratched from the hunt for several reasons, most importantly for aggressive behavior or fighting.
Time-outs must be called and the clock stopped when dogs wander onto highways, into areas of danger, out of hearing distance in different directions, or onto private land where the cast does not have permission to hunt. Time-outs are also called while the group is traveling from one hunting area to another.
Once the deadline is reached and all casts are back to the clubhouse, the Master of Hounds resolves any disputes, checks all the scorecards and tallies points. Dogs are ranked by point totals and place first through fourth for the night's hunt. Throughout the season and the years the dog’s point totals in sanctioned events accumulate as they compete to earn the prestigious title of Nite Champion or Grand Nite Champion. Once they’ve achieved those high honors, dogs compete with other Grand Nite Champions in breed sectionals, state championships or national events.
We'd been standing for quite some time listening to Beast and Patches follow their trail, their bawling growing more distant to the east, then circling back toward the south.
"They sound like they’re on the riverbank," Ken speculated.
"Sounds to me like they’re running off-game," said Ted. "We’ve got a lot of gray fox where Beast competes in Missouri and that's just how they run, in a big circle."
The three continued to speculate on what I gathered to be the shameful practice of coonhounds running off-game – a coon hunting term for chasing game other than coons – and coming to grips with the possibility that their dogs might be engaging in it.
"Why don’t we tighten up. I'm getting worried they're tracking so far away," said Ken.
So off we went through the blackness, in the direction of the distant barking. My admiration of my companions' night vision and their ability to walk without tripping over stumps or falling into holes grew stronger with each stumble I took. I kept my eyes riveted to their backs and concentrated on just keeping up.
Just as quickly as the pace we had been walking, the group came up short and stopped.
"They’ve turned back to the east," said Ted, confirming what we all heard. "Maybe they were following a fox and now they're on a coon." The barking grew stronger and again headed away from us. Again we waited, listening. The barking grew more and more distant.
"We might want to call a time-out, go back to the trucks and drive over to where they are," suggested Erika.
"Sounds like a plan," said Ken. That called for an about-face and again we marched through the night back to the trucks. Almost there, we came up short again, listening.
"Wouldn’t you know it?" said Ken. "They’re treed." The march continued to the trucks.
Climbing into the driver's seat, Erika must have heard me gasping for air.
"Water? There’s a bottle next to the seat."
When I could breathe and talk again, I asked her if it was common for coonhounds to run after other game and what happens if they go on private land.
Well, they’re not supposed to, but hounds do what their noses tell them first. If they're headed in the direction of posted or private land, we may intercept them. If they pass us, we may wait for them to come back or pass through the property. If they tree in the center of the property, we get permission from the landowner to retrieve them. But you try not to get into that situation and a good guide will usually keep you out of those situations."
It took only a couple of minutes to locate the treed dogs, just off the road about a mile away, going crazy at the base of a huge silver maple. Ken and Ted shone their headlamps up into the branches and found a big, fat coon hiding among the leaves. If dogs were physically able to climb trees, Patches and Beast would have been up there with that coon.
Back in the truck on the way to our next location, I asked Erika how that hunt would be scored, since the dogs treed while in a time-out.
"Unfortunately, neither dog will get points, and the points they got for striking won’t count either."
The next hunting spot was sure to be better. It had proven a productive spot the previous year and Erika knew there were plenty of coons. She told the handlers that there were some marshy areas, wet ditches, fields and lots of trees. Again, the hounds were released with great anticipation and the clock started.
The silence of the dark night was broken only by a chorus of spring peepers and the rattling echoes from a couple of sandhill cranes the dogs must have startled off their nest. A little later, owls hooted in the distance. Again, my companions assured me this was not a typical hunt. I began to think I had jinxed them.
No, if anything it was Arlander who jinxed us," said Ken. "He came up to us before we left the clubhouse and told us we were going to be the big scorers, with two Grand Nite Champions making up the cast."
Eventually, Beast struck, but Ted could tell from his bark that it wasn't a good one, meaning he wasn't very enthusiastic about the track.
"I can always tell when he's on a good one."
As the clock ticked on, the conversation turned to past hunts, other dogs and the tradition of coonhunting. Ken told a story about how he almost lost a dog a couple of years back.
"When the hunt was over, I couldn't find my dog. Of course she had a collar on so I went back to the truck and got my radio antenna. I was able to get a signal, but in the dark, I just couldn't locate her. I didn't find her until 3 p.m. the next afternoon. It turns out she had followed a coon into the open end of a drainage tile at the edge of a field. In the middle of the field, four feet underground, the tile was broken, or changed over to a smaller pipe which the coon could get through but the dog couldn't and got stuck. I kept tracking the signal to the middle of the field. The signal faded when I would walk toward a row of trees, or to a ditch where it was likely the dog might be. Each time as the signal faded, I turned and followed it back to the middle of the field. I had to go to town to buy a shovel and dug four feet down, broke through the pipe and found her almost hypothermic. I washed her off in the creek and tied her out in the sun to warm up. It was a close call."
As we listened to Beast's intermittent bawls, Ken observed that we still hadn't heard from Patches. As if on cue, her higher pitched bawl echoed in the distance.
More theories evolved about the lack of "action." Maybe the sow raccoons were staying tight in the trees with their kittens and things would be better in a week or two. The previous night’s hunt had gone well when there was a lot of dew on the ground, but it’s very dry tonight. Maybe that's a factor. The group learned later that evening that all the casts experienced the same difficulty in tracking. Many attributed it to the dry weather and lack of dew that helps leave more scent for the dogs to follow.
The dogs' distant barking grew more enthusiastic, but they still had not treed a raccoon. Ken glanced at his stop watch and announced there were only five minutes left and it wouldn't matter much at that point anyway.
We might as well start walking and round them up," said Ken.
With time running out on our cast's hunt, we trudged across a freshly plowed field to retrieve Patches and Beast, still gallantly searching for their elusive quarry. Ted quietly said that it's always been his opinion that a good hunt was one where the weather cooperated, nobody got hurt and no dogs were lost. Everything beyond that was a plus. My companions need not have worried about disappointing me. In my mind, it had been a great nite hunt.
Kathryn A. Kahler keeps company with outddor enthusiasts, runs with the big dogs and writes from Madison.