November 23, 2011

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

As soon as the leashes were unhooked, the hounds disappeared in a flash into the darkness. It didn’t take long to determine which way they went.

“That’s Daisy, I’m calling a ‘strike,’” said Arnold “Nubbin” Moore, president of the Black Creek Coonhunters Club who quickly recognized the high-pitched bark of his female black and tan hound. Moore had the “Nubbin” moniker bestowed on him by his grandfather, who looked at the five-pound newborn and named him after what we country folks call an underdeveloped ear of corn.

Soon the father-son team of Jerry and James Hannah chimed in about their two treeing walkers, “There’s Dan. Put Copper in there, too.”

Moore, who has been hunting coons for more than 50 years, called Daisy “treed” as we headed in the direction of the hound noise. It wasn’t long before Dan and Copper added their long, lonesome barks to the fray. By the time we got to the dogs, Dan was perched against a den tree with no coon in sight. Daisy and Copper had crossed the creek and were both bouncing on an oak that had loads of leaves left during the early-November hunt. After much discussion and the shining of high-intensity lights into the top of the oak, the coon turned toward the light and his shining eyes were spotted.

The dogs racked up points for when they were deemed to strike and tree. Because Dan treed on a den tree and no coon was spotted, he was awarded “circle” points, which can only be used in case of a tie. On this night, Daisy reigned supreme.

During this monthly club hunt in Shelby County, Black Creek Coonhunters and Shelby County Coonhunters combined to send 15 dogs into the central Alabama woods in search of the raccoon. On the sanctioned hunts, the coons are only spotted to be hunted another night by a group of hunters and hounds passionate about their slice of the outdoors.

While the camaraderie among hunters is obvious, it’s the bond between hunter and dog that makes a diehard coon hunter.

“What’s so special to me is the relationship between the man and the dog,” said Phillip Padgett, hunt director with Shelby County Coonhunters. “It’s not about killing the coons to me. It’s about that dog working, doing what it’s supposed to do and doing it right. That’s what gets me excited.

“Another thing that’s special to me is that I have a stressful job. I don’t have time sometimes to let my hair down and not think about work. But when I’m with those dogs, I don’t think about work or problems going on with the family. I’m thinking about me and the dogs in the woods. I kinda go to my ‘happy place’ when I’m with the dogs. That’s the reason the competition hunts are so special, because it’s more about the dogs, your relationship with the dogs and working that dog than it is killing a raccoon.”

What makes a special coonhound with all the breeds available: black and tan, treeing walker, English, bluetick, redbone, etc.?

“A dog that listens well, is smart, does what it’s supposed to do and has a relationship with the owner,” said Padgett on what makes a coon dog special. “I’ve had two dogs that loved me so much, they wouldn’t even hunt for other people. I placed the dog in the World Championships, and the dog didn’t even want to go hunting. I also had a dog that got cancer. I had her in the pen and brought her up to the house. I said that if she was going to die, she was going to die in my house. She literally took my hunting clothes and made a bed out of the hunting clothes. She wanted to be able to smell me until she died.

“Coon dogs are different than a lot of dogs that are working dogs. A lot of working dogs are not family pets. My dogs play with my kids in the yard. But when I walk out and whistle and tell them to get in the truck, that’s what they do.”

Padgett said there are plenty of dogs that will run game of different varieties. Obviously, the rabbit hunters don’t want a dog that runs deer, and vice versa.

“A lot of dogs will run deer,” he said. “A lot of dogs will run rabbits, but a coon dog is the type of dog that has to go out and find that scent, follow that scent sometimes through water. Then of all the trees in the woods, it’s got to figure out which tree that coon went up. Then it has to stay there until the hunters get there. It’s just amazing to me to watch a quality-bred coon dog work. That’s what makes it special to me.

“The thing is that your normal hound won’t necessarily hunt. Treeing and tracking are bred into these dogs. Over 100 years, the professional breeders have developed lines that are known to be great tree dogs. Some lines are known to be great track dogs. Some lines are known to be very loud dogs. You go with the traits you like. I prefer great tracking dogs. Then you’ve got the guys who prefer a specific breed, like bluetick or black and tan or walkers. But that’s a whole other discussion.”

Obviously, coon hunters also care about their communities. The two Shelby County clubs recently combined resources to hold a “Hunting for Shelter” event to benefit the Family Connection Youth Resident Home.

Dog breeders from all over North America donated 25 puppies of various breeds to be auctioned at the benefit.

“We had one lady named Mary Ann who has a dog delivery service all across the United States,” Moore said. “She saw our ad and said she’d pick up any puppy that was donated to us, and it didn’t matter where it was. She delivered 16 puppies to us the other day.”

The event drew 70 hunters, 20 dogs in the bench show and a total of 300 people to the Black Creek clubhouse.

“After expenses, the clubs presented the home a little more than $6,000,” said Padgett, who headed up the event committee. “That’s incredible for a one-day event.”

But Padgett said that is normal procedure in the world of coon hunting.

“Coon hunters are one big, happy family,” he said. “I’ve been all over the United States, and if they see that coon dog box on the back of your truck, they’ll take you in like you’re one of their own. That’s just the way coon hunters are.”

PHOTOS: (By DAVID RAINER) Jerry Hannah, left, has to hang on to Copper’s leash with two hands before the first cast of the night recently in Shelby County as James Hannah and Arnold “Nubbin” Moore, right, get ready to release Dan and Daisy, respectively. Minutes later, Dan was totally convinced a raccoon recently climbed this den tree and stayed put until James pulled him away to make another cast farther down the creek bottom.