A Good Night to Go Out
On the drive home from work, I watch the sun set in an orange sky, chased by a blanket of deep blue. The first stars are starting to show. Cool, clear and calm; I know it will be a good night to go out.
I pull into the driveway and look toward the dog pen. Inside are two fine hounds, both looking expectantly in my direction. As I get out of the truck and walk toward the house, they don’t bark or jump like they do on some days; they just stare and shiver, whining occasionally like dogs do when they seem to know what lies ahead.
When I stroll into the kitchen I am met with expectant looks from some other regular inhabitants—my two kids. Wyatt, 16 years old and usually focused on food, is finishing up refrigerator leftovers and Rozalyn, 12 years old and more studious, is finishing up homework.
After exchanging routine pleasantries about the day’s events, I say, “This sure would be a good night to go out.”
“I was thinking the same thing, Dad!” says Wyatt, as if he was just waiting for the right time, “Want me to get the dogs ready?”
“Hey, I wanna go, too!” Rozalyn adds, as she folds up her school work.
I stare up at the ceiling as if I am contemplating the situation. My wife, Cindy, who had been quietly watching the scenario unfold, gives me an odd look and rolls her eyes, knowing full well that she and I had discussed this before I left from work.
“Let’s do it!” I say, and that sets both of them into immediate action.
I swap my work clothes for coon-hunting garb, grab some supper-to-go and meet the kids outside at the truck. The dogs are already loaded in the dog box and the sound of their tails thumping against the wooden walls signals their excitement. I quickly go over the list of items needed: lights, dog leads, knife, rifle, bullets, water, GPS. After each item is called off it is followed by a “Check, Dad!” from Wyatt and Roz.
Satisfied that we have everything, we all hop into the truck and head for a place we nicknamed “Coon Paradise,” several large tracts of private land laced with row crop bottom land and wooded draws and hills, where the landowners have graciously granted us hunting privileges.
On the way to our hunting spot we laugh and joke, sing silly songs, and talk about past coon hunting trips. We discuss coon dogs both past and present and then try to predict how the dogs will perform tonight. I breathe in the closeness of the three of us having fun together and smile.
Cut ’Em Loose
When we arrive at Coon Paradise the dogs start to bark with anticipation. Darkness has engulfed the landscape before us and, with no moon to intrude, the sky is filled with stars. As we all get out of the truck Roz and Wyatt grab the leashes and I sling the rifle across my back.
With our headlamps to light the way, we move toward the back of the truck. Wyatt and Roz drop the tailgate and stand in front of the two doors of the dog box, each door holding back an excited black and tan coonhound. I stand out of the way, yet positioned to intercept any dog that might slip past the kids.
The doors are opened and both Wyatt and Roz successfully catch their dog and attach the leashes to their collars. Both dogs bolt off of the tailgate and hit the ground, pulling the leashes taut.
Rozalyn, barely able to stand her ground, has Maggie at the end of her leash. The older of the two hounds, Maggie is easy to handle and highly experienced.
Wyatt is holding back Ellie, a younger, bigger hound. Ellie is a little more aggressive and more independent than Maggie or, in other words, “hardheaded.” Both dogs are a real pleasure to hunt.
We head to the closest block of timber near the edge of a harvested corn field. The dogs instinctively lead the way. Our lights cut through the darkness in random fashion as we make our way behind them. When we get to the timber, Roz and Wyatt take their dogs by the collar with one hand and place their other hand on the leash snap. They look my way, waiting for instruction.
“Cut ’em loose!” I call.
The dogs are unleashed and both explode into the timber, disappearing into the darkness. We shut off our lights and take in the night. We can hear the dogs canvassing the forest floor for the slightest hint of raccoon scent as they make their way deeper into the woods.
Rozalyn nudges Wyatt and says, “Bet Maggie strikes first.” (A strike is when a hound smells coon scent and starts barking or “giving mouth.”)
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that!” says Wyatt, knowing full well it could go either way.
Before anymore could be said, the conversation was interrupted by the excited sound of a hound giving mouth on a fresh coon track.
“That’s Maggie!” announces Roz, proudly.
Before Wyatt can respond, Ellie opens up with her deeper bawl, letting us know she is in on this race, too.
The kids know well the sound of each dog and can identify them immediately. They know if the track is fresh or old by the way the dogs bark. They can interpret by sound if the track is getting hard to follow because of obstacles and terrain. And they know when the dogs are getting ready to tree by the sound of their voices. It is a language learned by spending many nights in the woods following coon hounds. We listen intently as the dogs talk to us and move the track further up the hollow.
The dogs are giving plenty of mouth, each complementing the other as they pursue a common goal. Their barks and bawls fill the night air with a kind of symphony every houndsman can relate to as special music.
“This is a hot one, Dad!” says Wyatt.
I agree. “We better move up so they don’t get too far ahead,” I say.
We turn on our lights and enter the woods where the dogs had just entered. We can hear their excited barks still echoing above the rustling leaves. Before we reach the top of the wooded ridge we lose the sound of the dogs. Topping the ridge, we listen intently between our collective heavy breathing and over our accelerated heart beats.
Ellie breaks the silence, loud and clear, letting us know they are still on the trail. She is across the next hollow on the facing hill side. We stand silently to “read” what is going on. Maggie breaks in with her sharper and slightly higher-pitched voice and both dogs continue working the track up the side of the next wooded hill. Then silence.
We are close enough to faintly hear some rustling leaves where the dogs are trying to unravel the trail left by their quarry. “I think they’re getting ready to locate,” says Wyatt. (A “locate” is when a dog is deciding which tree the coon has gone up, usually indicated by a distinct vocalization such as a long bawl.)
“You might be right,” I say, “Or that ol’ coon might have just given them the slip!”
Right then Ellie let out a long, loud, dying bawl. “There it is!” hollers Roz. Ellie further confirms that she has found the right tree with two more bawls followed by a consistent, double-chop. (A “chop” is a short, loud, consecutive bark that continues until the hunter reaches the tree.) I can see that the kids are anxious to start heading toward the tree where Ellie is proclaiming victory.
“We better wait for Maggie to back her up just to be certain,” I say.
It doesn’t take long. Maggie, more methodical and calculated, falls in right behind her with a single locate and immediate chopping to let us know she agrees with Ellie.
“That’s it!” announces Wyatt. “Both dogs are locked on tight to that tree!”
We listen for a while as the excited barks of both dogs echo through the air in perfect harmony, dominating the night atmosphere. It is the crescendo to the musical that began earlier in the evening. Our hearts are beating fast, not from climbing a hill this time, but from excitement.
“We better get over there and see what they have,” I say.
Hide and Seek
We move ahead, picking a path through the timber with our lights showing the way, following the increasing sound of the dogs. We cross a small creek in the bottom of the hollow and start up the hillside where the dogs continue to proudly announce their successful conclusion to the race. “There they are!” says Wyatt, being the first one to approach the tree. Rozalyn and I are close behind and find both dogs reared up on the tree and chopping with every breath.
I take some time to praise the dogs while Roz and Wyatt search the tree for any sign of a raccoon. The dogs are treed on a big white oak. Branches go in every direction and reach high into the night sky. I join Wyatt and Roz in their effort to find the coon in the overhead branches.
We methodically search each branch and analyze every bump that looks out of place. Then I see a lump that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the branch that I’m searching. As I continue to study that lump, the outline of an ear becomes evident, then the black from a ringed tail seems to emerge from out of nowhere.
“Here he is!” I holler, bringing the kids to my location. The dogs continue to sing their song as Roz and Wyatt also discover Mr. Coon hiding among the branches.
“Can I shoot this one, Dad?” Rozalyn asks.
Wyatt protests, “She’ll never hit that coon, Dad.”
I gently remind Wyatt of some of his first attempts at shooting a coon in a tree and he quickly drops the subject.
Since she is experienced with a gun, I agree to let Rozalyn try her hand at shooting a raccoon. We search for the best possible angle to assure a clean and humane kill. Rozalyn finds a small tree to steady her aim, and I position myself directly behind her to offer some expert advice. The dogs, having been through this routine many times, have slowed their barking just enough to look our way occasionally in anticipation of what comes next.
Rozalyn finds the raccoon in the rifle scope while Wyatt and I keep it illuminated with our lights. She calmly chambers a bullet into the .22 rifle, keeping her quarry in sight. The sound of the rifle action opening and closing causes the dogs to stop barking and start looking up in the tree top.
“Find your spot … take a deep breath … squeeze the trigger,” I quietly coach Rozalyn from behind.
Without warning, the night is split from the loud crack of Rozalyn’s rifle. Her aim is true, and the bullet squarely finds its mark. The following moments are chaotic. The raccoon hits the ground dead, but the dogs, who had been watching it fall through the limbs, grab on tight just to make sure. Wyatt attempts to handle the dogs while Rozalyn and I safely and immediately unload the gun, always standard practice. We then assist Wyatt in his effort to put leashes on the dogs and tie them to some nearby trees.
For a short moment the three of us silently stand over the subject of our hunt and reflect on the events of this experience in our own way. Congratulations are passed on to Rozalyn for her expert marksmanship. Even Wyatt concedes and gives her a pat on the back. I take on the task of skinning the large boar raccoon, explaining all of the finer points for the benefit of the kids. Someday I hope to just sit back and watch while they do the skinning.
Since this is a school night we take advantage of our early success and, despite some protest from the kids, decide to call it a night. I shoulder the rifle and take Maggie, Wyatt takes Ellie and Rozalyn proudly carries the fur from her first raccoon and we start heading toward the truck.
We’re hunters; we actively participate in the proverbial “circle of life.” My children know and understand the value of life and the finality of death. They have learned to respect the outdoors and the inhabitants therein. We hunt for food, fur and the enjoyment of our dogs and, especially, each other’s company.
On the ride home the excitement level is still high. Wyatt and Roz are chattering about the details of the hunt, including Rozalyn’s ability with a gun. I’m smiling, quietly taking it all in, satisfied that it truly was a good night to go out.