Friday, August 17, 2007

About 'Coon Hunting

By Tom Jeffries
See also the Jun '07 entry Doesn’t A Coon Coat Look Good?

How It Began
Raccoon hunting is a sport enjoyed throughout almost all of West Virginia as well as many other states. This pastime had its beginnings as a necessity by our pioneer ancestors to utilize all of the resources available for survival in the wilderness. The fur of the raccoon was made into crude coats, as well as the famous “Davy Crocket” caps. As the years passed and manufactured goods became available, the hunting of fur animals continued on a lesser scale. The raw hides were sold to traders for shipment to processing plants to be made into fashionable fur coats. Gradually, the demand for warm clothing was met by cheaper and perhaps better synthetics. The price of fur became so low that few people still hunted the raccoon. Those who did so continued because they loved the sport.

To the right is the auther's grandfather, T.E. Jeffries, taken about 1900.

I Learn To Hunt
I was one of those novice coon hunters who was thrilled by walking through the woods in the dead of night, listening for the sounds of the dogs as they trailed and treed. I also liked the companionship and conversation with hunting partners on the sometimes long treks through the hills and hollows of Clover Fork, Oil Creek, and Three Lick.

I began to participate in this sport in the late 1960’s during my frequent visits to my parents’ home on Oil Creek. My father, Coleman Jeffries, had started to coon hunt with a couple of his coworkers on the railroad. While I had enjoyed hunting squirrels, deer, groundhogs, and rabbits, I had never hunted coons. I was invited to go along a couple of times, but I declined the first invitations. After a little persuasion and hearing of some of dad’s hunting tales, I decided to go along. I don’t remember any of the details of that first hunt, but I must have enjoyed it because I never missed an opportunity to go coon hunting after that night.

The Hunt
Normally, a coon hunt begins about a hour after dark since a raccoon is a nocturnal forager and sleeps in a hollow tree during the daylight hours. I have seen raccoons abroad as early as 4 P.M. on very cloudy and overcast days, but normally they don’t venture out until dusk. They like to visit small streams to forage for crayfish, minnows, and other creatures that inhabit those areas. Coons also will eat wild fruits, berries, persimmons, etc. They are especially fond of sweet corn and field corn when it is in the “milk” stage of development. Coons often travel miles across the ridges and hollows in search of food. The coon hunter takes advantage of these habits by releasing his hunting dogs in these areas and allowing them to range about him as he walks up a “run” or a creek. During the late summer and early fall the law allows the training of dogs, but not the killing of any raccoons. During this time the hunter will often visit a cornfield and allow his dogs to roam through it in hope of “striking” the scent trail left by the raccoon as he fed or passed through the area.

Most of the time, the raccoon or raccoons will hear the hunters and dogs as they move into the area and will retreat to a safe tree to wait until the danger has past. When the dogs move into the area, they will detect the scent of the raccoon and somehow establish in which direction the animal is moving. The dogs will then bark or bawl in their own particular way and continue to make “hound music” until they follow the raccoon to the tree in which it has found refuge. When the dogs reach the tree where the raccoon has hidden, they will (if they are good hounds) sit or stand at the base of the tree and bark until the hunter arrives. The hunter will then search the tree with his light until he finds where the raccoon is hiding. Sometimes it can be very difficult to find the hiding place especially in late summer and early fall when the trees still have their leaves. Often the only way to find coons is by seeing the yellow reflection of their eyes in the light.

If the raccoon season is open, sometimes the hunter will dispatch the coon by shooting it. When the coon falls from the tree, the dogs will immediately attack the raccoon and shake it vigorously unless they are restrained by a leash. The dogs are petted, encouraged and congratulated by their owners and any others present and then led well away from the tree to begin the hunt for another raccoon. Some dogs develop the bad habit of returning to the tree even after being led several hundred yards away. That makes it necessary to return to the tree to retrieve the dog! Most coon dogs cannot be “called” off a tree but instead have to be led away.

The Coon Hound
Coon dogs are usually of one of six or seven hound breeds. They include the Redbone, Bluetick, Black & Tan, Plott, Redtick,Walker and Mountain Curs, as well as various mixed breed dogs. Most of these varieties are recognized by the United Kennel Club and a couple by the American Kennel Club. It is my understanding that most of coon dogs are American breeds which were developed from the English foxhound breeds. The ancestors of the coon dogs of today are from foxhounds that had a natural tendency to “bay” or bark at a treed animals. I am not partial to any breed, but admire any well trained coon dog.

Thanks to Charlotte McCauley for this photo of coon dogs on Clover Fork.
Below are several breeds of 'coon hounds: Black & Tan, Redbone, Blue Tick, Red Tick and Mountain Cur.

Training the Dogs
The training of coon dogs involves a lot of long nights in the woods and trainers sometimes make many mistakes in the process. Young dogs are often taken into the woods with other trained dogs when they are as young as six months. They learn to follow the older dogs and have a natural instinct to track. Over a period of time and with experience some will learn to trail and tree with the old dogs. At that point in their training, the trainer must separate them from the older dogs and hunt them by themselves. Some will learn to run and tree by themselves and others never are able to do it themselves. During the training, the dogs often learn bad habits such as trailing and running animals other than raccoons such as foxes, opossums and house cats. They must be trained not to trail these animals. There are various methods that many employ to do this, but two of which I became aware are at least somewhat amusing. I don’t know if they are effective.

One of the methods that I have heard used to cure a hound from trailing deer is as follows: buy a billy goat, and with a chain about 6 feet long, tie the collar of the dog to a collar on the goat and allow the two animals to live together for a couple of weeks. It is said that the scent of the goat is so similar to the smell of a deer that the dog will become so turned off to that scent that he will never trail a deer again. And, I am sure that the goat butting him from time to time during the ordeal helps the cure the problem also!

A method I have heard of that is used to cure or break a dog from running foxes is a little different. A two level cage is built big enough for a dog to live in. One-half inch chicken wire is used to separate the lower level of the cage from the upper level. Then the coon dog trainer needs to obtain a fox and confine it in the upper level of the two level cage over the dog in the lower level. After a week or so of the fox’s defecating and urinating on the dog, the dog will become physically ill when he smells a fox! I am told by a reliable source that two hunters did this many years ago. One night they took the dog out of the bottom of the cage to take him hunting and they were both bitten when they attempted to return the dog to the cage after the hunt. It was not reported if the dog ever ran a fox again.

Memorable Hunts
My father and I often hunted with “Short” Riffle who was a long time resident of Clover Fork. Short knew everyone that lived in the area and had no trouble obtaining permission to hunt from anyone who owned property. Most of the time he would arrange where we would hunt on that night and we would arrive at our drop off point about an hour after dusk. Short Riffle believed from years of hunting that the best way to hunt was to climb to the top of the hill and to walk the ridges. He believed that a foraging raccoon would have to cross over these high areas as he moved through the woods looking for food. He often led us to areas of which I was totally unfamiliar, but Short could often see familiar house lights in the valleys and identify those as being at a particular family’s residence. He used those as landmarks as well as the natural lay of the land. He normally never got us lost, although on one very dark and foggy night we came out of the woods two miles from where the truck was parked. Our travels would sometimes take us miles on the ridges of Clover Fork, Knawl’s Creek, Redlick and sometimes over into the upper Oil creek area. We also often hunted around the area of the railroad tunnel at Chapman.

Short Riffle’s Coon Dogs
Short had several dogs over the years, but the one that he mentioned most often was called “Old Huck” or properly “The Huckleberry Hound” which he told us was named by his Granddaughter. He bought Old Huck as a pup and trained the dog himself. Most of the coon hunters that I knew trained their own dogs because a really good dog was very expensive and difficult to obtain at any price. Short later obtained another pup to train by hunting him with Old Huck. When he thought that this dog was trained, I believe that he sold Old Huck. Short was disappointed to find that the younger dog was not nearly as good as Old Huck. We had a difficult time treeing coons after Old Huck was sold. We also hunted with Dad’s young Bluetick hound named “Abe” that was not completely trained.
Dad and I Buy a Coon Dog
After a season or so of somewhat unsuccessful hunts, Dad and I decided to try to buy a trained dog. Dad ordered a dog from another state. After the dog arrived, we tried to hunt coons with the new dog only to discover that he too was a sorry excuse for a coon hound! Shortly afterward, I bought a hound from a friend that I knew to be a fair coon dog. I brought my new dog to Dad’s on a weekend in the early spring. On Saturday night, we hunted on Clover Fork in the hollow behind Jim Henline’s home. After an hour or so the dog struck a trail and after a while barked “treed.” Dad and Short were somewhat dubious of the dog’s abilities until they saw the raccoon in the tree. After that, they were some very happy hunters! That dog’s name was “Blue” and I sold her to Dad who kept her until she died.

With the 'coon dog in the photo to the left is the author Tom Jeffries.
We Caught the Devil
We had a great many hunts over the years, but one I remember most was the night we were hunting in the Chapman area. We had hunted a couple of hours but had not struck any tracks. Suddenly, Blue bawled and continued to bark and bawl at a frantic pace with the other dogs also joining in the chase. I believed that there was something more than usual to this chase. The dogs’ barking seemed more like they were chasing the devil than a coon. The three of us sat down to wait to see what was going to transpire. The chase came very close to where we were sitting and the animal ran past us about 40 feet away with the hounds in hot pursuit. Not long afterward the animal climbed into a nearby pine tree and the dogs bayed at the base of the tree. We spent a long time searching the tree for the creature before I saw the reflection of one eye. I shot at that eye with my scoped .22 pistol. The animal fell from the tree quite dead. That was a very good thing because it was a young bobcat! With its long and sharp claws that young devil would have probably injured the dogs if it had been alive when it hit the ground!

I Still Reminisce
All too soon, time and age overcome everyone. My father and my friend Short are long gone, as are all of the dogs involved in those adventures. The responsibilities of work and raising a family took the place of long nights in the woods and on the ridges of Clover Fork and Oil Creek Disease and age also have overtaken the writer, but the memories remain.

Sometimes in my dreams I can still hear the bawls of the hounds and hear the voices of my hunting companions.
comment 1
Short's real name was George Lester Riffle (1917-1983). He was the son of Oscar L. and Rosetta (Groff) Riffle. Short served in World War II. He was a maintenance of way worker for the B & O.

Short married Phebe Posey. Phebe nearly died while Short was away in the service. Phebe, who lived on Clover Fork, had come to town and picked up her mail. Among the mail Phebe received that day was a letter from her husband, Short Riffle, who was away during World War II and who had not written for a while. Phebe starting reading the letter as she walked up the railroad tracks to her home on Clover Fork. Engrossed in the letter she was reading, Phebe did not hear the train coming behind her. Unfortunately, the train struck Phebe and ripped an arm off her body. The injury was grievous and was believed to be fatal. Phebe was rushed to the hospital but there was little hope that she would survive. Phebe’s arm was taken to Mike Moran who was expected to bury the arm with Phebe when she died from her wounds. Miraculously, Phebe survived her brush with death. The story can be found in the Feb '07 entry
Michael Vincent Moran

1 comment:

  1. Hello i live in New York and just purchased two Treeing Walkers. I was hoping for any tips on training them without having other dogs to run with. Ive been using coon scent and a coon toy and just acquired a dead fresh coon to use its skins as a more realistic approach. any knowledge would be appreciated thank you.