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The raccoon is not a farmer's friend. One masked nocturnal rascal of a coon can go through a watermelon patch taking just one plug out of every melon, as slick as a man would with a knife. And the raccoon is the dog's best enemy—one to be respected. A 20-pound boar or sow coon can whip one good dog or two halfway decent ones. So, for the men and dogs in the South, Southwest, Midwest and as far Northeast as upstate New York, coon hunting is a deep-rooted and fast-growing sport, and one of the few that may run on in organized form until 6 in the morning.
Even though five or six dogs tearing into a coon in the glow of their owners' hunting lights in the night woods do make a glorious tangle of color—redbone, bluetick, black and tan, treeing Walker and various brindles such as English and Plott—the killing of a coon by dogs is one of the uglier, not to mention least equitable, sporting scenes. The coon makes crazed hissing noises and the dogs seem to despise it. The justification given by coon hunters is this: if the dogs don't get to fight a coon every now and then they will lose interest in the sport. And the point of most coon hunting is not killing coons. It is the feeling of getting close to animals. Not closeness to the coon so much, though many coon hunters take pride in their ability to climb any tree a coon can.
"Bob finally made it to the swaying top," reports Nick Sisley of Apollo, Pa. in American Cooner magazine, "and after some poking was able to knock out the coon—alive. It hit the ground and four dogs piled in. Men were grabbing dogs, and dogs were biting anything that looked like fur. Woe the fellows with a little hair on the back of their hands."
And then there is the musical aspect. Kelly Bragg of Hinton, W. Va., advertising in American Cooner some pups sired by his dog Blue III, writes, "I would rather hear Blue III open at night than to hear Tennessee Ernie sing Peace in the Valley."
To "open," it should be explained, is to begin "bawling" or "giving out that mountain music." And that music not only charms, it communicates: "...for when Blue III opens," continues Kelly Bragg, "he is moving on, and a coon is going to climb."
That is something: to catch the exact drift of a dog way off in the distance, maybe two or three miles, in the dark, in wild country, following its instincts and training through thick cover, running as hard as it can. A good many men go coon hunting three or four or five nights a week, sometimes all night long, in good weather and bad, year-round. "In 1964 me and my wife got into it about coon hunting," says John L. Smith of Garland, Texas, a dry-wall contractor and father of four. "She got mad and said, 'All right, you just go on and hunt, then!' 'Well, that's good,' I said. I hunted 42 nights in a row, and she never said anything more about it."
Neither coon meat nor coonskins are of much economic value today, and many inveterate coon hunters profess never to have tasted coon. Even most of those who prize the meat highly—barbecued or baked with collards and sweet potatoes—look down on the kind of dog that is best for a meat hunt.
Such a dog is known as a silent or semisilent cooner. Low-bred, maybe three-fourths cur, the silent or semisilent dog sneaks up on a coon with little warning and is therefore more likely to make it settle for a low tree. The dog will then be held back while the hunter shoots and retrieves the coon. Not much pleasure to that.
For the pleasure hunt, a few friends go out in the woods at nightfall with their dogs, turn them loose, build a fire and sit down on a log to tell stories and listen for the dogs to tune up. It is best if the dogs strike the trail of a strong, wily and experienced coon that will lead a long and melodious chase.
Melodious because as soon as the dogs pick up the scent they begin to bawl, and they continue to bawl—"aooo, aooo," each dog in its own distinctive tone—until the coon is treed. The hunters know when the dogs are "on tree," because the dogs so signify by changing the music. Ideally a dog will "chop" on tree: a brisk, tenacious "yo yo yo...yo yo yo," or "rowa rowa rowa uh rowa rowa uh rowa," or "hru hru hru...hru hru...hru hru hru." The pattern varies.