Andy Bedgood is thinking. And thinking. You can almost see the mental wheels turning… Guess I hadn’t realized the complexities of the question before asking, “How many dogs do you have?”
“Well,” he soon replied with a rub of whiskers and a signature south Georgia drawl, “Do you mean the ones I have at home and them in the kennel and then the ones I co-own with my hunting partners?”
The short answer is 24. First off come the coon hounds: treeing walkers, blueticks and black and tans. There are American walker fox hounds, and English pointers for quail season. His wife, Marie, has a doberman, German shepherd, blue heeler and a pair of mini-pinschers.
“She says if I’m going off somewhere, she’s not scared to stay by herself,” said Andy.
Andy does a lot of “going off somewhere.” In addition to a full-time job, he is Effingham County chapter president and coon hunting rep on the board of directors of the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation (GHFF), a hard-working network of outdoorsmen dedicated particularly to our traditional hunting rights and their preservation. The group’s mission statement says it all: “To preserve the heritage and tradition of all hunting and fishing in Georgia through community involvement and public awareness. To hold elected officials accountable to the public they are sworn to serve. To hold all sportsmen to the highest moral and ethical standards possible.”
GHFF was founded a dozen years ago, with nearly 5,000 people attending the initial meeting. Since that time, local chapters have formed statewide, working with state legislators and DNR to implement changes for the betterment of outdoors recreation and to encourage youngsters to get involved in all manner of outdoor sports.
Andy is a faithful follower of those tenets, a man who puts his time, effort, money and passion into making Georgia a better place for hunters, fishermen, trappers and outdoorsmen of all types.
“On a local basis, among other things, we try to do fishing tournaments, foxhound puppy hunts, and we have a booth at the county fair every year with a raffle for Sportsmen’s Pantry,” Andy says. “This county (Effingham) supplied more meat for Sportsmen’s Pantry than any other county in the state. There was right at 2,500 pounds of meat that went to the food bank, and from there to folks who really need it. We pay all the processing costs, and that’s why we do fundraisers, to help build funds for that and things like it that come up.”
After spending most of the day up the road near Springfield with another group of GHFF hunters, dogging deer, I’ve come to Rincon to meet Andy and his hunting partner, Lewis Eason, and to travel even farther south below Richmond Hill for a Halloween coon hunt. Andy and I had met before at the annual GHFF show in Waycross, and he’s an easy guy to like. Knows his business, too.
“I got taken coon hunting by a family friend when I was 7 years old, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” he recalls. “If I could pick out only one outdoor activity that I could do, it would be coon hunting. And I’d rather see a young ’un in the woods than on the couch with a video game any time. I’ve always spent all the time I could outdoors. With work, I only get to hunt three or four nights a week, but I’ve been doing it for 43 years now.”
Andy both pleasure hunts and field trials his dogs with fox and birds, but it’s coon hunting that holds his heart—even while he realizes it’s a specialized pastime.
“Everybody ain’t cut out to coon hunt,” he plainly states. “There’s been numerous people who I knew that wanted to coon hunt, but they go four or five times and just quit. I love watching a good dog work and hearing a good dog work. That’s what it’s all about, the enjoyment that you get out of your dogs.”
And if there is one aspect of hunting a raccoon that is more misunderstood than any other, it’s that one. The prize is the chase and the actual eyeballing of the animal: usually as high up the highest tree as he can get.
“We hardly ever shoot any coons,” Andy remarked. “Every one you kill you can’t tree again, so why would we want to kill them? You don’t kill coons in competition hunts, and that does your dog good because he’s not looking to have a coon shot down to him every time he gets to a tree and puts one up. We actually look after the coons on the land we hunt, putting feeders out for them all over the place. We have to put the feeders up on trees to keep the deer and hogs off of them. Coons are a renewable resource, and we want them to thrive.”
If you’ve never participated in a modern-day coon-hunting expedition, be advised that it’s a world apart from what Andy got into more than 40 years ago. As we rode—and rode, and rode—from Rincon, Lewis was checking his phone for Internet updates on the Professional Kennel Club’s World Championship finals, going on even as we were headed on our hunt. We’ll get into the competition aspect in a bit; just know that the night’s first-place check for the PKC title was a tidy 30 grand!
All I can tell you about where we wound up and the truck was switched off is that it was behind three locked gates and that the lights of Fort McAllister were shining a mile or two across what I assume was saltwater. You’ve seen the mall maps saying, “You are here?” My phone GPS said, “You are lost!”
Further, you don’t really know dark until you’ve coon hunted. As we embark, I’ve been handed a camo hard hat with a push-button “walking light” clipped onto the brim, plus a larger-beamed round bulb on top. This is wired to a three-position knob around back, giving light output from low, which when turned on is not really low, to high, which is. But one finds himself not wanting to flip any switches. The eyes at last begin to adjust to surroundings, filtering what little output the moon is providing into ghostly images of huge moss-draped trees, sheltering bamboo-covered marshland underneath.
I find myself wondering if Spaniards draped in breastplates of finest Toledo steel looked upon these same trees. It is only in such silent places as this that like thoughts present themselves. As a couple of minutes slip past, Andy, Lewis and I say not a word. It takes a brief period to get acclimated to the noise—of which there is none. At all. These things are major components of coon hunting, I realize, and I begin to understand Andy’s passion for it.
My ruminations are interrupted as Lewis begins fumbling with a latch. And there’s nothing silent or still about an excited coon dog.
How a man treats a dog says a lot about the man, in my opinion. And I’ve pretty much seen it all, best and worst, hunting behind just about any type of canine out there. The pup, name of Billand, was up first. There was no grabbing or snatching as Lewis took him from the box, holding him steady as he affixed tracking collar and chain lead. He spoke softly, encouragingly and stroked the young bluetick, which was about to burst with energy as he sailed off the tailgate. I was impressed with both.
Lewis walked him some 40 feet in the chosen direction, then loosed the lead. The hunt was on.
Coon hunters and their dogs speak the same language. Every bark, howl and yowl was translated in quietspeak by Lewis: “He’s working it out… not serious yet… something got his attention then… yep!”
There was no doubting the yep. Billand’s hoarse roars would have stated “Treed!” even to the greenest novice at this game. And the tree he was jumping up and down on, likely wishing he could climb to the coon, stretched seemingly to the clouds. Making one’s way to it across the marsh in pitch darkness is what’s known as an adventure. Just know that you never return from a midnight coon hunt either unsoiled or unpunctured!
Way, way up there, perched on a big limb and as snug as could be, the banded rascal behind a pair of shimmering green eyes stared down at us. Lewis was blowing a coon squall call—a sound rather fitting considering it was All Hallows Eve—trying to get the coon to move into clearer view, but it wasn’t having any.
Andy’s scoped .22 autoloader was slung over his shoulder—and stayed there. So if killing a coon isn’t what it’s about, then what is it?
The range of emotions we had already experienced, then watching a pup on his first tree, knowing he was realizing, finally, what had been bred through his bluetick ancestors for centuries? A swamp echoing with his wails and bellows? The satisfied smiles and pats on the backs of his owners?
But there was little time to dwell on such things, because back at the truck was a boxed Diesel, awaiting a turn through the swamp. In less than 10 minutes after those four feet hit the ground, we were looking skyward at another pair of green eyes. And that wasn’t the last one, either…
In fact, we could have gone on all night and into the morning, something Andy sometimes does.
“When the weather is hot like it has been this fall, a lot of times I’ll hunt the last hour of dark and the first couple hours of light in the morning, the coolest time of day,” he said. “Dogs just can’t smell as well, and they can’t hold out in the heat and humidity at other times of the day and night.”
By now you may have realized that Andy’s passion for coon hunting may well be more about coon hounds. Not only is he an owner and co-owner of a couple dozen dogs, he also does his own veterinary work, stays on top of making sure the dogs are in top-notch shape at all times, does yeoman duty for GHFF and works a full-time job. And did we mention competition?
“Lewis is my hunting partner,” he says. “We hunt together, and we own dogs together. Without him, I wouldn’t get to hunt nearly as much as I do. We’ve both competed in several national-level hunts. We’ve done well in them, placing in some and winning in some others. It’s got to the point that there’s big money in the hunting end of it as well as the showing part.
“I’ve gone just about everywhere with the dogs in competition. All over the Southeast several times, upper Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania…”
The list goes on. But there was one that really got my attention.
Likely the world’s most prestigious event of its type is the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, televised around the world over several days of competition. Two years ago, the first year this tremendously exclusive event allowed the treeing walker breed into competition, one of Andy’s dogs was in the field. Her registered name, and don’t ask me why, is as follows: Stackem Up Outwest Party Girl.
Andy calls her Mel.
“It was a real honor just to have her up there,” he recalled. “She had to get there through competing in American Kennel Club (AKC) shows, and was AKC Confirmation champion and United Kennel Club (UKC) grand champion.”
Confirmation competition is based on overall build of the dog. Each breed has its own standards; dogs are judged against those standards. The one that best lives up to them is going to win.
“I wasn’t able to make the trip and had a girl handling her for me in the show,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Mel was only 14 months old at the time and got beat out by her mama!”
Obviously, that lineage of walker dogs would be a profitable one. With the money surrounding the sport, there’s no telling what the sale of Mel or her offspring would bring. So I had to ask.
“I’m not into the dog-selling aspect of it,” Andy replied with a wry smile. “I’m into the hunting part. My wife says I like to keep too many, but what we have is what we keep and what we hunt.”
Spoken like a true coon hunter.
It’s Illegal To Remove A Dog’s Tracking Collar
The angst in his voice is clear as Andy Bedgood describes the situation. If you listen closely, you could pick up on the anger, too.
“We found the collars in the creek, using our tracking equipment. They had been taken off the two dogs and tossed in the water, leaving the hounds to roam on their own and no way for the owner to find them.
“Later, we found one of the dogs about a half mile from there, crouched beside the road. The other one was in the road—dead, run over by a car.”
Georgia law makes it a misdemeanor to remove the tracking collar from any lost/found dog. Hunting dogs, no matter how good the collars they’re wearing or quality of GPS tracking devices that go with them, are occasionally going to get away from their handlers. Especially coon dogs, since trailing them in the dark is nearly impossible without those collars.
“I don’t know why anybody would want to just remove a dog’s collar like that,” Andy said. “You’re not only putting the animal in danger, but it’s almost like a death sentence if he’s not found. If you catch that dog and turn him loose without that collar, you’re setting yourself up for animal cruelty or endangerment charges and maybe a lawsuit from the owner. With the way the market is today, I’d say those two dogs were worth about $3,500 to $5,000 apiece.
“All that dog owner wants is his dog back. He will probably be wearing not only a tracking collar but also a regular collar with the owner’s ID, address and phone number. All it takes is a call.”