Across the hills and hollers of north Georgia, you can hear the howling of coon dogs on any given night of winter. Whether the dogs are out working or just begging to be released, one thing’s for sure: no raccoon is safe. If the hound dogs’ noses get one whiff of them, they’ll either be run up a tree or sent packing straight back down into their underground dens.
No matter where you’re raccoon hunting, a few common ingredients follow. Of course you’ll need a few well-trained dogs, radio or GPS tracking collars and responders, bright headlamps powered by batteries more akin to today’s deer feeder than headlamp, and, if you plan on shooting a coon, either a small shotgun or rifle to knock the raccoon down once it’s treed.
“It’s very important to stay together when you’re out there,” said Daryl Rhodes, of Blue Ridge, who raises, trains and competition hunts bluetick hounds for raccoons.
“You’ve really got to watch where you’re going and what you’re going over,” said lifelong mountain coon hunter Wade Rymer, of Blue Ridge.
“You can let them dogs get off and they’ll get back to you, but you had better not get separated from each other,” Daryl said. “Hunting up here is a lot different in terms of terrain and where you can go. We’ve got a lot more woods up here than they do in other parts of the state.”
Other than the steep terrain, the sheer volume of public land coupled with it makes coon hunting in the mountains tougher than anywhere else in the state. In order to make it easier on yourself, try to focus on areas with at least a few forest service roads and trails running through them to make the job of following baying hounds and finding the treed coons a little bit more easy.
It’s also very important to have dogs vaccinated for rabies. Not only is it required by law, it is especially important to make sure those vaccinations are up-to-date given the increased numbers of rabid raccoons confirmed by counties across north Georgia in the last several years.
“I have all my dogs get shots whether I’m planning on hunting them or not,” Daryl said. “It’s just part of having them.”
Another difficult aspect of hunting coons in the mountains is just finding them once they are treed.
“I don’t know if it’s that we have thin coons or if it’s more a matter that we have more woods,” Daryl said. “That’s part of the reason I don’t always take a coon home every time—they’re too darned hard to come by. I’ll take one if I need it to train up a pup or something, but I don’t always kill one that’s for sure. I probably spend more time just chasing them. I really just like to hear a good dog tree ’em.”
The experience of listening to the dogs chasing a raccoon is truly what it’s all about for most of the hunters in north Georgia.
“I really just like watching a good dog work a coon,” Daryl said.
“If it wasn’t for the dogs, I wouldn’t do it,” Wade added.
“My dog is still learning, so I try to take him with me every chance I can so he can learn from the other dogs,” said Jake Allen, of Blue Ridge, who owns a redtick hound dog named Roscoe.
“Jake’s dog is still learning, and so the best way to help him learn is to trap a coon and train him or run him with dogs that are already trained,” Daryl said.
The night we all went hunting, we met in Blue Ridge and traveled up near the Union-Fannin county line to hunt U.S. Forest Service land known as the Skeenah Gap area.
“I like this spot because there’s a pretty good chunk of public land up there, and there are several roads running through there so you can get back in the truck and follow them that way, too,” Daryl said.
After a short truck ride up to the woods, we pulled off on an old, closed logging road and parked Jake’s truck.
Everyone got out with all their gear and got ready to get the dogs out. After getting the radio collars on them, Jake and Daryl got their dogs on leads. Daryl brought two of his dogs on the hunt. Both of them are about 5 years old and are named Nailor and J.J. Once the dogs were all suited up and ready to run, we wandered slowly into the woods.
“You want to try to take them into the woods a little bit or they will probably wind up right back out on the road,” Daryl said. “Sometimes that’s what you want, but you don’t want them right out on the road. A safe distance from the road is one thing. Being slap-right on the side of the road is another thing.”
The dogs started to get all revved up, knowing the work that was ahead of them. We all turned our headlamps on, and the moment to release the hounds was quickly upon us. The dogs shot off like three bottle rockets into the night.
The four of us men stood in a semi-circle and listened carefully.
“I think they’re going to run on up this ridge and down that field and back out onto the road,” Daryl predicted.
After we’d lost all sound of the dogs, Daryl and Jake turned on their radio transmitters to figure out which direction they had taken off in. Sure enough, it seemed that Daryl’s guesstimation was correct. It looked like all three dogs had taken off from us and headed back up the hill and were off and over the hill.
After a short while longer, Jake made the call for us to get back to the truck. Cutting off a long, uphill trudge, we drove up over the ridge and parked at a small pull-off.
“I’m telling you — I think they’re right down there on the road,” Daryl said.
Jake started up his truck and continued to follow the blips on the radio collar transmitters.
“There they are!” Daryl said.
Jake pulled over, and we all got out. After turning on headlamps and grabbing our gear, we headed over toward an embankment along the road. There, Daryl’s two dogs were digging like crazy.
“They’re on a darned nest,” Daryl said.
We all made our way to the pair of dogs, who were digging up the red clay as fast as they could. After looking around them for a minute, Daryl put the dogs on leads and pulled them back away. What was left was a deep hole in the earth. No sign of a coon though.
“It’s probably buried in there,” Daryl said. “We won’t get it now, though.”
We loaded Daryl’s dogs up and headed back toward where we began hunting. We got near where we released the dogs, and there was Jake’s hound right on the side of road sniffing at a road-kill raccoon.
“Well, at least he knows what he’s out here looking for,” Jake joked.
We all had a good laugh, rounded up the lonely hound dog and headed deeper into the national forest along a winding forest service road. Once we got a few miles back into the national forest, Daryl made the call to stop the truck. He got out and released J.J.
“You can run the dogs along a road and wait for them to take off into the woods,” Daryl said.
You can’t have your weapons loaded unless you’re a legal distance off the road. However, running the dog along the road and following it into the woods is legal.
While we followed J.J., it was obvious he was looking hard. He kept his nose down to the ground and his tail up high. Meanwhile, the other two dogs in the back of the truck winced and whined — eager to get out of the back of the truck and back into the action.
As we pulled up around a steep ravine, J.J. shot up the hill and headed up the ravine.
We stopped and listened.
Daryl got out his radio transmitter and watched.
“It’s got a ‘tree detector’ on it to tell when they turn their heads up,” Daryl said. “So, it’ll tell me when he’s definitely on a tree.”
Daryl got out of the truck and walked back toward the ravine where J.J. took off. A short while later, Daryl came back to the truck and made the call for us to get the other dogs and our gear and follow the ravine toward the now howling J.J.
The other dogs got very keyed up as we got them out. Daryl and Jake kept them on leads as we made our way up a steep, overgrown ravine. After a treacherous hike uphill, we churned aching calves through the thickest of mountain undergrowth and found J.J. at the base of a thick, old-growth hemlock tree. J.J. was howling like crazy and jumping up the tree. However, because of the thick undergrowth, none of us could see what was up the tree.
Daryl and Jake left their dogs alongside the tree and tried to work farther uphill shining their lights all over the big tree. Wade followed them with a .22 long rifle and held a spot above the tree on the hill where he had a little better view of the tree. Wade stood his ground and looked through his scope while holding his light along the barrel of the rifle, and he searched the tree for the raccoon. Still though, none of us could see the black-eyed beast.
Then Daryl and Jake made their way back down to the tree. They picked a heavy rock and started to beat the trunk of the big tree. Meanwhile, Wade stood by making a shrill raccoon squall. A few seconds later, several shots rang out across the hills. We all made our way down to the trunk and found all three dogs still locked on the tree. We moved back out of the way and listened and waited. We were unable to find the raccoon.
Daryl called off the hounds. Jake and Daryl hooked leads back up the dogs and pulled them off the tree.
“They’d stay there all night long waiting on a coon,” Jake joked.
We slowly made our way back to the truck. Despite that we didn’t actually kill a raccoon on this trip, we did the most important part of raccoon hunting: we got out there and worked the dogs.