The soft-blue glow of halogen lamps danced and flickered through the swamp, casting eerie shadows through the trees and along the ground, as I listened to the haunting mixture of voices. The deep chop and long, mournful bawls of the hounds shattered the night, which previously had been quiet save the noise of the gusty winds in the treetops.
Not 50 yards from where the hounds were cast, they had treed a raccoon, and I was walking in ankle-deep, pungent swamp water with a handful of young men and women, looking up in the dimly lit oaks for the glowing eyes or the telltale shape of a coon flattened on a branch or against the trunk of a tree.
As we pushed limbs aside and wandered toward the baying dogs, we flashed lights in the trees in search of what the hounds knew was there. The dogs were gathered around the bottom of a large tree, their voices co-mingling with a sound that true sons of the South love so well.
After a few minutes of looking in the bare limbs, just where the coon could have gone became a bit of a mystery. The dogs were sure their quarry was there, and with the wind playing havoc on the scent, they had to be close. One tree away, a raccoon clung to the side of a tree trunk 20 feet above the forest floor, having tight-roped its way across a blown-down limb that created a bridge.
“Here he is, up this tree,” a voice called out as a dozen people turned and walked six feet, shining lights up to see what the dogs were after.
After a few minutes, we were headed back to the little causeway road that sat on one dirt lane of high ground in the corner of the swamp. I needed to get on the road home so I wouldn’t be driving until 3 a.m., but something about the sound of hounds running makes me forget about everything in the world for a little while, and when Jess Bolton asked if I wanted to come along while members of the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College Cooners Club turned out their hounds again, I couldn’t resist.
“You sure it’s not too late?” Jess asked. “I can run you back to the house if you need to go.”
I had done my research and had a few photos in hand, but I was so intent on listening to the beautiful music I figured another little while in the woods with this great collection of college students couldn’t hurt.
We piled into pickup trucks, backed onto the blacktop road and headed to a dirt county road at the opposite end of the branch we had just been in with the hounds. The same group of hounds was turned out in the edge of the bottom-land woods, and we stood in the road and waited. In a few minutes, the fun started again. First, the staccato chop of the plott hound erupted. Next, the plaintive bawls of the English and the bluetick hounds carried across the night air.
“There they go,” Jess smiled.
We listened as the dogs got farther and deeper into the swamp, showing no signs of slowing down.
“If they get over there in Black Branch, it’s gonna be an all-nighter,” one man chuckled to me. “Last time they got in there, I stayed out here until the wee hours of the morning with these guys trying to get to them.”
That’s just how it is with coon hunting, or rabbit, deer or fox hunting for that matter. Grown men following the whims of wild animals and the pursuing hounds with all the zeal of tire- less children is what makes hound people different. The fact that coon hunts require such passion and a not-afraid- of-the-dark attitude makes it just a little different.
The ABAC Cooners Club, nearly 70 members strong, is the only registered collegiate coon-hunting club in the world. And what the kids do is akin to any other college organization. They meet to discuss their lifestyle, how to improve coon hunting, and advocate their pursuit to other students on cam- pus. In addition, they hold joint events with other clubs at the college, enter contests to support campus events and employ various fund-raising tactics to improve their financial standing.
The evening I spent in Tifton, some members of the club were at the ABAC basketball game, no doubt doing the old “gee, haw, whoa, back…” cheer for their team. But more than just urging their team on to victory, they were raffling off a dog box to raise money to keep their club strong.
As we stood in the back of a large agricultural field listening to the dogs as they made their way down the edge of the thick swamp, two or three trucks with dog boxes in the back made their way down the driveway of the home near where we were hunting, arriving back from the game. The report on the dog box brought a new cheer to the entire group, which to that point had been happy just listening to the dogs run.
“We raised $800 selling raffle tickets, and one of the faculty members got the winning ticket,” Jess told me. “She donated it back to the club, so we have $800 of profit, and we can raffle the box sometime later and raise even more money.”
Most members of the ABAC Cooners Club have their own hounds, many of which live in pens behind the home of Jess, originally from Dawson, and his wife, Jessica, who hails from Dawsonville. The pair met when Jess had been coon hunting with some friends and had gone for a late-night pizza run in Tifton.
“She wanted to know where we had been,” Jess said. “A lot of her family had coon hunted in the mountains, so she sort of understood it, we started talking, and it just kicked off from there.”
Jess and Jessica help other college kids with a place to keep their hounds, and their home is like an open door for young men and women from all over the place, who come by to clean dog pens, feed their dogs, or sometimes, just to study and do homework.
When I arrived at their home, I instantly felt as if I were being initiated into a special fraternity as I took the
tour and settled on the living-room sofa, which serves as a bed for a club member and roommate from Douglas. Young men from Locust Grove and Acworth sat on either side of me. I had tried to scoot to the far right end of the couch, but as they sat down, one of the guys said, “no need to get up, buddy, you’re family now.”
It had felt that way since I arrived, when I stood in a room off the kitchen and compared stories about Cobb County and how much it had changed in the past few years. I walked into the backyard with several of the club members to look at their dogs and a club member explained what draws people to the group.
“It’s not like being around Town Center Mall where you have all the restaurants and movies and stuff,” he said. “Down here, we have to make our fun.”
Members of the club often take turns shooting pine cones out of trees with .22 rifles, seeing who can knock a bullet box off a post from 85 yards with an iron-sighted rifle or going mud bogging in pickup trucks.
Jess and a couple of the club members’ girlfriends had been in the kitchen sautéing onions and peppers and frying French fries, while a young man from Baton Rouge, La. manned the grill, cooking hamburgers. I sat at a large table with several guys while the girls sat in the living room and talked. Club members were standing in the kitchen eating, and being there felt just like being home for Christmas. It’s a feeling the club creates, though one gets the impression it’s not from any sort of effort as much as it is that all these kids are just good-natured folks, who love to meet new people and share their passion for coon hunting.
The club, which was started earlier in the decade by John Hagin of Marion County, an ABAC student at the time, was simply a way for ABAC students who coon hunted to get together for a few hours of fun. The original members of the club organized and passed their proposal along to ABAC administration, which welcomed the new cam- pus organization. Dr. Jeff Gibbs, a professor at the college, served as faculty advisor to the club, helping the group make hats, T-shirts and flyers to pro- mote the ABAC Cooners. At the organization’s first on-campus meeting, 50 students showed up. Thirty of them became members, and the group has grown ever since.
Ed Willis, a local coon hunter, has helped the club’s members understand more about coon hunting, including the technical aspects of competition hunts, a pursuit many coon hunters are keenly interested in.
“We didn’t know much about competition hunting, the scoring, the rules,” Jess said. “Mr. Ed helps us with that stuff, and when we have our own competition hunt each semester, he serves as the master of hounds.”
The kids don’t just meet on campus to talk coon hunting, then load hounds and head to the woods. Instead, they are proactive and philanthropic. The club has won the college’s annual hay-bale-decorating contest with a design that featured a scene of a raccoon up a tree with plywood hounds standing watch.
“We’re big on hunting safety, andwe work to promote it on campus,” Jess told me. “We want to have the local game warden come out and teach a class when he gets time.”
Members of the club often spend time picking up trash on campus, but their favorite community-improvement project involves sharing their music with residents at a nursing center on 20th Street in Tifton. Jess plays the banjo and several other club members can pick the guitar, so every once in a while, the club heads over to the home to cheer residents with bluegrass music.
“They love it when we come by,” Jess said. “It’s so much fun to play and sing and see the smiles on their faces.”
There are, no doubt, many things that go on at ABAC that members of the Cooners Club get involved in, whether through the club or on their own. It’s just that kind of group. Club members pay $10 per semester to join the club, and money from the school’s student government association helps offset costs.
“We couldn’t make it on club dues alone,” Jessica told me as we drove down the road.
I was still feeling like family as I stepped across a strand of barbed wire, five-cell flashlight in hand, to help get the English hound off the tree. We had already cut off the plott and caught the bluetick in the swamp where we started the evening, and now it was time to get on the highway.
I stopped in Ashburn to change out of my boots, and thought about the night’s events. Several of the guys had loaded up and headed back to the woods while Jess and a couple of other guys hitched up a flatbed trailer to a truck and headed out to get the broken- down truck of another man.
“It’s like family, man,” the guy said to me as I got in my truck. “This is what we do.”
With a club like the ABAC Cooners on campus, the spirit of student involvement at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College is in good hands.