QDM Coons: A New Era Of Opportunity

Some trophy deer clubs are opening the gates to coon hunters.

We had turned the dogs loose 30 minutes previous and hadn’t heard a bark. It was mid January, cold, and very windy. I almost walked back to the truck to get the Garmin GPS unit to locate the dogs but opted to walk out of the hollow and up on top of a ridge containing a pasture. My daughter Lucy, son in law Tim, and friend Scott Barner all beat my old bones to the top.

By the time I got there, Scott said, “You might as well tree Faith.”

Candy soon joined in, and both dogs were hammering it about two-thirds of a mile from us, down in another hollow.

When we finally got to the tree, both females were stretched out on a HUGE white oak. Everyone looked and looked but no coon was seen, and we were ready to bad mouth the dogs for telling a lie, when I noticed a weird looking piece of bark in a big crotch. I climbed way up one side of the hill, and found out the “bark” was a coon’s ear. He was laying flat as a pancake in that crotch. I backed up the hill a little more and could just barely see the top of his head. When the .22 went off, let’s just say he became very “open minded” and came tumbling out of the tree to the very deserving dogs. Faith and Candy made sure he was dead, then gave us the “let’s get another one boss” look. Lucy and I leashed the dogs, Tim grabbed the gun, and Scott toted the coon back toward the truck.

During the walk, I started thinking about what a great time, out in nature, this was. Good friends, good dogs, a crisp, cold, cloudless January night, and great exercise.

The stars were deep, and the wind had died to the point you could hear barred and great horned owls hooting up and down the Broad River bottoms. I also thought about how fortunate we were to have land on which we could cast our hounds.

Coon hunting, and problems associated with it, has changed drastically through the years in Georgia. Technology, the cost of the sport, and attitudes of both hunter and landholders are for the most part different than they were when I first turned a hound loose in Georgia in 1978.

“Back in the day,” nearly everyone would let you coon hunt if you asked politely… and there was plenty of land to hunt. Our local coon hunting club, the Broad River Coon Hunters Association, in Comer, would have 70 to 100 dogs at a U.K.C. (United Kennel Club) sanctioned event. Even during deer season, turning a hound loose was not a problem. I had 40 to 50 different spots the hounds could be turned loose.

But things began to change. Athens was expanding, and subdivisions were being established on all sides of town. Also, large land holdings were being subdivided into small 5-acre lots. As the years went by, the “suburbs” spread out farther and farther from the city. Creeks and branches on which I used to turn my dogs loose became unhuntable because there were houses just above them. Even though I still had permission on the bottoms land, it was still an uncomfortable situation, and there was a chance the dogs would tree a “trashcan” coon in somebody’s backyard. I just quit hunting those tight spots and only cast the hounds on large tracts of land… and I still had problems.

I was cussed, folks threatened to shoot the dogs, the sheriff’s department was called, and I was harassed, all this while on land I had permission to hunt… large tracts.

Arriving back at my truck one night, I was greeted by a deputy sheriff, blue lights flashing. I was hunting on a 600-acre tract of land. The guy across the dirt road had called the law on me. He owned 5 acres. My dogs were treed at least 400 yards from his property line. It seems my hounds were causing his “lap dog” to bark, and he didn’t like it. Not my problem. I tell my hounds to hush at the house. They hush. City folks shouldn’t move to the country and not expect country heritage sports to occur. Oh, by the way, it was not like it was 2 in the morning. It was 8 p.m. I must commend the sheriff’s department deputy for handling the situation very diplomatically and informing the guy that I was well within my rights to hunt there. I still hunt there regularly, and the guy has not called the law again.

Then there was the “gentleman” who threatened to shoot my dogs “if they got near his livestock.” The dogs were treed 70 yards from his property line and 600 yards from his house. He came roaring down through the field in his truck and started screaming at us.

When he mentioned shooting the dogs, when they were not even close to the fence line, I had enough, and politely told him if he did, he would be paying for the dogs. Through several incidents the last few years, a legal precedent had already been set on such matters. A coon hunter in Banks County had his best female shot by a resident. The dog was not on the guy’s property. When the smoke cleared, the shooter and his relatives lost a PILE of money, and one lost his job for animal cruelty, “For actions unbecoming of a law enforcement officer.” Furthermore, I would never be a barbarian and shoot his animals if his fence came down and they ruined one of my food plots, but HE would be paying for the damage.

Another factor that emerged which reduced the available land for coon hunters was the increase in large tracts of trophy deer hunting land. Despite South Carolina’s study that showed running coon hounds doesn’t affect deer population numbers on a property, clubs still would not let you hunt.

As many of you know, I’d rather deer hunt than eat, and I LOVE to eat! And I run my hounds on my personal farm all deer season. You always hear hunters talking about a mature buck they are hunting “going nocturnal” on them. What do you think the deer do if folks are coon hunting every night? Yeah, they move MORE during the daylight hours. But folks won’t believe it. Dr. Karl Miller, the noted deer professor and researcher from UGA, killed one of his better bucks after finding some fresh scrapes the night before while coon hunting. The 134-inch 10-point came in around 9 a.m.

Finally, coon hunters are loosing hunting rights on lands due to bad apples among us. As in any other type hunting, there are good, ethical law-abiding hunters… and there is trash. Idiots who sneak onto land late at night, shoot coons out of season because their dogs need “some fur in their teeth” (Funny, I also had bird dogs at one time and never had to kill grouse or quail all summer to keep them pointing), cut fences and locks because they are too lazy to walk to their dogs, and turn their dogs loose on 3 acres of land, knowing the dogs are going to get off the property. Then these “sportsmen” wonder why they don’t have anywhere to hunt. Word gets around on who the trash is.

Oddly enough, things have somewhat changed around the last three or four years, and I feel will continue to do so. Coon hunters are getting more and more opportunity to turn there dogs out from unlikely sources. Those same trophy hunting deer clubs that once would not let folks coon hunt are now asking them to hunt. What has changed? Many deer clubs have begun feeding programs on their lands, and they feed almost year-round except for deer season. The feed isn’t cheap, regardless of what they use in the feeders. I cannot tell you how many clubs and leases I have gained access to, after deer season is over, the last three years.

When the club’s trail cameras on feeders have pictures of 10 to 20 coons in each frame, they are ready to call somebody. You just have to have good credentials as an honest, ethical hunter. Most of the time a club member will go with you and most of the time they thoroughly enjoy the hunt. (By the way, GON has my phone number, and I am willing to travel. LOL.) I have gained access to clubs in Morgan, Oglethorpe, Wilkes, Elbert, Madison, Putnam and Oconee counties.

The only negative aspect to this is the killing of the coons to a true coon hunter. Coon hunting has always been a very non-consumptive sport to me. I keep records, and my dogs tree between 150 to 200 coons a year. Last year I shot only eight when I wasn’t hunting on lands where I was instructed to shoot as many as legal every night. It would not have been that many if I had not had some young children who wanted to shoot their first coon.

Anyone who might be interested in hosting coon hunters on their deer club, anywhere in the state, might put in a call to Rock Johnson with the Georgia Federation of Coon Hunters. He can probably hook you up with the number of an ethical coon hunter. His phone is (912) 663-5287.

The Federation has around 120 to 150 members and works very closely with the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation (GHFF). It has accomplished several different agendas, including an easier way to obtain permits for coonhound events and an increased limit on coons in the Northern Zone of the state. Its primary goal is to promote the sport and sportsmanship in the kennel sanctioned events held statewide. This year the Georgia State Championship will be held the first weekend in March in Tifton.

The Georgia Federation of Coon Hunters and the GHFF are working on trying to get coon hunters a better “right to retrieve” law than exists right now, and they are also trying to once again make it legal to have a live raccoon for club events such as water races and treeing contests. No harm would come to the animal during the event, and it would be returned to the wild immediately afterwards.

There are three organizations that put on sanctioned coonhound events in Georgia, the United Kennel Club (UKC) American Kennel Club (AKC) and the Professional Kennel Club (PKC). Events, primarily shows and hunts, are held virtually every weekend of the year somewhere in the state, and several are held on weeknights.

Thirty years ago, most hunters were carrying a hand-held, 8 D-cell flashlight or a “wheat light” mining light. Before that in the 60s when I started coon hunting, it was a “carbide light.” You would drop carbide into a canister containing water. It produced a stinking, flammable gas you would light. …Sorta looked like a miniature blowtorch…and yes, I am an OLD man.

Now, most have a 16- to 21-volt rechargeable light. They run from $140 to around $450. My coon hunting partner Katie Millwood and I both use Valley Creek lights. The company sponsors us and our hounds. Otherwise we would be hunting with a little bit lesser-priced light. On the high beam, they seem bright enough to burn the tree down.

The cost of a good hound has also increased, as have puppy prices. Thirty years ago you could get a topnotch hound for $1,000 to $1,200. Now it’s more like five or six thousand dollars. Well-bred pups went for $100 in the 70s—$300 to $500 now.

Dog boxes, tracking collars—everything now makes coon hunting a somewhat expensive sport. I certainly do not want to turn my $6,000 hound wearing a $200 tracking collar loose anywhere I think it can get in harms way.

Tracking systems have evolved more than any other type of equipment associated with coon hunting. In the early years, I found my dogs by driving around, or yelling, “Heeyah, Heeyah!” Hoping they came in. Many times at the World Finals or Nationals, way up in Ohio, Indiana, etc., I would about develop an ulcer wondering where my hound was at the end of the hunt. I lost my old Grand Night Champion, Buck dog in West Virginia for two days. When I finally found him treed up a remote, steep hollow, he was so hoarse I could barely hear him.

Then came the “beep beep” telemetry collars. As a wildlife biologist, my area of expertise was telemetry, and I was elated when several companies began manufacturing collars for hunting dogs. For those that do not know, telemetry radio transmitters “beep” at a certain rate per minute. When the hand held antennae is pointed in the direction of the animal wearing the collar, the beep is the loudest. You could tell the direction of the dog and approximate the distance by the strength of the signal. If the dog was farther than a mile away, or close but in a deep hollow or cave, you wouldn’t get a signal. Most of the time though, you at least knew which way your dog went if coons were not moving and they “got gone.”

Nowadays, we have the ultimate… GPS units on the dogs’ collars. The small, hand-held receiver set will show you, on an aerial photo or topographical map, EXACTLY where your dog is. Whether it is moving or treeing, the path it took to get there, the approximate speed of the dog, and the distance, in miles the dog has traveled to its present location, along with the exact distance the dog is from your present location. All this is valuable information. Seeing where the dog is on an aerial photo, one can tell if it is a quicker walk from where you are or closer to a different road or field. If you are in unfamiliar woods, it will also tell you if there is a huge deep beaver pond between you and your dog, and the best way to get around it. There are a lot less headaches.

Coon hunters come in all shapes and sizes, from a lawyer in Greensboro, to my buddy, Katie in Flowery Branch who is a vet technician (and I think the only lady to handle a dog in the UKC World Championship Finals), to construction company owners in Atlanta, to wildlife biologists, to good ol’ farm boys and girls statewide. Most are good, honest, ethical hunters. Some are not, the same as any other type of hunting. I hope someday most coon hunters get the respect others do. Folks should realize we don’t want our hounds where they are not wanted.

But occasionally, when coons are rutting in the winter and traveling great distances, our dogs get “out of pocket,” despite being turned loose on large acreage. They cannot read no-trespassing signs.

Once in Jackson County, while hunting on Dr. Larry Marchinton’s land, Dual Grand Valley Creek, Faith got on a hot boar coon, and she smoked it a long way down the Oconee River, finally treeing right behind a brand new home.

“Oh, man,” I thought… this guy is gonna be upset. It wss 10 p.m. when I knocked on the door, apologized immensely for the dog getting on his land, and asked if I could please get her.

“Well, I don’t want her barking out there all night! You need a cold drink? Come back after ya shoot the thang for a cold drink.” Nice folks.

If you don’t mind getting a little wet every once in a while, and if you don’t mind good exercise and some long rough walks, or losing a little sleep, you might come along some night. Loving nature, the outdoors and dogs is a large part of it. I don’t know, it just beats watching TV to me. The same thing never happens twice it seems.

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