“Cut him loose, and he gets down to business,” said Rocket Fuel’s handler, Chris Haynes. Rocket did. Without a look back, he snuffled off into the darkness of a crisp December evening outside of LaGrange, nose to the ground, with a neon collar light marking his progress through the hardwood creek bottom. Less than five minutes out of the dog box he struck a trail, and the group of men standing around the tailgate of the truck spitting tobacco and talking deer hunting went silent as Rocket opened up. That first clear bawl rang out through the bottom. Then Dixie and Slurpie came in on the track, and the race was on.
The three dogs, Dixie, a female black and tan, Slurpie, a huge male walker hound and Rocket Fuel, the two-time world champion black and tan, ripped up out of the valley in a cacophony that was music to the hunters’ ears. The pure volume of noise was evidence of a good track, as they tore out of the bottom up a steep hillside bawling lustily in hot pursuit of a coon.
“This is the best race we’ve heard in two weeks,” Chris said. “When they get on a good track, they put more mouth into it.”
The men listened as the race ran rampant along the hillside. Then the noise faded as the hounds ran the coon over a ridge line into a hollow.
It seems a mistake for the bawling of hounds to be described as mournful, as it often is. These dogs were rejoicing, plainly enthralled in that single-minded excitement that only dogs experience — and only when they are doing exactly what they’re born to do.
Rocket Fuel comes from a line of renowned black and tans, and he lives to hunt coons. His father, Rocket, was a world-champion black and tan, and Rocket Fuel recently surpassed his father’s achievement by becoming the first-ever, back-to-back, world-champion black and tan. He took both the 2006 and 2007 world championships for his breed, placing 10th overall in 2007 at the three-day, September event in Indiana.
Rocket Fuel has numerous major championships on his resume. He was the 2006 National Grand Nite Champion, the 2006 Georgia State Champion and the 2006 Purina Breed Winner. He also won the Georgia State Youth Championship, handled by Chris’ son Jacob.
That’s a hefty list of accomplishments for a 3-year-old, and Rocket Fuel is obviously one heck of a competition dog. But Chris said Dixie, the little 2-year-old bitch, actually outperforms Rocket on certain nights.
“She’s better on those tough coons,” Chris said. “She can sometimes get ’em better than he can on a cold track.”
Even developing a belly full of Rocket Fuel’s pups, Dixie was game that evening, enthusiastically hanging with the other two dogs step-for-step. She’s a short-timer, though. Chris doesn’t want to take chances with what promises to be a fine brood, and it won’t be long before Dixie has to sit in the kennel while the other dogs spend three or four nights a week in the woods. She may not have known it, but she was on one of her last hunts before her pregnancy leave, and she was relishing it.
About eight minutes into the race, a brief quiet came over the woods, and before there was time for the hunters to mention it, the dogs’ bawling morphed into sharp chops.
“They’ve got him treed,” Chris said. “We’ll give ’em some time.”
For the sake of competition training, Chris lets his dogs keep a coon treed for at least five minutes before pulling them off the tree, whether or not he decides to kill the coon. The men waited for the go-ahead, and when Chris gave the word, an old, rusty, break-action .22 rifle came out of the truck bed and blindingly bright headlamps popped on to illuminate the woods.
“We spend a lot of money on our dogs… not our guns,” quipped Richie Bradley, Slurpie’s owner.
The men headed up the hillside on an old road bed at a brisk pace, pushing saplings aside, hopping tendrils of briar, and stopping briefly to mentally mark the location of a big deer scrape. The chopping hounds grew louder as the men, breathing heavily, broke off the old road and crossed the ridge above the hollow. A beam swept the woods below, and there they were, mouths foaming with anticipation, standing with front paws on a big old oak and barking as if trying to knock that coon out of the tree with noise alone.
Not one to give up easily, big Slurpie tried again and again, but his canine paws didn’t provide enough traction for him to actually get up in the tree with the coon. No one had spotted it yet, but it was perched in a crotch of the tree more than 60 feet above the ruckus.
It was now time for the men to play their role in the hunt. Light beams swept skyward, panning the branches of the tree. Richie got out his coon squaller, and the high-pitched squeal of a coon in distress pierced through the clamor.
“There he is. See his eyes?” said Chris Godfrey pointing a high-powered beam at a brushy crotch in the tree. A pair of eyes, glowing orange in the light, peered out from the tangle of branches, disappeared as the coon turned its head, then reappeared with another screech of the squaller.
Chris and Jacob Haney dropped into the hollow to pull the struggling dogs off the tree and leash them, while up the hillside the other Chris kept a light on the coon and Richie chambered a round. With Chris standing above him on the hill keeping a light on the raccoon, Richie pointed his headlamp down the side of the barrel and took careful aim. Pop! The dog’s knew exactly what was coming.
“We don’t kill many. We probably don’t kill 10 coons a year unless we’ve got a puppy that needs one,” Chris Haney later explained. “When we do kill one, we’ll freeze it and give it to a pup, let him chew on it and tree it in the yard.”
“It used to be the perception was you tried to shoot ’em in the foot or the tail, and knock ’em out of the tree so the dogs would get to fight ’em,” Richie added. “That ain’t true. We noticed that some dogs would stop treeing ’em so they wouldn’t have to fight ’em. We try to shoot ’em in the head because we don’t want our dogs to get cut up.”
The shot was a long, tough one, through a thicket of branches and twiggy growth. After several shots, Richie finally popped the coon in the head and it fell, bouncing off several limbs to land with a thud between Rocket and Dixie, who were leashed to nearby saplings. They nearly pulled the small trees over trying to get at the coon, while poor Slurpie, leashed on the opposite side of the oak, bellowed his disapproval at being left out of the action. After what must of seemed like an eternity to the dogs, Chris and Jacob got them untethered, and all three of the hounds pounced on their reward, a fat sow raccoon.
It was an exciting race, but the night was not yet over. The dogs treed another coon for the hunters, but no more shots were fired. At the end of the evening, when Rocket Fuel, Slurpie and Dixie were returned to their kennels tired and happy, the author left LaGrange having missed out on just one aspect of coon hunting, the raccoon toothpick.
If you don’t know about coon toothpicks yet, you’ll have to go coon hunting to find out.