By Dave O’Connor
In states where dairy farming is important the corn crop is often tied to a lot of small farms. The acreage devoted to this valuable crop is some of the best on the farm. In New England, and many other locales, the raccoon is the number one pest to keep under control. They can ruin more corn in a single night than a family of twelve might use for a year’s supply.
The reason for the severity of the corn damage is that the coons will “sample” the corn to see if it is ready for their tastes. If it isn’t quite ready, they will return in a few nights. A mother teaching her young to sample corn and then returning night after night for a free meal can turn a whole field useless. Any machine used to harvest the crop will not pick up the stalks laying on the ground and the rows get leveled by young raccoon gone wild with their new thrill.
It is about this time that the farmers put in a plan for coon hunters to come by for a night or two. The economics is bothering them and the hunter wants to work his dog. Coon hunting is a business conducted after dark with a .22 pistol, a three cell flashlight, a good hound and a lot of walking ability. Although never really popular in much of the north it was always a big sport over much of the southern United States.
My introduction to the coon hunting scene came through a visit to the Ole Man’s house one night in early September. “Got your light ready? You’ll need an extra leash for the dog, just in case you’re the one to pick him up. Don’t forget the spare bulb for your light, makes it hard to walk a mile or two in the woods without a light.”
I didn’t even know we were going anywhere. But, since the Ole Man was ready to go outdoors, I was too. My love for a few hours outside is only bested by a longer trip, hopefully for a week or two.
The battered Jeep made the climb to Eddie Sleeper’s back field in record time. “Throw out the anchor!” Eddie would call at each farm gate and we came to a temporary halt while he unstrung the barbed wire for our passage. All the fences were electrical and you had to be careful to hang on to the rubber collar, a lesson I had learned the hard way, somewhere in early life. You can get the jolt of your life when grabbing one of these harmless (??) looking little strands of wire fencing.
Cows know, how I don’t know, when the electricity is turned off. I have seen them plow right over a barbed wire fence when the fencer was off, and it only took a couple of hours before they knew it was just harmless wire. One old farmer told me he was sure that cows could smell the electric current. Whether that is true or not I don’t know, but I am well aware that I can’t tell by my nose, I used caution in place of my olfactory stupidity.
At the last gate that led to Eddie’s sixty acre corn field we stopped right after the gate. Mandy and Tramp were let out. Mandy is a right nice looking bluetick bitch that has yielded some good bobcat dogs. She even looks like a hunter, something we don’t hold against her. Tramp is a tramp. His parentage is something that three Philadelphia lawyers couldn’t straighten out if they were working on it full time for a month. Both dogs are owned by John Blydon, another dairy farmer, who was also jammed into the Ole Jeep (so called by those who knew the Ole Man).
Tramp yipped his way to the first coon. It was a good quarter mile away when he opened The Ole Man and I took one side of the corn and John with Eddie edged along the other. It was hard to tell which way the dog was headed. We hoped to be ready for whichever way he went.
By the time Mandy had joined in, the dogs were running in the exact opposite direction from both groups of hunters. We still knew which way they were going, at least the Ole Man said that He knew. “There’s a swamp down on the far corner where the cedars start. They’ll strike for one of those lone sugar maples and stay put. Means a hard shot to bring one down.”
The sound of hound music always excites me. It sasses you by being both interesting and wild. I know of no other sound that even approaches the sound of a hound hard on the trail. At night the stillness of the night adds to the attraction. It’s eerie, beautiful, fulfilling, energy absorbing and wildly stated. If you have never heard it, then you are missing a true hunting thrill.
The coon crossed half a mile of Maine cedar swamp before scurrying up a big maple in the center. He was waiting for us at the top. The Tramp dog laid his feet up on the tree and changed voice to the quick chop that meant “tree, tree, boys!”
To the sound of curses and more curses, and swishing corn, and the snap of cedar branches we finally arrived at THE tree. Mandy was bellowing, Tramp was yapping and the Ole Man was yelling for the rest of the party. It was a night of pure sounds, men, dogs and coon.
When all had assembled we switched on the lights to search for the racoon. It was there, an old bore, right near the top. The eerie light of the flashlight combined to make the flash of the handguns look bright. The coon was soon at our feet, dead. The dogs were allowed to stake a claim. And we moved on with our prize.
Environmentalists tell us that noise is really a very harsh pollution. I agree. The sound of buses, trucks, airplanes and urban noise is a pollution, dog noise is not any form of pollution. It is really a music that the hunter in man can come to fully understand. I have had some dyed-in-the-wool hound men stay up for hours while they told of the different strands of voice that dogs can have. The strike dog, the follower-but-fighter, the lone wolf, the hunting bellow, the hot track, the cold trail, the warming up, the quick yip and the tree call-to-arms.
Whatever your persuasion, the hound music at night is worth the tree-branches-in-the-eyes time that it requires. When we had completed the night with Eddie and John I asked the Ole Man why He didn’t own His own pair of coon hounds. “Well, you see it’s like this. The wife has tolerated a brace of rabbit hounds, more guns than I could ever use, some extra camping gear, tons of shot, hundreds of dollars for reloading tools, an extra Leonard fly rod or two, some L.L. Bean bills you wouldn’t believe, the cost of my Jeep, my boats, my snowmobile, my Brittany and YOU. Now I ask you would it be fair to incorporate another sport into my cost? She might lose Her sense of humor and besides what are outdoor friends for? John goes rabbit huntin’ with me and shoots partridge over my Brittany.”
As usual, He had the good sense to keep me straight.