The first hunting I ever did was raccoon hunting. Mom and Dad were avid raccoon hunters, and I started going with them as soon as I could walk. We hunted the ringtails at night with hound dogs. Some of my fondest memories were made on these hunts, staying out all night, looking at the stars and listening to the dogs’ excited barking while they chased the raccoon.
An American Tradition
Hunting raccoons with dogs has been popular in the United States for a long time. Its origins are in the South, where it is a strong tradition. It is the only hunting sport to use dogs that originated in America. Many early settlers and pioneers owned hunting dogs. Most were track dogs that would follow an animal’s scent until they caught it or the hunter shot it. President George Washington was an avid hunter who owned and raised fox hounds.
Sometime in the late 1700s and early 1800s some of these track dogs developed what’s called the “treeing instinct.” This means they follow an animal’s track to the tree it climbed and stay at the base of the tree barking until the hunter arrives. Hounds like this were (and still are) valuable, because they allow hunters to catch more raccoons.
Raccoon hounds are considered to have a “cold” nose. This means they are capable of following an old track. Fox hounds have a “hot” nose. This means they will only follow a fresh track. Raccoon hounds and fox hounds have the same ancestry, but the foundation of the raccoon hound breeds was likely dogs chosen from fox hunting packs.
Though ‘coon hunting was popular, it wasn’t until about 1900 that organized raccoon hunting caught on. An organized raccoon hunt is when a group of hunters gather for several days to hunt and socialize. It’s kind of like a fair, only centered on hunting. The early organized raccoon hunts developed into competition hunting, which is still popular today.
A terrific fiction book on the subject is Where the Red Fern Grows, written by Wilson Rawls in 1961. It’s about a boy who buys and trains two raccoon hound pups. In 1974 it was made into a movie. Anyone interested in raccoon hunting should read this book and see the movie. It’s a grand story that details recreational and early competition raccoon hunting.
Raccoon hunting for fun is still done. Hunting raccoons with hounds is a very social sport. Success is almost entirely dependant on the skill of the dogs. During a typical raccoon hunt a group of hunters will gather with their hounds. They will go to a likely location like a corn field, swamp or wooded creek bottom. After dark they’ll turn the hounds loose and slowly follow behind while waiting for the dogs to strike a track. When the dogs cross a raccoon’s trail they will follow it, barking along the way. Eventually, if the dogs are good, they will find the tree the raccoon climbed and stay there barking until the hunters arrive. Sometimes you’ll find several raccoons in one tree.
Raccoon hides are not as valuable as they used to be. Today some hunters choose not to shoot the raccoon. They often leave them to chase again another night—kind of like “catch and release” sport fishing.
Modern competition hunts are often conducted at local fair grounds. I’ve been to hunts attended by more than 1,000 people and hundreds of dogs. Judges divide the dogs into groups of four and assign them a location to hunt. The dogs, their owners and spectators will hunt for a specified time. A judge awards each dog points based on how they perform. The dog with the most points, usually the one that trees the most raccoons, wins. Raccoons are never killed in competition hunts.
Hot on the Trail
The best way to get started in raccoon hunting is to find a mentor, someone who has a good dog and understands the sport. A ‘coon hound puppy can cost from $50 to $500 depending on its parents and if it is registered. It can be very difficult to train a dog without having an older, trained dog to hunt with. The same goes for a novice raccoon hunter. You will need a savvy houndsman to teach you about the dogs.
Alternately, you could buy a trained ‘coon hound. They can cost from several hundred dollars up into the thousands. It’s a risky purchase and you should never buy an already trained hound you have not hunted with before. Hunting before you buy is common; it’s like test-driving a car. It shows you that the dog can tree a raccoon and that the dog has a good disposition.
The United Kennel Club (UKC) has established guidelines for competition raccoon hunting. They also set goals for dogs to achieve. When goals are met, the dogs receive titles like “Nite Champion” and “Grand Nite Champion.” (Yes, that’s how it’s spelled!) The UKC pedigree for these dogs reflects these titles. This makes the dogs and their puppies worth more money. The owners of the winning dogs win trophies and dogs that establish a history of wins become very valuable. Other hunters pay money to breed to these dogs and their puppies fetch premium prices.
To hunt, you’ll need a good light. A head light is better than a flashlight because you will need your hands free to handle your dog. When I was young, we used head lights like the ones coal miners use. We wore them on hard hats, powered by heavy, rechargeable batteries that we wore on our belts. Today several companies make much better and lighter head lights for raccoon hunters.
You’ll also need a good lead for your dog and high rubber boots because raccoons often like swampy, wet country. Other than that, regular hunting clothes and a .22 rifle are all that’s needed.
If you think raccoon hunting is something you would like but you don’t know any raccoon hunters, go the United Kennel Club Web site: www.ukcdogs.com. There you can learn a lot more about raccoon hunting, find events in your area and people you can contact for more information.
Image by Mitch Kezar. Check out his article about raccoon hunting here!