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Raccoon hunting is one of '24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies'

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360

"Sic 'em."

A pair of high-bred bluetick hounds splash across the muddy dirt track, plunge into a rabbit hole of dark woods and begin to snuffle the forest floor for a specific scent.

Dexter, Dwight, John, Big Earl and I are in unfamiliar territory around Bivins near the Arkansas line, and we're all setting our GPS units before diving into the woods after the dogs.

Somewhere out there, a fat and clever coon is scooting along the forest floor looking for a tall and sturdy loblolly pine or massive oak to climb. Even from a great distance, they can hear the crashing sounds of intruders feverishly searching for a fresh, and directional, scent.

"Wooooo!" "Whooah."

It's a mournful sound that comes from deep down, ranging from a low howl to a wail to a high pitched yelp. Each dog has its own distinctive voice, and these men cannot only identify their dog, they also can tell what the dog is doing.

"Strike Dixie," John Rogers says quietly. "Strike Sue," murmurs Dwight Cooper. Both dogs have picked up the trail of a coon. Notes are made; points have been scored. We shuffle to the edge of the wood.

The howls quickly change from mournful and ghostly to frantic and frenzied.

"Treed."

More points; more notes. Dexter Whatley gives the signal, and with a last glance up at the bright stars in Orion's belt, we plunge into the undergrowth in the direction of the squalling. South, we're headed south, I tell myself — and try to keep up.

Cat-claw briars grab at my sleeves and tear at my jeans. Limbs slap me in the face, and hanging vines, like organic nets, loop around my neck. Headlamps do a lightsaber dance in the dark. I stumble across the forest floor, trying to avoid holes hidden beneath the carpet of pine needles. Don't want to turn an ankle out here. The hogs would eat me before morning.

The dogs are standing on their hind legs at the base of a tall, slender pine, barking up at a fat raccoon perched safely out of reach.

That raccoon is why I am out here tonight, chasing Number 15 on my "Texas To-Do List: 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies." Spend a night with a coon hunter and his dogs, listening to the sounds of the woods and picking up, and successfully tracking, the smells of the night.

Actually, I'm out here in Cass County with about 75 coon hunters. Most have come from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas for a two-day event that is part coon hunt, part fund-raiser for cystic fibrosis research, part dog show and part old-man social.

Without bogging down in the rules, the goal of the event is to track and tree more raccoons than anyone else in a specific period of time.

Truth be told, this is more about the dogs than the raccoons. And as we gather at the Cass County Exposition Center out on U.S. 59 west of Atlanta, the place is crawling with them. Blueticks, redbones, black and tans, beagles, Walker hounds and some that defy traditional breeding lines. All of them are handsome and athletic. Most of them are smart. Some of them are worth as much as a small car.

Like show horses, many arrive with breeding paper names like Cathouse Cowboy and Bayou Biscuit, Tree Talking Buddy and Cajun Texas. In the woods, they go by their street names: Jack and Buddy, Slick and Missy.

These are the dogs and the people of Faulkner's books and stories, simple but not stupid, often living off the earth but honoring that living by protecting its source. These folks are determined to keep alive their traditions and pass them along to offspring or anyone else who'll take a moment just to listen.

Dexter Whatley is my host and guide. He lives near Atlanta and has been running this event — the Cystic Fibrosis Raccoon Hunt — for 25 years.

Now, it's important to note here that while coons are hunted in a coon hunt like this, no coon gets caught. It's in the rules.

I love these old guys — "coon geezers," I call them. Life outdoors is important to them. They do it for the dogs, and they drag along their kids and grandkids to keep the hound tradition a living, breathing thing.

It's been a living thing for me for more than 50 years.

Echoes from the past

I can still hear a hickory log fire crackle and whoosh in the night. The shadows of grown men oscillate in time with the flames, dancing over old, rat-gnawed Army cots where we kids are wrapped in quilts, struggling to stay awake.

Down in the creek bottom, a hodgepodge of hunting dogs is working on a crescendo of wails and howls and woofs.

"There's old Hoss," one old man says. "He's got that coarse ol' mouth on him."

"That's Betty with 'im," another whispers.

These men were probably my father's age. Maybe in their late 30s or early 40s. Not old; just old to me.

One by one, the men identify the calls of dogs that have taken to the same coon trail that Hoss has hit. Mandy, Rattler, Belle, Bitsy.

The names are spoken quietly in a church whisper. I fall asleep.

The dogs stumble out of the woods onto the old red dirt lane about daylight. The men give them bowls of food, while the kids eat fried egg sandwiches on white bread, lubed up with several pieces of slithery, half-cooked, home-cured bacon still smoking from the cast-iron skillet. I wish I had some salt for my egg but I'm afraid to ask, so I just sit on the edge of the old cot, gnawing on my sandwich.

One by one, the dogs jump up into the hay in the back of the pickup to sleep.

I wonder about the Mason jar that was passed among the men and the homegrown, twisted plug of chewing tobacco — soaked in molasses and wrapped in tin foil — that made the rounds.

My dad never made these trips, but he made sure I got to go. Steeped in the history of Outdoor Life, I just wanted to see the animals we were chasing, maybe follow its track to a hollow log back in the bottom. It was on these trips that my friends and I learned about life and girls, sex and Elvis, dogs and dog men.

Southern tradition

On this late February weekend in 2011, most of the coon hunters are back in their motel rooms around Atlanta by 2 a.m. on Sunday. Scores had been totaled. Winners identified. And shortly after breakfast most of the hunters and dogs were back on the road home.

Nothing much is left to indicate they were here except some irritated raccoons.

And me? I am left with a six-hour drive back to the Hill Country, the realization that I have just spent a weekend savoring a Southern tradition from my past, and the crystal-clear and perfectly pitched wails of coonhounds in my head.

mleggett@statesman.com