Coon hunting

The raccoon hunting season with guns and dogs in South Carolina is from Sept. 15 to March 15. Dogs-only hunting is from March 16 until Sept 14. The limit is three per party, per day. Pictured is a group of coon dogs at the Grand American Coon Hunt, the annual field trials for coon hounds held each January in Orangeburg. No raccoons are killed in Grand American hunts.

“Listen,” Uncle Sonny said, “the dogs are treed.” I was lying on my back, atop the dog box in the back of the truck, looking up at an inky black sky, laced with uncountable numbers of twinkling stars. I had already seen a dozen or more shooting stars go streaking across the sky.

Daddy and Uncle Sonny were standing out in the cut corn field, just a few feet away from the truck. When I sat up, Daddy said, “Let’s go.”

The hounds were down in the branch about a hundred yards away. They had a raccoon at bay and were letting us know about it. Our dog, a July walker named King had struck the trail, and Uncle Sonny’s dog Queenie had joined in. They ran the coon a short distance and when Uncle Sonny’s other two dogs joined the race, they soon treed.

Daddy had a small flashlight and a .22 rifle. Uncle Sonny had a little bigger flashlight, but no gun. I stumbled along behind them and tried to keep up. The hill of the branch sloped down gently to the swamp below and was fairly open, but the branch itself was much thicker and boggy, with brambles and briars.

As we neared the dogs, the din got louder and the scene was illuminated somewhat by the two dim flashlights. The tree was a big hardwood broken off about 15 feet up. As we approached, the dogs got more excited and started jumping up on the side of the tree and biting into the bark. There weren’t any limbs on the big snag of a tree, but vines wound around and up the trunk.

We soon realized that the tree was hollow and the coon was safely tucked away from our probing eyes. But Uncle Sonny wasn’t one to give up so easily. He pulled off his coat, grabbed a handful of vines and started up the tree. When he got to the top, he shinned his light down the inside of the big tree and could see the coon curled up in a ball below. All the time he and Daddy were talking back and forth, but they had to shout to be heard over the dogs. That coon was safe, or at least he though so!

Uncle Sonny pulled out his shirttail and tore off a little piece about as big as his hand. Daddy cut a skinny sapling about 10 feet long, trimmed off the little limbs and tossed it up to Uncle Sonny. He tied the shirttail around the flimsy sapling and set it on fire with his lighter, then dropped it down the hollow toward the coon.

That coon came up out of there like his tail was on fire, and it probably was! When he got to the top, he was right in Uncle Sonny’s face, but Unc leaned back and kicked that coon out and over the dogs and a stand of briars down below.

The briar patch gave the coon a little head start, but the hounds were on him hard and fast, and he treed again just down the branch. When Uncle Sonny got down, we all just stood there for a while to catch our breath.

“Just listen to that hound music,” Daddy said. A hunter’s heart is gladdened by the baying hounds, as he knows what it means. The quarry is here!

The coon had treed in a big open hardwood that soared up into the endless dark sky. There wasn’t a limb until maybe 40 feet up, and there was a hollow just above that. It’s hard to leave a coon and just pull those dogs away, but what could we do?

Uncle Sonny pulled off his coat again, and this time his boots and socks, even though it was late February and bitter cold. Daddy gave him a boost and up he went, shinnying up that tree. He hugged it with his arms and knees, and pulled up with his hands and toes. Even though I was about 10 years old, and a world-class tree climber at the time, I was still amazed.

About halfway up, his heavy canvas hunting cap fell off and dropped down through the understory of trees to the ground below. The dogs pounced on the hat and tore it to shreds, thinking it was the coon.

“Whatever you do, don’t fall outa that tree” Daddy shouted. “Those dogs will kill you.” But Sonny Ardis was lean and limber and tough as nails. He went right on up that big tree. When he got to the limb, he straddled it and looked into the hole in the side of the tree. The coon was only a few feet down, looking back at him.

This time he tore off a big piece of his undershirt, tied it in a knot and set it on fire. Once it got to burning good, he dropped it in the hole. Smoke poured out for several minutes, and we all stood waiting. Even the dogs had stopped barking and were just looking up.

More minutes ticked away, then at the base of the tree – pandemonium. The coon came out of an unseen hollow at the bottom, between the big roots of the tree, and ran right into the dogs! It was a fierce fight, but the dogs won and dispatched the coon. Uncle Sonny was already coming down the tree as we shouted out to him what had happened.

We went on to enjoy many more hunts together, and I cherish those coon-hunting days as much as anything I’ve ever done in the outdoors. That hunt unfolded about the time that the Grand American Coon Hunt was getting started in Orangeburg.

The Grand American is returning to the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds for the 53rd year, Jan. 4-7. I’m planning on being there to experience the sights, and sounds, and the people. I’m sure to see some of you there too.

T&D outdoors columnist Dan Geddings is a native of Clarendon County currently residing in Sumter. He is founder and president of Rut and Strut Hunting Club in Clarendon County and a member of Buckhead Hunting Club in Colleton County.

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