Howlin’ At the Coon



There was a biting chill in the air as we crossed the creek in Wolf Pen Hollow in Cabell County.   Three trucks pulled up and the slamming doors broke the eerie silence of the night.    The cold January air was crisp as a distinct whimper could be heard coming from the box in the bed of the black S-10 pickup truck.

"True Grit" was the message above the heads of three floppy eared hounds, eager to get out of their box and start tracking.   

"A good coon hound has to have true grit," said my 18-year old son Travis as he hitched a green strap to the collar of his young Walker coonhound "Pete."  "We had a dog one night going after a coon and just wouldn’t give up, Steve said, ‘Now that dog’s got true grit.’" 

The comment prompted Travis and his buddy to have decals made of their new mantra which now adorn dog boxes and the back windows of pickup trucks in many of the coon hunting hollows of southern West Virginia.

Steve Russell of Hurricane knows a thing or two about true grit among hounds.  He’s been training them and running the hills and hollows of West Virginia for the last 30-years.    His stories range from grim to hilarious.  You can’t help but break into a grin and then burst into laughter as the veteran story teller gets going on a tale.

"That’s the fun of it," Russell tells me with a deep southern West Virginia drawl, "Gettin’ into stuff."  

Russell watches closely as his two Red Tick hounds, “Rebel” and “Babe” scour the ground for a scent along with Travis’ Walker.     Suddenly there’s a howl out of "Rebel" and the other two soon follow.   Moments later they’re gone.

"We start out waiting for them to strike, like that, then we hope they’ll tree," Steve explains. "They’re (Babe and Pete) a little younger so they follow what she (Rebel) does.    You don’t want to run a young dog with trash or all you’ll get is trash.  It’s like monkey-see monkey-do. They’ll do exactly what the older dog does."  

The dog work is the joy for coon hunters.  Encouraging a young dog to work toward its full potential is the challenge to seasoned coon hunters like Steve.    

"These young kids make fun of me when I say, ‘My dog’s gettin’ a little coony.’" explains Russell, "But when that tail’s going 90-miles an hour that means she’s smelling something and when them dogs open you, you’ll hear ‘em."  

Many coon hunters spend hours at a time trying to catch up with their dogs.    Occasionally, they’ll jump on a deer–an unforgivable sin for a coon hound.   The trail could go for miles and their return may take days.   Other times, a coon chase will get the dogs further and further away.   Russell likes dogs that work fairly close, but he’s prepared.

"She’s got a shocking collar because she’s a little hard-headed and likes to back track.  I don’t like that.   There’s also a tracking collar that can pinpoint where they are up to seven miles away. That saves you a lot of walking."  Said Russell.

The technology hasn’t always been there however, and Russell has gone home dogless a few times in his life.

“I lost one dog one night over on the other side of Hamlin in Lincoln County.   I was living up at St. Albans at the time.    I thought I’d lost here, then about two-months later I walked out and she was laying on the porch about starved to death.” 

Russell’s dogs and Travis’ coon hound were impressive on this cold night.  Once the trail went cold, they came hustling back to their handlers for some much enjoyed head patting and praise.    The hunters hitched up the leashes and we moved deeper into the hollow.   This exercise would be repeated again until a third release produced a promising trail.

"That’s Rebel," said Russell as we quietly listened in the distance to the deep throated drones of a hound on the chase.    

"There’s Pete."  Travis added, hoping to get a good showing out of his young dog that has shown great promise in recent months.

"That dog can tree" said Roger, Steve’s nephew who was along for the hunt. “For as young as he is, he’s going to be a real coon dog.”

"He’s a heck of a tree dog," added Russell. "My dogs will tree, but nothing like that little Walker."  

We strain our ears until the determination is finally made that the dogs have gone from a pursuit to treed.  

"This is the fun part," laughs Steve, "Climbing the mountain side!"

The slim and sure footed Travis has no problem nearly sprinting up the steep southern West Virginia grade.  The rest of us are not in nearly as good shape…so we arrive a little later to the party.  The dogs are waiting impatiently, eager to get their paws on the coon they’ve chased to the ridge top.

The three hounds surround an enormous oak tree and paw at the trunk incessantly barking.     Headlamps scan the dark branches high above and our eyes strain to find a pair of glowing eyes.

"We’re looking for the coon right now," said Russell. "A lot of times they’ll lay down flat on top of a limb and they’re hard to see.  But I think this may be a den tree and it’s gone in the hole." 

Should the sly critter be hiding out on the side, during the hunting season, a 22-rifle would be used to knock him out and the dogs would finish him off.    That’s not to be the case tonight as Steve determines a hole, 20-feet up the side of the aged oak is likely where the masked bandit has sought refuge and where he will stay for some time to come.

"We’ll go over here and talk to them (the dogs) and pat them down real good," said Russell. "We want to praise them and let them know they did good, because they did put the coon up the tree."  

Despite being an anti-climactic chase, the roaring barks of three hounds on the hunt is invigorating.  The lonesome bays of a coon dog echoing off the hills of West Virginia is music to the ears of many as coon hunting experiences a resurgence in popularity among sportsmen nationwide. 


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