Moonlight Coonlight by James Taber
I was talking to an old friend last week and hashing over old times, I guess old times and old friends go hand in hand. We covered many subjects, from our high school days to the escapades of our youth. Talking about our growing up in a tiny country town made me think about the now and the then of my life. Now, I have a master’s degree, a high tech computer and live in the city. Then, I was a simple country boy, liked to fish and hunt and be outdoors and never worried about too much at all. My friend reminded me of something we used to do all the time for sport and entertainment, which I have not done in many years. That pastime which bordered on an obsession back then was coon hunting. We were avid coon hunters and back then coon hunting was a good way to make some money and supplement your household income by quite a bit. Depending on the cold weather and how prime the coon was and its size and if you were a skilled skinner you could get anywhere from 15-40 dollars a pelt. That was back before fur prices plummeted and fur became the focus of controversy internationally.
Money like that was a welcome addition to many homes in those days. I used to go with a high school teacher of mine named Ken Sabin who was an avid fishermen and hunter and had 2 beautiful treeing walkers, Sabins mountain echo and Sabins mountain belle. Just hearing those names makes me think of frosty moonlight nights and the sound of singing hounds.
Echo was a huge powerful dog who was about a quarter wolverine and belle was much more refined in behavior and attitude. When old Echo let loose a bawl, it rolled across the mountains and valleys like a steamships foghorn. Anyone who has ever been coon hunting knows the feeling you get when the dogs are working a cornfield or roading and all of a sudden disappear and everyone’s whispering and listening to silence and the night sounds as hard as they can, hearing your breathing, listening to crickets and whippoorwill’s, and then all of a sudden you hear the yip or bark of a hound working out a cold trail. And if your lucky sometimes they’ll catch a hot trail and you’ll hear the urgent, almost desperate bawl of the dogs as they hit hot scent and run it hard. Then the listening and knowing your dogs voices, when they are treed and you stumble, walk and run to the tree, all the time loving the sweet symphony of hound music, sounds just as beautiful to me as any orchestra.
I have seen all kinds of trees, from a snag in a swamp to small saplings along a cornfield to big old towering oak trees along the river, and sometimes rock caves up in the high mountains. Some trees were easy drives; some took the conditioning of a tri-athlete to reach through field and swamp and river and mud. The toughest trees are the dense, pine trees. We would shine the tree right up with our lights and sometimes you could never spotlight a coon and sometimes it was mighty easy. I remember having the dogs tree one night in an apple tree right on the edge of a cornfield, that had 7 coons in it, eyes everywhere you shined your light. There was one big old mama coon and a bunch of smaller ones from this years litter so we looked them over then let them go.
Some of my best and wildest coon hunting memories were with my brothers as kids when we used to go with Vermont state senator Gerald Morse. Senator Morse, as I have mentioned in previous work was quite a character, and man. He used to take us boys coon hunting with him and I think he really truly loved going. Even though he’s gone to the big hunting camp in the sky I will always think of him and the memories we all had when hunting with him. And we sure had some memories! He must have had a lot of patience to take 4 or 5 of us out hunting at night with him. He was an older man even then and wasn’t much good to walk in the woods. We boys used to pile into his fleet of international harvester scouts with him in the command vehicle and take off with him in radio contact with us via walkie talkie which back then were as big as today’s laptop computer. The senator had 2 catahoula mountain leopard curs for dogs, one black and brindle and the other white and tan.
The male dog, old Sam, was a holy terror on coon, he would literally shred and rip the bark and limbs off a tree until it was girdled if you took awhile to get to the tree, and would attack any other dog that came near the tree. And if the tree had any branches down low to the ground he would go right up that tree as far as he could get. Many times one of us had to climb the tree and push him out to dislodge him from the tree. And that was seriously dangerous I can tell you because when you came back down the tree you had to be mighty careful he didn’t mistake you for a coon. I’ve seen many dogs but I never again saw one with the ferocity and single-minded obsession with catching coon as old Sam.
As far as climbing it was commonplace to climb the tree and knock the coon out to give the dogs some work and it was cheaper then using ammo and maybe putting a hole in the pelt. Every now and then a big tough old boar coon would put some fang on the dogs and the next day you’d have to patch them up a little but they never seemed to mind. The worse encounters to have coon hunting are skunks and porcupines, there’s nothing like riding with muddy wet hounds that just tore up a skunk.
We sure used to raise some cain while hunting with the senator. He would be calling us on the radio and we would shut the radio off. One time when were in the woods we shot all his .22 bullets off into the ground and there was one time when we got back with one coon, he said “ by god when you boys tree a coon he’s a kit coon and by the time you get him down he’s a 40 pound boar.” I also remember being out in cow pastures at night when we were taking the dogs round a field on foot or going to the tree and engaging in a fierce firefight with my brothers using meadow muffins as missiles. When I was talking about writing this article my brother Roy reminded me of the time we had treed a coon in a little strip of trees in a cornfield.
We were having a hard time spotting him and the senator got out and was yelling orders at us like a marine corps, drill instructor and right at the base of the tree peering up into the branches. I was standing about 20 feet out in the open part of the field when I spotted some eyes and took a shot with the old single shot .22 and nailed the coon, which was a big boar. When I hit him the coon fell out of the tree and landed right on top of the senators head knocking him down and breaking his glasses. Well when the senator got up mistah, he did some public speaking, but I don’t think it would have passed up to the statehouse! Senator Morse and his dogs and our hunting will always be a treasured part of my outdoor memories. When we boys got a little bit older we had our own coonhounds, everything from treeing walkers to black and tans, and redbones. We had a pretty little female redbone who ran coon all night and rabbits all day. But I’ll saves those nights and dogs for another day.
Thinking about those memories has made me think of the Senator, being a kid, my brothers and friends and the smell and sounds of the night. Wet, smelly hound dogs, cornfields and green eyes, old international harvester scouts, and the bellowing and bawling of the hounds. Being out all night and then going to school in the morning. I don’t have to go to school anymore and I promise not to do any of the things I did as a kid, probably.