Jan/Feb 2014Cult of the Coon Dogby Michael M. DeWitt Jr.

The single-minded devotion to chasing dogs and raccoons through woods and swamps in the dark of night displayed by die-hard coon hunters can seem downright fanatical to the uninitiated. But the power of this sport to change lives and bring people together might just explain it.

Sylvester Hicks shakes his shaved head sheepishly as he tells his story while trimming a customer in his Lee Avenue barbershop in the small town of Hampton, South Carolina. Hicks has come a long way in life - all the way from prison convict to coon hunting champion. In July 1997, while in his twenties, Hicks was convicted of selling cocaine and spent two years in federal prison. Skip ahead to January 2010, and the reformed forty-year-old - along with his dog, Walk 'Em Down Weezie - was standing in the winner's circle for the Treeing Contest at the annual Grand American Hunt, one of the oldest and most prestigious coon hunts in North America. While locked away, Hicks yearned for freedom and open spaces, and once released, he shed his shady past and began following a new trail. The outdoors became his halfway house, and coon hunting his rehab and his religion.

"Once you get out and learn about the thrill of hunting, it takes you away from the violence and the drugs." says Hicks. "It makes you look forward to the straight and narrow. Hunting is addictive. You plan your life around it every year. I love it, I'm a fanatic. And I''ve met a lot of good people hunting. All the true friends I have now, I met while hunting. They inspired me to stop running the streets and enjoy the outdoors."

A convicted felon can't legally carry a firearm. Luckily, Hicks doesn't need a weapon for non-lethal coon hunts and competitions. These days, instead of "hanging" with drug dealers and thugs, Sylvester Hicks spends his free time with a couple of retired S.C. Department of Natural Resources lawmen, including 67-year-old Sidney Jones of Garnett, who holds local claim to fame as Hampton County's first African-American game warden, one of the first hired by the DNR back in 1975.

"I guess I was a good influence on him; he straightened up," Jones says with a smile. "A lot of kids followed me, and I tried to get them to go hunting and stay off the street and out of trouble. That's the idea - get them involved in hunting, fishing, any sport."

Jones has been what you might call an obsessed coon hunter since the age of six. "I had a hard time choosing between playing hide-and-go-seek with my three sisters and going coon hunting with my father," he says.

A Unique Calling

Coon hunting is a sport like no other - some describe it as being almost like a religion. It's not for everyone, but for those individuals called to the sound of the dogs, no other pastime quite measures up. It is definitely a specialized challenge - involving both highly trained dogs and skill at nighttime orienteering through deep woods and swamps. In other words, you can't just dash off to Walmart, grab a hunting license and some ammo and take off. It's a sport that most gain entry to through apprenticeship with a close-knit hunting club or through long family tradition.

It's a dog man's sport, full of the canine sound and fury that signifies everything. It's a sport with a chase, pitting the skill and nose of the hound against the legendary wile and guile of the raccoon, an elusive animal that may turn and fight claw and fang when cornered. (The old Jerry Clower routine comes to mind: "Shoot up here amongst us. One of us has got to have some relief!") It's a sport of pride and of competition, and hopefully, of sportsmanship. It's a sport full of challenges and mystique, where the prey may be miles away or hiding right above you. It's a sport beloved by young and old, one that draws both the amateur on a budget and the well-equipped professional. It's also a sport that brings folks together, transcending social and racial barriers to forge lasting friendships - no small thing, in the part of the world where Sydney Jones and Sylvester Hicks grew up.

"At the Shirley Club, [everyone is] welcome to come on," says Jones, a longtime member. "We cook and eat and talk about coon hunting. We get along."

Other coon hunting clubs in the region include the Sharpshooters in Colleton County and the Lowcountry Coon Hunters in Hampton County.

"Ours is more of a social sport," says Dave McKee, president of the S.C. Coon Hunters Association. "I enjoy going on hunts with my friends. The hunt part is secondary. When we were younger, the hunt and the dogs were more important. Now it's about being with your friends. Last night, we hunted from eight o'clock until midnight and didn't see a coon. We had a ball."

But not everyone who coon hunts belongs to a club. For some, it's more of a family thing. Tyrel Richards, of Varnville, hunts solo or with his two sons. He doesn't have much hunting acreage, so he takes advantage of the public lands and access available at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Webb Wildlife Center near Garnett. Richards says it's a good sport for his young boys because "you don't have to be quiet."

"If I go, they're usually with me. I've got nieces and nephews that go with me, too. I usually have three or four girls that go, and I'm planning on taking some Cub Scouts next year. If your kid wants to go, I'd tell him to get in the truck. I don't turn anybody down. I like kids, and I'd rather them grow up hunting than getting in trouble."

Take One, Make One

For nearly a week before the night of the 2013 State Youth Raccoon Hunting Championship, several inches of frigid rain worked in steady, determined shifts, raising water levels in the nearby Savannah River and swelling the swamps surrounding the Webb Center, much to the vocal delight of legions of bullfrogs. It was a night more suited for a kid to be snuggling under a Disney character blanket with a teddy bear than for coon hunting. Yet thirty-six head-lamped youth hunters marched across the dark swamp, resembling a column of disembodied alien Cyclopses. Boys and girls ranging in age from 7 to 17 and hailing from the far corners of the Palmetto State turned out for their shot at a state title and bragging rights during the annual February event.

No kid had it tougher than Deeeee Miller, 17, from Rembert, South Carolina. Miller fell short in three qualifiers before clinching a shot at the state event. Then he had to borrow a dog to compete and hitch a ride to the Webb Center with some fellow competitors. But he brought home a trophy.

"It was just something I really wanted to do," says Miller. "I don't put anything over coon hunting. I'd rather coon hunt than be up to no good or sitting home doing nothing."

The S.C. Coon Hunters Association sponsors the annual Youth Championship, and the DNR assists with registration and facilities, including lodging and access to the 27,000-acre Webb Wildlife Center and surrounding WMAs. The event was founded eighteen years ago by McKee and former DNR biologist Buddy Baker.

"Our goal was to keep kids interested in hunting, any kind of hunting," says McKee. "We had the 'Take One, Make One' program for deer and small game hunting, but we didn't really have anything for coon hunting. Anything we can do to get kids involved, we're going to do it."

On average, about two hundred young people compete throughout the championship series, learning dog handling, woodsmanship, ethics and sportsmanship along the way. The biggest trophies go for sportsmanship.

"We have kids coming from all over the state," says Patty Castine, administrative coordinator for statewide projects in the DNR's Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, who helps organize the event."It's specifically for youth. The Grand American is a big deal among [adult] coon hunters, but this is specifically for the kids so they can have their bragging rights, too. It's a big family thing. All the families come, and it's awesome. It's competitive, but it also teaches courtesy and patience. It's especially fun to watch the little ones with all their gear. Sometimes their dogs are bigger than they are."

But be prepared: coons aren't the easiest prey in these woods, says DNR wildlife biologist and Webb Center manager Jay Cantrell. Your hunt might last five minutes, or it might last all night.

"Coon hunting can make for some interesting times," Cantrell said. "You never know when you open that dog box where you are going to end up. One fellow [hunting at Webb Center] had to borrow a boat and go across the river into GeoSrgia to get his dog. It's always an adventure."

The NASCAR of Dogs

True believers of the coon-hunting faith are prone to drop a dollar or two in the hunting collection plate. In fact, coon dogs and their gear are very big business in South Carolina. Last February, 350 teams from 40 states and Canada descended on Jasper County for the Jasper Jamboree, a three-day field trial competition sanctioned by the Professional Kennel Club of Indiana and sponsored by the Jasper County Chamber of Commerce. There wasn't an empty hotel room from Point South to Hardeeville. The annual event is part of a national coon hunting circuit, which is like "the NASCAR of dogs," jokes chamber Executive Director Kendall Malphrus. Local business owners laugh all the way to the bank. Entry fees for the contest can total in the thousands, and the visiting hunt teams have a huge impact on the local economy.

And for the pinnacle of coon-hunting competition, all roads lead to Orangeburg the first weekend of January, when the stretch of Interstate 26 passing this Midlands city turns into a high-speed truck-and-dog-box parade. It's time for the Grand American hunt and show, a United Kennel Club qualifying event for The World Coon Hunt Championship that's been a Carolina tradition for nearly fifty years. It's like a pilgrimage to Mecca for the coon hunting faithful. Held at the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds, the Grand American is the largest field trial for coon dogs in the nation and typically draws approximately 1,000 teams and 25,000 to 30,000 spectators, according to the Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce, selling out motels and delighting restaurant owners citywide. Orangeburg's The Times and Democrat newspaper reported that event officials estimated a direct economic impact as high as $6.5 million from the 2012 event. In addition to the hunt, it's also a time to admire, buy, sell and trade hunting dogs and related gear. The event features a bench show, food concessions, country music, entertainment and handsome prizes for the winners (not to mention the prospect of lucrative stud fees and puppy sales). It's big business.

But on those special moonlit nights, listening to the dogs hot on the trail of a coon determined to make its escape, money and prizes and festivals are the farthest thing from a coon hunter's mind.

"It's all about hearing the dogs in the swamp at night," says Frankie Sanders, a competitive coon man. "I'd rather coon hunt than eat my last meal. I have gone all the way to the Georgia-Alabama line to get a dog qualified for The World Hunt."

Coon hunting may indeed be a cult sport, one with a fanatical following. But it's a cult with one heck of a lot of socially redeeming qualities.


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