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The singing of the hounds


Fri, Oct 31st, 2003
Posted in Features

I was invited to spend an evening with two coon hunters who enjoy the Lanesboro area’s woods and fields. What began as a mutual interest years ago has grown into a seasonal ritual for two good friends enjoying the sport of raccoon hunting with their hound dogs. Those animals have earned their spots as respected teammates of the weekly adventures, and have made an important contribution to the men’s families. Luther Olson, Lanesboro, and Mick “Mack” Macken, of Rochester, have more than 75 years of hunting experience between them and the two are full of stories galore!“It’s all about the dogs, you just enjoy listening to them,” smiles Olson as he began explaining why he hunts raccoon. “It’s not the taking of the animal, that’s the least of it. It’s seeing what your dog can do”.“When those dogs tree a coon and sound off, your heart just starts a pumping,” agreed Macken. “It’s just great being out here with them.” Olson hunts with “Pig”, a 10 year-old half Walker, half English hound dog that he’s had since it was two. He is also starting out a new dog, “Lou”, a 1-1/2 year-old Red English female. Mack tracks with a seven year-old female named “Sadie”. Each dog has a particular howl or bay when letting its owner know a track has been found. When a dog has actually treed a coon, he will give a “locate”, with the dog’s bay changing again to let it’s master know the tracking was successful. With the three animals involved in the hunt, the mixture of the deeper bay of “Pig”, the higher, crisper pitch of “Sadie’s” call, and the softer, slightly hesitate bay of “Lou”, there is a fervent, passionate melody that echoes through the woods, carried by the moist night air. The sound is both stimulating to the hunter and soothing to the soul as one makes their way through the woods toward the dogs. The hound dog . . .It is not uncommon, say the two trackers, to pay $1,000 or more for a good dog. They have seen prices run as high as $3,000 to $4,000. In any case, these “good” dogs are naturals at their job. Olson noted a handler can create a “man-made” dog, but the quality will never be as high or consistent. Both men agree the most important attribute of a quality dog is his/her ability to be consistent.“Strike (finding the initial trail), track, and tree eight out of ten times is good consistency”, stated Mack. English, Blue Tick, Walkers, Black & Tans, or crosses of these, are the most common breeds used in the fields. Some, like Olson, prefer females as he believes they are more laid back and easier to handle. He thinks males can get too aggressive at times, especially when a coon is actually treed.Always striving to better the sport, technology has entered the realm of raccoon hunting. It comes in the form of tracking collars and related equipment (ballpark figure: $700 for two dogs). No longer will a hunter spend hours looking for a dog that respects no watch or mile marker as it tracks a coon. Shock collars that are used to get a dog’s attention are about $400 for two dogs. A purchased dog box: $350. Homemade boxes can be built for considerably less. Headlight gear that resembles that of a miner for the handler: $350. Keeping updated vaccinations are a must, including rabies, and distemper. A seven-way vaccination is also available. Olson likes to worm his dogs every two months. Each dog is inspected after a hunt to determine if any injuries were sustained. Barbed wire fencing, sharp sticks, and heavy brush, can inflict wounds that if left unattended, can become infected.The raccoon . . . From before the times when Davy Crocket sported his ‘coon skin cap, its ringed tail swaying on the back of the deerskin coat, man has both respected and cussed out the characteristics of the dark-eyed creature. Many have benefited from the meat and fur the raccoon has provided. An average adult animal weights approximately 15-18 pounds in the northern states. Some older animals have weighed in at 30 pounds. Southern states usually see smaller animals because of lesser quality feeding areas.Others consider the coon to be a bandit as it makes off with loot, often times holding its treasures in long-clawed paws that have marred many a dog’s face. They help themselves to tender corn ears, or eggs and small birds as the opportunity presents itself. Farmers are not so appreciative of the coon’s shopping skills. In defense of the coon, though, they also like mice, various insects, fish, and frogs. Nuts and wild fruit round off their diet.A female raccoon is called a “sow” and usually bears four to six offspring each spring. She has a 63-day gestation period. The family will live and travel together for about a year. Male raccoons, “boars”, will kill the babies. Perhaps this is one reason they don’t mate for life.Distemper is a common disease among the species. If one sees a coon ambling along a roadside in a disorientated manner, it’s more than likely distemper cautions Olson. Rules of hunting . . .A small game license, with an annual fee of $17, is required when hunting. In the past, the season ran from the third week in October until Dec. 1. This changed six or seven years ago, according to Don Ramsden of the DNR in Winona, when a western Minnesota legislator believed too many pheasant eggs were being robbed by raccoon. It was felt the population was getting out of hand with a short session and therefore, changed to year-round open season. Permission to hunt on property that is not owned by the hunter is a MUST.Most hunters will wait until fall to harvest raccoon. The under fur (softer fur closer to the animal’s body) and guard hairs (longer, courser hair that gives the animal its colors) develop into a much better pelt in colder weather. Poorer pelts may bring in $1.00 to $10.00. Considerably better pelts can go as high as $20. Besides harvesting the pelt, DNR Officer Ramsden believes the meat, when prepared correctly, is very good and “sweet”. He is partial to B.B.Q. racoon meat. Olson and Mack hunt year-round, using the warmer weather as training sessions for young dogs.The nightlife . . .Olson and Mack have favorite spots, as do all hunters. Generally, local hunters respect each other’s areas so as not to overkill an area. Now and again there may be some out-of-state hunters, predominately focused on the harvesting of hides. “Experience tells you where to hunt”, pointed out Olson. The Lanesboro tracker and Mack see themselves more as the “catch & release” kind of hunters. What hides they do harvest merely cover the cost of their pastime. Mack gives a lot of credit to area farmers, saying that they have been very cooperative. In turn, Olson and Mack pay close attention to gates, fences, and field roads, leaving them in the same condition as the two men found them.Depending on the direction of the wind, and what conditions fields are in, (corn standing or not), a spot is decided on and the truck is parked. Tails beat against the dog box, as the animals know what happens next. Olson and Mack ready the dogs with tracker and shock collars as heads bob up and down, those long, soft ears swaying back and forth as the anticipation builds. The men agree on a direction to send the dogs and then release them. Then it’s just a matter of how fast a dog can “strike” the trail of a coon. While the dogs work, Olson and Mack throw friendly verbal jabs at each other, a habit long since refined from many years of practice, as the darkness was interrupted only by headlight gear checking for dogs. Soon, the low deep bay of “Pig” was heard as a trail had been picked up. The other two dogs followed shortly on “Pig’s” example as the guys decided on approach to catch up to their partners. After much discussion and more jabs, the three of us took off walking toward a pasture where we crossed an electric gate. The dogs’ bays had changed again, as the pack was confident in having treed a coon. A good dog will circle a tree several times trying to pick up a new trail indicating the raccoon has jumped off the tree and moved on.Crossing another fence and climbing a steep grade that was tangled with brush and trees the hunting party made its way up to the excited dogs. As the pack insisted that there was indeed a coon, further inspection showed the tree to be hollow, a perfect den for the ringed bandit we sought. The dogs were pulled off, and were told the coon was “dead”, a term that shuts down a hunting dog’s focus.As the group weaved its way down the hill, made somewhat slippery by the fallen leaves, the hunting party soon became the hunted as a deep throated bellow warned us of a bull in the area. “I’ve worked with cattle for thirty years”, said Olson as we kept going down the hill. “The ones that just snort are only testing you. That low sound means he’s looking for us.” The group crossed another fence as we kept looking over our shoulders. Regardless of the bull and not actually seeing a coon, the walk back to the truck was still worth the energy spent as the shadows of the woods and valley enveloped us. It was peaceful. Once back at the truck, the dogs were put back in their boxes, the rifle was emptied and cased, and a new spot was discussed. A second run at treeing a racoon in a different location brought us to yet another hollow tree, another den. The baying of the dogs echoed around us as we walked to the tree located in a low area of the woods. If there hadn’t actually been a coon, the term “slick tree” would have been appropriate. Another try at a third location was the charmer as the dogs were quick to send up the “locate “ signal. At the edge of the woods the bays of a triumphant trio reached our ears. I quickly snapped proof of our night’s work and the animal was brought down and skinned.A satisfied group drove back to drop Olson’s dogs off at his barn outside Lanesboro and continued on to his house. It had been a rewarding night, enjoying the simple pleasures of joking with new made friends, tracking through unknown woods by flashlight. And of course, listening to the bays of hound dogs, their ballad drifting through the darkness.

Root River Valley Houndsmen meet once a month at the Rushford American Legion. If you would like more information or would like to be a member contact Keith Brogan, Lanesboro at 467-3377 or E-mail the houndsmen @ hot mail.com.

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