Illinois Department of Natural Resources
[This article originally appeared in Outdoor Illinois magazine.]
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Bob Bluett, 217-782-6384
ILLINOIS COONHUNTERS AND HOUNDS ARE A BREED APART
By Hannah Kirchner
They are deep in the woods on frosty November nights or cracking
through frozen sloughs until February - but look closely. All you'll
see is a wan shaft of light flickering through the trees. You might
hear a spooky bawl that ricochets off stars so near you almost could
touch them, if you reached a bit higher.
Who could possibly be out this late on nights so cold and eerie?
Nights when anybody with softer sensibilities would be curled up
warm in bed?
Illinois coonhunters and their hounds, that's who.
"When most people think of hunting dogs, coonhounds aren't
the first to come to mind," says Bob Bluett, wildlife diversity
biologist at Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "Most
folks picture bird dogs or beagles -- ones you're most likely to
see on the Outdoor Channel."
"Coonhounds are less visible in the public eye, maybe because
they're out so late," Bluett says with a grin. "On any
night during coon season, there are thousands of guys in woods throughout
Illinois following dogs on the trail of a coon."
Coonhunting is a night activity because raccoons are nocturnal.
Bluett estimates that Illinois DNR licenses and regulates the activities
of 17,000 Illinois coonhunters. There are more than a dozen coonhunting
clubs and associations in the state.
Coonhunting involves men, kids and a few women bundled in heavy
canvas cover-alls, their heads topped with wheat lights (resembling
miners' head lamps), wearing knee-high, rubber boots. Neither rain,
nor cold nor blackest night can keep a dedicated coonhunter from
"Coonhunters are a breed apart," Bluett says. "They
ignore the cold; they need stamina to chase after a dog. They have
to be comfortable in the woods at 2 a.m. And they don't mind getting
little sleep. I know coonhunters who say when conditions gets tough
for other hunters, it's just right for them."
Coonhounds have colorful breed names such as redbones, blueticks,
black and tans, and English redticks, which describe their shades
and markings. Walker dogs look like foxhounds. In fact, with the
exception of the Plott hound, which is brindle or black with a white
chest patch -- almost all coondog breeds are descendents of English
foxhounds. Coonhounds are large - between 50 and 90 pounds - with
a droopy, long-eared look. They sport racehorse-like monikers such
as Buck's Midnight Ranger, Northern Blue Dancer II or Spare Time
"Kids grow up enjoying classic books and films about coonhunting
such as 'Sounder' and 'Where the Red Fern Grows'," says Bluett.
"But other than that, coonhunting is not well-known among most
folks in Illinois."
Coonhunters, like other dog trainers, feel compelled to test their
dog's mettle. Some enter their dogs in timed competitions known
as night hunts, hosted by groups such as the Illinois State Coonhunters
Association. Hounds are judged on a point system for how well they
track and tree, and the quality of their vocalizations. (Raccoons
are never harvested during these competitions.)
Coonhound events also feature "bench shows" -- the coonhunters'
Westminster -- where owners stand their dogs in statue-like poses
on plywood platforms covered in outdoor carpeting. Dogs are judged
on physical form and benching style. Westminster takes place in
a huge arena, with handlers bedecked in jewels and finery. Bench
shows are often staged under campground shelters, with handlers
in baseball caps and faded Levis.
"Bench shows are where kids get their first taste of competition,"
says Bluett. "If you want to raise a budding coonhunter, get
your kid involved in bench shows. There's nothing so cute as a 6-year-old
trying to show a coondog puppy. Neither puppy nor kid are quite
sure what he's doing, but it's so fun to watch. The kids are thrilled
because they win a trophy. The puppies, of course, just get lots
Coonhunting has a long history nationwide and in Illinois. It was
especially popular during the Great Depression, when people hunted
raccoons to put on the supper table or supplement income by selling
Today, coonhunters love their activity for the joy of watching
a good dog in action, although some hunters still eat raccoons and
nearly all sell furs.
"It's amazing to watch a dog doing what it was born to do,"
says Bluett. "All dogs originally were bred for a working purpose
-- usually hunting related -- before their roles changed into house
pets. Coonhounds aren't a good choice for indoor living, but they
are loyal and singularly dedicated to tracking raccoons."
Coonhunting has an important place in Illinois wildlife conservation.
"There are more raccoons in Illinois now than ever before.
Coonhunting and trapping are highly regulated methods to manage
populations," he says. Hunting helps reduce human and pet exposure
to diseases carried by raccoons, and in rural areas, it can reduce
property damage and other problems.
So, if you're along a country road and hear that ghostly bawl or
see a dim light in the woods, don't look for aliens, unless it's
a coonhunting spouse you've not seen in a while. But then, coonhunting
"widows" have their own tales to tell.
Visit the Fur Hunting and Trapping in Illinois website
Learn more by visiting the Illinois DNR's new website, "Fur
Hunting and Trapping in Illinois," at dnr.state.il.us/orc/wildlife,
or contact the Illinois DNR at 217-782-6384. For information on
coonhunting, contact the Ron Law, president, Illinois State Coonhunters
Association at 618-635-6211.
Want to talk like a coonhunter? Check out the lingo!
Strike -- The initial bark when a dog catches scent of a raccoon.
Hot-nosed - A dog that prefers fresh or "hot" scents.
Cold-nosed - A dog that stubbornly tracks old or "cold"
Open -- A coondog never barks, it "opens", and its vocal
quality is depicted as a "bawl" or "chop." Coonhunters
easily can tell dogs apart by their voices.
Tapping tree -- A tentative bark at a tree where a ringtail has
been but not stayed.
Treeing - The sound a dog makes when it reaches the conclusion
of a trail and a raccoon climbs a tree. A "treed" dog
places its paws on the trunk, and standing almost parallel, it chops
or bawls until after the coonhunter arrives.
Trash-burner - a dog with an undesirable habit of running other
animal tracks. It's used thusly, "That darn trash-burner took
off after a 'possum!"
Hannah Kirchner spent her childhood running Plott hounds with her
father in Southern Indiana. She works for D.J. Case and Associates,
a communications firm specializing in natural resources issues.
D.J. Case and Associates works with Illinois DNR to promote the
Illinois Fur Hunting and Trapping Education project, an ongoing
effort to communicate with Illinois citizens about the benefit of
these activities for wildlife and people.