The bay of hounds on a trail, stars twinkling overhead and the prospect of outsmarting one of the most cunning creatures in the forest are all elements that cause coon hunting to become an obsession for so many after their first experience. For Sidney Jones, the passion of chasing raccoons through the woods at night runs 64 years strong. He recalls that his father, Pattemas James “PJ” Jones, offered to take him coon hunting at age 6 and that it was a tough decision because he was playing hide-and-go-seek with his sisters. He opted for the coon hunt, however, and it was never a question after that.
“I went with him every time,” Sidney says. “My father was born in 1907 and had weathered the Depression, so he had old-timey ways. We didn’t have much, and he didn’t have a car, so we would walk eight or nine miles in the late afternoon before we would reach the woods where we could hunt at dusk. We couldn’t afford a hound, so we took our little 40-pound cur, a yard-dog mix we called Bull. He was solid but had a common nose and wouldn’t bark on trail; he could smell a fresh scent near a tree though and tree a coon. Then he’d bark — probably 75 times per minute. Hounds usually bark 100 times per minute on a tree.”
Sidney remembers his father bringing a 200-pound cotton fertilizer sack for toting the raccoons home. “On the way over, sometimes he would tote Bull in it for a mile or so at a time because he had a game leg. That way Bull was still fresh for hunting when we got to the woods. On the way back, we’d have to stop every so often and let Bull rest.”
Now at age 70 and a retired game warden, Sidney still goes on 40 or so hunts per year and has logged about 3,100 total hunts in his life, more than 150 of which have been competitions. “I mainly just pleasure hunt now,” Sidney explains, “but I still do the Grand American in Orangeburg each year in January.” Out of the 700 dog-hunter teams that compete each year, Sidney has placed second, third and fourth, and has placed in the top 10 a total of 10 times.
Sidney Jones and fellow coon hunter Josh Habersham examine their GPS trackers that tell them how far away their dogs are and if the dog is hunting, trailing or treeing.
Sidney hunts with Walker Hounds and trains them from puppy-hood himself. When a hound is on a trail, his barking frequency indicates how fresh the scent is. For example, if it is a colder scent, the hound may sing out every 30 seconds or so, but will do so more often if it is warmer and fresher. When the coon is treed, the barking is incessant. However, that is not the only indication that the hound has treed a coon. “A trail bark is more of a bawl where they roll over the bark in an ‘ooohhh’ sound,” Sidney explains. “When they tree, it is called a chop where the sound is more ‘ack! ack! ack!’”
Diana and Hal Stevenson experienced the bay of hounds on a coon trail in the woods one night with Sidney. “It was so cool to see somebody who has been doing something that he loves for so long and has become a master at it. Master Coon Hunter would be an appropriate title for him!” says Diana.
Sidney says that the draw for him has always been getting out into the woods with his dogs and working with them. “Being in the woods takes away a lot of the stress of things,” he says. “You go out there, and all you’re thinking about goes off your mind — it’s good for you. I like to hear the dogs run the track and then get the coon treed. I cut them loose, hear them strike the trail, and then when they’re treed I’m going in after them saying, ‘Raccoon, raccoon! Oh, Mr. Raccoon! I’ve got a warrant for you, and I’m coming in to get you!’”
Sidney Jones points up to the two treed raccoons while Sam Crews takes aim. Josh calls to it using his coon squaller. Sidney Jones arrives on the scene where Sassy has treed two coons in one tree.
Sam Crews recently went on a hunt with Sidney and some other friends. “I loved hunting as a large group,” he says. “It is so special to share such excitement and memories with good people. In most hunting or fishing that I do, there comes a time when patience is very much required. In the coon hunt, there is constant companionship, teaching and learning. While the dogs were searching for a scent, I found myself in so many fascinating conversations. Everyone had the opportunity to make special memories no matter how much experience they had in the woods. I listened to Sidney explain how he and his dogs worked to find coons, I heard others tell stories of past great coon hunts, I shared a moment with friends looking at the stars, I discussed the subtle details of the woods with some much more experienced and some less experienced woodsmen … Each moment left an impression on me that made me feel more connected to Mother Nature and closer to the community of friends invited to this grand event.”
Mary and Reid Tribble have also braved an evening in the woods with Sidney, along with the Crewses. “We enjoyed being away from the lights and noise of the city in a beautiful rural setting with friends,” says Mary. “Sidney has the natural gift of being friendly and delighting in the pleasure of guests enjoying the hunt. Our favorite part was going to the tree from the road using the sounds of the dogs to guide us.”
Once Sidney reaches the tree, he shines up with a flashlight, looking for two little reflecting eyes as they are the best way to spot the coon. Because a bright light will often cause them to look away, once the coon is spotted Sidney will use a less harsh light with an amber lens. In order to cause the coon to look back again, or come back out if he has gone into a hollow, Sidney uses a “coon squaller” call to mimic a coon fight on the ground. “A young, more inexperienced coon will look out,” Sidney says. “An older, experienced coon usually won’t.”
Above: Siblings Copeland and Sam Crews and Mary Margaret Collins are fully prepared for trekking through the woods at night.
Reid says, “The scene at the tree was a fun culmination of the coon hunt: seeing the dogs with the coons treed and listening to Sidney call the coons. The coon-call was loud and primitive, and we were surprised to see the paired yellow eyes of the coon looking down from the tree.”
Sam recalls the cacophony at the base of the tree and the frustration of not always being able to spot the well-camouflaged, wily raccoon: “We followed the barks and the light of Sidney’s flashlight in front of us until we saw the dogs jumping up the trunk of the largest tree in the area. Everyone gathered at the base, and before I got there I heard someone yell, ‘There’s the coon!’ This whole time the dogs were going crazy, and the situation was tense and energized by the tireless, loud, frantic barking. The only thing I could think of for the next few minutes was where that darn coon was — I observed every twinkle of light that could have been eyes, and tried to understand people explaining what they saw. The communication in a group that large was rather humorous as we all tried to see the raccoon that we knew was there. Those who could see it struggled to find words that would help those who couldn’t, but it was difficult.”
Sidney explains that coons usually feed on a stretch about two miles long per night but go a different way each time. These crafty animals usually live six to 10 years and grow to 15 to 20 pounds. Studies have found that raccoons can remember the solution to a specific problem for at least three years. “The largest I have ever killed was 28 pounds!” Sidney recalls. “We call that a ‘tiger coon.’ You don’t find them that big very often.” Raccoons typically feed on creek critters such as crawfish, frogs and even fish, so the swamp is usually the best place to start the hunt. Often they will pace back and forth fishing and hunting a 50-yard stretch, and so one coon can make it look as though dozens have been there.
“This also makes it very difficult for the dog to ‘straighten out a track,’ as we call it,” says Sidney. “The dog has to sort out what part of the trail is warmest, if the coon crossed the stream at any point, and then where they finally went after all that crisscrossing. When they are doing this, they bark less often — you’ll hear them bark and then again five minutes later if they aren’t on a strong trail yet. Coons also feed on berries and acorns and will climb up and down multiple trees feeding. This can also mess a dog up and cause them to false-tree.”
Sidney advises to never go hunting on a full moon. “Lots of possums are out on moonshine nights,” he explains, “and if you are with someone who doesn’t have great dogs, you will be running possum all night. Coons like darker nights anyway because then they can catch their food better without it seeing their shadow.”
Out of his 64 years of coon hunting, Sidney says one of his current dogs, Sassy, is the best he has ever had. At 9 years old, Sassy is still hunting strong. “She is just like one of my children,” smiles Sidney. “She is really smart and listens well. She has a great nose, barks quick on the track and has never run any trashy game. She is also 98 percent accurate when she trees and has great stamina. She’s the best dog I have ever seen on any hunt.”
Sidney tells of one hunt where Sassy treed three coons all at once … in three different trees! He explains that often early in the season, that past spring’s kits will still be with their mothers, and when chased, they will all run up different trees near each other. Hunters can tell whether a coon is mature or not based on the size of their eyes and the space between them. “Most dogs will just lock in on one tree,” he says, “but Sassy rotated between all three of them, tree-barking at the base each for a few minutes at a time. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen.”
Sidney started training Sassy, like all of his hounds, at 6-months old. He says none of his dogs ever chase “trash” — or game they aren’t supposed to like possums, armadillos or deer. They are completely locked in on coons. “A hound will naturally run any kind of game,” he explains. “The smart ones will learn what you want and can discriminate between the trails to only chase raccoons.” He says that some dogs will bark when you first release them into the woods, but they are not supposed to speak until they are actually on a trail. Some dogs will bark because the other dog is in front; that is called “babbling.” When a hound strikes a trail, if one of the other dogs also strikes a trail, they are each supposed to stick to their own track and not leave it to go to the other who barked first.
“Many dogs will abandon their track to join the other dog that barked first, but you won’t find any of mine doing that,” Sidney smiles. “Then when they both tree in different places that is called ‘split treeing.’ It happens all the time with me since I have good dogs. I’ll go to one tree and get that coon, and the other dog will hold until I get there and get that coon.”
Sidney says the most coons he ever harvested in a night was 13 in two hours, but that was 30 years ago, and populations have dwindled since then due to an influx of rabies, distemper and the loss of their habitat — hardwood forest. “I usually hunt from about 7 to 9 p.m.,” he says. “Usually I’ll only harvest one coon a night these days if I am pleasure hunting, maybe none. You just leash the dogs and leave that tree if you’re not going to shoot the coon and then go to a different spot to turn them loose. Back in the day, people wanted to get rid of them because there were so many, and they are nest robbers and will eat quail eggs, duck eggs … anything they can get their hands on. Nowadays with the population being down since the rabies and distemper outbreaks 10 years ago, people need to know that it hurts the wildlife when they cut their hardwood trees. If you keep your hardwoods, you’ll have a good bit of coons and everything else.”
Sidney recommends “buddy hunting” as a form of friendly competition, where two hunters compete for the bragging rights the next day instead of a cash prize. “You go out and split up to compete for who gets to brag to everyone else that their dog treed the most coons that night,” Sidney laughs. “We say, ‘My dog was treed before his dog got out the road!’”