Smoky and the bandit

Back when I was 10 years old, my buddy Chris and I went to the library one afternoon to find this fabulous book our substitute teacher had told us about. The problem was, we couldn’t remember the title — only that it had the word “red” in it somewhere.

Luckily, Chris found The Red Badge of Courage before I did, and spent his quiet time absorbing the sobering nuances of warfare.

I fared better, coming back with Where the Red Fern Grows. Suddenly, I found myself running through Ozark Mountain river bottoms with a dirt-poor boy named Billy and his Redbone coon hounds, Old Dan and Little Ann.

Well, that was it. I was hooked, and was soon begging my uncles, Billy and Danny, to let me tag along with them on a coon-hunting trip. A few frigid November nights later, we bounced over teeth-jarring New Hampshire back roads — pickup windows rolled down and the heater blasting. And while their old Blue Tick, Luke, combed the brooks and hollows for the scent of Mr. Ringtail, Billy and Danny swapped yarns so long and trumped up they made The Iliad seem like a sound bite.

The two of them sounded like gods to me.

Eventually, Luke’s voice rang high over the woods, telling us he was hot on the bandit’s trail; we bounded after them through brush and briers till we came to a big white pine. Luke was circling around it and baying his head off — dog talk for “I treed the coon.” And when Billy raised his .22, that was pretty much it for Mr. Ringtail.

And that was pretty much it for my coon-hunting days as well. To be honest, it was running through the dark woods that scared the wits out of me — not the shooting part (I’d been hunting many times before).

I still loved that book, though, and 19 years later, I’m still meeting people who feel the same way about the story (some came to know it through the popular movie of the same name). Actually, it kind of blew me away when a friend told me recently that she’d seen an episode of Win Ben Stein’s Money (a cable-TV game show), and none of the contestants could answer a question about Where the Red Fern Grows. In fact, Stein (you may remember him as the soporific teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) said something to the effect of, “Who in the hell ever heard of that?

Well, lots of folks, Ben — lots.

Take 36-year-old Clyde resident Danny James, for instance. James grew up in Thickety, a backwoods area nestled behind Canton and Clyde, and saw the movie when he was 12. “That got everything started,” he related in an interview from his front porch — which looks out over a tight hollow and an abandoned poultry farm.

“I’ve been hunting ever since,” he confesses.

In need of some cash to buy fishing poles, James and his buddy started hunting coons and possums with a poodle and a feist (a small-sized house dog). “We got $5 for the possums’ hides, and $25 for the coons,” he recalls. “Back in the ’70s, $25 was a lot of money to a kid. It was to me, anyway.”

Things have changed for James since then. He’s a family man now, a business owner, and the president of the Walk Far Coon Hunters Club. “Pleasure hunting helps me keep my sanity,” says James, who looks to the sport to ease the pressure of running two businesses. “If I load my dog up into my old pickup and go hunting, then I’m OK for the next day, and usually for the next week.”

He’s given up on poodles, too, and hunts with a coveted, award-winning Tree and Walker hound named Smoky Mountain Candy.

“She’s won more titles than any other dog I know,” he boasts.

Yet another difference is that James doesn’t kill the coons anymore; things have changed in the sport. Whether it’s done for pleasure or in competition, coon hunting has become a bit more like fly fishing in that many hunters follow a catch-and-release policy.

“We just run ’em up a tree and pet our dogs, and say ‘good dog,’ and then go do it all over again,” explains 45-year-old John Bullard, who’ll be organizing the competition events at the 37th annual Coon Dog Day in Saluda. The popular event is exactly what it sounds like — a celebration of coon dogs and their owners that draws folks from as far away as Texas and Canada.

Bullard, from Statesville, says he started hunting ringtails with his church deacon when he was 11 or 12. “No one [else] in my family ever did it,” he reveals. “I read Where the Red Fern Grows, and I’ve been wild about it ever since.”

Bullard is a Plott man himself, meaning he hunts Plott hounds. Aficionados are particular about their floppy-eared friends — and everyone, it seems, thinks theirs is the absolute best kind of dog. There are Plotts, Redbones, Tree and Walkers, Blue Ticks, English Red Ticks and, of course, Black and Tans. Black and Tans are known as the original American coon dog, dating back to horse-and-buggy days (the breed was newly added this year to the lofty ranks of the Westminster Dog Show), and the Plott — which accompanied German settlers to these mountains — is North Carolina’s state dog.

“Whatever kind of coon dog a man has got is the kind he thinks is the best,” confirms Jim Oliver, president of Saluda’s coon-dog club and the proud owner of Hard Time Moses, a huge, nationally known English Red Tick.

“The best kind of dog is one that loves to go hunting and loves to please you,” he elaborates.

Hundreds of coon-dog competitions are held in the United States each year, but Saluda makes its two-day affair into a festival. The official hunt is held Friday night, and the scenario goes something like this: Dogs and their handlers are separated into groups of four, called a “caste,” and they’ll have one judge who tags along. Dogs score points for being the first to “strike” (that is, bark that they’ve got a trail scent) and/or tree a coon. Not surprisingly, points are deducted if the dog “trees” and no crafty coon is found when the judge and handlers catch up. None of the coons are killed, and at night’s end, the points are added up.

Last year’s King of the Hunt was Hardwood Taz, from Whitmire, S.C.; the Queen of the Hunt was Grey’s Creek Tiny, from Rutherfordton (both were Tree and Walkers).

Oliver says the beauty of the hunt is just listening to all the baying as the sound swells over the treetops and mountainsides. Anyone who wants to go out and experience the hunt for themselves simply needs to show up with a flashlight and a pair of boots — the castes welcome them to tag along.

On Saturday, it’s more of a dog-show spectacular. A parade, a run (for humans) and a firefighters’ barrel roll all up the fun quotient, but the Saluda Elementary School grounds are the stage for the serious hound-dog happenings. Highlights here include a contest where an old coon hide is run up a tree, and the hound that barks the most times in 30 seconds wins.

The sound of all those dogs howling at once is beyond amazing, say those who’ve heard it.

Other competitions include the best-looking hound and a fake coon chase/canine dash. Last year, Asheville’s Michelle Browne won the race with her Redbone.

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One thought on “Smoky and the bandit

  1. Kate

    I just ran across this article, and absolutely loved it. As a person who grew up and lives in the area where “Where the Red Fern Grows” is set, and having read the book a number of times (and seen the movie), I understand why people love it so.
    Tahlequah, Oklahoma, has a Red Fern Festival, and a hunt is included in the activities. This year the festival is April 25-26, and there is a three-night hunt, with one of the hunts being a Red Bone only (like Billy’s dogs).
    If anyone is interested, please email me at tahlequahtourism@swbell.net.
    We have lots of cool things with the festival. Website is http://www.redfernfestival.com.
    Thanks!

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