Hunting Ringtails Gets In the Blood
Warning: Hunting ringtails is addictive.
Those words could well be the mantra of the dedicated coon hunter. While outdoor pursuits propagate diverse addictions in the woods and on the water, very few create the passion and devotion of hunting ringtails. In short, “Coon hunting gets in your blood” was an idea that surfaced more than once recently in conversations about the sport.
“I first went hunting for ringtails when I was five years old,” said dog trainer, handler and hunter Colton Cox, who lives in rural Franklin County and is a senior at Russellville High School. “I went with a friend and was hooked. I wanted to hunt every night and sometimes we did.”
Reasons for the obsession vary. While hunters harvest the occasional coon, that final kill shot is not the vital component for coon hunters. Unlike in other forms of hunting, the success of hunting ringtails is not often measured by dead game on the ground. The music of the dogs, the camaraderie enjoyed in the woods and the isolation of a night spent hunting are just a few of the qualities that ensnare coon hunters.
“It can be addictive,” said another Franklin County resident, Jonathan King of the Belgreen community. “I just enjoy the dog work. I like training the dog and seeing the light bulb come on when a dog starts doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Small, but Dedicated Following
Cox and King are among a relatively small number of coon hunters in Alabama, dwarfed by deer, turkey and waterfowl hunter numbers. While coon hunting enjoys a position entrenched in the state hunting tradition, the number of active hunters has dwindled significantly over the last half century, becoming the victim of hunting specialization and the lack of land access.
In more recent years, numbers for hunting ringtails appear to have at least held steady, perhaps with even a slight uptick. That observation is hard to quantify and is largely based on anecdotal evidence from hunters.
While overall hunting numbers continue to fall, the number of coon hunters appears to hold steady if not increase slightly. A quick internet search reveals a fairly extensive list of active coon hunting clubs in the state. A lifelong hunter, but a coon hunter for only the last 10 years, King said his experiences indicate at least a slight increase in the number of people pursuing coons, especially when he ventures on to public land.
“That’s what I am seeing,” said King, an agricultural science teacher at Phil Campbell High School, “probably a few more people involved in the sport.”
The Dog Whisperer
Cox got his start when he was barely past the toddling stage and remains a dedicated hunter, dog owner and trainer even though he hasn’t yet graduated from high school.
“I went with a guy named Ronny Wooten down in Red Bay,” Cox said. “He had a couple of dogs, Slim Jim and Big Red, sure enough good dogs. That first night, there was one hole in that whole beaver swamp and I fell in that hole. I had to swim out. About that time, the dogs treed the biggest coon I’ve ever seen in my life. It was awesome. That’s when I got hooked.”
At an early age, Cox developed a knack for training. He got his first dog, not a hound, but a cur named Betsy, soon after his first hunting experience.
“She wasn’t supposed to be anything great or wonderful,” he said. “I thought at the time, ‘turn it loose and it should be as good as any else’s dog.’ I was wrong. She was a year old before she started treeing.”
That dog, now about 12 years old and still hunting, began years of hunting and competition for Cox, even though he’s still a teenager.
“I remember my first competition,” he said. “I had just gotten Betsy started and I got waxed. She wouldn’t do anything. She was so protective of me that she wouldn’t even leave my side.”
That experience launched a training regimen for Cox that included regular hunts purposely set in new venues with unfamiliar dogs and with unfamiliar people.
“That’s what it took, getting Betsy used to the surroundings of a competition hunt,” Cox said. “When I first started competed, she just wasn’t used to the surroundings. I put her in the woods with other dogs and around other people. About three years later, we went back and won everything.”
Cox became so successful within his organization that he was eventually forced to compete against the adults, even at a very precocious age.
“I showed up when I was about 10 and told the man I wanted to be in the youth bench show,” Cox said. “The man just laughed and said, ‘You can’t hunt with the youth. We’ve kicked you out.’”
Kemmer Line of Curs
Almost exclusively, Cox hunts and trains a line of dogs called Kemmer curs, developed by Robert Kemmer of Crossville, Tenn. In the 1970s, Kemmer took mountain curs that had the absolute best attributes for hunting and began to produce his namesake line.
The Kemmer Stock Mountain Cur Breeders Association soon emerged and began to sanction hunts exclusively for that line of dogs.
Today, Kemmers are used for a variety of purposes afield. While originally bred to pursue bigger game like bears, mountain lions and wild hogs, they are also used frequently for smaller animals like ringtails and squirrels. They also make good family pets, very much trending toward the protective side of their owners.
Kemmers are medium-sized dogs, about 40 to 50 pounds on average, and generally yellow or buckskin. Cox said to think Old Yeller – with some darker brown or brindle phases.
“Kemmer wanted a dog that would follow a cold track that not many other dogs would even mess with,” Cox said. “He wanted to breed a dog that would find that cold track and run it like it was a hot one. He wanted to find the two best mountain curs that he could find and started breeding them. He developed a line of dogs that seem to hunt faster and seem to be smarter. He started them as hog dogs, bear dogs – big-game dogs. They are using them for everything, even to herd cows. You can actually train a dog to hunt every one of them and not affect how they hunt the other game.”
Cox’s mother, Ronaka, recalled a day when Betsy was a pup and treed a snake for an entire day.
“When we got Betsy, I read up on Kemmers and read where they would literally trail a snake,” she said. “I didn’t know if I believed that, but she proved me wrong. I heard her barking just outside the door. She had run that snake up into a bush and kept that snake treed all day long.”
While Cox has trained and hunted a variety of hounds through the years, he sticks with the Kemmers today. He has a kennel full of anywhere from five to eight dogs at a time.
“There’s something about them,” he said. “They train well. They are loyal. I couldn’t ask for a better type of dog.”
Nurturing the Instincts
Part of the addiction of coon hunting is training the dog. Both Cox and King use similar processes to start a pup and then hone its skills through experience in the woods, often around more experienced dogs.
“In terms of training and getting them started, I will catch a coon in a live trap,” Cox said. “I set it down on the ground and let them just bay it, bay it while it’s still in the cage, letting them get to where they are not scared of it. Young dogs are likely to be scared of a coon, especially if it’s a big one.
“I let them sit there and bay it until they are not skittish,” he continued. “Then I will get someone to hold the dog and turn the coon out of the live trap, let it get a 50- or 75-yard head start and then cut the dog loose. Let them go in there and tree it. If it’s in a tree that I can climb, I will go in there and shake it out. Then, I’ll let the dog tree it again. Usually that gets them started.”
While that process is basic to most training, it demands time, patience and dedication by the trainer. Cox said spending time with the dogs and getting to know their individual habits also helps him better train each dog.
Cox actually uses his Kemmers for both squirrel and coon hunting. He said the dogs seem to have an innate understanding of the game they are pursuing and that they will easily transition from an afternoon squirrel hunt to an evening coon hunt.
“It’s like they know,” he said. “During the day, they will hunt max 50, maybe 75 yards out. When you turn them loose squirrel hunting, they are usually right there in sight, treeing left and right. Coon hunting, you drop the tailgate and they go in there until they find a coon. There’s no telling how far they might go.”
While Cox favors the ease in training of the Kemmers, he acknowledges the abilities of other types of dogs.
“People don’t generally think of curs when they think of coon dogs,” he said. “You look up coon dogs and you pull up Walkers and black and tans. There are a lot of breeds that make good coon dogs.”
King said he doesn’t focus on breed. He currently hunts a Walker and an English coonhound.
“Color doesn’t bother me,” King said. “It’s based on the individual dog and how it performs. I want one that’s able to consistently tree coons.”
“I will have 30 people want me to come hunt their land and get rid of some coons because they have been eating their deer feed all winter.” — Colton Cox, coon hunter
Where to Hunt
While limited hunting access has forced many hunters out of the sport, both Cox and King said they generally have no shortage of private land to hunt in their area. They often get requests from landowners, especially from those who deer hunt, to thin out the coon population. Raccoons are notorious for scavenging food from deer feeders. Those requests usually come after deer season with deer hunters still reticent to have dog hunting take place on their properties in season.
“Nobody wants you to hunt during deer season,” Cox said. “They don’t even want to talk about it. After deer season, in February and the early part of March, I will have 30 people want me to come hunt their land and get rid of some coons because they have been eating their deer feed all winter.”
The private options are not available to all hunters, however. King hunts private land mostly, but occasionally, takes advantage of public options scattered throughout the state. Locally, King can hunt the lands surrounding the Bear Creek Development Authority lakes if he wishes. He also makes trips to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur for February hunts. An early coon season on Wheeler ran Sept. 15 through Oct. 14. Another segment of the coon season opens Feb. 11 and continues through March 4.
“My only problem with Wheeler is that it gets a little crowded, probably because the season is so short there,” he said. “There are a lot of coons to be hunted there.”
While Alabama hunters have traditionally hunted (without killing coon out of season) year-round, they may now legally hunt and kill ringtails year-round, largely a concession to the deer hunters in the state.
For hunters who wish to pursue ringtails on public lands, perhaps the best opportunity lies within the wildlife management areas across the state. Other federal lands, including national forests and military bases, also allow hunting ringtails across the state. However, hunters should check specific dog-hunting and general hunting regulations for each facility.
While hunter numbers may have dwindled, young hunters like Cox and King have certainly maintained the coon-hunting tradition. The seductive allure of dogs baying and treeing a coon remains as strong as ever for those who practice the sport.
In case you fall victim to the seduction, just remember the warnings. Hunting ringtails is addictive. It gets in your blood.