Chris Espenshade

The American lexicon draws metaphors from many diverse sources. Today, I am going to write about an activity that gave us “barking up the wrong tree,” “that dog won’t hunt” and “a hard hound to keep under the porch.”

Nobody knows when raccoon hunting originated in America, but we can imagine the fox dogs of early settlers soon let it be known that there were critters worth chasing in the night. It is a pretty basic activity, assuming you have properly trained hounds.

You head out after dark, with scent hounds – most commonly blue ticks, red bones, black and tans, or walkers. When the hounds strike a line (a scent trail), they commence to howling and follow the line. The humans try their best to keep up. When the hounds get close enough that the coon goes up a tree, the hounds change their calls to let the hunters know the prey is at bay.

Depending on the season, the hunters can either shoot or shake-out the coon, or leave it to chase another night. The experienced hunters can identify which hound is which by the hounds’ voices, and can even tell you if it is a coon or a possum being pursued.

We know from archaeological studies of animal bones that raccoons were important in many diets, especially those of African-American slaves and all residents of Appalachia. Indeed, in 1810, when a planter and his slaves moved from South Carolina to the Bahamas, they carried with them live raccoons, who quickly established a presence on the island.

I think the slaves saw the raccoons as furry little pigs. The animals would forage for themselves, breed with abandon in the absence of predators and winter weather and provide an easily accessed meal when plantation supplies ran low.

Speaking of nighttime pursuits, an old friend of mine passed away this year. Joel and his wife, Kathy, could always be counted on to add some adventure. For example, I would never have paddled a one-person, Amazonian, dug-out canoe if not for Joel. I would never have skinned a bobcat after work in my room at the Dreamland Motel if not for Joel.

At some point in their courtship, Joel and Kathy traveled to Ireland to visit Kathy’s relatives in the old country. They were sitting around one dark night, drinking some local whiskey, and one of Kathy’s uncles asked Joel “So, do you like poached salmon?” Joel, not knowing much about local foodways, figured his best response was “Oh yeah, sure do.” The response then was “Well, let’s go get some” as the uncle pulled a shotgun off the wall. But I digress.

It is still possible to hear the hounds at work in our area. If you get the opportunity to participate, jump at it. Raccoon hunting remains a uniquely American pursuit, a way of hunting that has not changed significantly in four centuries.

I would be remiss if I did not note that our region is home to Joseph Crance of Painted Post, N.Y. A long-time raccoon hunter, Mr. Crance is also an accomplished author and has published three fiction books that center on raccoon hunting. His trilogy — “The Last Coon Hunter,” “The Legends of Ryland Creek” and “An Exceptional Hound” — is available at the Green Free Library, for purchase on Amazon or by order through From My Shelf Books and Gifts.

An archaeologist, Chris Espenshade grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping in rural North Carolina. A resident of Wellsboro, he is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association.