The blip on the screen of the handheld tracking unit moves, stops, and moves again, and John Meares stares at its rhythmic amber pulse. He’s as still and quiet as the Tennessee River somewhere below us on this cool, moonless January night. The blip gets closer. Dry leaves rustling nearby in the dark give away the location of his champion coon hunting dog, Tree-Stylin’ Snowman. Normally Meares speaks lovingly of Snowman, a stocky 3-year-old cur with a hell of a nose and no quit in him. The dog’s bloodlines showed promise on his first trip into the woods as a long-eared pup. Though he’s still young, Snowman rarely fails to strike a coon. But now the dog’s approaching footsteps have Meares on edge. The rustle of leaves stops just beyond the pool of light from our headlamps.
“You better get your butt back in those woods and find a coon, right now!” Meares yells into the dark, shattering the stillness of the hardwoods. Snowman turns and disappears, his footsteps crunching away from us. Meares watches the yellow glow of his Garmin tracking screen and then finds a log to sit on. “Snowman’s one of the best I’ve ever had,” Meares says. “Some nights, he’s on everything that’s ever walked on the ground. Other nights…,” he says quietly, letting the thought hang. “But that’s part of hunting. They’re just dogs.”
Meares is 28 years old, a native of rural southwestern Tennessee, where the rolling hills don’t offer much for kids outside of hunting, fishing, or cruising backroads. He’s skinny as a rail and sports scraggly goatee, looking every bit like the skateboarding junkie that he used to be. As a child, John tagged along on hunting and fishing trips with his father, Tommy. He enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a love affair at first. That changed when Hammer came along, a puppy Tommy gave his son more as a project than a pet. The idea was that father and son would train it together and try to make a coon dog out of it. Instead, Hammer made a coon hunter out of young John.
“Our first time out, when he was nine months old, we cut him loose down a drainage ditch and he treed, and he was the only one treeing,” Meares says. “It was our first time in the woods on a real hunt, not just working him in the yard. We couldn’t see the coon so we leashed him up, pulled him off the tree, and walked a long way back to the truck. He went right back there and treed again. You couldn’t keep him off that tree. “Daddy and I went back to get him, and the coon was coming down the tree. We got the coon. That was my first time to go and the puppy’s first time to go, and it just changed everything. Dad and I hunted every night after that until I was about 14. Every single night. Rain, summer, heat, cold–didn’t matter. “I loved it, every bit. If Daddy let me go, I’d go. I’d be right behind the dogs, no matter how rough it was. If they crossed creeks or muddy fields up to my knees, it didn’t matter.”
The love affair with the nocturnal bawling and the shining eyes of a treed coon at the end of a long chase grew deeper. Other dogs followed Hammer, and Meares began entering competitions and winning. State championships. World championships. He’s hunted in 17 states, from Michigan to South Carolina, and accumulated more than 50 titles with different dogs. The competition is fun, he admits, especially with his curs going against hounds, which are reputed to be more natural coon dogs. But it’s not the recognition that keeps Meares hunting and working his dogs. Meares loves the solitude at night, the anticipation of what he’ll find at the end of a long, vocal chase. All Meares can do is train his dogs and then listen for their soul music ringing through the darkness. “It’s calm,” he says. “I like to go with people but I hunt by myself 90 percent of the time. There’s no other feeling like walking through the woods at night. You’re trying to figure out where the coon’s going to go. I love it. It’s the best thing.”
When he was 12, Meares saw a neighbor kid riding a skateboard. “I just thought it was cool, so I bought a cheap one at Wal-Mart and started trying to do tricks,” he says. “I painted it up so it would look cool. It didn’t. Then I begged my mother to buy me a better board, one that was really good so I could do more things with it.” Speed, thrills, and road rash started eclipsing the stillness and solitude of the hardwoods. Tommy built a half-pipe in the yard for his son and his friends. Before long, John was grinding at a local skate park and winning regional competitions.
The afternoon skateboarding sessions stretched into the evenings. The coon dogs would bark and leap inside their kennels when Meares returned from a night of skating with friends. “Tomorrow night,” he’d tell them. For a while, it looked like his love affair with coon hunting might be at an end. “I think everybody goes through that time of your life when you don’t realize what’s important. Let’s be honest: When you’re a teenager, your parents aren’t
that cool, even though they were incredibly supportive of everything I did.” The distractions came and went, but hunting always remained. Meares still went out with his father, still won some coon-hunting titles between graduating from high school and working various jobs. He still skates. Still loves the speed and freedom. But skating is a fling; coon hunting is a commitment, and not just because Meares loves his time in the darkened woods. Because his dogs need him. Because while they might not have uniforms or cheerleaders, they’re a team with a unified purpose: to track down and tree every raccoon within any given section of land.
Raccoon hunting has its roots in the highly structured and choreographed fox hunts of the English aristocracy. But when they were transplanted to the New World, these social events became democratized. For more than a century, coon hunting united this country as much as our language, and more than our politics. Every town, from those in the Deep South to the Great Lakes, had a coon-hunting contest, and most residents, from farmers to store clerks, had a hound or two to run.
Coon hunting has gone the way of square dances and pie socials, but it’s hardly extinct. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, about 4.8 million hunters pursued small game, including squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. Those hunters collectively spent $2.4 billion on small-game hunting trips and equipment. Decent numbers, but small-game hunting doesn’t command the attention or require the investment in time and gear that we devote to hunting waterfowl, upland birds, and especially big game. You can blame the decline in huntable land, the shrinking rural population of America, or the decrease in available time to devote to training dogs and keeping them in hunting condition. But the rise in popularity of deer and turkey hunting has also come at the expense of small-game hunting.
The slumping market for raccoon pelts also contributes to the flight of hunters. During the Nixon administration, you might get $25 for a prime coon. Today even heavy pelts fetch less than half that, if you can sell them at all. Meares sees the decline firsthand. At competitions, he’s often the youngest hunter vying for bragging rights against houndsmen 30 years his senior. “It’s a generational problem,” he says. “It takes time to train a good dog, and you’re probably going to screw up the first two or three unless you have someone helping you who knows what they’re doing. It’s really not just something you decide, at 25 or 30 years old, to pick up and start doing. For most people, it’s what they’ve always done. It’s a way of life. “There are a few young hunters out there, and that’s great. But most coon hunters are older, and not as many younger ones are coming in behind them. In 40 years, I’m not sure we’ll see coon hunting as more than a few hunters here and there, more like a part of history than a living, breathing activity.”
Sanctioned coon-hunting organizations hold state and world youth championships, awarding cash and college scholarships. Some states, like South Carolina, have robust youth hunting programs and tournaments. These efforts are helping retain pockets of coon-hunting tradition, despite the overall decline. Meares hopes the best for the future. “I know one thing: I’ll be here 40 years from now,” he says, sitting in his truck with the door open, watching his Garmin beep steadily and listening to Snowman working away into the dark Tennessee woods. “I won’t be going anywhere. My dogs need me, and I need them.”