Glenn Garrett walks down a moonlit path through the woods of Three Creeks Conservation Area, calming his dogs as he searches for the best spot to set them loose.
Once unleashed, the two redbone coonhounds bound into the darkness. Storm, 6, is a veteran. Her younger counterpart, Snuff, is also female and just 18 months old. For Snuff, this will be only her second season hunting raccoon.
After releasing his dogs, Garrett, 41, and his long-time hunting partner Earl Cecil listen quietly, waiting for the dogs to catch the raccoon’s scent.
“They ‘open,’ which means they bark when they catch a scent,” Cecil says.
Because raccoons are nocturnal, the light of a half-full moon through scarce cloud cover could keep them hidden within their dens.
“The brighter the moon gets, the less they’ll move,” Cecil says.
Ten minutes later, Garrett listens intently to a distant howl. Cecil, 72, tries to differentiate between the faint barking of a nearby housedog and the sound of Garrett’s redbones.
“Do you think it’s one of yours?” he says.
Garrett slings his .22 Ruger rifle over his shoulder and heads toward the baying dogs. Cecil follows closely.
As they head deeper into the woods, the men leave the trail to locate the coonhounds. The barking has changed now. Cecil explains that the dogs have probably “treed” a raccoon.
“The tree bark is different than the trail bark,” he says. “They’re trained and bred to do this.”
When the dogs catch the scent of a raccoon and track it down, their job is to chase it up a tree. Once there, the dogs remain at the base of the tree, trapping the raccoon high in the branches.
Over fallen tree limbs and through dry creek beds, Cecil and Garrett trek through the Missouri forest trying to find the redbones. Pausing periodically to listen, Garrett changes direction. Fifteen minutes later, the men find the hounds barking and pawing frantically at the base of an oak tree. Garrett pulls out his flashlight in an attempt to find the raccoon in the branches. Once he spotlights it, he will have an easy shot.
But neither man sees the raccoon. Garrett approaches the tree and finds a basketball-size hole in the base near the ground.
“It’s a den tree,” Cecil says. “The coon made it home tonight.”
Once inside the hole the raccoon moved up inside the hollow trunk of the tree. This is probably where it makes its home, Cecil explains. The hunters calm the dogs and move back to the gravel trail.
Cecil has been hunting for 65 years. He describes himself as a “pleasure hunter,” or one who hunts mainly for sport. In addition to pleasure hunts, there are sponsored tournaments through national organizations such as the United Kennel Club. These hunts offer cash prizes as well as titles and trophies. Cecil, however, said most hunt for sport.
“There are more people involved who are primarily pleasure hunters,” Cecil says.
While treeing and killing the raccoon is the main objective of the hunt, Garrett says the fellowships formed with other hunters and the peace of the outdoors fuel his love for raccoon hunting.
“It’s just a different world,” Garrett says. “There’s no phones ringing, no TVs on.”
Cecil, similar to Garrett, says he has made lifelong friendships with fellow hunters.
Since moving to Columbia in 1967, Cecil has seen many of his hunting areas disappear because of new developments.
“Spot after spot where I used to hunt is now a subdivision.”
Although hunting area has decreased, Cecil doesn’t worry about the popularity of the sport.
“I’m not concerned about it dying off for lack of interest,” Cecil says. “It’s a sport practiced by all walks of life.”
Raccoon hunting season began Nov. 15 and ends Feb. 15.