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The Mississippi Diversion

The Mississippi Diversion

"Go get ’em Liza, was Grandpa’s favorite tune
Go get ’em Liza, gotta skin me a big ol’ coon ...”
—Emma Towsley

My paternal grandmother, Emma Towsley, was a 5-foot-nothing, French-Canadian dynamo. She was wide open from morning to night and always had a dozen projects going at once. At one point she wrote songs, including one that was recorded and got some airplay.

“Go Get 'em Liza” was a song she wrote about her grandfather’s coon dog. When my father bribed me into trumpet lessons with the promise of a .22 rifle, this was the song I played, out of tune and off key, for the mandatory hour each day. I guess coon hunting is just in my blood.

When the author headed to Mississippi for his 2019 deer hunt, he didn't count on the water; by last winter rain had fallen there in biblical proportions. Most places where they planned to pursue deer and coons were flooded.

My Uncle Butch is her youngest son, and he started my coon-hunting obsession when he bought a moronic Redbone hound named Norman. He had to be the dumbest dog ever to draw a breath. Norman loved to ride in the back of the pickup truck and would run and jump into the bed as the truck was leaving the driveway. One day we were backing up and he jumped and landed on the hood instead of the tailgate. I have never seen a more confused dog. He stopped trying that stunt after misjudging his jump on another occasion and smashing his “male” parts on the top of the tailgate. He lay in the truck bed howling for quite some time. From then on we had to open the tailgate and lift him in, so I guess he probably wasn’t as dumb as we thought.

Norman was good at one thing: coon hunting. He had a hell of a nose, and he was fast. Most coons were up the first tree they came to because of the hellhound that was on their tail.

Those hunts introduced me to Butch’s friend Dave Gilmore and his dog Trouble. Dave became a mentor to a hunting-crazy kid and we spent a lot of nights following the beams of our flashlights. Nobody knew for sure the lineage of Trouble—other than mutt—and she didn’t really look like a coon dog. She was squat, with a round body, short ears and the black coloring of a Labrador, yet she was well named. You see, Trouble was a silent trailer: She never barked until the coon was treed. That was a good thing, as she often would surprise the coons feeding, and with her so close they treed fast. At least, the first coon of the night did. The way it usually worked is we shot the first coon out of a tree along the edge of the cornfield. That was a warning for the rest of the coons to head for safety. The next time Trouble would bark "treed," it was likely someplace on top of the mountain. At best it meant a steep climb to the tree, at worst, a long night of searching. She had a weak, choppy voice that didn’t carry well, so a lot of times she would tree out of earshot, which meant long hours trying to find her. (This was long before GPS collars.) As often as not, those coons used their head start to get to a place where they knew they were safe. Trouble was, as often as not, barking "treed" at a hollow den tree with the coon safely hidden inside. Still, she was one heck of a dog, and we treed a lot of coons with her. I was the designated “shooter,” and I put a lot of lead down the barrel of my Marlin pump-action .22.

Mississippians Tony Kinton and Neil Boler display a raccoon the author shot on night two of his "one-night coon hunt."

I was in junior high back then and slept through more than one class after hunting most of the night. My deal with my mother was as long as I kept my grades up I could go hunting. I wish I could say I kept my end of the bargain. Luckily, coon season was almost over by the time report cards came out, so I didn’t miss much hunting.

A few years later, fresh out of high school, I heard about a “started” bluetick hound that I could afford. My buddy Gary Sefton made a living for years writing country music in Nashville, and he wrote a song for Mel Tillis called “Beware of Free Dogs.” I wish I had known Gary then.

I picked up the dog from a guy who was living in a nasty trailer that stunk so bad I held my breath the entire time I was there. As he handed me the leash, the guy was too drunk to even curse the dog, but he tried. I should have taken the hint.

I put the dog in the back of my pride and joy, a 1970 Dodge Challenger, and headed home. I spent the next three days cleaning doggie diarrhea out of every crack and crevice in the back seat. I have a very weak stomach for that sort of thing and may have added to the mess myself a time or two in the process. It was months before the smell left the car, which did nothing to help my dating life.

When I first got home—and as a diversion before I started cleaning the car—I brought the dog into the house to show my parents. Mom had just set the table for supper and the dog jumped up on the table and helped himself to all the burgers while knocking most of the dishes to the floor.

That’s the moment I named the dog **&%head, several years before Steve Martin popularized the name in the movie “The Jerk.” I put him in the dog pen out back of the house and started cleaning up his path of destruction.

He had some lungs, I’ll give him that. **&%head had the loudest bark I have ever heard from a dog. The most relentless, too. He barked all night. He barked all day. He barked at the house and the barn. He barked at the trees. He barked at the moon, the sun and the air. He barked at the ground and he barked at things only he could see. In fact, the only time he stopped barking was to eat. The neighbors all complained, which I was pretty used to anyway. Then my parents and siblings had a meeting that ended with a death threat. It was never clear if they meant me or the dog. Perhaps both. I didn’t care; I finally had my own coonhound.

We hunted that first weekend, and before we even got to the farm we planned to hunt I saw a coon cross the road. I turned **&%head out on the track. He got a noseful and took off wide-open, head up and picking the scent from the air. He never barked, not even when he treed. Luckily, he overran that coon pretty fast and it treed close to the road, so we could find him easily enough.

I guess his barker only worked in town because I hunted him that fall and he never once barked at a coon. I gave him to a guy who wanted a pet for his kids. I wished him good luck and then opened the big four-barrel carburetor in my Challenger, burning rubber with all four gears to get out of there before he figured it out. I swear I could hear **%%head barking over the sound of the dual exhaust a mile down the road.

Driving fast cars, drinking beer and chasing girls kind of took over at that point, and when I surfaced, coon hunting was over in my world. But I never lost the love for listening to hounds trail through the night. So, when I was offered a chance to coon hunt Southern-style, I jumped on it faster than a politician pouncing on a bribe.

Don’t believe a word of what they are saying about global warming. Northeastern winters prove it’s a lie. The older I get, the less I like them. For the past several years I have mitigated the misery with a hunting trip in Mississippi, partly because my buddy Tony Kinton lives there, but also because Mississippi offers a diversity of hunting opportunities. I always plan for deer hunting and then try to add a day or two of what I call “diversionary hunting,” such as when we hunted gray squirrels with dogs a few years back. (You may have read about that hunt in this very magazine.)

I had been pretty successful with deer hunting during one of my first trips. I packed a cooler full of meat to check as a third bag. That was hugely expensive, but I discovered that the price for the next one would pay for half of a new jet for Delta. Flying home the rest of my meat would cost more per ounce than the best Russian caviar. Tony had a friend who wanted some venison, so we called him.

Neil Boler showed up at the door.

Neil is a tall, thin man with a quick smile and a happy attitude. Tony mentioned that he had coon dogs and we talked coon hunting for a while. He left with a promise that we would hunt together one day.

Boler may look quiet but he is quick with a smile, a proficient hunter and quite a cook, even of raccoon meat.

When I headed to Mississippi in early 2019 for that hunt, I didn’t count on the water. It had been raining biblically hard for months before I arrived and continued for several days after. I swore I saw some guys building an ark just outside the Jackson airport. There was a damn good buck waiting in line, too!

Most of where we planned to deer hunt was either flooded or inaccessible due to floods. We hunted deer the first day with another of Tony’s friends, Eric Griffin, during a blustery deluge. Eric has some great deer property, but we couldn’t get into where he wanted to hunt. In fact, he had gotten into serious trouble the day before when he got caught in the rising water trying to get back from his stand. The creek he had crossed a few hours before was so high that his four-wheeler started floating away, along with him and his son.

I hunted another of Eric’s stands that I will say had a great roof. It was raining so hard I am not sure I could have gotten a bullet through to a deer, if one was dumb enough to show up.

So, what’s all this got to do with coon hunting? Most of the land we wanted to hunt was under water. The little we could get to was about half-flooded, so we spent more time wading than walking. No matter how good his nose, no dog can trail through standing water. Time and again we would start a coon only to have it dive into a flooded area and swim away.

It seems that "Towsley’s Luck" had discovered Mississippi.

That first night was cold, foggy and spitting rain. We tried hunting near a chicken house that was on some high ground. Chicken farming is huge there, and I suppose there is always grain spillage or other tasty treats around to attract coons because we started one right away. Neil’s Walker hound, LeRoy, ran hard and after working out the cold trail, treed a quarter-mile from us. We hurried over fences, through flooded slews that ran over the tops of my boots. We found LeRoy at the base of a red oak in the edge of a long strip of woods. It was the Southern version of a den tree where the coon was inside, snug, safe and snickering at the fools with dogs and flashlights. At least it wasn’t on top of a mountain, but it was still disappointing to leash the dog and walk away.

Next, we tried a hardwood oak ridge, mostly because it was high enough to be dry. But, the acorns were gone this late in the year and all we had was a long hike with a rifle.

For day two of my one-day coon hunt, Neil secured permission to hunt some new land. The gated road was built up higher than the land and was dry. We walked for hours as LeRoy started coon after coon, only to have them run into the flooded timber and escape. I enjoyed listening to the sound of the dog doing what coon dogs do, and I enjoyed the camaraderie, which is a huge part of coon hunting. But, so is shooting a coon sometimes. We worked deep into that property, often wading through standing water, and as we got closer to the Pearl River, the water became more prevalent than any land. I walked up on a large pod of deer that simply stood inside the wood line and let me approach. As I got closer I realized they were trapped. There was water all around them and they had no place to go, so they took their chances with me. I felt sorry, as they probably were not only displaced and scared, but hungry. We backed out of there and moved away from the river searching for dry ground.

LeRoy, a Walker hound, barks "treed" on a Mississippi raccoon. Like most coonhounds, he'd climb the tree if he could.

We worked down one opening to discover a greenfield with a few deer stands on it. Nobody had been able to access them to hunt or tend the feeders, but one had a few dribbles of corn left in the bottom, and that’s where LeRoy struck. The coon treed quickly and we located shining eyes high up in an oak tree. I shot the coon, but was hugely disappointed when it fell. It was a small boar, one I might have passed up had I been able to see it better. Still, Neil was happy, as he said this size was very good to eat. It was success, though, and we ended the night with wet, sore feet and an improved attitude.

I was trying to deer hunt all this time, too. As our tent camp was an hour away, I've gotta say, sleep was mostly a fantasy I longed to experience. Never a quitter, I answered the bell every morning. Again, it was tough, as the floods had blocked most of the deer from accessing Tony’s property. What should have been full of deer, and had been in years past, was a bit of a wasteland. Still, I have always preached that you can’t shoot a deer from bed, so I got up every morning and shuffled off to the stand like an extra on “The Walking Dead.” One morning I managed to fill an antlerless tag with a deer that no doubt had swimming skills. Over the week in the tent camp, we ate the entire deer. Saved a bundle on the excess baggage fees.

Neil couldn’t make it on night three of my one-night coon hunt. Tony had hooked us up with Britt Coglan and his Walkers, Misty and Millie. His buddies Andrew Burnside and Stone Ballard joined us, as did the landowner, Jeff Harrell. Coon hunting is social, and Jeff and I talked a bunch while waiting for the dogs to tree. (He invited me to come down and try catfish noodling, catching catfish with your hands. So, it would appear I may have found my next “diversionary hunt,” even if it’s not technically hunting.)

We experienced the same problem with all the standing water. Time and again the dogs would strike and the coons would swim away. We tried wading across to pick up the scent on the other side. It worked a few times, but the coons just ran on to the next water, which was never far away. One coon, just to break the pattern, treed in a huge hollow oak where we looked for an hour and never saw him.

Judging from all the starts, in a normal year this could have been an epic coon hunt. There was very little time when a dog wasn’t barking. Without the water we probably would have treed a lot of coons. We ended the night with a repeat, a small coon high in a tree that had a lot of ground shrinkage. Still it was success and a meal for somebody.

They tell me now the water has receded. The ark has grounded, too, and it turns out there were several extra raccoons hiding aboard, stealing food from the turtles and armadillos. As I write this, Vermont is turning cold … which is exactly why I have to go back to Mississippi.


Skout Camera/Binocular Chest Rig
Running though the Mississippi swamps chasing dogs makes carrying a camera a challenge. On this trip I used the Cotton Carrier Skout chest harness. This thing is great. It kept both hands free when I needed them and kept my camera safe. When I needed it I just unclipped it from the chest carrier with the company’s patented twist-and-lock system. It’s secure and fast to access. It even has a safety lanyard for those times when you slip and drop the camera. (Yes, it’s happened.) This rig works great with binoculars, too. I have been using it for more than a year now on multiple hunts. The Skout is comfortable to wear even under a backpack, which makes it easy to grab my camera. For more information, visit cottoncarrier.com.

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