Illinois Department of Natural Resources

[This article originally appeared in Outdoor Illinois magazine.]

CONTACT: Bob Bluett, 217-782-6384


By Hannah Kirchner

They are deep in the woods on frosty November nights or cracking through frozen sloughs until February - but look closely. All you'll see is a wan shaft of light flickering through the trees. You might hear a spooky bawl that ricochets off stars so near you almost could touch them, if you reached a bit higher.

Who could possibly be out this late on nights so cold and eerie? Nights when anybody with softer sensibilities would be curled up warm in bed?

Illinois coonhunters and their hounds, that's who.

"When most people think of hunting dogs, coonhounds aren't the first to come to mind," says Bob Bluett, wildlife diversity biologist at Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "Most folks picture bird dogs or beagles -- ones you're most likely to see on the Outdoor Channel."

"Coonhounds are less visible in the public eye, maybe because they're out so late," Bluett says with a grin. "On any night during coon season, there are thousands of guys in woods throughout Illinois following dogs on the trail of a coon."

Coonhunting is a night activity because raccoons are nocturnal. Bluett estimates that Illinois DNR licenses and regulates the activities of 17,000 Illinois coonhunters. There are more than a dozen coonhunting clubs and associations in the state.

Coonhunting involves men, kids and a few women bundled in heavy canvas cover-alls, their heads topped with wheat lights (resembling miners' head lamps), wearing knee-high, rubber boots. Neither rain, nor cold nor blackest night can keep a dedicated coonhunter from the woods.

"Coonhunters are a breed apart," Bluett says. "They ignore the cold; they need stamina to chase after a dog. They have to be comfortable in the woods at 2 a.m. And they don't mind getting little sleep. I know coonhunters who say when conditions gets tough for other hunters, it's just right for them."

Coonhounds have colorful breed names such as redbones, blueticks, black and tans, and English redticks, which describe their shades and markings. Walker dogs look like foxhounds. In fact, with the exception of the Plott hound, which is brindle or black with a white chest patch -- almost all coondog breeds are descendents of English foxhounds. Coonhounds are large - between 50 and 90 pounds - with a droopy, long-eared look. They sport racehorse-like monikers such as Buck's Midnight Ranger, Northern Blue Dancer II or Spare Time Spanky.

"Kids grow up enjoying classic books and films about coonhunting such as 'Sounder' and 'Where the Red Fern Grows'," says Bluett. "But other than that, coonhunting is not well-known among most folks in Illinois."

Coonhunters, like other dog trainers, feel compelled to test their dog's mettle. Some enter their dogs in timed competitions known as night hunts, hosted by groups such as the Illinois State Coonhunters Association. Hounds are judged on a point system for how well they track and tree, and the quality of their vocalizations. (Raccoons are never harvested during these competitions.)

Coonhound events also feature "bench shows" -- the coonhunters' Westminster -- where owners stand their dogs in statue-like poses on plywood platforms covered in outdoor carpeting. Dogs are judged on physical form and benching style. Westminster takes place in a huge arena, with handlers bedecked in jewels and finery. Bench shows are often staged under campground shelters, with handlers in baseball caps and faded Levis.

"Bench shows are where kids get their first taste of competition," says Bluett. "If you want to raise a budding coonhunter, get your kid involved in bench shows. There's nothing so cute as a 6-year-old trying to show a coondog puppy. Neither puppy nor kid are quite sure what he's doing, but it's so fun to watch. The kids are thrilled because they win a trophy. The puppies, of course, just get lots of attention."

Coonhunting has a long history nationwide and in Illinois. It was especially popular during the Great Depression, when people hunted raccoons to put on the supper table or supplement income by selling furs.

Today, coonhunters love their activity for the joy of watching a good dog in action, although some hunters still eat raccoons and nearly all sell furs.

"It's amazing to watch a dog doing what it was born to do," says Bluett. "All dogs originally were bred for a working purpose -- usually hunting related -- before their roles changed into house pets. Coonhounds aren't a good choice for indoor living, but they are loyal and singularly dedicated to tracking raccoons."

Coonhunting has an important place in Illinois wildlife conservation. "There are more raccoons in Illinois now than ever before. Coonhunting and trapping are highly regulated methods to manage populations," he says. Hunting helps reduce human and pet exposure to diseases carried by raccoons, and in rural areas, it can reduce property damage and other problems.

So, if you're along a country road and hear that ghostly bawl or see a dim light in the woods, don't look for aliens, unless it's a coonhunting spouse you've not seen in a while. But then, coonhunting "widows" have their own tales to tell.

Visit the Fur Hunting and Trapping in Illinois website
Learn more by visiting the Illinois DNR's new website, "Fur Hunting and Trapping in Illinois," at, or contact the Illinois DNR at 217-782-6384. For information on coonhunting, contact the Ron Law, president, Illinois State Coonhunters Association at 618-635-6211.


Coonhunting Vocabulary

Want to talk like a coonhunter? Check out the lingo!

Strike -- The initial bark when a dog catches scent of a raccoon.

Hot-nosed - A dog that prefers fresh or "hot" scents.

Cold-nosed - A dog that stubbornly tracks old or "cold" scents.

Open -- A coondog never barks, it "opens", and its vocal quality is depicted as a "bawl" or "chop." Coonhunters easily can tell dogs apart by their voices.

Tapping tree -- A tentative bark at a tree where a ringtail has been but not stayed.

Treeing - The sound a dog makes when it reaches the conclusion of a trail and a raccoon climbs a tree. A "treed" dog places its paws on the trunk, and standing almost parallel, it chops or bawls until after the coonhunter arrives.

Trash-burner - a dog with an undesirable habit of running other animal tracks. It's used thusly, "That darn trash-burner took off after a 'possum!"

Hannah Kirchner spent her childhood running Plott hounds with her father in Southern Indiana. She works for D.J. Case and Associates, a communications firm specializing in natural resources issues. D.J. Case and Associates works with Illinois DNR to promote the Illinois Fur Hunting and Trapping Education project, an ongoing effort to communicate with Illinois citizens about the benefit of these activities for wildlife and people.