Billy Williams likes the night life.
Most hunters don’t go out at night, but that’s when the raccoons are roaming and Billy is a coon hunter.
It’s been like that since he was a kid.
“I remember chasing my dad down the road at night,” Billy said. “He was going coon hunting and I couldn’t go. I was too young and I had to go to school.”
But when the weekend came around, Billy was walking down that road with his father, and he had his first coon dog by the time he was 10 or 11.
“And that dog was terrible,” he said. “Probably one of the worst dogs I ever owned, but, man, did I love him.”
In high school, Billy was still heading to the woods, even on weekends.
“I grew up in Medina back there on the crick,” he said. “That’s where I spent my Friday and Saturday nights. People thought we were crazy, but that’s what we did as kids. If somebody had a driver’s license, we were coon hunting. We had a ton of fun.”
Troy and Travis Williams, Chris McCowan, Rob Bentley—they all grew up the same way, Billy said.
“I remember the night me and my cousin, Troy, took off behind the house and we chased our dogs all the way to 127 and back,” he said. “We wanted to kill ’em when we got home, but we were having fun.”
That was just the beginning of Billy’s life with coon dogs. It’s only grown bigger over the years. He attributes that primarily to Paul Taylor, along with help from George Bryant.
Billy says that Paul has hunted competitively for longer than most anyone in the area, and it’s Paul who directed him into competition.
“My dad gave me the bug to coon hunt, but Paul taught me a lot about competitive hunting.”
When Billy was a teenager, he bought a dog from someone in Adrian and it didn’t turn out to be a great hunter. Paul bought it from Billy for a few hundred dollars, probably out of the goodness of his heart, he said.
“He would tell us, ‘You do that and you’re going to get a bad name, and you don’t want to do that.’”
Much has changed in competitive coon hunting even in Billy’s lifetime. For one thing, the dogs aren’t the same. They’re competitively bred to fly through the country for two miles, he said.
“My dad hunted with better dogs 50 years ago in West Virginia than I do now. He could hunt the same 10 acre woods all night long and tree every coon in it.”
The other big difference is the money.
For about 85 percent of coon hunters, it’s just a hobby, Billy said. If you break even, you’ve done well. But for the others, it’s a business.
Where does Billy fit in?
“It’s basically the love of the hunt and the love of the dogs,” he said, “but the last few years dogs have been very good to me.”
He co-owns four dogs with Robert Raxter of North Carolina—it’s too expensive to own them individually. They recently sold a good dog named Boogar Hollow Butch and the new owner immediately took out a $25,000 insurance policy on it.
“Every time you turn a dog loose,” said Billy, “you’re just lucky to get it back.”
He was once offered $8,000 for a dog but turned down the offer. Two weeks later it died after being hit by a car. The incident taught Billy a lesson.
“You get attached,” he said, “but when they get crazy with money, you’ve got to let them go.”
“These dogs are professional athletes,” Billy said. “If you’ve got a dog winning $60,000 to $70,000 in three to four months, he’s considered a professional athlete.”
In the co-ownership arrangement, Billy takes a puppy and trains it in southern Michigan where the terrain is easier. When he thinks it’s ready, he delivers the dog to Robert.
“He really puts the hunt into them,” Billy said. “If they don’t make it there, we don’t keep them. They’ve got to be able to hunt anywhere, on any terrain. Coon hunting up here is a cakewalk compared to the south. It takes a rugged dog down there.”
Billy’s children, Kendall and Mason, serve as the initial trainers to help teach a dog discipline. It begins right in the back yard, he said.
Billy often gets a call from someone in the spring about a nuisance raccoon. He’ll catch it and set it loose in front of a pup for the initial introduction. Some will chase the coon and some won’t. Trainers sometimes buy coon scent and make a drag to create a trail for a pup to follow.
“Probably the easiest thing is to get a pup with an experienced dog and let them work together,” Billy said. “Some dogs don’t make it. I don’t care if you’re the Dog Whisperer. They end up being house pets real fast.”
Billy figures it takes five or six months to get a young dog ready for competition.
“Then you have to decipher which ones will make it. I’ve made some mistakes in the past, but you have to try them out.”
He’s still not sure about the dog he’s training now. It’s wild and might not make the cut, but pup training is what Billy loves the most.
“I like to take a dog from start to finish.”
There’s something he was told about coon hunting long ago, but it took a few years for him to understand.
“A guy told me it’s hard on trucks and it’s hard on families,” he said. There are a lot of nights in the woods and a lot of weekends on the road. “I’m lucky enough to have a wife who supports what I do. She doesn’t understand it but she doesn’t question it.”
Although his wife, Dawn, doesn’t go hunting with her husband—she didn’t even like dogs when they first started dating—she understands it’s a family tradition, and she sees some humor in the intensity of the sport.
All those wild discussion forums on the Professional Kennel Association website? It’s the coon hunters’ Facebook, she says.
“It’s something you get hooked on and you can’t back out,” Billy said. “It’s like a family recipe being passed on.”
Many people think of coon hunters as backwoods, toothless hicks, Billy said.
“It’s so far from that now. I’ve hunted with doctors and lawyers, all walks of life. It’s a pastime first and a business second, but it’s definitely a pastime.”
Maybe not for the coons, but Billy never harms them unless a property owner insists on it. After all, he wants to hunt them again.
“We just score it and leave it,” he said, “because a dead coon will never leave another track.”
The rules of the night hunt get complicated
There’s coon hunting and then there’s competitive coon hunting, and Billy Williams knows them both.
Find an event, pack up the dog and head to the club house where the hunt begins. The entry fee generally runs between $25 and $65.
Once registrations are complete, the field is divided into casts of four dogs and hunters. Each cast is accompanied by a guide who knows the property and by a judge who awards points.
All four dogs are cut loose at the same time and the two-hour hunt begins.
The judge awards points—first through fourth place—as each dog strikes (begins barking on the trail of a coon). The judge determines if it’s an actual strike or if the dog is a babbler—a hound that just runs through the woods barking.
Additional points are awarded when a dog is declared treed—standing at the base of a tree where there’s supposedly a coon. That’s when the sound of the barking changes. You have to learn the difference between a ground bark and a tree bark.
“A dog has to stay treed for five minutes,” Billy said. “The handler and the judge walk in, you tie the dog up and you have eight minutes to find your coon by shining a light.”
Other dogs in the cast have to stay treed and bark every two minutes or else points are subtracted.
Plus points are awarded for finding the coon; minus points are given for various reasons, such as when no coon is found, when a dog leaves the tree before the judge arrives, or if a dog goes “off game” and ends up chasing a possum or a skunk.
“Usually the dog with the most pluses wins,” Billy explained, “but sometimes the dog with the least minuses wins.”
Most dogs have their own distinctive bark and it’s easy to tell one from the other, even when it’s a quarter mile off in the dark and another dog or two are barking off in the other direction.
“Basically, the judge is judging both the dog and handler,” Billy said. “Rules get interpreted in different ways,” he added, and that can lead to trouble.
“You couldn’t ask for a better bunch of guys to be with until dark hits,” Billy said. “Then it’s a whole new ball game. Nobody is friends. It gets cut-throat.”
If you’re competing for $10,000 or more, a small technicality becomes a big issue. That’s when threats are made, fights break out, tables are overturned in the club house.
“It gets tough and I’ve seen judges make $10,000 mistakes,” Billy said, “but they’re only human.”
Success in the woods can have a lot to do with the guide. He can take you to wet land or dry land, to an area thick with coon or an area that’s thin.
Billy prefers the landscape of southern Michigan to what he encounters farther south. He remembers a challenging night in Mississippi.
“We waded through chest-deep water all night long. It’s nasty down there.”
Billy has functioned as a judge many times and he’s proud of his service. None of his decisions have ever been brought back to a judging panel for a ruling.
“I was the youngest person to ever judge the finals of the Super Stakes,” he said. That happened when he was 33 years old.
It’s nerve-wracking, he said. His decisions that night led to a $17,000 prize. There are a lot of professional handlers who will try to take advantage of a judge.
“You have to make them toe the line,” Billy said. “They’ll annihilate you. They’ll tear you to pieces.”
This year’s World Hunt features a $32,000 prize. Scholarships can go to younger hunters—and they could even win a truck.
A 16-year-old won the annual Truck Hunt in Mississippi this year, taking home a 2011 Dodge pickup. There was also a 15-year-old in the final group, Billy said—the first time ever that two young hunters were in the final cast.
So much money in prizes; so much money tied up in dogs.
“It’s nuts,” Billy says, and he loves every minute of it.
Excerpts from the United Kennel Club Official Coonhound Rulebook
POINTS WILL BE PLUS: (a) When dogs strike and tree and coon is seen: (1) by a non-hunting Judge, or (2) by a majority of the cast when hunting Judge is used. (3) Only one tree is counted even if more than one coon is up the tree. (b) When dog is declared struck and treed and coon is seen other than in tree, dog declared treed to receive strike and tree points. Dogs not declared treed, strike points only. If dog catches coon, strike points only. (c) One set of strike points in case of split tree, and each will be counted as separate trees for tree points. (d) Dog(s) that are shut out (not struck before first dog is declared treed) must still be declared struck. They are eligible for tree points if they are declared treed within the five minutes. If they are at tree shut out on when judge arrives, strike points are deleted. For all other situations they are accountable for their strike points.
POINTS WILL BE MINUS: (a) For running, treeing or molesting off game. (b) When dogs tree and (1) a non-hunting Judge or (2) a majority of the cast when hunting Judge is used, can plainly see no coon is there. (c) When dog has been declared treed and dog leaves tree. (If he goes on the trail just his tree points will be minus). If dog returns to tree within the five minutes he will receive the next available position on tree, unless all dogs have been declared treed. (d) If dog declared treed, after five minutes has elapsed no additional dog can be declared treed at that particular tree but if they come in to tree will get minus on track and nothing on tree if coon is seen.…