Hunters, dogs try to earn their stripes in raccoon hunt

Saturday, October 18, 2003

AURORA, Ky. -- Dressed in his best Elvis outfit -- a shimmering white jumpsuit -- Wesley Sanford lovingly slipped a matching Elvis T-shirt on his favorite raccoon-hunting dog.

That was Sanford's way of celebrating their win in a preliminary round in the 2003 Professional Kennel Club's Super Stakes for young dogs.

"Everybody's got to make a fool out of himself once in awhile," he said.

For raccoon hunters, it's the love of dogs and the thrill of a hunt that sends them into the woods night after night with lamps attached to their heads chasing after raccoons. The 10-day event, which started Thursday night, is the top hunt for members of the Professional Kennel Club.

The ultimate winner for the world hunt earns $30,000. The top 2-year-old dog earns $17,500 and $12,000 is given for the best 1-year-old in the Super Stakes.

The competition is more addictive than any stimulant, said Todd Drake, a poultry farmer and father of two who drove in from Monroe, N.C., to compete.

"It's worse than running around with women," Drake said.

Outside the indoor tennis center that serves as the hunt headquarters, the six breeds of hunting dogs that participate barked from hillsides where they were tied to trees and staked in the ground. Some slept with their head in their paws. In all, 3,000 dogs are expected to participate.

Vendors sold everything from deep-fried Oreo cookies to "coon hunter's wife" T-shirts.

The event is estimated to bring $2.5 million to $5 million to the area economy from hunters buying meals, gas and hotel rooms. After meeting in Aurora, the hunters are dispersed to wooded areas within 60 miles in Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois to hunt.

Participants come primarily from states bordering the Mississippi River or from the eastern half of the country. Most have blue-collar roots, but do come from a variety of professions. Most are men, but women also compete.

The competition can get ugly, with hunters questioning calls and accusing each other of cheating.

"You put that much money on the line and you're going to have disagreements," said dog owner Debbie Griffeth from Illinois.

But primarily it's a gentleman's sport that starts with a handshake among hunters in casts of four. A judge uses a plus and minus system to rate the dog's performance as it traps a raccoon in a tree. The hunter must identify the sound of the dog's bark to earn points as part of the hunt.

A light shines on the eyes of the raccoon in the tree, but it is not killed in the competition.

Rodney Ridenhour, a father of six from New London, N.C., said he likes that there's no cussing, alcohol or guns allowed, making it the ultimate family sport.

"Where can you take your child these days with that kind of atmosphere?" he said.

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