Coon hunting is done late at night, but it’s not necessary to be still and quiet, so it’s fun for kids, too (if their parents don’t mind them being up at 2am). If anyone knows that, it’s Clint Pace, who got his first coonhound at age ten, and has been hunting ever since.
“It’s a different type of hunting,” he explains. “Raccoon hides are worth next to nothing, and no one eats coon anymore, so it’s mostly about the dogs. It’s amazing to listen to a dog strike and run a track, then to tree the game. Their ability to do this in rain, snow, wind, and in all types of terrain is unbelievable.”
Pace currently owns nine coonhounds: seven females and two males. He has a Black and Tan, one Redbone, and the rest are Plotts.
Although they’re the state dog of North Carolina, Plotts are one of the least known breeds of dog in the United States. Of the seven breeds of coonhounds registered with the United Kennel Club (UKC), the Plott Hound alone does not trace its ancestry back to the foxhound. Their line goes back to Germany, where they were used for boar hunting.
Johannes “George” Plott brought a few hounds with him when he emigrated to the U.S. in the 1750s, and since then they’ve been bred for their stamina. George’s son, Henry, settled in Western North Carolina in the early 1800s. There’s even a mountain range named Plott Balsam, part of the Appalachian Trail.
“I enjoy all the breeds,” says Pace, “but I think the desire of the Plott to attach itself to its owner and family probably drew me the most to that breed. Plotts seem to be more my kind of dog.” By UKC standards, Plotts must be brindle – they cannot be one solid color. All of Pace’s hounds are registered “and are still very true to their lineage,” he says.
“It’s hard to say that I have a favorite hound, and right now I have some of the best I’ve ever owned,” he adds. But Pace will admit that GRCH PR Melrose Mtn Jezebel Jett — aka “Cricket,” because she whined like a cricket when she was a pup — “is probably the most natural dog I’ve ever had. She lives inside with us, and is truly a part of the family.”
GRCH means “Grand Champion” and PR stands for “Purple Ribbon,” a distinction UKC gives to a dog if all 14 ancestors within the animal’s three-generation pedigree (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents) are registered. “Melrose Mtn Jezebel Jett” is her official name with the UKC and the American Kennel Club, with “Melrose Mtn” coming from Pace’s kennel name (Melrose Mtn Hounds).
And “Jezebel Jett”? Well, that’s because the Pace family decided to name all their Plotts after Batman characters.
In the show world, Cricket has won many awards, including an AKC World Championship. “Not every dog is going to win a show, and not every dog is going to be a good hunter,” Pace explains. “But she’s a natural on the bench as well as in the woods.” (Coonhounds are taught to stand stock-still on platforms during bench shows, where they’re judged for their overall health, attentiveness, and adherence to the particular confirmation standards of their breed.)
Unlike Cricket, though, most hounds are raised outside. “They have to be acclimated to the conditions they will hunt in,” explains Pace. “We take good care of our dogs, and we take a lot of pride in them.”
He tries to clear up some misconceptions about the sport. The hounds, he says, “are not taught to kill. They’re responding to something instinctive; it’s part of their nature. It’s inbred. When you take a young dog and he strikes his first track, he immediately reacts. Over 99 percent of the raccoons are not harmed. We really don’t want to lose our raccoon population.”
He does admit that, “unfortunately, when you hunt a dog, there is always a possibility of them getting hurt.” That’s why Cricket, at age 6, isn’t active in the woods anymore.
“I don’t want to chance that right now. She means too much to my family to take that risk,” says Pace, who plans to breed her.
He shows and hunts in every season, and although his hounds are his pets, they’re considered athletes, too, and that means training year round. They need a diet of high fat and high protein, and lots of practice to keep them in good shape. But they must also have a desire to do what is asked of them.
The sport is a rural endeavor most common in the South, the Midwest, and in the Plains states. Though relatively isolated, it remains in the national consciousness through festivals such as the upcoming Coon Dog Day in Saluda (an event that’s more than 50 years old) and even through beloved coondog characters in classic children’s literature. The award-winning novels Where the Red Fern Grows and Sounder — published in 1961 and 1970, respectively— still appear on school reading lists (Fern was made into a movie, for the second time, in 2003).
Pace and his seven-year-old son Owen are currently hunting a young male named Riddler (Batman again) who is doing well, and Pace is showing two young females on the bench and in the show ring who seem promising. He’ll appear with his hounds at Coon Dog Day, where daytime events are open to the public.
“I’ve made so many lifelong friends coon hunting and showing my dogs,” says Pace, who has been raising hounds for more than 30 years. “I have traveled all over the country, and made memories that I will cherish forever.”
The 52nd annual Coon Dog Day celebration is Saturday, July 11, 8am-11pm, held in and around downtown Saluda. There’s a bench show, a treeing contest, and a night hunt for coonhounds and their owners. General-interest attractions include a parade with coondog-themed floats, a 5K race, food vendors, live music, a parade, crafts, street dancing, and more. 828-749-2581. saluda.com.