Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 15, 2013

Bob Gwizdz: 'It's all about the dogs'


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — ASHLEY — Jim Zimmerman acknowledges that most of the guys he takes hunting don’t get it at all.

“Most people think I’m crazy,” said Zimmerman, a 61-year-old recent retiree who hunts mostly in Gratiot County, not far from his home. “I have a lot of people who say, ‘I’d like to go some time,’ and I take ‘em and within 15 minutes they’re ready to go home.”

Did I mention Zimmerman’s a coon hunter?

That explains it.

“It’s cold, you’re tripping over things, getting scratched up and poked in the eye and they say, ‘You call this fun?’ “

Indeed, raccoon hunting is a different game, far different than deer or ducks or whatever. It’s played at night, when the coons are out making their mischief — and coons are always out making mischief. A hunter turns out his dog, which, if it’s a good one, immediately goes to work looking for a trail. When the dog strikes scent, it usually lets out a howl and picks up the tempo until it runs the coon up a tree where it barks. And barks. And barks.

The hunter catches up to the dog, spotlights the coon, shoots it (generally with a .22 rifle), and the drama begins again.

Zimmerman was introduced to raccoon hunting as a young man when he went with a buddy and his dad. He was immediately hooked, got himself a hound, and has been at it ever since.

Coon hunting is not nearly the game it once was. Now, with the explosion of exurban living, large tracts of wooded land less common and it’s just doesn’t make sense to run a dog on a five-acre parcel only to have the raccoon run over on the neighbor’s property. But coon hunting has regained some of its popularity as furs began bringing some pretty good prices last year. With prime pelts bringing $30, well, you hardly ever saw a dead raccoon on the side of the road.

And that’s got Zimmerman conflicted.

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’d say last year was the only time I ever made any money,” Zimmerman said. “When you look at the expenses — dogs, food, vet bills, equipment, gas — you might as well be picking up pop cans.

“I’d rather coons were bringing $5,” he said. “Then there’s no competition for places to hunt.”

And that’s why Zimmerman does it — for the fun of it. Press him, and he’ll tell you the same thing most bird hunters will tell you — it’s all about the dogs.

“I know a lot of people who like to go once or twice a year and I think it’s because they enjoy the dogs,” Zimmerman said. “It’s sort of like pheasant hunting — if your dog is hunting well and points a bird and you flush it, do you really care if you shoot the bird? That’s the hunt. Seeing a dog work is the hunt.”

Zimmerman said his current dog (a Walker hound named Thunder) is the best dog he’s ever owned. Thunder’s a complete hunter, he said.

“He just doesn’t make many mistakes,” Zimmerman said. “He’s got a good mouth, a good nose and he’s independent — if he hunts with another dog, he does his own thing, he doesn’t just bark because the other dog’s barking. He’s got all the tools and he knows how to use them.

“Some guys have lots of dogs; they have good trackers and good tree-ers. But I like to hunt them one at a time because I think hunting dogs alone make them much better dogs. I’ve never owned more than two dogs at a time; I don’t have the time to hunt them and train them. I like to have one older dog and one younger dog. I hunt by myself most of the time and I prefer hunting with one dog, but if they get tired or hurt, I’ve got a backup.”

Zimmerman hunts mostly woodlots on farms. The farmers don’t generally like coons — if they’re not raiding the hen house, they’re fattening up on the sweet corn. (Remember, they’re out making mischief, all the time.) So he’s providing something of a service as he really doesn’t care much about shooting them, he says.

“Killing a coon is partially a reward for the dog,” Zimmerman said. “You can see the excitement a dog shows when a coon hits the ground. Thunder sure gets pretty excited when you shoot one out and 95 percent of dogs are that way.

“It’s all about the dogs,” he continued. “I hunt them all summer and never kill a coon. It’s not killing the coon that gets me excited or I wouldn’t go all summer.”

Coon hunting season runs from Oct. 15 to Jan. 31 in the northern two-thirds of the state, Nov. 1 to Jan. 15 in southern Michigan. Zimmerman hunts almost nightly up until about the end of the first week of November, then he backs off as a lot of deer hunters don’t like the idea of guys roaming the woods with hounds with firearms deer season approaching. But usually after a couple of days of deer hunting, the landowners welcome him back.

And he’ll be back at, unless the weather gets too severe, right on through the season.