We were standing under a bright yellow moon, armed with flashlights and rifles, listening to distant music.
"Hear the tenor and the baritone," said Alex Hampshire, wearing what looks like a miner's lamp on his head and a .22 caliber rifle slung over his shoulder. "Those dogs make the sweetest sound."
Those dogs are coon hounds, treeing Walkers and blue ticks sniffing the night breeze for the scent of raccoon. As they trail through the briars and brambles, they let out a plaintive bark that lets the hunters know both where the dogs are and when they are barking up a tree.
"A coon is a smart animal," said Paul Brown, 50, a Washingtonian who has been hunting raccoons since he was a 9-year-old in South Carolina. "He will climb up one tree, jump to another and climb down. A young coon dog will stay at that first tree and bark forever."
It is no small irony that about the only nice things being said of raccoons these days are by the people who will spend the remaining three months of coon hunting season trying to shoot them.
For almost everyone else, it has been open season on the raccoon's reputation. These ring-tailed relatives of the bear family, celebrated in American Indian folk tales as the wisest of wood creatures and until recently never considered worse than trash can-raiding nuisances, now are labeled as rabid varmints.
"There are still a few stupid people left that bump around in the woods at night," said Brown, the coon hunting guru for a group of Washington-area friends who grew up in the South where late-night coon hunts were a cherished tradition and, during hard times, an economic necessity.
"I used to hunt with my grandfather for food," said Hampshire, one of 12 children who grew up picking cotton in Alabama. Hampshire is a Georgetown graduate and now coaches football at Bowie State. "Now I hunt for the fun."
Raccoon hunting features two of the best elements of the shooting sport, dogs and friends to share dog stories with. There are half a dozen breeds of coon hound, valued for their acute smell and perseverance in the face of briars and raccoon fangs. Almost any mongrel will follow a wild animal scent, but good coon dogs are trained to follow only one, the raccoon's.
"You don't want a dog that trails after possum, deer, rabbit or fox," said Brown, who works at the Washington Navy Yard. "Especially not skunk."
The discussion of relative merits and demerits of individual dogs and different breeds, the prime topic of conversation on any self-respecting coon hunt, has grown from local bragging matches into international competitions. There now is an American Coon Hunters Association and an annual world championship. The dog that wins that prestigious event can command $150,000 in stud fees during its breeding life.
Brown and his friends are not interested in the show circuit. For them, the reward is in the hunt and they like it well enough to venture out three and four nights a week, in rain and snow, to share the music of their well-trained dogs.
"Mr. Brown, I believe your dog must have gotten off somewhere and gone to sleep," said Wilton Prophet, 67, who was standing at the edge of a wood where five dogs were thrashing around in search of a scent.
Brown, a big man with an equally large laugh, just smiled. Then he began telling stories about dognappings, disappearing lights and other strange happenings in nighttime woods. The stories were interrupted frequently. Brown occasionally stopped three times in one sentence to listen to his dogs. He was just about to tell about juke box music he heard blaring once in an impossibly thick forest when the sporadic barking became a chorus. The dogs had struck a trail. Twenty minutes later the barking changed again; either a raccoon was treed or the dogs had been outwitted again.
Now it was the hunters' turn to blaze through the underbrush in thick pants and rubber boots to a tree the dogs were trying to climb. Lights were shined on the tree limbs above. No raccoon. But suddenly Darnell Turner shouted. The 32-year-old District school teacher had found the raccoon in the top of a wild cherry tree 10 yards away.
With one shot, Hampshire knocked the raccoon out of the tree. The dogs sank their teeth into it momentarily, then Turner pulled them away.
An hour and 100 stories later, the dogs called out again. But this time when the hunters arrived, there was no raccoon to be seen. Either it had reached its nest in a hollow of the tree or had escaped into the swamp.
"The old boy beat us," said Brown, smiling. "If they weren't so smart, it wouldn't be as much fun to hunt them."