Dave Smith knelt to the ground, exhaled a cloud of frosty breath and listened intently to the silence of the night.
Along the edge of a field on the hillside above, the barking of dogs shattered the silence.
It was the sound Smith had been waiting for.
It sounds like they got him treed, Smith said as he stood up and studied his dogs' location on a GPS tracking device.
It was about 10 p.m. as temperatures hovered in the mid-20s. Not warm, but mild enough for raccoons to move and Smith to hunt.
With his two redtick coonhounds – Jake and Snuff, Smith spends his nights hunting the farm country of Hollenback Township, carrying on a tradition that began in the early 1960s when he accompanied his father on hunts.
Smith hunted raccoons at night for years until marriage and job responsibilities put the hobby on the backburner. It wasn't until six years ago when Smith's son, Mark, showed an interest in the sport that he bought two hounds and went back to the nighttime woods.
Coon hunting was a good way to spend time with my son and I really enjoy it, Smith said. If you go out there in a 35-degree night with a bright moon and stars, and hear the dogs barking on a tree, it doesn't get any better than that.
For some, raccoon hunting dates back generations and is a strong family tradition. Smith is happy to keep it going, although the hunting of today is a bit different than what his ancestors encountered.
Technology plays a big role in today's hunts. Smith equips each of his dogs with tracking collars and follows their whereabouts with a handheld GPS tracking system. It lets him know if his dogs are getting too close to a busy road, a house or may be caught in a trap.
And just as important, the GPS alerts Smith if his dogs are stationary and barking at a raccoon up in a tree.
Years ago all you could do was sit there and just listen for your dogs to bark or wait for them to come back, Smith said. On a windy night when you couldn't hear, you wound up hunting the dogs more than coons.
On this night, Smith's GPS coupled with the pattern his dogs were barking – a more determined, confident bark, confirmed that they had a raccoon in a tree. The dogs were about 75 yards away and when Smith arrived, he clicked on his 6-volt headlamp and found them barking up a large oak tree that stood between two cornfields.
A raccoon concealed itself against a stout limb, and Smith dispatched it with a single shot from his .22 rifle.
Harvesting raccoons, which Smith skins and sells their pelts, is secondary, he said. Watching and hearing his dogs work is the main reason behind the hunt.
If we find a coon in a tree but the dogs didn't tree it, we let it go, he said. If I'm going to shoot it, it has to be a coon that the dogs treed.
Smith prefers to hunt the farm country because raccoons are attracted to cornfields and can cause extensive damage to a farmers' crop.
But no matter how good a hound is at tracking raccoons, not all hunts are easy.
Older raccoons, Smith said, know how to fool a dog that is hot on their trail.
An old coon will run up a log leaning against a tree, go partway up the tree and then come back down the log and keep going. That can confuse a dog, Smith said. A good dog, however, will circle the tree first to see if the coon came back down.
Aside from good dogs and proper habitat, the key to a successful raccoon hunt is to secure permission to access as many properties in an area as possible. There's no telling how far a raccoon may run or where the dogs will end up, Smith said, that's why he makes an effort to talk to all landowners in an area before he hunts.
Most property owners grant access, he said.
Not as many people hunt coons as they did in years past, which is one reason why coon numbers are increasing and so are the problems they can cause for people, Smith said.
After he collected the raccoon at the base of the oak tree and praised his dogs, Smith told them to go find another one and took a seat as the hounds bounded into a swampy hollow.
This is one thing I like about coon hunting. You can sit and enjoy a nice winter night while the dogs work, and when they start barking it gets your adrenaline pumping, he said while watching his hounds on the GPS tracker.
As if on cue, barking emanated from the dark hollow and Smith stood up, flicked on his headlamp and headed down the hill.
Sounds like they are hot on another one, he said. It's really turning out to be another good night.