Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Big Bend Sentinel :: Gray Ghosts and Red Rangers

Gray Ghosts and Red Rangers
by Thad Sitton
Buy It Now
the rambling boy – hunting the gray ghost and the red ranger
By LONN TAYLOR, May 19th, 2011

When I lived in Fayette County in the 1970s I knew several men whose passion was wolf hunting. This did not mean that they went out with guns to kill wolves. It meant that they kept packs of hound dogs and one or two nights a week they would take the dogs out and stay up all night listening to the dogs chase a wolf through the woods, following the chase in pickup trucks on back roads or, sometimes, sitting around a camp fire while the dogs circled around them through the woods.

The wolves that they hunted were actually coyotes, as wolves had been extirpated in that part of Texas since the 1930s, but the terminology had clung to the sport long after the wolves had gone. The quarry was not as important as the chase, because the point of the sport was to listen to the music of the dogs baying. An experienced wolf hunter could not only tell which dog was which by the sounds they made, he could tell where the dogs were and how close they were to the coyote, and he could relate that to his fellow-hunters in vivid terms. A wolf hunt was an exercise in translating an auditory experience into a visual one. One of my wolf-hunting friends, Paul Jaster, had a party piece that involved imitating the sounds of a wolf hunt on a harmonica, supplementing the chords of the harmonica with yips and yelps he made with his own mouth and interspersing them with comments like, “now here comes Old Rattler,” and “Little Bill’s almost got him.” He could be persuaded to perform this at barbecues and other outdoor occasions. Hearing him was almost as good as being there by the campfire.

Texas wolf-hunting had its origin in Southern fox chasing, or “hilltopping,” as some of its practitioners call it, a sport that was followed all over the South for two centuries but is now almost extinct. Thad Sitton, a Texas historian who has written several good books about backwoods life in East Texas, has recently published a book about hilltopping, called Gray Ghosts and Red Rangers: American Hilltop Fox Chasing (University of Texas Press, 2010). Reading it has enlightened me considerably about some of the things that I encountered in Fayette County and on forays into East Texas in the 1970s.

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