Two years ago, Hutch Wheeler never would have dreamed his best friends would be a 51-year-old man and a dog.
The woods were always there surrounding his Bartow, Ga., home, but after dark they were a scary place and he chose not to think too much about the creatures that only came out in the shadows.
That was before. Now there are few places the 14-year-old Overall Youth National Nite Hunt Champion would rather be than under the stars with his new friends.
It all started with an accident. In January 2014, Hutch bent over to take a collar off a neighbor’s dog he had known since it was a puppy and the animal lashed out. It was only one bite, but the surgeon who sewed up the boy’s face stopped counting stitches at 120.
Hutch’s mother, Laura, said that afterward her son slipped into a depression that lasted for months.
“He didn’t want to go out in public,” she said. “He thought people were looking at him. He didn’t want to play baseball. He didn’t want to do anything. He still doesn’t like to talk about it.”
The road back led through innumerable swamps, chasing baying hounds through mud and briars, avoiding snakes, overgrown creeks and thickets so dense wild hogs think twice about entering.
“Joe (McKenzie) doesn’t realize how much he did to build Hutch back up,” Laura said. “He’s bolder now. For me to watch how he’s grown in a year and to see that old Hutch laughing and cutting up, it means everything.”
Hutch found his confidence again, Laura said, but it took hip waders, snake boots, a spotlight, the patience of a new friend and the love of a hound to help him find it.
MCKENZIE, A COUSIN on Hutch’s mom’s side, has been an avid coon hunter for most of his life and he has been chasing the stripe-tailed, bandit-masked critters through the woods around Bartow for nearly 50 years.
“When I was 10 years old I was hunting alone,” McKenzie said. “That was a different time. I wouldn’t send a 10-year-old out alone today. There’s just too much that can happen.”
When he was 16 he won the Georgia State Coon Hunting Championship and placed fourth in the World Hunt held in Rome, Ga.
The bloodline of the dogs he breeds, trains and hunts today lead back to the Treeing Walker hound he had with him in that competition so long ago. And as much as he loves the hunt, he said it’s all about the dogs.
“I just love training them,” McKenzie said. “Once I start with a dog, not knowing anything, working him along and seeing the progress – I love it. I can’t buy a dog that will suit me, but I can train ’em myself like I want them.”
He currently has five coon hounds and says he is trying to get more young people involved.
“There’s just not as many people coon hunting as they used to,” McKenzie said. “Use to, you’d go to a local event and there’d be 40 to 60 entries in it.”
The Ohoopee River Coon Hunters Association in Bartow held a hunt in late August and there were just a handful of people registered.
McKenzie served as guide for the youngest hunters.
“That’s the future,” he said. “It’s a dying sport and it’s something to keep the young people out of trouble. There’s a lot worse places they can be in the middle of the night. And, you know, it’s something they might get hooked on for the rest of their lives.”
MCKENZIE HAD BEEN asking Hutch to join him on a hunt for years, but Hutch said it always seemed that baseball or something else got in the way.
In July, about six months after the boy’s accident, he called one more time.
“We had a youth hunt one night and I called him and got him involved,” McKenzie said. “He won the first time he hunted and he’s been hooked ever since.”
It wasn’t any one thing, Hutch said. It was all of it. It was the excitement of running through the woods, the summer night thick with humidity and mosquitoes. It was the hunt itself, trying to use lights to pick out the glowing eyes way up in the branches. And it was the dogs, Timber especially.
“I heard the dog bark and that was it,” Hutch said. “I love hearing that sound when a dog first smells a coon. It’s awesome. It’s like it’s saying, ‘I’m ready to get this thing up a tree.’”
Hutch’s parents said they were surprised that he connected with the hunting hounds so quickly, but they were glad to see it.
Timber is one of McKenzie’s younger Treeing Walker coon hounds. He was one of the first dogs Hutch hunted with and is the one he is most connected to.
Jamie, Hutch’s dad, said that his son first agreed to go coon hunting partly because it was something he could do in the dark.
“He knew people wouldn’t have to see him or ask him what happened,” Jamie said. “But he loved it. And it’s the dog, he loves that dog. And it’s amazing to me that he connected like that after what happened before. But he’s always loved animals. They’re a team and that’s what it takes. To see them work together like that, it’s like they become one.”
McKenzie said the key to being a good coon hunter is knowing your dogs, knowing the difference in their barks and howls, being able to tell from the sounds they make whether they are on a trail or if they have treed.
When you are hunting the way they do by the United Kennel Club rules, points are scored based on notifying a judge, or “striking,” first when your dog is trailing a coon and later when it has treed the animal. If you follow them in and they have not treed or have left their tree, then you lose points.
McKenzie and Hutch’s parents know how close Hutch and Timber are.
“I’ve never seen a dog who loves me that much,” Hutch said. “It’s like he knows what I’m saying. I’ll just pull up and that dog goes crazy. I’ll start yelling, ‘Timbo’ and he tries to get off that chain so dog-gone bad. I’ll go over there and he’ll calm down. Then he’ll jump on me and put his head right here (on Hutch’s chest) and just rub it.”
HUTCH SAID HE was really nervous about competing with McKenzie at the Nationals in Peru, Ind., this summer.
“I didn’t want to go all that way and mess it up,” he said. “It was scary. There were a lot more people, a lot more dogs and whole lot more competition.”
It was the first time any of them had been to the championship, which has been held since 2001.
McKenzie said they hunted Big Girl and Timber all winter, but for four months prior to the big hunt, he worked them every night. Hutch joined them several nights a week.
When they got there, Hutch was excited to hunt with Timber, but McKenzie told him that Big Girl had more experience and seemed to be adapting better to the new environment.
“That gets back to age,” said McKenzie, explaining that Big Girl is 5 and Timber just 3. “We were in a different part of the world and he didn’t hunt like he was supposed to. There were different smells that threw him off.”
Hutch had hunted with Big Girl before, but he was still nervous and it was the first time he had worked with her in a competition hunt. The first night was qualifying and he had to win his cast – be the top hunter in the group he was randomly selected to hunt with – to move on to the competition on Saturday.
HUTCH WON THE first night, treeing two coons that the judges saw, securing 250+ points.
The second night Hutch drew out, placing him in a cast with all 17-year-old, experienced hunters.
“They sorta intimidated him,” McKenzie said. “There were two on the cast they had predicted to win the thing.”
Still, he said, they had several things going for them. One of which was that Hutch and Big Girl had been training in Georgia in temperatures 20 degrees hotter than where they were there and Hutch said these woods were nothing like the river-bottom swamps at home.
“There were no snakes or no briars at all,” Hutch said “What they called a swamp was a little puddle and the creek had a rock bottom.”
In the end Hutch’s final score was 600+ and the closest dog to him had 350+, McKenzie said.
He was named the Overall Youth National Nite Hunt Champion and Big Girl, also known as Little Molly, was named the High Scoring Treeing Walker. It earned him a trophy, a $400 spotlight and a $2,500 scholarship.
“When they called out that we won JoJo was crying, Justin (Smith, another Bartow hunter who accompanied Hutch during the competition hunt) was crying,” Hutch said.
“They were trying to hold it back, but you could see it in their eyes,” Laura said.
Hutch’s father said he never really was much of a hunter, but he goes along now because he sees not just how much his son loves the sport, but because of how much it has meant to him.
“It totally changed him,” Jamie said. “For a little while there, it felt like we lost him. I mean, he was there physically, but he wasn’t the same. Before that he lived for baseball, but he didn’t even want to do that anymore. I can’t say enough about JoJo and all he’s done for Hutch.
“He was gone and now he’s back to who he was before. I never thought that coon hunting would ever have done it, but it did.”