What is the oldest sporting tradition related to using hounds to pursue wild game? Likely that would be fox hunting, which has at least a few centuries of history in Europe.

Somehow, after the Revolutionary War and "that late unpleasantness" it has become popular in the woods of South Carolina to turn loose hounds to "strike" and tree raccoons. Whether the coons are actually harvested or simply "counted," the late night call of the hounds has no equal among its supporters.

Since coon hunting only takes place at night, it makes sense that its devoted followers have to come up with something to do during downtime - also known as the workday. No dog-tired working man will pass on the opportunity to turn loose his hounds on a night when the conditions are right. And once turned loose, there is no guarantee when the hounds will be recovered or how deep in the swamp they might be found. Coon hunters joke that they end up in the darkest part of the woods, after fighting through the thickest briars and navigating thigh-deep waters. But it's all good.

Mike Johnson of Latta is a life-long coon-hunting enthusiast. His uncle and great uncle introduced him to the woods at age nine, 49 years ago, and Johnson thinks this early exposure to coon hunting has helped sustain his love for the sport.

"I was too young to go all through the woods to where the coon was treed, so someone would stay with me, and we would make a fire until the hunting party returned," he said.

Of course, he has not forgotten that special night when he was first allowed to carry his gun and saw the coons baying wildly.

During his 20s in Dillon County, Johnson said he used to hunt raccoons seven days a week.

"Coon hunting was a family tradition in those parts that was passed down to lots of my friends," he said. "But I would hunt on my own if need be - in the rain or whatever, it just didn't matter."

Many modern hunters share this affection for the coon hunt, and with the right gear, no inclement weather slows them down.

After a 20-year career with Bi-Lo, Johnson now owns and runs the Pee Dee Deer Classic and manages Moree's Sportsman's Preserve in Chesterfield County.

"I'm about goals and results," Johnson said, and that formula for success also translates into the coon woods. The day job has not slowed down his coon hunting, and while hunters may pay a pretty fee to become an "Elite" member at Moree's for quail, pheasant, deer and turkey hunts - they almost all end up asking Johnson for a trip to his coon woods.

Johnson's fiancée, Sissy Gibbs, who also works the day shift at Moree's, chimed in, "After the evening meal, we love to share coon hunting with out guests and we tell them - coon hunting is our best sport."

Coon hunting is all about the dogs, and Johnson likes Walkers, blue tickets, redbone and black-and-tan hounds - as long as they run and tree coons. He usually turns loose three to five dogs at a time, and his top three are two male Walkers and a female blue tick.

Once turned loose, the dogs are free to search out and "strike" a trail wherever one might be. Then, it is the job of the hunters to listen and determine which way they went and where they might be heading. For instance, lots of barking followed by prolonged quiet and more barking likely means that a coon and the pursuing hounds crossed a wet area or creek where the scent became temporarily masked.

Being out in the woods, late at night, can have a sobering effect on hunters.

"Coon hunting is still real pure, because you're in the dark, and it can be real quiet, in between chases, and you feel like you are in touch with those that came before us," Johnson said.

Coon hunters have been known to stay in the swamp all night, turning loose the hounds for one fever-pitched chase after another.

Johnson, a competition coon hunter back 20 or so years ago, said, "My first competition, I had a grade-dog black-and-tan female, and she scored the highest points in the competition," he said. "Scoring points is fun, but it can also be tricky, because you don't want to claim that your hound has treed too quickly - because if you are wrong, that counts as minus points."

Folks who come from across the South to hunt at the Grand American Coon Hunt in Orangeburg every year obviously feel that competition is the pinnacle of coon hunting. The winner of the 2009 AKC World Coon Dog Championships Feb. 16-21 wins $25,000 - enough money to buy plenty of nite-lites.

Johnson soon left competition coon hunting because he was more interested in hunting for sport. Dog work is what he lives for, and he loves to train a young dog, hunting him alongside some veteran dogs.

"With young dogs, you've got to get to the treed coon pretty quick," he said.

When a coon is treed and hunters can't locate it with their headlights, a call is blown to try and simulate a confrontation between raccoons, and the treed coon might look down, betraying its position, those eyes caught in the beam of the headlamp.

Johnson can call with his mouth, and it is a deafening, mean-spirited, claw-scratching squalor.

The final act of training a young dog is to shoot the coon, and then let the young dog finish it off on the ground. Johnson carries the only firearm on the hunt, a .22-cailber pistol.

Gibbs' son, Caleb, and Johnson's son, Mike, are frequent participants on hunts, so a family tradition is continued. Gibbs echoes why many mothers are glad to have children who hunt.

"If I know they are in the woods on Saturday night, then I don't have to worry about the alternatives," she said.

With Caleb and Mike coon hunting many nights, Gibbs became involved, and she eventually learned to like it. Ever seen pink camo in the woods? You have if you've hunted with Gibbs! The biggest ring-tail ever taken on one of their hunts was a 22-pound whopper.