It took two nights of hunting for raccoons in the dark to do it, but GCh. Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’ LB Red Hot Sweat HTX, a Treeing Walker Coonhound, owned by Tim Toler and handled by Mikyle White, earned the title of 2012 National Grand Nite Champion of Autumn Oaks at the annual event in Richmond, Ind., over the Labor Day weekend.

GCh. Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’ LB Red Hot Sweat HTX took the top award at the 2012 UKC Autumn Oaks in Richmond, Ind. The Treeing Walker Coonhound is owned by Tim Toler, right, and handled by Mikyle White, center. Also pictured is Gary Young. Photo © United Kennel Club.

Tens of thousands of spectators, hundreds of hunters, and more than 600 dogs took part in the three-day “family reunion” at the Wayne County Fairgrounds. Tanya M. Raab, vice president of operations at the United Kennel Club, says that’s what the event has become over its 53 years. In addition to earning titles by treeing raccoons and showing fine examples of the seven UKC coonhound breeds, families travel to Richmond to see extended family members and the friends who share their love of dogs and the sport of hunting.

Autumn Oaks is a family event with multiple generations gathering in Richmond, Ind. Photo © United Kennel Club.

The city of 36,000 welcomes the visitors with “open arms,” Raab says, as they fill the city’s hotels and motels, and patronize local restaurants. By Wednesday, “You couldn’t get a hotel room,” she says. Billboards welcome the hunters, and many hotel marquises greet them as they drive through the city. “A lot of the establishments will have little welcome buttons too.”

“The town is outstanding,” she says. “They basically roll out the red carpet for us.”

Even the most welcoming town isn’t enough on its own to keep an event like Autumn Oaks coming back for two decades, though.

Tens of thousands of spectators make the Wayne County Fairgrounds home for five days each year. Photo © United Kennel Club.

“The grounds are perfect for what we need,” Raab says, “the area is great for hunting, and we have really good club support there.”Autumn Oaks is hosted by the Wayne County Coon Hunters Association Inc. with the assistance of Indiana and Ohio coon clubs, with major sponsorship from Black Gold and Purina.

The Wayne County Fairgrounds, at about 100 acres, has plenty of room for camping too. About 250 rigs made the place home for the five-day string of hunts and bench shows The fairgrounds’ Kuhlman Center served as an entertainment venue on Friday and Saturday nights for the families of the hunters who go out at “full dark” and may not return until as late as 5 a.m.

That might sound like a long night for dogs sniffing out, then treeing raccoons, but they actually hunt for only 120 minutes during those hours. They may be moving to a different area with their casts of three other dogs or taking a break while scores are recorded between timed active hunting periods.

American Black and Tan Coonhound Ch. Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’ KY River Stroker Ace, left, and American Leopard Hound Grand Nite Ch. GCh. Cash’s Camo Jug Of Shine captured National Grand Nite champion titles for their respective breeds. Photo © United Kennel Club.

The private land on which the dogs and handlers will hunt, but not catch, raccoons is nearby or adjacent to the fairgrounds. Satellite clubs contact property owners well before the event to get permission to use their land for Autumn Oaks. A guide, familiar with the property’s location and boundaries, goes out with each cast to take its members there.

Autumn Oaks is one of three legs in the UKC Triple Crown of coonhound events. The first was the Winter Classic held in January; the last, the Coonhound World Championship, happens later this month in Shreveport, La.

On Friday night, 396 hounds headed out into the night, including Grand Nite champions, Nite champions and Registered dogs, which haven’t yet earned nite hunt titles. The following night, the top 16 Grand Nite champions went out once more, along with the Nite champions and Registered coonhounds, for a total of 226.

Bluetick Coonhound Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’ Prairie Creek Blue Misfire, left, and English Coonhound Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’ 3 Forks Cricket were the top raccoon hunters in their breeds at Autumn Oaks. Photo © United Kennel Club.

Come Sunday morning, it’s time for the Nite Hunt awards ceremony. In addition to National Grand Nite Champion of Autumn Oaks, Red Hot Sweat was the National Grand Nite Champion for his breed with a first-round score of 375+, along with: American Black & Tan Coonhound Ch. Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’ KY River Stroker Ace, owned and handled by Shane Ayers of McKee, Ky., with a score of 375+; American Leopard Hound Grand Nite Ch. GCh. Cash’s Camo Jug Of Shine, owned and handled by Jessica Smith of Madison, S.D., 700+; Bluetick Coonhound Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’ Prairie Creek Blue Misfire, owned by Jason Schulte of Walford, Iowa, handled by Travis Schulte, 75+; English Coonhound Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’ 3 Forks Cricket, owned by John James of Maysel, W.V., handled by Jason Shamblin, 350+; Plott Hound Grand Nite Ch. GCh. ‘PR’Burnettes Rooster, owned by Larry Brown Purdy, Mo., handled by Don Craig, 175+; and Redbone Coonhound Ch. Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’Ficken’sDeepwoods Rocky, owned and handled by Randy Ficken of Cedar Hill, Mo., 375+.

Scores are based on each dog’s performance. The plus sign after the score means the dog earned extra points for particular action during the hunt. The variation in scores is common and a reflection of how many wild raccoon are available to be treed in different hunting spots, explains UKC Vice President of Events Todd Kellam. “It can also be a reflection of the time of night different casts hunted,” he says. “It can be affected by how many cast mates a dog had and the ability of those cast mates. There are many variables that can affect scores.”

‘PR’ in front of a dog’s name stands for “Purple Ribbon,” meaning all 14 ancestors in a dog’s three-generation pedigree are registered with UKC.

Plott Hound Grand Nite Ch. GCh. ‘PR’Burnettes Rooster, left, and Redbone Coonhound Ch. Grand Nite Ch. ‘PR’ Ficken’s Deepwoods Rocky were the best of their breeds in the nite hunt. Photo © United Kennel Club.

Taking first place in the 2012 Autumn Oaks Nite Champion hunt was Nite Ch. ‘PR’ Shorter Creeks Hanks Joe, a Treeing Walker Coonhound owned by Josh and Jaime Shorter of Carlisle, Ind., with a score of 1,150+.

Treeing Walker Coonhound Nite Ch. ‘PR’ Shorter Creeks Hanks Joe was the top hunter in the Nite Champion division. Photo © United Kennel Club.

In second was English Coonhound Nite Ch. ‘PR’ Briar Creek Nickel, owned by Chris Gerth and Jim Ridge of Lewis, Ind., with a score of 950+; in third, Treeing Walker Coonhound Nite Ch. ‘PR’ Bluegrass Josephine Jo, owned by Ed Hembree of Berea, Ky., 900+; in fourth, Treeing Walker Coonhound Nite Ch.‘PR’ Stylish Dixie Chic, owned by Duane Sullenbarger and Rick Hittle of New Paris, Ohio, 650+; and in fifth, English Coonhound Nite Ch. ‘PR’ Hack’s Owl Creek Blue Belle, owned by Lester L. Hack and Joel S. Boyer of Cardington, Ohio, 625+.

Plott Hound ‘PR’ Workman’s Redwood Nite Rider earned the best score in the Registered division.

In the final nite hunt division, Registered, the top scorer was Plott Hound ‘PR’ Workman’s Redwood Nite Rider, owned by Evan Workman of Bridgeport, W.V., with a score of 900+. Other winners included Treeing Walker Coonhound ‘PR’ Get Treed Baby D, owned by Walker Banks of College Corner, Ohio, with a score of 800+; Treeing Walker Coonhound ‘PR’ Matneys Big Time Mose, James H. Matney of Arlington, Ind., 700+; English Coonhound ‘PR’Coal Hill Hardtime Demon, Casey Fritts and Adam Garrett of Harriman, Tenn., 675+; Bluetick Coonhound ‘PR’ Chiefs Bombshell Gabby, Greg Crisenbery and Jacob Crisenbery of Ohio City, Ohio, 625+; Treeing Walker Coonhound ‘PR’ Insane Voodoo Laveau, Zach Sedrel of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 600+; Bluetick Coonhound Ch. ‘PR’ Son’s Northern Blue Doc, Ron Taylor of Gosport, Ind., 600+; Treeing Walker Coonhound ‘PR’ Tree Guzlin Dixies Last Hope, Justin Ross and Donn McClary of London, Ohio, 600+; Treeing Walker Coonhound ‘PR’ Ohio’s Lady’s Dee Baby, Kirby F. Place of Wapakoneta, Ohio, 550+; Treeing Walker Coonhound ‘PR’ Midnight Run Stylish Buggs, Patrick Wineinger of Medora, Ind., 450+.

National Grand Show Champion GCh. ‘PR’ Southern Flame Blame It On The Rain. Photo © United Kennel Club.

Autumn Oaks isn’t only about gathering with family and friends, and hunting. Nearly 500 hounds competed in a bench show as well. While a “good number” of dogs are taken to Autumn Oaks just for the show, Raab says, many participate in the nite hunt too. She also saw one conformation dog that was part of the nite hunt this year. Some dogs are in the dual champion class for which they must have a nite hunt title and a bench title, she explains. Taking the top honor for this year was National Grand Show Champion GCh. ‘PR’ Southern Flame Blame It On The Rain, a Bluetick Coonhound, owned by Cynthia Grooms and Gerald Blackof Rockingham, N.C.

A kids’ bench show gives handlers- and hunters-to-be a chance to experience the show ring. Photo © United Kennel Club.

For the younger crowd, there’s an informal kids’ bench show. Kids of all ages take a dog into the ring, and the judge asks them about the dog. “It’s just a really fun little addition that we have for the shows,” Raab says. Hunters will offer their dogs to kids who want to go into the ring, but don’t have a family dog they can take in, she says, and every kid gets a trophy.

Raab deemed 2012 Autumn Oaks “a really good event. Every year that I go, I’m amazed at how efficiently it runs. We have an exceptional staff. To put 600 or 700 dogs into the woods, it’s amazing to watch.”