"Load up, Music!"

The old blue tick coon hound did as Buddy Lisk commanded, leaping excitedly onto the tailgate of the pickup and settling in next to his litter mate, Blaze, for the short ride to Christian Bottom.

Both hounds knew that something was in the cold February air - they had been trying to get out of their pen all afternoon.

Arriving at our destination along the bank of Bayou Pierre, Mr. Buddy dropped the tailgate, and the two blue ticks were off like a streak into the darkness of the bottomland hardwoods. Within seconds, Blaze let out a deep bellow that rolled through the woods like distant cannon fire, and we knew she had struck a trail.

"Let's go get 'em!" I shouted, reaching for the Winchester .22-caliber rifle lying across the hood of the truck.

"Hold your horses just a minute," Mr. Buddy laughed. "You've got to give 'em time enough to get that old coon treed."

Knowing that it was useless to follow the pair of coon dogs into the swamp until they treed, Mr. Buddy, a veteran coon hunter, switched off the head lamp mounted to the top of his hard hat and leaned back against the fender of his truck to wait for the chase to develop. I followed suit, staring up at the star-filled sky and focusing my attention on the mournful howls of Mr. Buddy's dogs far off in the river bottom.

"How can you tell when they've treed a coon?" I inquired. "All that barking sounds the same to me."

"That's easy," Mr. Buddy replied. "A trail bark is long and drawn out while a tree bark is shorter and louder."

The chase moved quickly through the river bottom, carrying the two dogs and the coon in a wide circle not far from our position. Music and Blaze were gaining fast on the masked bandit as their barks were getting louder and more anxious. The dogs continued to push the coon our way, until suddenly their barking changed in tone.

"They've treed," Mr. Buddy said, switching on his coon light once again. "Now we can go to 'em."

Fighting our way through the thick switch cane, we finally reached the big oak where the dogs had treed. The scene under the tree was pure chaos. Music and Blaze were bawling, lunging and clawing furiously at the trunk.

High above the hysterical hounds, Mr. Buddy's beam of light danced back and forth in the towering treetop as he tried to locate the pair of shining yellow eyes that would reveal the whereabouts of the treed coon. After several minutes of scanning the upper branches with no success, Mr. Buddy pulled out his Coon Squaller, and mimicked the sound of a pair of fighting coons.

Instantly, two golden eyes appeared in one of the forks way up in the top of the big oak as the curious coon sought out the source of the squalling.

"There he is!" said Mr. Buddy. "See if you can knock him out of that fork. Just be careful not to let him hang up."

I wasted no time in getting a bead on him. As the shot rang out, the big boar coon tumbled down through the bare branches and hit the ground with a thud. Magic and Blaze were on top of him in a flash, violently shaking the animal to make sure it was dead.

Calling the dogs off and hooking them up to the leashes he had slung over his shoulder, Mr. Buddy looked over at me with a satisfied grin.

"You ready to go get another one?" he asked.

I replied enthusiastically in the affirmative, and we headed off into the black woods of the Bayou Pierre swamp in search of another Mississippi coon.

Coon hunting with hounds is a deep-rooted tradition all across the South, but especially here in the Magnolia State. Hardcore Mississippi coon hunters love their dogs as much as they do their children, and anxiously look forward to their next opportunity to spend another cold winter night sloshing through swamps and briar patches with their hounds out front, doing what they do best - tracking and treeing coons.

Made famous by the likes of Jerry Clower and the Ledbetter boys of Amite County, coon hunting is great for both beginners and avid hunters. Unlike years ago, when coon hunting was necessary for survival in many parts of rural Mississippi, modern coon hunters hunt primarily for sport.

With the recent resurgence in the popularity of field-trial competitions, coon hunting in the Magnolia State has evolved into two types. The first category consists of traditional coon hunters that simply enjoy working their dogs and taking home a few coons for the dinner table at the end of a night's hunt. Their hunts are very similar to the one I made with Mr. Buddy.

The second category, the competition coon hunter, is similar to the first with a couple of major differences. While both types of coon hunters get the same pure adrenaline rush from chasing a musical chorus of treeing hounds in the middle of the night, the competition hunter has only one thing on his mind - winning the American Coon Hunters Association World Championship.

"It's what we work for all year long," said Mel Malone, president of the Three Rivers Coon Hunters Association in Vicksburg. "There's a lot of bragging rights at stake, but the ultimate goal is winning the ACHA World Championship ring. It's like winning a Super Bowl ring."

And for the first time in its 62-year history, the American Coon Hunters Association World Championship will be held in historic Vicksburg in late February. Malone, the ACHA hunt director, expects around 200 coon hounds from across the country to be entered in the three-night hunt - which doesn't allow firearms.

"The ultimate goal is to find the best coon hound, and it is very competitive," said Malone. "Not only are no animals harmed on these hunts, the dogs are penalized points if they catch a coon on the ground."

Although a coon-hunting competition may sound complicated to those who have never attended one of these events, it is actually very straightforward. A cast of four coon hounds is released into the woods, and a judge awards each animal points based on its individual hunting behavior. The objective is to have the dog pick up a coon's trail, tree the coon and keep it treed for five minutes. Points are deducted for unfavorable behavior like barking up the wrong tree or abandoning a treed coon before time elapses.

"Speed and consistency are two qualities a coon hound must possess in order to come out on top," said Malone. "If they lack either, they probably won't stand a chance against stiff competition."

The ACHA, unlike other coon hunting circuits, does not simply award its champion title to the winning hound at the World Championship each year. The winning dog must also have a net positive score. According to Harry Harris, president of the ACHA, a world champion has not been crowned the past two years because of this standard.

"We don't give away a world-champion title to a dog that doesn't end up doing more things right than it does wrong in a night's hunt," said Harris. "The past two years, the top dogs have made mistakes in the final round resulting in negative scores. We're hoping the world-champion title will be awarded in Vicksburg this year."

Although the Vicksburg Riding Club on U.S. Highway 61 North will serve as the headquarters for this year's ACHA World Championship, the six evening hunts will take place in Warren, Yazoo and Sharkey counties in Mississippi, as well as Madison, Richland and Tensas parishes in Louisiana.

Spectators are welcomed to attend all hunts, which will begin shortly after sundown on three consecutive nights beginning Feb. 26. (For additional information, call Mel Malone at 601-638-1110.)

Each of the cast hunts lasts for 90 minutes, where the field of competing dogs is narrowed down to a select group of 20 semi-finalists, and then the final four that will compete for the coveted prize of World Champion.

Even though last year's world championship hunt included coon hounds from 24 different states, this year's event is expected to be larger. In addition to the world championship hunts, there will be a youth hunt, a women's hunt and a traditional bench show where the hounds are judged on their posture and physique.