By ANDREW MCGINN
They sometimes like to knock over your garbage cans long after you’ve settled in for the night.
They’ll eat just about anything.
This is the story of a 14-year-old boy who’s happiest after curfew ... chasing after those opportunistic omnivores among us known as Procyon lotor.
The mere idea of a nocturnal eighth grader would have some parents on edge — but in Kaleb Hoyle’s case, only the coons need to worry.
The Greene County Middle School student from rural Grand Junction is well on his way to making a name for himself in the world of competition coon hunting.
Kaleb on April 15 won the 2017 Iowa Youth State Championship during a hunt in southeast Iowa sponsored by the Indiana-based Professional Kennel Club, which bills itself as “The Major League of Competition Coonhunting.”
Up to four nights a week — whether he has school the next morning or not — Kaleb can be found in the woods after sunset, keeping his ear tuned to the howl of his coonhound, Blaze, whom he won as a prize at another competition.
Kaleb scoffs when asked if he likes playing video games or spending time on his phone.
“I love being out in the woods,” he said. “All it is is you and the hound.”
“He’s very atypical,” dad J.J. Hoyle offered.
It’s been less than a year since Kaleb entered his first competitive coon hunt, a sport in which dogs and handlers square off under the cover of darkness armed only with headlamps. Firearms aren’t used, and no game is ever taken.
He’s already been in more than 30 competition hunts.
“He wins more than he loses,” J.J. said, “by a long shot.”
Clearly, Kaleb wasn’t barking up the wrong tree last year when he started pestering his dad to take him coon hunting for the first time.
“He drove me crazy,” said J.J., a 1997 graduate of East Greene High School who owns Raccoon Valley Lawn Care. “The kid loves to hunt, but in the summer, there’s nothing to hunt.”
Despite being a longtime hunter, J.J. admittedly didn’t know much about raccoon hunting.
But he figured it couldn’t hurt.
“I’m a firm believer,” he explained, “that if you give a kid a direction, he stays out of trouble.”
It took a little more convincing to win over his wife, Teresa, who works at Home State Bank.
The idea of their adolescent son trouncing through the timber in complete darkness — quite often on school nights — wasn’t an easy sell.
“You get one yell to get out of bed and you have to keep your grades up,” J.J. said, reciting the ground rules they laid down for Kaleb.
Kaleb often can be found alongside mentor Jay Goughnour, a Greene County native who first got into competition coon hunting 15 years ago.
Despite graduating in 1995 from neighboring Jefferson-Scranton High School, Goughnour didn’t cross paths with J.J. Hoyle until adulthood, when Goughnour became a chemical sales rep to Raccoon Valley Lawn Care.
“There are a lot of people that don’t know anything about coon hunting,” said Goughnour, who now lives in Polk City. “It’s not just about shooting coon. It’s about the dog.
“It’s up to the handler to interpret what the dogs are doing in the woods and put it on the score card accordingly.”
Once they’re cut loose, a coonhound can take off into the woods up to a mile away.
“You really have to understand the voice of your dog,” said J.J., explaining that the howls can send shivers down your spine.
If the handler believes their dog has “treed” a raccoon and they get there to find the tree empty, negative points are assessed.
What ensues is a game of strategy, like Russian chess master Garry Kasparov joining the cast of “Duck Dynasty.”
Kaleb this month played defensively and won the PKC Iowa Youth State Championship with a score of zero.
His competitors, on the other hand, all finished with negative points.
Kaleb took to the sport immediately, winning his first competition hunt with Goughnour’s 10-year-old dog, Copper.
No one was more amazed than Goughnour.
“This is like Brett Favre coming back to try to win a football game,” Goughnour said of Copper.
Kaleb and Copper kept right at it, placing in the final four out of 60 dogs at the Preston Luft Memorial Hunt near Marshalltown this past August. For that, he pocketed $360.
“There were some guys who weren’t happy to be beat by a 13-year-old with a 10-year-old dog,” J.J. said.
Goughnour had served as a mentor to Luft as well before a freak accident during a competition hunt near Marshalltown in the summer of 2012 claimed his life. Luft, a native of west central Iowa with ties to Jefferson, was only 26 when he fell in the woods, suffering a fatal head wound.
Copper eventually passed in December at the age of 11.
Except for the state youth championship — which he won with a coonhound belonging to Dan Walker named Joker — Kaleb is almost always competing against older, more experienced hunters.
“I’m the youngest one always there,” he said.
He now aspires to one day have a kennel of his own, breeding dogs known for their winning bloodline.
A coonhound can sell for anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000.
“It’s taught him how to manage money,” J.J. said.
Kaleb’s parents got him started in the sport with $200.
“We told him, when you’re out, you’re done,” J.J. said.
J.J. and Teresa haven’t ponied up so much as a single dime since.
“He’s won enough,” J.J. said, “we haven’t had to.”