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A year ago, a dog and his owner/handler from the Pee Dee region of South Carolina took first-place honors in the Friday Nite Hunt of the Grand American Coon Hunt, while hunting property in the Midlands region of the state.

On Friday, in the 55th edition of the Friday Nite Hunt, the top two scorers returning to the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds were from out-of-state locations and both hunted land in the Pee Dee region.

As steady rain blanketed the Lowcountry and Midlands of the state heading into Friday night's competition, some hunters in casts that drew land closer to Orangeburg struggled to find raccoons before their time was up.

But, GR PR Posum Creek Stylish Big Bubb, a Treeing Walker owned and handled by Mark Barbour of Gate City, Virginia, had little trouble scoring 975 points to top the standings, while hunting in Florence County.

"I missed hunting this event last year, but I have been here many other years," Barbour said. "It was wet last night, but everybody did a good job and the dogs done good and everything went well.

"We just thank the Lord for everything. They had us up near Florence, we got on some coons and just had a good night all the way around. I'm from the mountains and know that the water is just part of coon hunting. There's not much you can do about it. We all appreciate the hunt and how it's done here every year. I praise God and I coon hunt."

Big Bubb and Barbour did have some competition at the top, as NTCH PR Stylish Beauty, a Treeing Walker owned by Adam McGuire and Joe Summers, handled by James Erickson of Stoney Creek, Tennessee, scored 900 points hunting land in nearby Marion County. All other competitors on Friday scored 550 or fewer points.

"The last time I was here for the Grand American was two years ago, when it froze with the ice storm," Erickson said. "It was wet where we hunted last night, but it never got up over our waders.

"We've been down here all week, trying to get used to the water and the conditions. The property we went to had a lot of places with a lot of coons. It was a good hunt, even though the first hour it was raining and the coons weren't moving. The next hour they were out."

Some T&D Region dogs and owners/handlers placed in the Top 20 of the Friday Nite Hunt, including Hunter Grooms of St. George with GR PR Grooms Hardwoods Hoss finishing at No. 8 with 375 points, Bryan Campbell of Ridgeville with NTCH PR Riverswamp Chance finishing at No. 12 with 300 points, and Wyatt Kirven of Branchville with PR Pea Ridge Roxy finishing at No. 18 with 225 points.

"I've only hunted the Grand American for two years, but I've been hunting since I was four or five years old," Kirven said, having guided a cast on a hunt Friday. "I hunted one night here last year and the place had a bunch of water and it took the whole time to tree.

"Last night, everywhere was pretty wet. We treed one coon and recast, but the time caught us. The river is up and a lot of the creeks are flooded. It's hard to tree a lot of coons in a bunch of water. But, you can find some good hills, tree them quick and get some good scores. It all depends on where you went."

The Saturday Nite Hunt and Final Four cast to determine the Overall Hunt Winner were expected to have little or no rain to deal with, possibly leading to many higher scores in the final rounds.

"We hunted 258 dogs (on Friday), which is more than we have hunted in quite a few years," Grand American Coon Hunt Association President David McKee said. "Everything went OK, but the scores weren't quite as good as normal, because it was raining in a lot of places.

"Hunters had a lot of rain to contend with, but I think all of our guides did the best job they could, trying to wait the rain out or move to better locations. The rain is a detriment to the hunt, but not as bad as ice, when the coons will just lay up and won't feed in their normal patterns."

A good many coon hunting fans and regular attenders to the Grand American Coon Hunt made their way to the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds for Saturday's events, as clouds moved out of the area and the sun warmed things up into the lower 50s by early afternoon.

However, there was a noticeable drop in attendance, likely attributed to coronavirus spread concerns. Slight changes were made to various areas of the event, to promote safety, as signs reminded folks to wear a facemask and practice social distancing as much as possible.

"I don't think the crowd is what we normally see and, really, we didn't want the crowd that we normally see, because we don't want that negative impact," McKee said. "I know the restaurants and hotels nearby are appreciative of this event.

"We've done all we can do to disinfect the bathrooms and have hand sanitizer at many locations and do this the right way. That's a good thing about this fairgrounds location, people can spread out and enjoy themselves."

In the youth bench show, there were 47 entries for young people to show their dogs. That number was more than double the 20-plus entries during the 2020 event.

Nearly 60 vendors brought their wares to sell at this year's Grand American event, compared to the normal number of 130 or more. Many who came this year reported to McKee that sales were going well and customers were finding what they needed and making purchases.

"We've been in business about 27 years and we've been here every one of those years," said Rock Hill's Ray Conrad, owner of Bright Eyes Lights, an industry leader in hunting headlamp equipment and a main sponsor of the Grand American Coon Hunt. "This is normally one of our three or four biggest weekends of the year.

"The crowd's not quite as big this year, but we are blessed and we are selling some of everything we brought. We are very happy with the turnout, particularly during these times. I'm a retired chemist from Duke Energy, and I started this (business) a long time ago. I'm a real technical guy and I love sitting there and working to get something just right. All four of the handlers with the dogs who make the Final Four here will receive one of our products, a $339 product. This is a great event and we enjoy seeing a lot of the same people here every year."

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