Bill Tinnin, the Dean of the Delta
by Billy Johnson
A lot has changed in the Delta in the last 75 years. Farming has gone from using mules to three hundred horsepower tractors guided by satellite technology. Kids have gone from shooting marbles and flying kites to using cell phones and video games. The deer population was only a fraction then of what it is now.
But there is one thing that hasn’t changed; Bill Tinnin is still hunting coons. In his lifetime he’s seen the sport go from nearly nothing to being really big. Then it has gone back down again. Coon hunters are a special breed to start with. The heart of the sport is the dogs the hunter’s raise. That relationship between a hunter and his dogs is what coon hunting is all about.
I’ve heard Bill Tinnin’s name in hunting circles all my life. I’d been waiting to meet him and it was worth the wait. It’s been said that walking is good for your health. Walking the woods behind his dogs for 75 years has kept Mr. Tinnin in good shape. At the ripe old age of eighty-five he is still hunting. As a matter of fact he bagged a trophy ten point buck this past deer season.
Mr. Tinnin has a sharp mind and he is a virtual walking encyclopedia when it comes to coon hunting. He was born in Inverness in 1924. His father raised bird dogs and coon dogs. He became interested in hunting as a young boy.
“We mostly hunted possums to start with. Men worked for 50 cents a day during the depression and coon hides were worth a lot of money. People just about wiped the coons out. It wasn’t until the late ‘40’s that we got a good population of coons back in the Delta.” Mr. Tinnin recalled.
In the early days Mr. Tinnin could walk from Inverness and hunt most anywhere he wanted. Coons destroyed corn patches and stole chicken eggs and folks wanted you to hunt them then. But now it is a different story.
“So much of the woods I hunted have been cleaned up and folks are real touchy about their hunting land. Now coon hunting has mostly died out around here and trophy deer hunting has taken over. There’s really not much hardwoods left in our part of the Delta,” Mr. Tinnin said.
As a young man he hunted with a carbide light, a .22 rifle, and an axe. He’d put on a pair of hip boots and follow his dogs all night. In the ’60’s and ’70’s coon hunters started riding mules. Later four wheelers replaced the mules. “Mules are a lot of trouble. You got to feed and water them and keep them up in a dry place. They take a lot of time to tend to,” Mr. Tinnin remembered.
Through the years coon hunters upgraded from the old carbide lights to the wheat lights that coal miners used. They are bright headlights with a wet cell rechargeable battery the hunters wear on their belt. Mr. Tinnin got the dealership on wheat lights and sold them all over the world. He sold $50,000 worth of lights in one month in the early ’80’s. He’s got letters from people from places like Brazil and Alaska that he sold lights to. He later designed a brighter light he sold called “The Tinnin light”.
He has fond memories of his many friends and all the years they hunted together. “We made three TV shows for Mississippi Game and Fish Commission and one for Paul Ott. John Weathersby helped with the shows. He hunted with us, but liked to stay in the road a lot. Chris Potter from Hollandale helped with one show. We did one on frog hunting, too.” Mr. Tinnin said.
In the late ‘50’s he started deer hunting at Catfish Point Hunting Club. They had a good turkey population that was being thinned by an overabundance of coons. Well, in eleven nights Mr. Tinnin, his hunting buddies, and their dogs bagged one hundred and two coons.
Mr. Tinnin raised deer dogs and ran them on Catfish Point. His scrapbooks are a virtual history of that club where he hunted nearly thirty years. He has many photos of his hunting buddies like Dr. Lewis Farr, and Pee Wee Horton, but it was one photo that really got my attention.
It was a picture of a sign in the woods at Catfish Point that said “Tinnin’s Waterloo”. It is a good picture and has a good story to go along with it. “Well, they got me good that time. We were always pulling tricks on each other. They put a stuffed deer and hide in a tree top where I was going to be hunting. I saw it and shot it. It looked so real. It was a lot of good people in that club and we had a lot of good times.” Mr. Tinnin recalled.
For a man who’s spent his life raising dogs, Mr. Bill didn’t hesitate answering the question of which one was his best dog. “It was black and tan named Ben. That dog was the best I ever had. It got cancer and died when it was nine years old.” He remembered.
He and his partner, Bill Bennett put on “coon-on-log” contests all over the country. It was good entertainment at fairs and field trials that people really enjoyed. “We had a guy from Ohio that would send us real big coons with some weighing up to 25 pounds. He’d send them down on the train. We’d use those in these contests. Your dog would have a minute to knock the coon off the log. We never made any money at it, but we had a lot of fun,” Mr. Tinnin remembered.
I had looked forward to meeting and interviewing Bill Tinnin, but was anxious to pick his brain as well. I was not disappointed. I’ve always been interested in nature and somebody that’s hunted 75 years thoughts on that subject are of keen interest to me.
“Well, nature has a way of taking care of itself. Habitat changes and the animals change with it. I think everyone has the instinct to hunt. Some are just more interested in it than others. What man does affects nature. When catfish farming got big in the Delta, these birds came in here to feed on the catfish. Those birds like frogs, too, and they really cut down on the frog population in the Delta.” Mr. Tinnin said.
Flipping through all the articles that have been written about Bill Tinnin over the years made me realize that no one article could tell his story. It is enough material to write a book. There was one article in American Cooner magazine entitled “Legends of the Sport” that really portrayed his love of the sport.
What is a legend in the hunting and fishing world? To me, a legend is a person who’s passion is for that one particular thing that they do. It is a person who preserves the traditions of what they do and passes it down to the next generation. In Bill Tinnin’s case it is many generations. It is a person who’s earned the respect of his peers and hunting buddies.
The Delta has produced many nationally known sportsmen who I consider to be legends. Dock Cavender was known for his crappie fishing. Tom Walsh and Herman Caillouet are known for winning the world duck calling championship in Stuttgart. Sonny Rich is known for his trap shooting. In the coon hunting world, Bill Tinnin is nationally known.
He is a modest man that is thankful for the good health he’s had to still be hunting at the age of eighty-five. He’s proud of the dogs he’s raised, the friends he’s hunted with, and a lifetime of memories from thousands of nights of running his dogs. In the words of the old timers, Bill Tinnin is much man. Anybody that can catch a falling coon with his bare hands ain’t afraid too much. Anybody that loves to hunt and fish can only hope and pray to one day be where Bill Tinnin is: still at it at the age of eighty-five years old.
Hurricane Gordon has came and went, so I went out to the Swimming Hole to do a final cleanup and pickup out there. Once it gets too cool to swim, I get all the pool paraphernalia gathered and stored for the winter, and bring Betsy’s plants in to winter on the back porch. All this requires a pickup truck, so I backed mine up under the big cypress and began to load it.
Lordee! The mosquitoes were about to carry me off! Of course, I was dressed only in shorts and tee shirt, so they had a lot to eat on: a Brownspur smorgasbord. I was so busy swatting that I dropped a potted plant, which promptly became an un-potted plant, and I could see this wasn’t going to work without me getting in trouble with Betsy. But as I retreated, fighting a rear-guard action, I could see that the skeeters weren’t coming from the water, they were swarming from the high grass. See, with the hurricane early fall rains, I had not mowed the pasture and around the Swimming Hole in a month.
So, I hied me back to the house and cranked off the lawn mower. The pasture was nearly knee-deep in crab grass, so I set the mower up high and attacked. Swarms of mosquitoes arose to do battle! Since the day had warmed up considerably, I had shed the tee shirt and just had on shorts – before I had mowed back to the Mammy Grudge ditchbank, I was covered with insects! Not only were the mosquitoes ubiquitous, but some type of small moth was also holed up in the high grass. I retreated again.
Back to the house for jeans, and an old faded blue cotton shirt with long sleeves. Started the mowing operation again, but once again the insect army rebuffed me. I had sandals on my feet, and that was not an option – I had to head back to the house for socks.
Once more into the fray I mowed, and again the bugs beat me back. Not only did I have to go back for a cap, but I rigged up a headband under that to protect my forehead and ears, then stuffed a bandana handkerchief up under the hat to hang down over my neck, tying it under my chin. Still the mosquitoes came after me in droves.
They were alighting on my light blue shirt sleeves, and sometimes punching through to the skin underneath, so I had a good contrast for scientific observation. These were not our standard-issue Delta mosquito: the brownish, buzzing outfit we all know and are prepared for. These skeeters were larger, and they were black. They seemed to have a white stripe diagonally down their sides, and I swear they were even hairy! Not furry, now, but hairy, like the hair on a dog stands up when the canine is upset or scared. I have raised Labrador retrievers out here for years; have we bred up a mutant cross between a mosquito and a Labrador?
Certainly these monsters were able to bite through a cotton shirt, like I once saw Polar Bear, our light-yellow Lab, do with a stranger who tried to get in our house, not knowing that I was home with no cars around, and that a grinning dog was also a biting dog – that’s in the Bible somewhere, I think. Lordee, surely these mutant mosquitoes weren’t grinning, too? I tried to watch more closely, and, by golly, I think they were! Grinning giant hairy mosquitoes – I once more retreated to the house and found the skeeter scoot left over from turkey season. I sprayed all over and headed back for the pasture on the mower.
I swear, the Deet did discourage the mosquitoes from biting me, but the dadgum little moths loved it! It was like moth perfume – soon the moths were so thick around me that at times I could barely see the front of the mower! By now, it was getting toward dusk anyway, so I cut the lights on. That was worse! There were so many bugs rising in front of me that the lights reflected off of them and totally obscured where I was trying to mow. I couldn’t see grass, trees, or even the Mammy Grudge ditchbank, until I realized I was mowing uphill!
Tell you how bad it was: I was having to stop for bullfrogs. Big bullfrogs had come to the pasture from the Mammy Grudge and the Swimming Hole to feast on the insects I was stirring up mowing, and they were so full, they could hardly hop out of the way! Can one get West Nile Virus by eating froglegs from mosquito-eating bullfrogs?
I’d chainsawn, split with axes, hauled & stacked about a cord of wood all by myownself, after a storm, so now I was mostly in a clean-up, finish-up mode, cutting up mainly some chinaberry logs that were semi-still-standing.
I broke my back – four vertebrae, two of them crushed – a long time ago when I hydroplaned a pickup, so bending to cut logs is painful for me. In this case I had whacked off a chinaberry tree that was holding up a larger chinaberry that had been twisted off by the winds, three years ago. I’d been waiting on it to fall, but Betsy got tired of waiting. Naturally, when I cut far enough into the smaller tree, the larger one it was holding up forced it to break off, and they both crashed down. Fresh chinaberry burns well, and is a pleasure to split, yet after I finished with those two, two smaller pecans, and a couple of hackberries, I was whupped!
So, I still had two chinaberry logs which were to some extent still attached to their stumps, one log sticking out about twelve feet at knee height, the second one sticking out about fifteen feet at waist level. Those were my targets for the next Saturday, and I wasn’t even going to have to bend over atall!
I whacked up the smaller one first, then turned to the larger one, which had been blown over for three years. At the point where it had twisted and split, it had a hollow that extended up into the trunk, but not as far as where my first log cut was going to be. I was on my third waist-high cut when suddenly, to my horror, I saw blood and flesh appear on the saw!
Unless one is a producer of horror movies, blood on a running chainsaw is a very bad sign, especially when you, the chainsawyer, are the only one present on the scene. I instantly cut the saw off, over halfway through the tree.
Blood on a chainsaw also usually means pain somewhere, but I could feel no pain, which didn’t necessarily mean anything, at least initially. Lyme Disease left me with little sensation on the outside of my right thigh, and knee reconstruction left me with a dead area above my left knee, so I immediately assumed that’s where the painless blood and flesh had come from. I stepped gingerly back and looked down. Thankfully, there was no blood, or even a rip in my jeans, on either leg.
But my right hand was crushed years ago in a cotton gin lint cleaner, then had third degree burns on it two decades later, so it doesn’t have much feeling either. I eased my gloves off, thinking that if I left my severed fingers within them, maybe they’d be easier for the doctors to re-attach. But I still had eight fingers and two thumbs outside the gloves, and they all wiggled when I tried that, nor were any of them bleeding. I checked my feet – no blood, no cuts on my sneakers.
Now I looked more closely at the bloody mess on the chainsaw blade, to see that there were actually guts thereon! I jerked open my shirt – nope, not none-a me! Finally, I grasped the chainsaw and worked it free from the log.
The hollow whereinto I had just sawn was the den of at least one snake!
I picked up the axe and whacked open the hollow, keeping my distance in case this was a poisonous snake – one can only imagine the danger involved in taking a chainsaw to a stumptail moccasin! Nary stumptail: this was obviously a chicken snake, which seemed to have been about four feet long, although it was in several parts by the time I got it out, and I didn’t try to reassemble it to measure.
You can bet that I looked into that hollow before cranking my saw again. But you can also bet that I didn’t crank it until I had sat on the ground and begun to breathe normally again. Blood on your chainsaw: that’ll make your heart beat fast!
Sunday was a wasp day!
This ain’t a religious column, either.
Walked into church before Sunday school, and right there in the hall, a lady wanted to know what was the best thing for a wasp sting, because the janitor had gotten stung several times by those big ole man-eating red wasps, and she remembered a recent column on sting remedies. Meat tenderizer was the remedy she was trying to recall, but the day after that column came out, an insurance lady across the street caught me to say that Elmer’s Glue worked just as well: put a drop on the stung place, let it dry, then peel it off, & presto: no pain. Your call.
But after church some of us walked around and discovered two more huge nests, one of red wasps, a second of those smaller striped yellow & black guinea wasps. Betsy got buzzed by one of those, but didn’t get stung. Someone went after the bug spray in the church, but we skedaddled.
After lunch, I changed into trunks and headed for the Swimming Hole, as usual, glancing at the thermometer on the way out of the porch: 102 in the shade! Lordee, this has been a hot & humid summer! Yet the water coming out of my well into the Swimming Hole is 68 degrees, so I was headed for a comfortable place for my Sunday afternoon nap, floating on a net & air mattress that lets you recline half submerged. No better place in the world to be on a hot afternoon!
However, the sun was burning through my eyelids, felt like. No problem: my Grunk cap (Granddaddy Uncle Bob got shortened to GrandUncle, then Grunkle then Grunk) was hanging on one of the smaller cypress trees by the pool patio. I waded out to get it.
I grabbed it, lifted it off the branch, and it was full of red wasps!
My cousin Mountain Willie was a calm, controlled man who advocated never panicking in a situation where one is surrounded by stinging insects. “Just calmly back away and don’t let them sense fear, and they won’t sting,” he used to say. He’s dead now (not from wasp stings), but passed away before he convinced me of the value of remaining calm when a wasp nest is revealed unto me closeby.
There were probably ten plastic chairs, a couple of canvas recliners, four small end tables, and a couple of buckets on the patio behind me. I cleant those suckers out in a hurry; seems like I fell continually for five minutes before I reached a metal table and chairs that offered a firm support to stop falling, far enough away from the wasp-inhabited Grunk cap. One of the metal chairs against the table had a kid’s tee-shirt laid across it to dry. Someone left it while we were gone to Nawth Caihlinuh, and I hung it across that chair only a week ago to dry out.
When I grasped that shirt-covered chair back, another dozen wasps boiled out from under the shirt – they had built a nest there in a week’s time! I ran for the water. One sting on the right ring finger – no rings – and one below the right knee, which is a good place to get stung, since I don’t have much feeling there after the doctor cut out the gangrene in that leg.
When the buzzing settled down, I hied me to the house for some bug spray, returned, and used up most of the can on the two nests I had discovered, then sprayed under tables and chairs, just in case. I lifted the lid on the plastic garbage can out there, to toss the empty spray can.
Would you believe there was a wasp nest under that lid??!!
Two more hits, one on the forehead, one behind the ear.
I did have another can of spray back at the house, plus some meat tenderizer.
Okay, it’s Sunday: tell me again: just why did the Good Lord make wasps?
I know: that ain’t Neill’s Department – ‘way above my pay grade!!
I did a speaking and book-signing event last month is a community whose local newspaper has run my weekly syndicated column for most of these 25 years. A lady buying a book complimented as I was autographing it, “I think your best column was about your foreign exchange student’s comment about the bump in the road.” Gee whiz, that was maybe 20 years ago!
Others asked me to relate that story, so I reiterated that Johan, our personal Viking, had noted a highway sign on one of our trips, which proclaimed the warning, “Bump Ahead.” Sure enough, we then hit the bump before I had slowed down enough. Rubbing the top of his head, Johan observed in a puzzled tone, “In America, you haff a bomp in de road, you put op a sign dat say, “Bomp”?
“That’s right,” I replied as we gained speed again. “What do y’all do in Norway?”
“Vell,” he declared vehemently, “In Norvay, ve fix de bomp!”
We all got a laugh – and maybe a lesson? – as I then recalled that our Viking had been volunteered as one of the South’s earliest high school soccer-style kickers, playing in the first football game he had ever seen. That team won the state championship, and he probably still holds some of the kicking records there. He only missed one – his first extra point – because no one had told him that the other team would surge forward to try to block his kick: he had only practiced with a center and holder before the game, and Washington School scored first. He had gotten permission to play from his parents after assuring his mother by long distance that “no one will try to kill” him, in just his role as kicker.
Johan actually learned to drive on a tractor. He had been too young to drive in Norway when he came to Mississippi for a full year, and it was in his contract that if someone reported that he had even sat behind the steering wheel of a car or truck, he was gone back to Scandinavia pronto. Yet there was no mention of a farm vehicle, so I put him on an International 1066 pulling a harrow on a land-planned 200-acre field, once I’d taught him the essentials of driving it. He still holds the Brownspur record for hitting the left lock-brake and spinning around at full speed, without flipping the tractor! That was before I attached the harrow.
That was back in 1984-85. Once we got e-mail out here at Brownspur, I struck up a fairly regular correspondence with our personal Viking, who has only come back to visit once. After graduation from high school in Mississippi, he went on to college, a year as a Norway ski-paratrooper, then on to medical school in Germany, marriage to a Swedish girl, two kids, and a doctor’s career. But about three years ago he wrote me that his foreign exchange student experience had been so good that he wanted his whole family to have that same opportunity, so he had volunteered for one of those “Doctors without borders” organizations. He and his wife, with a ten-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, were assigned to a medical practice in the Australian outback for a full year. They all enjoyed it so much that he extended for six months, when the year was up!
It was nice to know that he had enjoyed Mississippi so much. During that year he not only played football (that was before Southern schools had soccer teams; that sport was still suspected as being vaguely communistic then) and drove a tractor, but he hunted doves, ducks, deer, and turkeys; handled the family wild pets, such as screech owls, raccoons, possums, and a full-grown great horned owl; enjoyed our Swimming Hole in the pasture; and discovered Southern Belles, three of which tried to go back to Norway with him when the year was up!
Johan affected us for life, too: I still get my Vs and Ws mixed up, as in “Wolwo” or “Wolksvagen” or “VereVolf” or “Wampire.” In return, his letters still include an occasional “Y’all” or “Ain’t.” Betsy still hangs out the Norvay wreath at Christmas on our door, saying “Velcomen.”
Having our own personal Viking here at Brownspur was a great experience, for both families, even with a few “Bomps in de road” along the way!
We were flying-fishing along, quietly working a popping bug in and out among the willows and cypress knees, picking up a slab bream now and then, being kind of quiet and laid back on a late summer morning. Earlier, at daybreak, we had motored up to a little pothole that we could only get into at just the right river stage on this oxbow lake. Beavers had built a substantial dam across the little channel we used to enter the pond, and when we reached the dam, I had stepped off the bow on the boat onto the stick-and-mud structure, and boosted the john boat across, then jumped back in. Now we had fished all the way around the pond, had an ice chest full of big bream, and were ready to slide back across the dam, motor down the channel back into the lake, and cross over to where our truck was parked.
As we approached the dam, I reeled in until I had just enough line out to hook the popping bug onto the reel guide, sticking the little black dropper fly’s hook into the cork handle. Big Robert had taught me to use a black fly about eight inches behind the popping bug, and often I’d bring in two bream on the same cast. I laid my rod in the boat, grabbed the side rails, and prepared to step out onto the dam to boost the boat over. Then I saw one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen: a big purple-colored bream that probably weighed over a pound rose silently above the other side of the dam, flopping its tail and looking at me sideways. I mean, the fish was on its side! I stood to get a better look.
And wished I hadn’t. The big bream was sideways, all right. It was being held thataway in the mouth of one of the biggest water moccasins I’ve even seen. The snake’s head was almost a foot out of the water with its prize in its mouth, but the bream was so big that, looking straight at it, I couldn’t see the snake holding it!
Needless to say, I did not step out of the boat onto that beaver dam. The snake finally noticed that its path was blocked by our boat, and turned to head the other way, swimming away from us head-high with the bream in its jaws. My question the rest of the month was: where was that snake when I had jumped so nimbly onto the dam at first light?
I was wade-fishing once in a shallow pond, casting a fly back toward the bank. When I’d hook a bream, I’d string it onto the nylon stringer I had tied to my belt. I learned that technique fishing for speckled trout at Chandelier Island, then unlearned it when a shark chomped down on Big Robert’s stringer of specks. St. Peter is not the only mortal man to walk on the water, though it’s better to water-walk by faith than fear. Big Robert pulled that shark halfway up on the beach.
Anyhoo, I was picking up a bream pretty regularly when my stringer snagged on a stump or underwater brush top. I jerked it loose without looking, but it didn’t release, so I jerked again. That time, it jerked back! I looked behind me to see a moccasin with a mouthful of my bream, attached to my belt by a nylon cord, which subsequently proved strong enough to pull a couple dozen big bream and a four-foot snake slap up onto dry land. I mean, I was a long way from the water when I finally got my belt off to drop the stringer! Bad thing was (for the moccasin) that the fish seemed stuck in his throat, and he couldn’t spit it out to bite me, when I returned with a limb to end his appetite problems.
I used to fish with a guy who loved to aggravate a snake by casting just past its head with a popping bug, then jerking the lure back across the serpent to set the hook. He’d play the snake just like a big fish until he had it close enough to whack with a paddle, breaking its neck. I didn’t think it was near’bout as much fun as he did! Nor did the snakes. He finally got cured of the habit when he hooked a really big moccasin on his fly rod, and the snake instantly charged his boat! One doesn’t want any viper in the boat, much less a big moccasin that’s mad at you personally. The guy jumped up on the middle seat and held the fly rod as far out as possible, but the snake bent the rod double trying to get to him. It took a 300 magnum to settle that! Luckily, a nearby fisherman had his rifle close by in his truck, and heard the cries for help. From the fisherman, not the snake.