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.
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.
When I had just become a grandfather (“Grunked” – “Ganddaddy Uncle Bob” was shortened to “GrandUncle” then to “Grunkle”, ending up “Grunk.”) for the second time, I had a lot of congratulations, as well as a lot of well-wishes for the kid. A couple of friends asked a serious question that started me to cogitating, though: “In these days and times, thinking about raising up a pair of grandsons, what would you wish for them to have, to make their lives as good as yours has been?” As one old classmate observed, “We’ve had a pretty good run at Life, haven’t we?”
Little Dave was right, as usual. We were raised in the best place, in the best times, by the best people that kids could ever have been by. And that includes a whole bunch of good friends who are fast getting long in the tooth right along with me.
So that would be about it: Friends, to go along with Faith and Family, which you’d hope and pray for as they grow. There’s a framed calligraphy in my den saying, “The finest gift a father can leave his children is the knowledge that he loves their mother.” That works, but I’d add to that, “and God.” If you have those two things, you almost got it licked. There could be a lot of frills added, but the main one is, I’d wish for Sean and Leiton to grow up with as good a group of non-blood-kin Uncles and Aunts as I did, and as my own kids did.
Big Robert and Uncle Sam, his brother, did well bringing me up, but I killed my first dove under my Godfather Frank Tindall’s tutelage, and in his field. I acquired the desire and the skill of predator calling from Big Dave Bradham, until a great horned owl almost scalped me one night decades later. I also learned from him an appreciation of being willing and able to try to fix anything, though I never had the knack for it.
Big John Dean was there when I killed my first duck, as well as my first deer, from which he liberally smeared blood on my face first thing. He also sent Little John & me to rake sloughs for crawfish, and purge them before boiling to eat. Uncle Shag Shaifer was magnificent on building a stew, but even more proficient in the hospitality of doing so for a houseful of friends and kids. He also instructed me in the art of coon hunting. Mi’ter Mo’ taught me the art of tight-lining for white perch. Mister Jay looked after me not only in teaching hunting, but the basics of conservation and manners in the outdoors, sometimes enforced forcibly. Mountain Willy reinforced the instruction in firearms I got from Big Robert and Uncle Sam. Unca Tullier (“Too-yay”) taught me all I could ever want to know about salt-water fishing.
I grew up being at home in the houses of all those men and their wives, and they loved me just like they did their own kids, as well as – and this is a biggie, folks – disciplining me right along with theirs when I needed it. Many a Sunday when we’d act up on the Kid’s Pew, there would be a regular belt line before we cleared the church. I was never abused, but I sure got at least what I deserved!
My own kids had the same type of Uncle-&-Aunt fraternity as they grew up: older friends who were no blood kin, with names like James, Dye, McElwee, Daly, Bedford, Steen, Street, Neely, Ross, Crockett, Drake – one of my favorite books, Illusions, says, “You will know your friends better in the first minute you meet them than you will ever know some of your family. The bond that links true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.” Of course, that said, I have to acknowledge the value of Br’er Beau and Mountain Willy to my children’s lives.
So that’d be my wish, for those who asked and started this train of thought: For Sir and “Baby Brudder” to have those type Giants in their lives as they grow older; as well as, of course, for The Grunk and Doots to be around for a long time for their GrandBoys.
I’ve been through a lot in this life, and could have given up several times. The one thing that kept me going in the toughest times was knowing that there were friends to whom I could turn when things got too tough; and that they’d be there when I needed them, for whatever I needed. I can only hope and pray that my GrandBoys will have that type upbringing.