Preston Luft (center) poses with his coonhunting dog, Rage, among fellow hunters. Luft’s parents gave the dog to Jack Bingham, a friend and president of the Central Iowa Coonhunters Association, to train and use in competition hunts.
Preston Luft (center) poses with his coonhunting dog, Rage, among fellow hunters. Luft’s parents gave the dog to Jack Bingham, a friend and president of the Central Iowa Coonhunters Association, to train and use in competition hunts.
Friday, August 31, 2012

LE GRAND, Iowa — The hunters waited till sundown to search again for Preston Luft.

The 26-year-old Carroll man had not been seen for nearly a day in this heavily wooded area just east of Marshalltown, where he and his dog, Rage, and dozens of others chased raccoons the night before.

They call themselves coonhunters — a tight-knit group of outdoorsmen who walk the woods at night with dogs and spotlights. At competitions like this one on Aug. 3, the hunters earn points when their dogs force raccoons up trees and for being quick to spot the animals with the lights. Then they move on to the next raccoon and the next tree.

They have no guns. And the group that puts on the contests in the area — the Central Iowa Coonhunters Association — strictly forbids alcohol and other drug use before and during the two-hour hunts. But there are still risks.

The area where Luft hunted is sloping and twisted by the Iowa River. The weeds tower over men, and fallen branches can trip careless feet.

Coonhunters can drown or fall into abandoned wells.

Luft hunted in a group with three others the night he didn’t come back. One of his group suffered heat exhaustion, which distracted the other two from noticing that Luft didn’t return with his dog. Both thought he rode back to the association’s lodge with the other.

Jack Bingham, president of the association, cancelled the hunt the next day when Luft couldn’t be found. Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters and hunters rode all-terrain vehicles and horses to find the man in an area that spanned about four miles. No luck.

So Bingham hatched a plan. The sheriff’s office called off its search at 8 p.m. An hour or so later, it was dark. Bingham hoped that the light Luft wore on his chest would still shine in the night.

The 23 coonhunters set out along the Iowa River to wade through the weeds, and two hours later Bingham heard the faint shouts from hundreds of yards away.

They found Preston Luft.

Luft was a fun-loving and hard-working kid who charmed the people he met along his childhood newspaper route or at his mother’s beauty shop in town, his parents Earl and Gail recalled on a recent day in their home.

He was the baby of the family — nine years younger than his next oldest sister.

The boy with an easy smile grew to a tower of 6-feet-3 and 230 pounds. He played basketball for Ar-We-Va High School’s team that narrowly missed the state tournament and graduated from the school in 2005.

Luft drove a Figure-8 race car and later helped a friend race the circle dirt tracks in the area. He lived in Carroll with a buddy and worked here and there for his father’s shop in town, Carroll Hydraulics. He had recently returned there to work full time.

Luft was picky about his friends but was a good talker. He wore his ball cap backwards and liked to joke.

And about four years ago, he started walking through the woods at night with a dog and a light. He spent much of his free time hunting raccoons near Ralston and bought all the gear and a new dog from Texas to help.

“He took care of the dog better than he did a woman,” Earl Luft said with a gravelly voice and white hair. “He loved being outdoors.”

The hunters’ search

More than 50 hunters drove to Le Grand from as far away as Tennessee for this month’s raccoon hunting competition.

They stayed in local hotels or campers near the coonhunters’ lodge in the woods north of town. Preston Luft borrowed a camper from Bingham.

Bingham was up most of the night. He judged a late competition of the winners of each of the four-person groups that hunted those first two hours after dusk.

Another hunter brought back Luft’s dog, Rage, and Bingham tied him to a post near the camper where he thought Luft was asleep about 5:30 a.m.

The other hunters who camped nearby could have easily overlooked Luft’s absence because it’s common for coonhunters to spend an entire night in the woods, Bingham said. Some will lean against a tree and sleep until morning if they can’t find their dog.

Bingham and others searched for Luft and eventually reported him missing to the Marshall County Sheriff about noon. About 50 people scoured the woods that afternoon and evening. Some walked within yards of where Luft was later found, but his body lay hidden by the weeds.

They cancelled the Saturday night hunt.

Earl and Gail Luft drove to Le Grand and waited. As the hours passed, their hopes waned. Gail went to rest in a hotel room.

The official search was called off for the day at 8 p.m., but Bingham had a plan.

In the woods, the coonhunters waded through weeds and called out: “Preston.” They stopped every so often and shut off their lights, hoping to glimpse the one Luft wore on his chest.

And then, a 17-year-old boy yelled. He had found Luft, on his back next to a tree. Eyes shut. Luft didn’t move or breathe. Some insects crawled on his face.

It was obvious what happened, Bingham said:

Luft was walking near the Iowa River, looking for Rage. Luft held a tracking device that showed where to find the dog. But he didn’t see the fallen tree limb that jutted about a foot off the ground.

Luft tripped and fell fast into a tree. The side of his head struck the tree’s trunk.

And there he died.

“That’s nothing we all haven’t done 100 times,” Bingham said of tripping over a limb. “It was just a freak accident.”

Remembering Preston

Bingham and the others waited for officers to photograph the scene. They put Luft’s body in a bag and carried him out of the woods, back and forth across the Iowa River and its twisty landscape.

One of the coonhunters, an older fellow, returned to the hunting lodge. He told Earl Luft what they found.

Luft was dazed. He couldn’t talk. His boy with the easy smile was supposed take over the family business and hunt and have fun and live his life.

It was more than a week before Bingham could walk the woods again. His son, Jacob, a friend of Preston, took longer. He got a tattoo on his shoulder to remember their fallen friend — it shows Rage barking up a tree at a raccoon.

Hunters across the Midwest have sent donations to the family to help with funeral costs and others. Next month Bingham will hold a special hunt to benefit the Lufts. It’s going to be hugely popular, he said.

Earl Luft hopes his son’s death will spur the coonhunters to use tracking devices in competitions, so they know when someone might be in trouble. He is surprised and grateful for the help the hunters have offered.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the coonhunters,” Earl Luft said. “Without them, he could still be lying out there.”

Gail Luft wants to plant a tree in their new Westside yard. It’ll grow big, and she and Earl can sit there in the shade and feel the breeze and smile and remember their son.

And maybe all of this won’t hurt quite so bad.