Creatures of the Night: Chasing Raccoons Through the Ozarks on Muleback

The old guard of Ozark raccoon hunters has nearly vanished, but one young family is putting its own spin on the region’s traditional method of hunting: by mule. Giacomo Fortunato

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A FEW YEARS AGO, Clay Newcomb bought his first mule. The unbroke female cost him one beat-up World War II rifle (complete with bayonet), a 1994 Honda FourTrax quad, and $500 cash. Three months later, after tearing through YouTube tutorials and calling a horse trainer once a week, Newcomb found himself the proud owner of a broke mule. Soon he started riding Izzie into the woods at night, racing after his Plott hounds, Fern and Jedi.

There’s a rich and somewhat bizarre tradition of Ozark hunters chasing raccoons with their mules, although it’s not widely practiced these days. But Newcomb isn’t the historical re-enactor type, and he’s not trying to revive the glory days of Ozark coon hunting. It’s admittedly a nod to tradition, but he mostly hunts with Izzie because he’s always wanted a mule, and he’s always hunted coons, so he might as well combine the two.

“There is something in human nature that greatly values partnering with an animal to do work. It’s so satisfying,” he says. “And from a practical standpoint, to ride a mule is an efficient way to hunt because you can cover a lot more ground. It’s just a good way to travel in the wilderness.”

Most nights, though, that efficiency takes a back seat to inclusivity, because there are typically more hunters than mounts. Tracking coons with the Newcombs is something of a party, and Clay is often accompanied by his three kids (who almost always bring a friend or two), a pair of dogs, one mule, and occasionally a donkey. Fortunately, they have plenty of room to roam, thanks to the nearby Ozark National Forest and landowner permission on several large private tracts.

“The best part of a hunt is when you’re all sitting there in the dark, talking, then bam—a dog barks,” Newcomb says. “It’s coon-hunting etiquette that no matter what you’re talking about, you stop talking. And boy, do new people pick it up quick.”

When Newcomb hears deep bawls from Jedi or Fern’s squalling barks, he knows the hunt is just getting started. 

This was a training exercise for both dog and mule: Could each stay focused on their task? Fern didn’t lose a beat barking, and Izzie kept calm amid the chaos. Giacomo Fortunato

It’s rare to see a raccoon so easily in the early season, but Jedi surprised this relatively small one, causing it to scramble up the nearest trunk. Although Newcomb prefers to hunt late fall and winter, Arkansas has a nine-month coon season with no bag limits. And in July 2019, the state expanded its already liberal season to allow year-round hunting on private land. Raccoons are thriving with urban sprawl, and declining turkey and quail populations have wildlife managers encouraging hunters to take more of the egg-eating varmints. Giacomo Fortunato

From left: Newcomb with Jedi and Fern; 15-year-old River Newcomb atop Boudreaux the donkey; and Shepherd Newcomb, 11, with Izzie the mule. Not pictured: The two additional mules Newcomb is training. Giacomo Fortunato

Jedi (left) is a hard hunter with a lot of drive. “He doesn’t have the nose that Fern does,” Newcomb says, “but she hunts harder and better with him than without.” Giacomo Fortunato

Riding over rough country in the dark can be dangerous, but mules have a self-preservation streak—often called stubbornness—that helps keep their riders safe too. Giacomo Fortunato

The ancient Ozark Mountains offer abundant public ground, but hunters pay for the privilege in vertical feet. Here, Newcomb and Fern navigate a steep bank. Giacomo Fortunato

No matter how many folks join his hunts, Newcomb always packs just one rifle—this Ruger 10/22—and the Ruger Mark II pistol he received for Christmas in high school. Giacomo Fortunato

Dogs don’t understand property lines, but GPS helps keep everyone legal: Newcomb can see Fern and Jedi’s location, and summon them with an e-collar tone. Giacomo Fortunato

For coon dogs, there are four phases of the hunt: striking a track, trailing, locating, and treeing (shown here). Each bark indicates the phase and clues to its progression. Giacomo Fortunato

When a coon holes up in a tree with dense foliage, Newcomb will often take the shot for the best chances of recovery. He and Shepherd couldn’t locate the coon among these leaves, but Shepherd got to pull the trigger on their hunt the following night. Giacomo Fortunato

“To be able to put a hound on the mule’s back when that hound is just barking every breath—that tells you you’ve got a good mule,” Newcomb says. “And a good hound, too. Fern trusts me enough to let me throw her up there, and she still stays focused on that coon.” Giacomo Fortunato

Though competition hunters train coonhounds to ignore other dogs that open up on a track so they can keep searching for their own, Newcomb likes his dogs to honor each other and hunt together. Here, Jedi tears off in search of Fern, who’d just struck a scent. Giacomo Fortunato

Hides aren’t currently worth much (about $2 each), but Newcomb skins them anyway. If a new hunter kills a coon, Newcomb always makes sure to tan it and return the pelt. Giacomo Fortunato

Sometimes the Newcombs turn in early after a short track, other times they’ll stay out as late as 3 a.m., as they did on this hunt. Here, Bear Newcomb, 13, rounds up the dogs so they can call it a night. Giacomo Fortunato

This story originally ran in the Fall 2019 issue. Read more OL+ stories.

The post Creatures of the Night: Chasing Raccoons Through the Ozarks on Muleback appeared first on Outdoor Life.

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