Chasing Raccoons Through The Ozarks by Muleback

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 Clay 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 his mule because he's always wanted a mule, and he's always hunted racoons, so he might as well combine the two.
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 Clay 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 his mule because he's always wanted a mule, and he's always hunted racoons, so he might as well combine the two.It’s rare to see a raccoon so easily in the early season, but Jedi surprised this one, causing it to scramble up the nearest trunk—a relatively small one.
It’s rare to see a raccoon so easily in the early season, but Jedi surprised this one, causing it to scramble up the nearest trunk—a relatively small one. (Giacomo Fortunato/)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.
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/)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.
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 (far 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.”
Jedi (far 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.
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/)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.
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/)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.
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/)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.
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. Each bark indicates the phase and clues to its progression.
For coon dogs, there are four phases of the hunt: striking a track, trailing, locating, and treeing. 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.
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.”
“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.
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/)Although Newcomb prefers to hunt late fall and winter, Arkansas has a nine-month coon season with no bag limits. And in July, 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.
Although Newcomb prefers to hunt late fall and winter, Arkansas has a nine-month coon season with no bag limits. And in July, 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/)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.
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, 13, rounds up the dogs so they can call it a night.
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, 13, rounds up the dogs so they can call it a night. (Giacomo Fortunato/)
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