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