Volume VI, No. 1, Fall 1978
by Lance Collins Photography by Doug Sharp
"Okay, who has had the least riding experience?" Doc Bryant yelled over the noise of excited dogs and people. Since everyone immediately looked at me, Doc unloaded Lee, or Granny, since she was the oldest mule, and led her up to me. He gave me just one rule---never let the mule know that this was my first time to ride a mule! I kept telling Lee that I had ridden mules all my life, but I don't think she believed me.
This was the beginning of my first coon hunt with coon hunting jumping mules. Before the night was over I decided it wouldn't be my last! We joined Dr. Art Bryant and Roy Mitschele on a damp, cold and drizzly night in April. Doc had made all the pre-hunt arrangements, saddling, bridling and loading the mules and asking the landowner for his permission to hunt on his property. Roy explained, "We always ask the landowner for permission. If we are denied, which we sometimes are, we respect his right to not let us hunt on his property. We carry fence fixing materials such as hammer, staples, baling wire, just in case we accidently tear up a fence. That way we can fix it right then and there. The next day we'll go back to the landowner's house and tell him exactly where it was. If he doesn't like it, we go back and fix it the way he wants."
The ideal place to coon hunt is around a cornfield. The river is also a good place to hunt. "But," Roy cautioned, "in the wintertime when it's in season, lots of traps are set in the rivers, so we don't hunt there very much because we don't want our dogs in traps. We've not had a dog in a trap in the last three years, but there have been lots that I know of."
While Lee and I were getting acquainted, the rest of our hunting party, which included Doug Sharp and Ruth Massey, were being fitted with hard hats with lights on them. Roy said, "We use hard hats mostly to hold the lights, but I guess they would protect your head if you did hit a limb. Doc and I use wheat lights. That is a wet cell light that you just recharge. The battery itself is made of a real hard plastic that does not break easy. We've had some of the guys fall off their mules and land on the battery--bruised the man a little bit, but didn't hurt the battery!" I thought that is just what I needed, to get thrown on my battery and have it implanted in my side.
While unloading the dogs, Digger, Handle and Mother Bell, Doc asked, "Everyone ready? Can't hold these dogs forever." Without further delay Doc turned the dogs loose and quickly mounted his mule, Demon. Doug got on Cool Hand Luke, Ruth on Digger, Roy on Babe and we all rode off.
Within ten minutes Doc recognized his dogs barking on our left. We all listened quietly. "That's treed barks. Notice how short and choppy the bark is. That means he's got his head up." Leaving our clear, open highline path, we had to mule it into the heavy brush after the dogs."Just get in behind one another and the mules will follow the lead mule," Roy said. So I lined up behind Doc hoping Lee knew what she was doing because I didn't. Is we rode at a walk towards the noisy dogs, the brush and trees started to get extremely thick. Limbs constantly poked out in our path just waiting to smack our heads. Every foot or so we had to weave around another tree. Though I had done well so far, I felt that before we could get to the dogs, I would be smacked good. Just as I had predicted, I did, much to Doug's amusement.
Knowing that we were nearing the treed coon, Lee hastened her pace. It was all I could do to hang on to the saddle horn, much less try to ward off the limbs. "Whooooa, whooooa, Lee!" I shouted. But too late. A limb hit me right square in the chest. I guess that blew my image to Lee who knew by now that I hadn't ridden mules all my life.
"Lance," Roy suggested, "if you'll just lift those limbs straight up over your head, you'll get along a lot better and they won't whip back and hit me, too." That advice worked much better than my duck and dodge method had.
When we finally caught up to the dogs at the base of an oak tree, I could not believe I was really there on jumping mules, participating in a real live coon hunt and looking at an honest to goodness coon dog barking up a tree. Doc tapped me on the shoulder. "This is what it's all about."
I looked at the frantic dogs as they pawed and howled. Then I caught sight of the coon in the branches and asked myself how anybody could hurt such an animal, with its little black mask and its little ringed tail. The coon even covered its ears with its paws as if to deaden the noise of the dogs. "You needn't worry, coon. We're not going to hurt you. The season's closed." But I couldn't help thinking about hunting for real, so I asked Doc what he did in season after he had treed a coon.
I guess he knew what I was feeling. "We only kill half the coons we tree, and we only kill those so we can keep the dogs interested. We go out just to have a good time and we most usually do have a good time."
"On opening season night last November," Roy said, "we went out at five-thirty in the evening and hunted till five-thirty the next morning. We treed six coons, but killed only three. Most generally if it's a good night we'll hunt from dark till daylight."
Doc then pulled the dogs off the tree. "Can't have him, boy," he said to the dogs as he encouraged them to leave.
Doc sent the dogs off on another trail as we all remounted our mules to watch as the dogs tracked back and forth in front of us with their noses to the ground. Since it was quite a little while before the dogs hit another scent, we started a coon hunting chat to pass the time away. Roy's mule, Babe, made an easy sidle toward a bush to nibble on it. "I've told you about that, ain't I?" Roy scolded her. Then he turned to us, "It's a cardinal sin to let your mule eat or chew on the bits whilst hunting. Doug, you're riding the biggest moocher in the country. Luke'll just try everyone that gets on him to see if you're going to let him eat or not. Just like he is doing now. All you have to do is give a yank back on those reins. He'll stop, just let him know that you're the boss." Lee also started to ease toward a bush. I did what Roy said to do, but it didn't work for me. My mule knew she had a beginner on her back.
Roy asked Doc, "You remember the last time we took some beginners on a hunt? The dogs ran a coyote and a mule ran off!"
"It wasn't my mule or your mule, was it, Roy?"
"Then it wasn't serious," Doc replied.
Of course, Doug had to ask which mule ran off. "Yours," came the reply. I breathed a sigh of relief. I could just picture myself on a runaway mule.
I was about to become addicted to coon hunting, but what Roy said next slowed me down. "If you look real hard you might find a fair coon hunting mule for 400 dollars. When you go to talking about good mules, you start talking 750 dollars and up. If you have a mule like Doc's that's broke good, where they can jump fences real good and anybody can ride them, you're talking 1,500 dollars or above. A saddle bred mule is better--something out of a fox trotting mare gives a little easier ride. Doc's mule Demon is out of a good fox trotting mare. He is a whale of a mule.
Dr. Art Bryant and Roy Mitschele lead the hounds as they prepare to take BITTERSWEET staff members on their first coon hunt with jumping mules.
"The ideal size of a mule is around thirteen hands or fifty-two to fifty-four inches at the withers. If the mule is taller than that, you'll always be hitting your head on limbs, and if he is shorter than that, you will always be dragging your feet in the brush. But good temperament is probably your biggest thing. You've got to have them so that if you get into trouble, they'll stand perfectly still and won't hurt you. Brush like we are in tonight, if somebody'd get tangled up, and the mule'd go crazy, someone could get hurt awful bad quick. That's why a lot of mules don't make it. They get panicky. Since I've started coon hunting, in three years I've went through five or six before I found one I liked."
All at once I realized we hadn't heard the dogs for some time. While we were visiting Doc and Roy were watching Doc's mule. "Demon knows when the dogs tree," Roy said. "The dogs will get out of hearing and he will cock one ear and listen just like now. Wherever he points, that's where they're at. Whenever we can't hear the dogs, we'll take him up on a hill and go to swinging him around until he pinpoints them for us. He'll drop one ear back and when he puts both of them up, that's where they'll be."
Just then we all heard a faint bark and Demon's ears went up. The dogs had found a scent and were in fast pursuit. I was confused. First they would be off to my left, and then suddenly they would be off to my right. It was certainly a good thing that I wasn't doing the guiding, as I would have had our party lost for sure. But Doc and Roy knew exactly what they were doing. Whatever direction the dogs took, we all followed in a fairly straight line to reach them.
As we entered the heavy brush I began to rely more on my light on my hard hat which cast a light just a short distance ahead of me. I wondered how the mules could see with as little light as we had. Doc must have read my mind because he explained, "Mules can see in the dark, but we ride with these lights so much they will follow the light. Where you point your light is where your mule goes. I can take my mule and lead him completely with my light leaving both hands free. My son has been hunting with me since he was two. I set him up on the saddle horn in front of me and hold him. I keep the brush out of his face with my hands and hold onto him and guide my mule completely with my knees and my light on my hard hat."
The second coon the dogs treed had hidden in a hollow tree. Roy and Doc had a little problem convincing the dogs to leave the tree because the dogs wanted to see the coon before they left.
Though we had already treed two coons, we hadn't jumped any fences. When I asked Doc when we were going to cross some fences, he said we would cross as soon as the coons crossed them first. I hoped that the next coon the dogs scented would go with leaps and bounds over dozens of fences.
As I kept listening for the dogs' now familiar howl that meant they had another coon in a chase, I felt a cold sprinkle of rain. The mist that had started out as an occasional light sprinkle began building up into a heavy downpour.
"Quick, let's all head back to the trucks. No need to get wet!" Doc shouted.
So like the wind, Lee raced with me on her back toward the trucks. At least I hoped that was where we were headed. Roy shouted words of encouragement to me, "Don't worry, you'll stop when you hit a tree." Doug's mule, not to be outdone, followed both of us off in the dark of the night with the cold rain stinging our faces.
Back at the truck and trailers, after the excitement of riding through the heavy underbrush, ducking limbs and watching the dogs work was over, I was still somewhat disappointed. We didn't get to jump any fences. I knew coon hunters didn't ride the mule over the fence like the redecorated English fox hunters, but led the mule up to the fence. Then the mule jumped from a standing start. But I wanted to see it for myself.
Feeling deprived, I asked the men if they would at least explain how they jump a fence. "We don't jump fences, but our mules do," Doc corrected me.
Roy said, "First, we tie the fence down where it's real tight. The tying the fence down isn't to lower the fence. It's to make sure the top wire is tight so the mules won't hook it with their knees and raise it with them. If they touch the fence, if it is real tight, it will spring off. If it's real loose, it'll raise with them, and then they're caught on their chest. So we peg all fences down. We also use the lead rein to jump with. The bridal reins are up on the saddle. We always put the stirrups up, but we don't tie them. When the mules clear the top barb, the stirrups come down. If it's an inexperienced colt, we'll shine the spotlight on the top barb."
Doc added, "Mules do look at the fence and put out only as much energy as they need to clear it. Most mules will clear the fence only by about one inch. The highest fence that I have ever crossed was a fifty-eight inch fence. That's a high jump with a saddle on, I would say. Without a saddle it's a breeze. Most places we hunt we jump anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen fences ranging from a three barb to a five barb. They average forty-eight to fifty inches. We jump the fences just as fast as possible for a fence is just in the way. It's not anything we like to do. We just have to get to the next place."
"When we're going to the dogs, we take the most direct route there," Roy put in. "We don't look for a gate or a low place in the fence. Many times we've swum the river on the mules, too. The mules swim and we just get high enough so we don't get wet."
"It's not too hard to train a mule if he hasn't been whipped," Doc said. "Hopefully I'll get a colt before somebody else ruins him by whipping him around trying to make him jump. What I do is just lower the jump about knee high. I've trained two or three by treating them with sugar cubes when they jump. But I keep most of them in a stall by themselves and they're very glad to see you. When you fool with them a few minutes, they'll go out there and they'll follow you anywhere. So I just step over the jump and they'll jump right behind me. I don't just hunt my mules either. When I'm not hunting, I might use them on trail rides or rounding up cattle.
"There's no other way to hunt," Roy said. "I've hunted all my life on foot. Then I heard about Doc and his mules. I decided if he could do it, I could too. Tonight we were in some of the roughest country around. I didn't feel that it was all that bad. We didn't get beat and scratched up. It was fairly easy to get around. People just can't believe how easy it really is to hunt with mules. We've taken a lot of people that have never been coon hunting before and we tell them we're going a-muleback. They make all kinds of fun of us, but before the night's over, they think the same way we do. But it's just a hobby with us. We couldn't possibly make our expenses by selling hides. We don't even try. I don't know how many times we've been and each time is just as enjoyable as the last."
We had been talking in the trailer out of the rain and time caught up with us. I went over to Lee
to say good-bye. She looked up at me with a did-you-have-fun look. I told her yes, but I
whispered it. I didn't want everyone to think that I talked to mules.
* * * * * *Though I really enjoyed the hunt, I still was sorry that we didn't get to jump a fence. Then Quentin Middleton invited us to go hunting with him and his mule, Mollie, on another damp drizzly foggy night--"the best coon hunting weather." Quentin told us.
When we arrived he was ready to go. This time I felt like an old hand at this coon hunting, especially since we had added two more hunters to our party, Rebecca Baldwin and Vickie Massey. This time they were the least experienced. Quentin had just the one mule, so the girls got to ride her double and the rest of us followed on foot.
"I road hunt a lot," Quentin told us. "I put racks on my pickup and jump Mollie up in it. I hunted two of my dogs a lot last winter and the winter before. They'll just take down the road in front of the pickup. They won't run off and leave me. They just stay out there about so far where I can see them in my truck light. When they hit a scent, I can tell it. They run it off somewhere and tree it. I hop Mollie out of the pickup and go to it. I can't walk all night now. Used to we'd start just as soon as it got dark and come in just after daylight walk all night. But now I ride Mollie. The last hunt I went on lasted until four o'clock this morning!
"A horse doesn't make near as good a hunting animal as a mule. Mules may catch themselves on a fence, but if they get fastened, they'll be as still as they can be till you get them unfastened, where a horse goes a-jerking and lunging. He'll tear his leg off. But, Mollie--the dogs don't bother her and she'll carry as many coons as you can tie on her.
"I hunt a lot by myself. So I don't want to be out there with no silly mule either--one that's liable to stack me up in a brush pile somewhere and run off and leave me. I want a good calm mule. One thing to remember, if you get lost while hunting on a mule, if you'll let your mule loose, he'll bring you in. He'll never get turned around."
About this time we heard the dogs. We hadn't gone very far before we ran into a fence. I could hardly wait while Quentin pegged the fence down and tied the stirrups together over the saddle. Then he took off his jacket and laid it over the fence so Mollie could see the wires. He crossed the fence and encouraged Mollie. She studied the fence a moment, swished her tail, and jumped over. I was so excited I forgot to take pictures!
"Don't worry," Quentin assured me. "There'll be other fences." There were, but, unfortunately our damp, drizzly night turned fair. The sky cleared and a full moon shone forth putting an end to our hunt. "We won't strike any coons tonight. It's too light for them," Quentin explained.
So we called in the dogs and headed home without striking a single scent. But it was worth it. I finally got to see a coon hunting jumping mule jump.
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