After rescuing a hound from a dogfight on the streets of his town, Billy Colman, a man in his 50s, recalls the joy and heartache that the “wonderful disease of puppy love” brought him as a boy.
At 10 years old, Billy becomes obsessed with obtaining a pair of purebred redbone coonhounds and becoming the best raccoon hunter in the Oklahoma Ozarks. Billy begs his parents to buy him the hounds, but Mama and Papa can’t afford them. Over the course of two years, Billy scrounges and saves by selling bait to local fishermen and berries to his beloved Grandpa, who runs a small general store. Eventually, Billy saves the money he needs and enlists his grandfather’s help in ordering the dogs from a kennel in Kentucky. The kennel will only ship the dogs as far as Tahlequah, a town 20 miles from Billy’s home. Rather than wait for a ride into town, Billy decides to run away from home in the middle of the night and walk to Tahlequah himself to pick up the dogs.
In town, Billy finds himself the subject of stares and taunts from the local children, who mock his “hillbilly” appearance. Billy travels to the depot to retrieve the puppies, where a kindly stationmaster helps him open up their crate and make holes in a gunny sack so that Billy can carry them home. On the way out of town, Billy is again accosted by a cruel gang of children, but a kind marshal shoos the kids away. Billy returns home through the mountains with his pups. When they stop for the night, Billy hears the cries of a mountain lion. As his pups howl at the cat’s cries, Billy adds his voice to theirs—with his dogs beside him, he feels fearless. Back at home, Billy apologizes to his parents for running away without their permission and for ordering a pair of dogs without telling them. However, Mama, Papa, and Billy’s little sisters are delighted by the dogs, whom Billy has named Old Dan and Little Ann. As Billy’s parents help him build a doghouse and make collars for the dogs, Billy reveals to his Mama that two years ago he prayed that God would give him the patience to save up for his dogs—Mama declares that God must have heard Billy’s prayer.
With his grandpa’s help and advice, Billy traps a raccoon whose hide he uses to start training the dogs. Billy works with his dogs every night and develops a close relationship with them. Though the dogs can’t speak, Billy knows they understand him. On opening day of hunting season, Billy takes his dogs out on the hunt, promising them that all they have to do is “tree” a raccoon, or chase it up into a tree, and he will do the rest. The hunt is joyful and fun, and Billy finds himself crying tears of joy as he follows his bawling, barking dogs through the mountains in pursuit of their first raccoon. Dan eventually trees his first raccoon in the tallest sycamore in the valley. Billy has no way of climbing the tree and knows that the only option is to chop it down. Though he’s daunted by the task ahead of him, Billy knows he must keep his promise to his dogs. Using his ax, Billy slowly chops away at the tree over the course of several days, taking only scant breaks to return home for food and rest. Billy’s father and grandfather encourage him to quit, but Billy reminds them of his promise. Billy comes close to felling the tree, but he can work no more when his hands begin to break out in terrible blisters. Billy prays to God to help him finish the job—suddenly, a strong breeze comes and knocks the tree over, allowing Dan and Ann to catch the raccoon.
Billy and his dogs have many exciting adventures throughout hunting season—but several times, they get into terrible danger. One night Dan becomes stuck in a muskrat den, and Ann and Billy must work together to dig him out. Another night, while hunting in the snowy woods, Ann becomes trapped on an ice floe in the river. Billy manages to save her just in the nick of time by hooking his lantern’s handle onto a piece of long cane and fishing her out. The most difficult incident Billy and his dogs face unfolds when a pair of brothers from a family of “bootleggers [and] thieves,” Rubin and Rainie Pritchard, bet Billy that his dogs can’t tree the infamous “ghost coon”—a raccoon who roams the woods near their family’s homestead. At Grandpa’s encouragement, Billy takes the bet and meets the Pritchard boys in the woods near their home. After a long night, Ann and Dan tree the infamous raccoon—but Billy develops such respect for the creature that he refuses to make his dogs kill it. Enraged, Rubin begins beating Billy for being “chicken-livered.” As Rubin and Billy fight, Dan and Ann get into a fight with Rubin and Rainie’s blue tick hound. When Rubin notices and picks up Billy’s ax to rush at Billy’s hounds with it, he trips, burying the ax in his stomach. Billy pulls the ax from the dying Rubin’s belly as the traumatized Rainie runs for home.
Billy tells his parents what has happened, and the next day, a search party goes out to retrieve Rubin’s corpse. Grandpa calls Billy to the store the next day to talk to him about the incident and to apologize for involving Billy in the bet. Grandpa then tells Billy that a large hunting competition is taking place nearby in just a few days—he reveals that he’s entered Billy, Ann, and Dan in the contest. Several days later, Billy, Grandpa, and Papa load up Grandpa’s buggy and head off to the competition, determined to bring home the grand prize: a large and handsome golden cup. When the group stops for the night, Billy becomes concerned after hearing two different owls’ hoots—an omen of bad luck.
At the competition, Billy, Papa, and Grandpa settle in amongst the other hunters who have pitched their tents over an acre of land. Though Billy is nervous to be in the presence of such seasoned hunters, he enters Little Ann in a dog show and finds himself surprised, touched, and overwhelmed when she takes home best in show. For several days, Billy and his dogs rest and prepare while they watch the other hunters go through eliminations. When it’s Billy’s night to hunt, a judge accompanies him, Papa, Grandpa, and the dogs downriver. Dan and Ann easily tree and kill three raccoons. The judge is impressed by their remarkable teamwork and announces that Billy and his dogs will move on to the finals the next night. That evening, Dan and Ann tree their first raccoon with ease. As Billy and Papa skin the animal, they notice a storm approaching. Papa worries that the storm will make the hunt difficult, but Billy suggests that a storm will stir the raccoons from their hiding spots. As sleet and snow begin to fall, Billy and his team press onward—but when the storm worsens and the group loses sight of the dogs, the judge suggests returning home. Billy, however, refuses to give up. He prays that God will make Old Dan’s voice heard—soon, Old Dan bawls, and Billy tracks him to a nearby gully. Upon arriving at the tree, however, Billy realizes Grandpa is not with the rest of the group. Billy and the others double back and find Grandpa in a field—he has fallen and twisted his ankle, but he is alive.
Billy fells the hollow tree where his dogs have forced three raccoons into hiding. Dan and Ann catch two, but the third one gets away. Billy knows they need the third raccoon to win. Dan and Ann seem to intuit it, too, and they run off into the storm in search of the last raccoon. As the storm settles and daylight approaches, a search party arrives at the gully and helps get Grandpa back to camp. One member of the party reports seeing Billy’s frost-covered dogs circling a tree nearby. Billy makes his way to the tree and helps his dogs capture the raccoon. The whole group returns to camp, where the head judge announces Billy the winner of the hunt and awards him a golden cup and a jackpot of $300. A doctor brings Grandpa to a nearby town to fix up his ankle while Billy, Papa, Dan, and Ann head home to a warm reception from Mama and the girls. Upon seeing the money Billy has won, Mama happily announces that God has answered her prayers. That night, she and Papa feed the dogs two heaping plates of food and pray beside their doghouse while Billy, perplexed, watches from his bedroom window.
Billy takes advantage of the final days of hunting season and continues taking his dogs out each night to hunt. One night, they scent an animal that isn’t a raccoon. Billy thinks it’s a bobcat and allows his dogs to pursue it through the woods and tree it—but as Billy approaches the tree to scare the animal down, he realizes that his dogs have treed a fearsome mountain lion. A horrible, bloody fight ensues—Dan and Ann rip and tear into the mountain lion’s flesh as Billy tries to hack the cat to death with his ax. The cat fights back, wounding Dan and Ann terribly before at last succumbing to its wounds and dying. As Billy inspects his wounded dogs, he realizes that though Little Ann’s wounds are mostly superficial, Dan has sustained a terrible, deep wound to his belly. On the walk home, Dan’s entrails begin spilling from his gut. Back at the house, Mama tries to patch Old Dan up, but it’s no use—his wounds are too severe, and by the time daylight breaks, he is dead.
Although Billy tries to focus on the fact that he still has Ann, it soon becomes clear that something is terribly wrong. Ann refuses to eat and keeps trying to hide in bushes and brambles at the far end of the property—Billy and Papa realize she has lost the will to live. One night, Ann crawls to Old Dan’s grave on a nearby hillside to die herself. Billy asks Mama why God would have taken his dogs from him and caused him so much pain. Mama admits that she and Papa have long been praying that they’d be able to save enough money to move back to town and make sure that Billy and his sisters can get an education—now that they have the money from the competition, their prayers have been answered, but Mama feared having to leave Billy and his dogs behind with Grandpa. Now that the dogs have died, Mama says, their family won’t be split up. Mama urges Billy to see that God has answered her prayers. Billy, however, is unable to feel anything but pain as he buries Little Ann beside her brother.
Several months later, Billy is helping his parents pack up their belongings in their wagon so that they can move back to town. Before leaving, Billy returns to his dogs’ graves and sees that a magnificent red fern has sprouted between them. Recalling a local legend which tells of a red fern planted by angels which sanctifies the ground where pure souls have died, Billy calls his family over to look at the fern. Mama and Papa declare that the fern must be “God’s way of helping Billy understand why his dogs died.” Billy says he understands at last and feels better about their deaths. The older Billy finishes his tale by stating that though he’s never returned to the Ozarks, he knows that if he ever gets to, he will find the red fern continuing to bloom upon the hillside where Dan and Ann were laid to rest so many years ago.