Hounding Bunnies

Posted by  Friday, December 14 2012 12:00 am
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Hunter, Rabbit and HoundAt the roar of my single-barrel 12-gauge Stevens shotgun, an enormous cloud of dry October dust enveloped the cottontail rabbit bounding full speed across my Dad's cut soybean field. Rowdy, the family beagle, had pushed the bunny out of a maze of wild cane and blackberry tangles which served as a border between the neighbor's farm and ours. Rowdy disappeared into the dust cloud and proudly emerged with the bunny in his mouth. The chubby little beagle mix and I celebrated our good fortune with my shouts of "good boy, Rowdy," and a healthy dose of ear rubbing for him. Rowdy jumped with excitement as I stuffed the bunny into my hunting coat. Then he scurried away to hound the next bunny.

Rabbit hunting with beagle hounds in the 1950s was as American as apple pie and baseball. It seemed everyone owned a beagle or two as both pets and hunting companions and looked forward to Saturdays between October and February when they could hound the bunnies.

Farm families, in particular, were partial to rabbit hunting. It provided a simple but pleasurable sport which gave opportunity to escape the long hours and drudgery of hard farm labor. Equally important, rabbit on the table, prepared using one of Mom's secret recipes, garnered everyones full attention.

"Rabbit hunting provided a rite of passage for young farm boys," said Phil Cooper. "Boys simply could not wait until they could go on a rabbit hunt with the older guys, carry a gun for the first time and learn the language of a beagle yowling on a rabbit trail.  And when those boys took their first rabbit, everyone celebrated the event causing the young man to feel accepted."

Rabbit hunting provides an affordable hunt for many people today, just as it did decades ago. The necessary equipment is simple and inexpensive. You do not have to have a top dollar shotgun or .22 rifle to enjoy a rabbit hunt. Nor do you have to go to the expense of owning a whole pack of beagles to hunt rabbits. One or two dogs can get the job done and provide fun-packed hunts that will long be remembered. Additionally, one does not have to break the bank account by purchasing a high bred beagle. Most beagles will happily chase rabbits if introduced to good quality rabitat. Simply look for rabbit signs: droppings, thick cover and teeth marks on young saplings are the things to look for.

 "You don't have to have a dog, but hunting behind one or two beagles is the true joy of the hunt," according to Rob Cassidy. "Listening to my two beagles, Clyde and Rowdy, run a rabbit is what makes it for me, " Cassidy explained. "I thrill at the chase from the time the dogs first jump a rabbit until they bring it back around and I get a shot."

The first wild yodel a beagle makes after jumping a rabbit on a frosty morning is indeed magic music to a rabbit hunters ears. "It makes me laugh every time I hear a beagle howling wildly as it chases a rabbit by sight," said long time rabbit hunter Bill McKinney from Salem, Mo. "I share the dog's excitement as it does what it loves most, chasing bunnies. I can sit for hours and listen to a pair of beagles work out a rabbit trail. You can tell by their voices how hot the trail is."

 Hunting rabbits with beagle hounds is simple pleasure, but does require patience on the part of the hunters involved. "Rabbit hunters often want to shoot the rabbit their dog is trailing as quickly as possible," McKinney stated. "I have seen guys wade into the thick brush to head a rabbit off to get a shot, when they need to exercise some patience and allow the dogs to work the trail and bring the rabbit around to them. Being patient, listening to the language of the dogs and anticipating the rabbit's next move is the enjoyable part of the hunt."

Experienced beagle hounds know what they are doing. The dogs patiently work out the trail of a fleeing rabbit. Rabbits are cunning creatures and make every effort to lose the dogs in pursuit of them. When a rabbit is jumped by dogs, it uses its speed to put some distance between itself and the dogs as quickly as possible. A rabbit's home range is relatively small and rest assured the bunny knows every square inch of its habitat. It will quickly take advantage of terrain features to escape.

Scouting For Rabbit
Scouting for rabbit sign like bark chewed from small saplings is a good way to prepare for a hunt.

Thick vegetation, such as blackberry and multi-flora rose tangles, are sure sources of escape and evasion for bunnies. Once gaining the protection of such areas, rabbits will often stop, rest and listen for the approaching dogs. I once watched a rabbit as it kept about 50 yards between itself and a pair of trailing beagles. The cautious rabbit often stood on its hind legs to get a better fix on the location of the dogs. When they approached too close for comfort, the rabbit simply hopped up the trail another few yards. However, the slow, patient beagles kept hounding the rabbit until it broke from cover for a fast getaway, only to be rolled by an awaiting hunter.

Rabbits will also utilize features such as culverts and water to attempt to throw dogs off of their trail. Experienced beagles will soon figure out the ruse and rediscover the scent trail. However, the time it takes the dogs to work out the puzzle gives the rabbit opportunity to put more distance between them.

Beagles have a voracious appetite for hounding bunnies and will not easily give up the chase. Should a race go for long periods of time, dog owners may want to intercept the dogs to give them a drink of water, especially in warmer weather. Too, a small first aid kit should be carried to take care of minor injuries to dogs. Briars rip ears and tails and discarded barbed wire, glass or metal may case serious cuts to dogs. Being prepared for such scenarios is good insurance.

The magic of a good rabbit hunt is the chase and the action involved with it. The dog music, the antics of the rabbits, good friends, family members and the experience of pushing the rabbit hides all combine to provide outdoor fun as good as it gets. But, to put rabbit on the dinner table, don't forget that rabbits will run a full circle from where they are first jumped. Establish you post there and luck will come your way if you utilize a good dose of patience and allow your beagles have a good time hounding the bunnies.

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Last modified on Friday, December 21 2012 1:55 pm
Bill Cooper
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Bill Cooper is a 40-year veteran outdoor writer from Missouri. He is a Distinguished Military Graduate from the University of Missouri where he earned a Masters Degree in Outdoor Education. He is a member of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association and a past president of the Missouri Outdoor Communicators. Bill received the Conservation Educator of the Year Award from the Conservation Federation of Missouri in 2000 and the Conservation Communicator Award in 2008.

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