Photo by Ron Sinfelt
“Whoo-bee, whooo-beee! Hunt him in here. Hunt him up!” My Uncle Earl would urge his beagles on while hunting rabbits. If he jumped a bunny himself, he’d run to the spot and call hurriedly, “Here! Here!”
Earl had a pack of beagles for as long as I could remember, and from the time I was big enough to keep up, I tagged along with him and my dad rabbit hunting. My uncle hunted rabbits every Saturday of the season until he was in his 70s and his knees gave out.
Only then did he give up the sport that he had enjoyed so earnestly for more than half a century after coming home from World War II — and only then did his backyard kennel grow silent without a half dozen beagles to take care of.
My Uncle Earl is no longer with us, but rabbit hunting with beagles is enjoying a resurgence across much of the South in areas where the cottontail is making a comeback.
However, in the last few decades, rabbit habitat has undergone tremendous change; the weather and climate and land use are different from a half-century or even a quarter century ago, and the dogs themselves are different these days.
Many small fields across the South have given way to pine plantations, and small farms, once havens for small game populations, have been assimilated by larger farming operations that encompass hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres. The role of predators has increased, too. Avian predators, which take a tremendous toll on rabbits, have increased. Once regularly killed by farmers and hunters, federal and state laws now protect hawks and owls. However, perhaps the biggest problem is the coyote, which has spread eastward from the West and now roams across the South. Coyotes have driven remnant rabbit populations into thicker cover, creating access problems for both hunters and their dogs.
And then there are today’s dogs. The hallmarks of what the old-time hunters called a “complete” rabbit dog half a century ago were the ability to jump rabbits, a good nose, plenty of tongue and being quick to honor the work of other dogs in the pack.
Most of today’s beagles still have all but one of those qualities. Finding a good jump dog is almost impossible and a dog that will hunt a rabbit up and jump it on his own can command a high price in the hunting beagle market. The problem is that most of the jumping ability has been bred out of today’s beagles and the reason why is open to argument. Most rabbit hunters blame breeding for field trials, where the hounds are not judged on jumping but on solid trailing abilities. On the other side of the coin is the argument that breeders looking for faster and faster dogs, seeking more action in their rabbit hunts, bred much of the jumping ability out of the hounds.
One attribute that has been maintained and actually improved by modern breeders is the scenting ability of the hounds — the nose. Most of today’s beagles have super noses and can — under normal circumstances — work out a track and with relative ease keep the rabbit moving.
Most hunters will agree that a good rabbit dog, by today’s standards, is one that will work with the other dogs in the pack, has adequate tongue but doesn’t bark off the trail, has the desire to hunt and the stamina to hunt as long as the hunters want him to. A good rabbit dog also will not backtrack or chase off on game other than rabbits.
Each beagle is an individual and the hunter seeking to build a good pack has to pick dogs that will fit each other and their individual style of running. Two elements are critical to a good rabbit dog pack — whether you are hunting with half a dozen beagles or disrupting the solitude of the woods with the yodeling of three dozen hounds — speed and honor. A pack is a team effort, so you don’t want slow and fast dogs trying to run together — it just doesn’t work. They all have to run at about the same speed, while using their noses to trail and claiming the track with their tongues.
Honoring comes in when the hounds are searching and one strikes the trail of a rabbit and gives tongue. It should take no more than a few seconds before every hound in the pack is working the same line and “honoring” the efforts of the hound that claimed it. Once these two elements are combined with individuals that perform up to the hunter’s standards individually, you should have a pack that runs and works well together — one which runs together closely that, as the old timers used to say, “you could cover them all with an Army blanket.”
A good rabbit dog, a fellow hunter once advised, along with a good rabbit dog pack, both lie in the eyes of the beholder. In other words, the hunter picks his hounds and builds his pack with the kinds of dogs that suit him personally. Or, as another put it, “Never feed something you don’t like.”
Once you have a pack of hounds with the traits you favor, it’s up to you to give them the tools to perform well in the field. That means adequate housing, health care, parasite control. It means feeding a dog food that is high enough in protein and fat content to provide the energy and stamina they need for chasing rabbits all season.
Then, like high-performing athletes, the hounds need training and exercise. Some hunters set their dogs up for the summer, allowing them to loll in the shade to escape the summer heat. Others try to keep them in shape by taking them out one or two afternoons a week for a walk and, with any luck, to find a rabbit for a brief chase.
Whatever route the pack owner takes during the summer, it is imperative that his hounds are in shape before the season begins. Some hunters begin as soon as summer temperatures wane by taking their hounds out for several hours of hunting without guns at least once or twice a week until the season opens. Even then, a pack will probably not work itself into prime shape for about a month into the season. As one hunter put it, “A hound needs a lot of rabbit tracks under his nose to stay in top shape.”
Most states’ rabbit gun hunt seasons open in late fall, around Thanksgiving, which means the pack should be reaching its full potential about Christmas. And in most areas, that is when the best hunting is available anyway, as the colder weather causes the thick vegetation to die back and become less dense. The hounds perform better as it gets colder, since the heat affects them more than cold. It’s hard for a hound to keep his nose down and smell rabbit tracks while his tongue is hanging on a hot day in the early season.
The ground and the vegetation often hold more moisture during colder weather, too, and moisture is essential to a hound’s ability to smell the rabbit and track
it properly. If the humidity is down and the dew point is low, you can count on having a hard day of rabbit hunting.
One group of hunters I know hunts cutovers and farm fields early in the morning while the dew is still on the ground, then moves to the bigger woods and heavier cover in the middle of the day. Once the sun gets up and the wind begins to blow, even a slight breeze, the moisture will hold better in the thicker places than it will out in the open.
In many areas, pressure by predators, especially coyotes, has driven rabbits from some of their traditional habitats, such as fields and terrace banks and brushpiles in wood lots into thicker cover like big, overgrown briar patches. Here, especially on cold days, the rabbit will hole up and not move around much, so the dogs have to get in there and find him and jump him up. While some hunters prefer a pack of slow- to medium-running hounds, when you get into these thickets of briars and brambles, you need hounds with more drive and speed to keep the rabbit moving in the thick cover and eventually run him out past the guns.
For some rabbit hunters, the best hunting is from daylight to about lunchtime, preferring not to hunt later in the day when the temperatures warm up and, in some areas, the rattlesnakes come out. For others, it’s not a real hunt unless they go all day long, stopping only long enough at midday, as my Uncle Earl and my Dad and I used to, to enjoy some bologna, cheese and crackers and a cold soda bought at a nearby country store.
After such a royal repast, it was back to the woods and the exhortations of my Uncle Earl to his hounds: “Whoo-be, whooo-beee!”