Bustin' Brush for Rabbits

Not seeing many rabbits? Try looking in the thickest, nastiest brier patch you can find.

By Dan Kibler

The most important tool that the modern-day rabbit hunter carries with him to the woods isn't a shotgun.

It's his pants. Why? Nowadays, if a rabbit hunter isn't wearing a pair of brier-proof pants or overalls, then it's likely he's not hunting where the rabbits are.

More and more, as traditional small-game habitat disappears or changes from the hedgerows, ditch banks and broomstraw fields of 25 years ago to brier patches and overgrown cutovers, rabbit (and quail) hunters across the South are learning a difficult lesson about where to hunt to find game: the thicker, the better.

Now, instead of dropping a brace of beagles into a dense weed field or waiting on either side of a hedgerow for the dogs to push bunnies out into the open for easy shooting, hunters are having to wade into the thick of things to find the best action.

That's where the heavy clothing comes in. Venture into a cutover or a young field of planted pines with undergrowth made up almost entirely of greenbriers, and unless you are wearing brush-front pants or even snake leggings, you're going to come home with your legs looking like they've lost a battle with a mean bobcat.

The walking may not be as easy, but the hunting will be rewarding, according to Ray McCulloh and Shannon Lyndon, a couple of experienced rabbit hunters who have chased cottontails and swamp rabbits through all kinds of habitat throughout the South.

Ray McCullogh and an excited beagle grab a rabbit at the end of a chase through thicket brush. Note McCullogh's heavy-duty clothing. Photo by Dan Kibler

Lyndon, in fact, is licking his chops in anticipation of what the 2003-2004 rabbit season is going to bring, since a big section of pines on his main hunting lease was rough-timbered last year. "They took all the trees out of it, had the sawmill on the spot, cut all the logs into boards, but they didn't chip anything else up. They left all the laps and the brush and everything they didn't want out there," Lyndon said. "It's gonna be so thick, all those tree laps, it'll be just perfect."

To Lyndon and McCulloh, rabbits and thick cover are almost inseparable. It's no secret that as predator numbers have increased and small-game habitat has shrunken, cottontails and their wetland cousins, swamp rabbits, have taken to places where food and cover are intermingled. Think of the thickest, most impenetrable jungle on a piece of property, and invariably it will hold the most rabbits.

"The heaviest brush, that's cover for them; it's home, where they're protected from everything and they thrive in there," said McCulloh, who has kept a pack of beagles for decades. "They don't have to move far to eat; they are protected from overhead predators like hawks. They thrive in places that are thick. You find a place like a pine thicket, a cutover with greenbriers, and you'll have rabbits."

The overgrown briers and vines common to such thick spots are great protection from avian predators, and the thickness of the understory gives rabbits some protection from ground predators, such as foxes.

Lyndon and McCulloh agree that two of the best "thicket" habitats are areas that have been rough-timbered, with the undergrowth coming back naturally and areas that have been timbered and replanted with pines - but the latter is only good for a handful of years.

"I like it best when they burn it all after they cut it, then when it grows up, all you get is weeds and greenbriers - you don't have all the laps," McCulloh said. "You don't get the fescue, you don't want that. You want the weeds and briers, and that's where rabbits flourish. They haven't got any reason to leave there, and nothing can kill 'em. A fox may get in there every now and then, but if it's thick enough, they can run and hide from a fox. You'll have rabbits in that kind of place until the pines get about 5 or 6 years old and start to shade out the cover. Then your rabbits will be gone."

The natural thickets can be just as good as the young planted pines - known to biologists as "early successional habitat - because you get the same grade of cover, plus the same kinds of foods that rabbits crave.

"I think the pine plantations are good until the pines get to about 12 or 15 feet tall," said Lyndon. "You've still got a lot of undergrowth then, and there are no roads or paths in it, so it can be hard to shoot in there. You're just shooting on the ground, in between the pines. But you can go into one of those places in a day, and a party can kill 20 to 25 rabbits with no problem.

"When they cut a place down and just scalp it, you're not gonna find 'em until it grows back, and then they'll be in there around the laps and all the tops of the trees that were left."

How do McCulloh and Lyndon set out to hunt the thick stuff? First of all, everybody in the hunting party wears plenty of hunter or blaze orange clothing. Hunters at minimum should check regulations concerning the legal hunter orange requirements for both the land and the time of year they are hunting. But no matter what the legal requirements, remember that on a typical rabbit hunt, you and several other hunters are moving through heavy brush, changing positions and carrying loaded guns. More, rather than less, hunter orange is never a bad idea.

McCulloh favors the brush-fronted overalls - "or else you'll get torn up," he said - and he uses leather shooting gloves on his hands instead of traditional hunting gloves because he feels like they give his hands better protection from briers.

Some rabbit hunters even wear heavy overalls with protection front and back because sometimes it's easier to back through a thick patch of briers than walk face-first into it.

McCulloh likes to break down a large piece of cover into smaller areas, trying to hunt just a few acres at a time. In a day's time, he said, a good hunting party with good dogs might be able to cover 50 acres. So his strategy is to start on one side or corner of the cover, hunt it very slowly and methodically, then let the dogs go to another area. Over the years, he's come to the conclusion that the perfect pack of beagles is around six or seven dogs, the best size for a hunting party of around four to five hunters.

"We hunt places that are maybe 30, 40 or 50 acres - a maximum of 50 acres," McCulloh said. "Good dogs can go over a 50-acre place in a day. You start here and you might end up on the other side of the 50 acres. That can keep you and dogs jumping if there are plenty of rabbits.

"I like to use seven dogs, but everybody's different. I've got buddies who like to use 10 or 11, but the more dogs you have, the more often when they get into rabbits, they're gonna split up. There can be too many rabbits. I've hunted places like that, and you really appreciate 'em when you go to a place and don't find many."

If you jump a rabbit in his home territory, the rabbit will circle, so McCulloh advises hunters to get to the dog: Get as close as possible to where the rabbit was jumped because he'll be back.

"I used to hunt with seven or eight people a lot of the time, but now I think that's too many," he added. "Four people are enough to hunt with. If you've got a guy who wants to bring his son, who'll stay right with him, he still counts as one. But if you get more than about four people, you get to running into each other."

It is possible, of course, to have more than four people hunting behind dogs and have a good, safe hunt. But the more hunters, the better they should know and trust each other.

"What we do is, we try to always know where everybody else is at. Most of the time we're quiet, but every once in a while you'll holler at the next guy to tell him a rabbit's coming his way or to let him know where you are and everybody else is. A good rabbit hunter knows that if you're hunting in real thick stuff, you need to get to a hole, an open place. When you're in real thick cover, you'll find places like that, and that's where you'll kill a lot of rabbits. They'll run through all that thick stuff and come by that opening, and sometimes you'd never see 'em if they didn't come through that opening."

Lyndon said that it's a little easier to hunt with a larger group of men when you're hunting planted pines with thick undergrowth. "I think about eight guys is ideal. You put out 10 or 15 dogs and you can hunt 100 acres. You try to hunt just a couple of acres at a time, then move around," he said. "You don't want to get too many people in a pine plantation. When we've hunted just four to six, that wasn't enough because the rabbits can get through too quickly."

Lyndon will put out the dogs on his hunts, and when the dogs jump the rabbit, the hunters space themselves out as they work their way through the trees. The space between the hunters is partly determined by the thickness of the brush.

"If you're hunting in pines, you really can't get that far apart, not even 25 or 30 yards because the rabbits can get through you so fast. But you've got to know where the other people are all the time," he said. "Most of the time, the guys who own the dogs will try to stay around the dogs, and until they jump a rabbit, the dogs will stay close to their owners. The guys who get in there with the dogs and keep up with them are usually the ones who kill the most rabbits because a rabbit will usually circle back to the place he was jumped."

Interestingly enough, McCulloh pointed out, the more rabbits there are in an area, the fewer hunters, the better. "If you've got a lot of rabbits and your dogs get to running one, a lot of times while you're following the dogs, you'll push out more rabbits, and that's when you'll get rabbits running out on you. That's when you don't want to have too many people out there."

McCulloh said that when hunters are after rabbits that live along watercourses, ditches and any little wet seepages, being able to hunt slowly and carefully is even more important.

"You've got to get inside the cover to get them. You'll find 'em in the thickest brier patch there is, and you'll just see them slipping along. They'll stay right in the brier vein where they were raised; they don't do anything but hop around in there."

Rabbits, McCulloh said, are also good at detecting the location of hunters and trying to avoid them while they're giving the beagles the slip. "When you're setting up on a rabbit that's coming your way, you can't make any noise or he'll turn. If he doesn't know where you are, he'll just come right on, but a rabbit will hear you; he can hear you breaking branches and all."

Lyndon said that covering a small area is probably the best bet for any group of hunters, but late in the season, as rabbits approach mating season, beagles may wind up running the rabbits out of hearing range.

"If you have to go in late February, that can be one of the most challenging times to hunt because the females will be in heat, and the bucks you jump may run three miles away because that's where they came from," he said. "Instead of being in a tight little group that lives in just that one area, you'll have bucks coming in from all kinds of places, and when you jump 'em, they run back there. It's like the deer rut; you get bucks moving in from other areas looking for females that are in heat."

McCulloh said experienced rabbit hunters know that if rabbits are living in a cutover or thicket that's close to a patch of big woods, it will often lead the rabbits out of the cover on a long run. "If you've got open woods joining a cutover, they might push him hard enough to get him out of there," said McCulloh, who said that having a hunter skirt the edge of the thicket, where the habitat changes, is a good idea. "But a good rabbit hunter will know how to kill that rabbit before he gets out of the thick stuff."

Because he has kept a pack of beagles for more than 20 years, McCulloh has some definite ideas about the kinds of dogs he likes. "I'd rather have all the dogs in my pack be jump dogs; there's a lot of difference in a dog looking for a track - that's like a field trial - and looking for a rabbit," he said. "A good gun dog, a dog that hunts rabbits, that's a jump dog.

"You can always recognize your dog's voice if you keep a dog long enough," he said. "If you keep a dog and hunt him, you can tell him apart just like it was the voice of one of your kids in a dark room. But you want good mouths on all your dogs. I like a chop-mouth dog myself, but if you've got a squealer with a good mouth, you can probably hear him farther away."

Most of all, McCulloh wants a dog with spirit, a dog whose longing to hunt will often outweigh his other attributes.

"We've hunted cover as rough as there has ever been, and with these good rabbit dogs out in the field, there really isn't that much that can happen to them except maybe getting snake bit," he said. "That's what I worry about. My biggest fear used to be getting a dog shot when I was hunting with seven or eight guys at a time. But a good dog, a dog that's got so much desire, you'll never know there's anything wrong with him as long as he's running a rabbit. I've had a dog hunt all day and then get home and he'll lie around the pen. I'll find he's maybe got a brier in his pad or something and he'll try to pull it out with his teeth, but it won't stop him from hunting."

McCulloh takes care to look all of his dogs over after a day afield, his primary concern being injuries to the dogs' feet, especially their pads.

"A lot of times a dog will get a pad real sore or it will tear off, and you've got to get that pad better

before you can hunt him again. You can't hunt him with a sore pad," said McCulloh, who regularly works his dogs several days a week - in and out of hunting season. "If a dog's got plenty of desire, he won't act like he's hurt when he's hunting, but he'll try not to put any weight on that foot. You get one that's torn a pad off one of his feet, you've got to be able to put him up for a week or so and treat it before you can put him back out."

Neither Lyndon nor McCulloh care to carry big shotguns when they're in the woods. Both prefer carrying relatively light semi-automatic shotguns.

"Why carry a 12-gauge all day when a 20 (gauge) will kill him just as good?" Lyndon asked. "I'm shooting either a 20-gauge or 28-gauge all the time now with 7 1/2 shot. That's plenty."

That, some good dogs, and heavy brush are the main components of a rabbit hunter's paradise.



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