Running Around With Rabbits

What does a well-known deer biologist do when he isn't chasing whitetails? He chases rabbits, of course, and he loves it!

Dr. Larry Marchinton emerges from a thicket with a cottontail in hand, thanks to the good work of his "deer-proof" beagles.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Larry Marchinton.

A funny thing happened to Dr. Larry Marchinton on the way to his position as one of the pre-eminent white-tailed deer biologists in the country. Almost without realizing it was happening -- to hear his recounting -- he found himself hooked on "hound music."

Today, any rabbit hunter interested in learning more about this fascinating sport could do a lot worse than talk to this acclaimed deer biologist about cottontails and the dogs that serenade hunters while on the trail.

Dr. Marchinton, now retired, pioneered the use of radio collars in researching deer movements and behavior. His work, however, wasn't limited to putting radio collars on deer.

"I started out in Florida with deerhounds," he recalled. "When I came to the University of Georgia, I continued doing deer-dog research -- putting radio collars on whitetails then tracking them with dogs. I accumulated a number of foxhounds that would run deer, and I turned to hunting foxes with them in the late 1960s and early '70s."

Urban sprawl was in its infancy then, but it continued. Soon enough, Dr. Marchinton started encountering "city folk" who'd moved out of town.

"They didn't take to the idea of big packs of foxhounds running across their property in the middle of the night," he said. "And I couldn't keep them off the deer. This was more than 20 years ago, around 1985, and I decided to sell the foxhounds -- but I was already shopping for beagles."

He admits to "backsliding" to foxhounds a couple of times, but the reality of no good places to run them brought him back to beagles for good.

"At that point, I decided to work on better beagles," he said. For Dr. Marchinton, "better beagles" require a mix of consistent training and an approach to breeding that keys on certain elements of beagles, more behavioral than physical.

"I wanted to own dogs that would get on a rabbit and make it sound right," he said.

As his beagle education continued, one thing became paramount in his process. "The No. 1 thing, to me, was that I have dogs that showed a lack of interest in deer," Dr. Marchinton said. By the 1990s -- and continuing to today -- deer populations exploded. It's virtually impossible to hunt rabbits in areas that don't have deer.

And when you hear Dr. Marchinton describe the kinds of places he hunts at this time of year, it becomes immediately obvious that non-interest in deer is a vitally important virtue for any dogs in the packs he hunts.

"My No. 1 kind of area to hunt is one that has been recently clear cut and is coming back into new growth," he explained. Those that generally are 3 to 4 years old are the best, and they'll remain good until 10 or 12 years after the clear-cutting -- sometimes up to 15 years."

Dr. Marchinton pointed out that more recent cuts may produce much earlier, but the resident rabbits are at a decided disadvantage.

"Until you get new growth that is tall enough to begin providing some shade and cover, rabbits are very vulnerable to avian predators like owls and hawks," he explained. "You'll find rabbits to hunt before then, but my experience has shown that their numbers improve once the new growth gets high enough to provide some overhead cover."

Dr. Marchinton looks for habitat like that when he's checking out a place to hunt, and he looks for specific ground cover, too.

"I want to see briars . . . blackberry briars primarily, but you'll also see some multiflora rose," he said. "It can get really thick though, sometimes too thick to be able to hunt effectively. But the rabbits sure like it."

He also looks for adjacent food sources, and the current explosion of interest in deer management -- especially on the nutrition side -- has helped tremendously. It's not uncommon to find food plots fairly near areas of good cover, which also provide excellent natural forage for deer -- along with the good rabbit habitat.

"I also look for fields with old broomsedge because you'll usually find a mat of herbaceous matter -- maybe 1/4 inch tall or so -- very close to the ground," he explained. "These green forbs are a good food source for rabbits."

Think about those last few paragraphs -- or re-read them with the eye of a deer hunter. Can you see how the kinds of places Dr. Marchinton hunts are the same kinds of places many folks consider to be "deer magnets?" And can you see why he finds it so important to breed and train beagles with no interest in running deer?

"The most important lesson I learned years ago -- and it was a hard lesson because it involved some pretty good beagles -- is that you have to get rid of dogs that run deer, no matter how good they are," Dr. Marchinton said.

He started his own breeding program by buying what he called some "long-term-deer-broke" dogs. "Dogs like these will let me know if others in the pack are wanting to work off-game," he explained. "They come back to me and let me know another one is smelling off-game."

For years, Dr. Marchinton and his wife and hunting companion, Betty, have only been breeding and raising pups from dogs that didn't run deer. "You still will see some puppies try to manifest an interest in running deer," he said, "but they learn real quick that it's not a good thing.

"One deer-runner will turn the whole pack sour," he added. "That's why I only breed deer-proof dogs, and have been doing it for 15 years."

He provided a photocopy of a full-page ad he placed in a well-known publication for hound enthusiasts because it included what he called his "manifesto" on what makes for good hunting beagles.

"The characteristics we look for in hounds," he writes in the ad, "more or less, in order of significance are: No deer running (this is most important of all); smart, sensible and easy handling; high accountability (i.e., nearly all rabbits are shot, holed or caught when scenting conditions are above average); good jumping ability (we're getting a little old to beat briars all day); hunt close where we want to hunt, and check in regularly."

There are a few more elements to the "manifesto," but you get the idea. Just don't make the mistake of believing it is all in the breeding. On a muggy Southern midsummer afternoon when we talked, Dr. Marchinton headed out to his kennels to pick out a pack to run that evening.

There's no mistaking where Larry's heart lies. It's behind a pack of deer-proof beagles singing the song of a hot track.

"I run beagles almost every day," he said. "During the hottest part of the year, I'll wait till just about an hour before dark, and I'll turn them out and run them until hard-dark."

In a world full of people with too much to do in too little time, that might seem like an extravagance. If, like Dr. Marchinton, hound music has captured your heart and soul, you understand that it's necessary (and a treat) for all involved.

But you don't own dogs? Not every rabbit hunter does. Use the information Dr. Marchinton has provided to plan your hunts. Drive around the property you have access to and look for areas with strong undergrowth (blackberry and other briars) that are relatively close to food sources for rabbits. You'll be working the thick, thorny cover, so protection for arms, legs and hands is pretty much a necessity if you don't own dogs.

Dr. Marchinton, if he were here, would add that hunting rabbits without a pack of deer-proof beagles just doesn't sound like much fun. From here, he's right. Until you've hunted over good rabbit hounds, it's difficult to fully appreciate the allure. Once you have heard the serenade of a beagle-pack choir -- once they've gotten on a rabbit and made it sound right -- it's tough to imagine any cottontail outing without "accompaniment."

"And I sure hope we don't let the deer season take over rabbit season," Dr. Marchinton added. He must have seen a puzzled look in my eyes. Anyone who knows him for his professional career likely would be surprised by that comment.

"It seems like just about everywhere, we're seeing moves to expand and lengthen deer seasons," he said. "I'm not sure all this focus on deer is healthy for hunting in general.

"I learned to hunt on small game," he said. "Many -- most -- hunters did until not all that long ago. I'm just not sure that creating a first-ever hunting experience that involves using a .243 is the right way to go."

Don't misunderstand -- Larry and Betty Marchinton both hunt deer. They enjoy it. Their only dispute after rabbit season opens is whether to hunt deer or rabbits. But there's no mistaking where Larry's heart lies. It's behind a pack of deer-proof beagles singing the song of a hot track.

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