Where the Cottontail is King

For many hunters, the cottontail is pre-eminent among the South's small-game animals, and for a lot of good reasons. We highlight some of those reasons here.

Hunting rabbits with beagles is not a contemplative sport. The only time you're alone with your thoughts is before the first race.

But rabbit hunting usually doesn't start that way. When we were young, most of us with understanding parents and access to a single-shot .22 enjoyed potting rabbits at dusk out along a fencerow or maybe in the family vegetable garden. We later learned about licenses and bag limits and using shotguns and dogs only during open season.

How well I remember Saturday morning rabbit hunts with high-school buddies who had maybe one or two dogs apiece that we'd take to the farm fields near home! It was especially exciting when a light snow had covered the ground the night before and we could see rabbit tracks leading into a brushpile, but none coming out.

There'd be a kick, a brown streak out the other side of the pile, and a beagle instantly in full cry so close behind the bunny that a shot was impossible. Off they'd go in a sight race, down across 30 or 40 yards of open field before the rabbit would dive into a big bed of briars or honeysuckle.

Many times, the rabbit would run for 20 or 30 minutes before circling back around to offer a shot. Some would hole up under a logpile or in a burrow beneath a blowdown, and the dogs would settle in to dig and search for the rabbit - which, of course, wasn't about to come out. We'd pull the dogs away and go find another one to run. That didn't usually take very long.

Cottontails produce astounding numbers of young. Five or six litters per female are common, and they typically have four to six young per litter. Production seems to run in cycles. In years during which rabbit populations are high, predators come on strong. When the predator populations peak, because of the abundance of bunnies, then rabbit populations diminish.

But if the habitat remains good, the rabbits do what they do best, and soon their numbers are up again. That's why it seems that there are always plenty of rabbits for us. Sometimes there are more, sometimes fewer - but always enough to hunt.

The gestation period for cottontails is 28 days. They give birth in fur- and grass-lined nests called "forms." During the day the young rest quietly, hidden by a blanket of concealing grass. The doe sits in her form not far away. At dusk, when it's time to feed her young, she nudges the covering aside and positions herself over her babies while they nurse. Then she replaces the covering and goes about her routine, which consists of feeding and, very shortly, mating again.

A little-known fact about cottontails is that they sometimes eat their droppings. As we know, rabbits are almost exclusively herbivorous. They live on grasses, leaves, stems, twigs, buds, and bark - virtually anything within reach that they can clip or gnaw. If their excrement is brown, all the nutrients have been extracted. But if their "pills" are green, more food value remains - so they recycle them. The two-dollar word for this practice is "coprophagy" (pronounced kop-RA-fa-gy). I don't think Alex will be asking for this answer on Jeopardy anytime soon, do you?

But hunters gathered around tailgates talk about guns and dogs and hunting, not about rabbits' habits. In fact, the social aspect of the sport is an important part of its attraction. The group that I hunt with includes seniors, young guys, and even a young married couple. Then there's my favorite outdoor type: youngsters like Dylan Locklair, age 9. It's important to bring in the young sportsmen of the next generation. I first met Dylan on a hunt when he was all of 5 years old and packing an empty BB gun. At break time, his dad, Chris, allowed him to load and shoot it.

Dylan is a third-generation bunny chaser. We need more like him. His granddad, Jimmy, owns and raises beagles. He knows the breed inside and out. I asked him about some of his current pack, starting with the names.

"Well ... let's see - there's Droopy, Stumpy, Sara, Tiny, Mona, Frisky, and John Dillinger - so named because he was something of an outlaw when I got him," Jimmy said. He knows his dogs by voice and personality, each unique. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of each.

How many seasons do your beagles work? I asked him. "I'd say six or seven years is about average," said Jimmy. "I think dogs peak out at around 5 years old. A lot depends on where, how long, and how often you run them. Rough terrain and hard hunting two or three times a week take their toll on a dog. They age and get sicknesses and injuries, just like we do.

"In fact," he added, a note of sadness in his tone, "Frisky has cataracts, arthritis, and cancer of the throat right now. She began to lose her voice. Now she can't bark at all. She doesn't appear to be in pain, though, and she's still eating. I'm just making her comfortable."

I then asked Jimmy to name his best dog. Wouldn't you know - it was Frisky. I wanted to know why.

"She's been a very dependable, consistent dog, a good jump dog, a good trail dog. She was the same, day in and day out. She's one of those one-in-a-lifetime dogs, the kind you always look for and hope to own."

All of Jimmy's beagles get great care: shots, worming, food, shelter, vet care as necessary, and a little loving on the side.

We hunt in some tough terrain. Some are blackberry "hells" (as I call them) that you have to get down and crawl through. Once you get out of one, you don't go back. A dog sometimes gets hung, and we'll hear it yip in pain as coarse briars grab and hold an ear or a lip.

"Toward the end of a season, the dogs begin to wear down," said Locklair. "You can just tell by watching that they've about had enough, so I work them less and less."

Knowing Jimmy is a record keeper, I asked about the bag in an average season. "Most years we kill 165 to 175 rabbits. We've killed more, but that's about our average," he said.

There are six or eight hunters on any given day, with maybe two packs of beagles, Edward Agner's and Jimmy's, along with neighbor Harold Strom's three young dogs, Little Bit, Ring, and Black Widow. We might hunt two or even three days a week during the first part of a season, and only once a week toward the end.

"Unless a place is infested with rabbits, it's best to back out and go somewhere else when you've taken 10 or 12 from one location," observed Jimmy. "It's just not right to hammer a place until a rabbit is hard to find."

As for habitat, our most productive variety is young pine plantations full of those briar patches. These provide ideal cover for rabbits until the trees are 5 or 6 years old. Eventually, the thick ground cover that attracts and holds rabbits gets shaded out.

Last year, a friend, Wayne Mullinax, who hunts trophy deer almost exclusively, allowed our group to hunt rabbits on his deer lease, a young commercial pine forest. It turned out to be rabbit heaven. The small clearing that we parked our trucks in was practically covered over with rabbit pills, and the bark had been stripped from the shrubs as far up as the bunnies could reach. Even our senior hunters had never seen anything like it. We hunted it several times, taking some 35 cottontails from a single large hill with briar patches around its slopes, some of which were absolutely too thick for anything but a snake or a rabbit to get through. Great rabbit hunting! We left plenty of breeders, too.

All hunters talk and compare guns and loads. We shoot No. 4s and No. 6s in everything from .410s up. Most popular are autoloaders of one make or another; sometimes there's a double gun or pump in the party. I switch off. Some days I carry my Browning "Light 12." Sometimes I take a sturdy little single-barreled 12 gauge H&R "Topper" Model 88. Occasionally, just for the heck of it, I tote an ancient one-pop Iver Johnson .410 "Champion." Several in our group shoot 20 gauges, and there's a Browning "Sweet 16."

Always practice safety afield. Whether young or old, it must be taught and learned and remembered. And whatever you shoot, learn to shoot it fast if you go after the King of Small Game - the hotfooting cottontail rabbit.

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