An invitationto hunt with an experienced rabbit hunter and his pack of well-trained hounds should be considered a special gift. Most avid hound hunters spend years developing a pack of hot-nosed beagles and are not wont to waste their time and energy on anyone who doesn’t understand and appreciate the sport.
When the call comes in to be ready to go at 7 a.m. on Saturday, do everything in your power to be up, dressed, armed and prepared for a long day in the briars. If you’re lucky, your host will stop for breakfast along the way, but in most cases the hunt begins at sunrise and does not end until sunset that evening—a long day in the woods by any standard. Bring enough snacks, sandwiches and water to last you all day unless your host plans to provide them. Ask them before you go so you can show up ready to hunt—shopping on hunt day is not an option.
Rabbit hunting is like no other consumptive sport. The best Southern cottontail habitat is thick, full of unforgiving briars and vines along with plenty of stumps, logs, tall grass, potholes and wetland habitat. There will be bloodshed and some of it will be yours. For safety and comfort, wear a brimmed orange hat, leather gloves, a heavy canvas-type shirt and game vest plus full-length waxed canvas briar-proof coveralls. Know that any part of you that is exposed will be cut to pieces by those nasty briars, barbed wire and assorted other sharp, pointed objects.
Handy items to bring include a pocket knife (for dressing rabbits), lip balm, sunglasses and a bandanna. Make room in your coveralls or vest for a bottle of water, a few snacks and a dozen shotgun shells. Leave everything else in the truck and be sure to shut off your cellphone when it’s time to get into the woods. Rabbits are not attracted to ring tones or loud conversations. If you ruin a chase by talking on your phone, your host is likely to throw it and you out of the woods with no second chances. Rabbit hunting is serious business, so be serious about it.
BASIC FORM AND ETIQUETTE
Odd as it may sound, there are some rules to chasing rabbits with beagles that all newcomers should be aware of. First and foremost, never make fun of a hunter’s dogs, their performance or their voices. Second, never brag about anything—your clothes, your gun or your experience—until the hunt is over and you actually have something to brag about.
Most hunts begin with a few minutes of jovial “tailgate talk” that generally finds all hands leaning over the sides of the truck, admiring the dogs and joking about what a great day it’s going to be. Don’t bring up politics, religion or anything other than rabbit hunting. We’re not here to talk—we’re here to hunt. Stay focused!
Once the dogs are turned loose and the hunt begins, there are any number of ways to proceed. Some hunters stay by the truck until the dogs strike a rabbit, at which time everyone scatters to find a good place to ambush the cottontail as it evades the dogs.
One common rule is to let the rabbit make one complete circle before shooting at it, just to give the beagles a chance to unwind and get in the mood. Remember, to a hound man, listening to the dogs is just as important as killing the rabbit, sometimes even more so. Also, a good pack of hounds, more often than not, will run the rabbit long enough for a shot. You do not need to take a quick shot before the rabbit “gets away.” Ask your host how you should proceed before the dogs are released.
Another common rule is that the youngest, newest or (sometimes) oldest hunters are allowed to hurry into the briars near the place where the dogs started the rabbit. About 90 percent of the time, the rabbit will make a big, wide circle and come back through almost exactly where he was jumped. This is the prime place to be and is usually reserved for beginners or (in your case) guests. When given such an opportunity, it is crucial that you do not miss the rabbit or you will pay dearly for it via endless teasing from the rest of the group.
Should the rabbit get through the first circle unscathed, he is likely to continue circling far and wide in an effort to shake the dogs. The best, most experienced hounds can’t be fooled by everyday rabbit tricks but they can be occasionally stalled by something new, which in the vernacular is called a “check.” The rabbit loses the dogs momentarily but the hounds will work it out and soon be back in business.
When this happens, do not talk, yell or move around. The rabbit is likely to be nearby and doesn’t know how many hunters are around him. Any noise you make will be picked up by the crafty cottontail and you will once again be left standing there by yourself with a bunch of guys laughing at you. Sit tight, wait for the dogs to unscramble the trail and then see what happens when they start howling again. Let the dogs work the trail and (hopefully) bring the rabbit around to you.
If the chase goes into the distance or you can no longer hear the dogs, it’s acceptable to move to a new spot and hope that the rabbit will come through on the next circle. Ditches, wetland cover, dense evergreens or honeysuckle thickets are common escape routes for rabbits. Look at the available cover and go where it’s thickest because that’s what the rabbit is likely to do.
COMMON MISTAKES TO AVOID
I’d never thought of it in all my 60 years of rabbit hunting but one guest I invited on a trip thought that the hunter’s job was to keep up with the dogs. When they took off, he took off right after them, apparently thinking that he would catch up with or (maybe) run right past the dogs and get a shot at the rabbit that way. Not a good (or productive) idea.
Another hunter I knew had a problem with staying where I put him and, time after time, the rabbit would run right past where he should have been. If your host says, “Wait by this fallen oak tree,” stay there till they say otherwise. A rabbit may come by in five minutes or an hour but chances are he will run past right where you host had placed you. Get bored, get tired or have your doubts, but don’t move!
Another rabbit-hunting faux pas is when a hunter makes every effort to shoot all the rabbits the dogs kick up. Keep in mind that everyone is working just as hard as you are and they all want to get a shot or two. Once you have a couple of rabbits under your belt back off and let someone else have a chance.
A common mistake is when several hunters converge on the same spot. The general rule is first come, first served. If you see someone else in the area you want to hunt back off and find another spot. Rabbit cover is dense enough that leaving 50 to 75 yards between hunters is plenty. If you can see the other hunter’s orange hat you are too close.
If another hunter shoots and misses, the rabbit is fair game for anyone, but if he makes the shot don’t worry, the dogs will quickly find another cottontail to chase. Remember, you’re going to be hunting all day and some of the best action takes place in late afternoon.
Perhaps the worst mistake a novice rabbit hunter can do is shoot too near the dogs. Sometimes the beagles will be just feet behind the rabbit, which is too close for comfort. If you can see the dogs and the rabbit it’s usually not safe to shoot. Pull up, let the cottontail gain some distance and try again on the next circle.
Rabbit hunting is not rocket science, but it matters a great deal to those who run beagles. Be patient, use common sense and err on the side of common courtesy. If you don’t know what the right thing to do is, ask your host or another experienced hunter. Doing so will almost guarantee you a second invitation.