The first thing a novice rabbit hunter must understand is that beagling is a team sport. While in training the dogs are expected to do all the work, but when the shooting season opens the hunter is expected to do his part. Without well-positioned gunners there can be no rabbit stew at the end of the day!
Those who have never hunted rabbits with beagles think there's nothing to it, but the first time they go on a hound hunt they couldn't be more confused. Where should I be? Where should I stand? How will I know when the rabbit is coming my way? Why can't I just stand in the road and wait for the rabbit to cross?
Most rabbit hunts begin by releasing the hounds while the hunters get their guns and gear ready or gather around the tailgate for some fun conversation about previous hunts, great dogs and some teasing of the tinhorns in the group. To a newcomer, this all seems like a huge waste of time. Why aren't we hunting? Why is everyone standing around talking?
Cavalier as all this may seem, the seasoned hunters in the group are doing the only thing that makes sense: they are waiting for the dogs to start a rabbit. When the hounds open up on a hot track, suddenly the newbie will find himself standing all alone at the truck. Where did everyone go?
Experienced hunters know that most rabbits will return to its starting spot after making a circle or two to evade the dogs. The starting point is the rabbit's home turf, and he'll want to return there as quickly as possible to avoid territorial issues with other rabbits. For this reason, it's important to find a spot close to the starting point of the chase, and then wait quietly till the dogs bring the rabbit back around. This may occur in one circle or two, or perhaps the rabbit will simply run straight away and back again, but he will return.
That rabbit is going to be flying by, so the hunter's job is to be there, gun up and ready. See him, shoot him -- that's all there is to it!
Perhaps the most important aspect of rabbit hunting with hounds is the need for silence. Let the dogs do the work! Rabbits are masters of multi-tasking. They can stay ahead of the dogs, dodge multiple hunters and avoid openings, all while hopping on one foot. Stand or sit quietly without speaking, shouting, crashing around in the brush or otherwise exposing your position. Move into position quickly with as little noise as possible. Stand quiet and be ready. Don't talk or holler at distant buddies because that tells the rabbit where both hunters are and he'll avoid both places. Experienced hunters know this and will not answer you, so unless you fall into a well, keep quiet!
Follow the chase via the barking of the hounds. With luck the chase will eventually turn back to the starting point. Bring the gun up, safety on, and point it in the general direction of the approaching rabbit. When he shows up, flip the safety off, lead the rabbit by a nose and take the shot.
A successful hunt is cause for celebration. Expect everyone to ask, "Did you get him?" Yell out "yes" or "no." A miss means the hunt is still on, with a strategy change to Plan B.
If the rabbit was missed on the first circle, odds are he won't return to his starting point for some time. If there are plenty of hunters available, leave one gunner at the starting point. It may be an hour or more, but the rabbit may swing past again after he's exhausted all his other options.
Meanwhile, it's time to take up shooting positions elsewhere. In a sea of briars, saplings and blow downs, where does one stand? Simply put, look for the thickest cover. Rabbits will avoid open, sunlit cover at all costs. Instead, they like to lead the dogs through the most uninviting cover they can find. This, the rabbit hopes, will slow the dogs down and discourage them from following, as it would most predators). Of course, good beagles don't quit and so the rabbit is forced to keep running.
The ideal place to stand is in thick cover at the edge of water, a road or field, but not in the open. Rabbits prefer thick cover and will run up to the edge of a field or road and turn immediately back into the thick stuff without ever stepping into the clear.
It's only when the dogs have closed the gap and are hot on the bunny's trail that the rabbit may chance crossing through open cover. But, he'll do it so quickly that a shot is all but impossible unless the gun is already up and pointed at the middle of the opening. When the rabbit starts across the gap, shoot! He will allow no time for second guesses.
For the best shooting, always stay five to 10 yards inside a road or field edge. More rabbits will turn and run back into the thick stuff, and the patient hunter who uses the dogs to his advantage will have plenty of shooting over the course of the day. Become lazy, careless or distracted and the rabbit will inevitably win.
In cases where no one shoots the rabbit at the starting point or on the first few circles, it's time to go into Plan C. The most successful hunters listen to the dogs and analyze the chase from start to finish. If the rabbit is still running after 30 minutes or more, it's time to add up the possibilities and make an educated decision.
Most rabbits utilize the same areas in an effort to lose the dogs, and eventually a pattern emerges. The rabbit may run straight to a high clear-cut and then back to the starting point, straight to a swampy briar patch and back, or straight to a brushy hillside and back. The key is not so much where the rabbit goes to lose the dogs, but where he runs on the way back. Escape patterns emerge as time goes on, and if the dogs are persistent they will force the rabbit to repeat his patterns. This is where the astute hunter makes his play.
For example, when the rabbit heads for the clear-cut, move quickly into position in the area where he passed last time on his return. If the hunter heads directly for the clear-cut the action will be over before he gets there and the rabbit will already be well on his way to another escape route.
Think of a rabbit's run as a star shape rather than a series of circles. The starting point is the center of the star, and the escape routes are the arms. The hunter's best bet is to be in position somewhere between the point of the arm and the center of the star. Don't expect to be able to meet the rabbit where he makes his turns. Instead, plan to intercept him on his route along the way.
Finally, never go rabbit hunting without the proper gear. Sturdy boots, double-faced briar pants and briar-proof shirts are mandatory. Sturdy leather gloves will keep slashing thorns away from the hands, and a stiff, sturdy hat will help protect the face and neck.
It's not possible to hunt rabbits without gaining a few fresh cuts and scratches. If you finish a rabbit hunt unscathed, you will have seen few rabbits. If you can't stand a little pain or the sight of your own blood dripping off your nose, perhaps you should consider quail hunting instead!