The hardest part of rabbit hunting is catching the dogs at the end of the day. That is, if you hunt rabbits with beagles. If you hunt rabbits without beagles, you're doing it the hard way.
I got started a few years ago when a couple of hunting buddies took me on an outing. Within two weeks I had a dog of my own, given to me by a young man who brought him over one fateful afternoon. He said the dog had dug up his wife's roses and destroyed her antique coffee table. "No charge," he said, as he sped out the driveway.
That's how I acquired Dudley. Now four of us have eight beagles which we send after rabbits on a regular basis, even after all other hunting seasons are closed. Although seasons vary nationwide, rabbits are generally a high limit species due to their production rate and resulting crop damage. In my area, we can take five rabbits a day and hunt until March 15. The season reopens on the first of September.
Brushy areas along rivers are prime cottontail habitat, as well as the smaller streams which feed into them. Without dogs, you probably won't see the rabbits, but you will know they're there if you look for brush cuttings. Cottontails like to eat the bark from around the base of brush or young trees, and apple trees are a favorite. Orchardists call it "girdling" when mice do it, but mice don't gnaw very far up a plant-they aren't tall enough. Rabbits, on the other hand, can strip a plant for a foot or more off the ground. Finding brush girdled that far up from the ground is a sure sign cottontails are in the area.
Two years ago, we took forty-six rabbits out of one area I would guess to be a hundred acres. Last year, there were more rabbits in the same place, and this year they're even thicker; so I don't think hunters affect rabbit populations very much-not human hunters, anyway.
Owls, coyotes, hawks, cats both domestic and wild-they all like rabbit dinners. That's why cottontails don't have a long life expectancy. But what they lack in longevity, they make up in productivity. They begin breeding at 6 months of age and can produce several litters a year. By the middle of February, sometimes a bit later, the rabbits have begun to breed. That's when we become more selective about what we shoot. If we're careful, we can shoot ninety-five percent bucks. We just let the rabbit sounds from the little hounds tell us if they're chasing a buck or a doe.
Cottontails always return to their favorite area which is near where the dogs originally jumped them. That is, if they ever leave the area. When the dogs can't move the rabbit from an area the size of a tennis court, it's nearly always a female. She's determined to have her litter, which averages four bunnies, right there and no obnoxious beagle is going to change her mind. Dogs won't catch her either -not in her domain.
If the rabbit comes out of the brush patch and leads the dogs on a long chase which covers a half mile or more, it's a male. Go ahead and shoot him because not many bucks are necessary to insure that all of the does in an area are in the family way. We usually hunt four or five dogs at a time. That's enough to get the rabbits stirred up; more than that, and they're hard to keep up with.
Once we turn them loose, they begin vacuuming the ground with their incredible noses. It's quiet for a while, and then one of them strikes scent. Here's the way that it happened just the other day.
"ARRooo, ARRooo, ARRooo!" That's Mamie. The other beagles come running to her. They know where the action is. Within seconds, Mamie's sister, Misty, cuts loose. "Arrrr, Arrr, Arrr!" Then Mandy joins in,"Ar,Ar,Ar,Ar,Ar!" Now Dudley begins his high pitched yip/squeal. I can't tell you what it sounds like, but pretty soon he sees the rabbit and the yip turns to "BAHerrr, BAHerrr, BAHerrr." It sounds like he's hurt. He's got a mouth, that dog, but only when he sees a rabbit. I get in front of the hounds quickly. They've got that rabbit going. He's not moving fast yet -doesn't have to. He knows the dogs can't move fast in that thick stuff. There it is! I see it-just a slight, gray-colored flash in the brush. He's headed for an opening up ahead. If he comes out into the open, he'll shift into high gear. Rabbits don't like being in open places. That's where they're vulnerable to predators.
I watch the open space, and listen for ringing bells to make sure of where the dogs are in the heavy brush. The beagles are getting close. That rabbit can't be more than ten feet in front of them. As he breaks out of the brush clear of any dogs, opportunity comes in a blur. There he goes! There he goes! Blam, goes the 20-gauge. The rabbit doesn't even slow down. Blam, and the rabbit rolls, kicks, and lays still.
I let him lay. The dogs follow the trail and find him. They sniff him over, but once they see he is no longer running, they look for another rabbit. They aren't interested in dead rabbits; their interest is chasing live ones. That doesn't say much for a beagle's intelligence, I suppose, because they're never going to catch a live one-not a healthy one, anyway.
And so it goes. Four of us got eight rabbits that day in spite of missing four others. Even though we use shotguns, rabbits aren't always easy targets. At the end of the day, once the dogs have been caught and watered, given a dog biscuit or two and confined in their cages, we begin cleaning rabbits. After being skinned, gutted, and rinsed, the carcasses are dropped into a 5-gallon plastic bucket, sprinkled with salt and immersed in water. At home, we will cut them up and skin the tough membrane off their backs with a sharp knife.
As for cooking, most any chicken recipe will work just fine. If you like fried chicken, you will like fried cottontail. If it's an old rabbit, you may have to stew it, but you won't get very many old rabbits. Something usually eats them before they get old.
Oh, yes. At the beginning of the story, I said beagles could be hard to catch. They're cute, but other breeds usually make better pets.
A few days ago, we were ready to quit and go home, but the dogs weren't. They never are. Finally, we had four dogs on leashes, but the last one was in the thick brush and ignored all pleas to come out. Wouldn't you know it would be Dudley? He was still in a brush patch making rabbit sounds. His nose told him a cottontail was there and he intended to find him. I waded into the thick brush, tripped and fell twice scratching my hands and face before I finally caught him. I tucked him under an armpit like a running back with a football, and headed for a clearing. Once there, I would put him down and snapped a leash onto his collar. I was peeved, and I told him so. While I chewed him out, he looked up, stretched his neck out and licked my cheek.
What's a guy to do with a dog like that?