With plentiful game, little competition and most seasons extending late into the winter, rabbit hunting is a great excuse to get outside and hunt
The little hounds hadn’t dashed 20 yards into the thick brush when their bawling and cries let the hunters know that there was already a rabbit afoot. The beagles could be traced by their excited barking as they made a quick circle below the path and turned right in my direction.
Despite growing up in an area of Virginia where hounds are an integral part of most sportsman’s lives-they still primarily hunt deer with dogs here just as generations have since Colonial times-this was my first rabbit hunt with hounds. Willing to ease into the tub so to speak, I was more than content to take a post that actually put me behind a couple of other hunters should something slip through.
I could see the men on the path across a relatively narrow strip of waist high brush not 30 yards from where I stood. The beagles were close and the hunters were scanning the cover when my friend and Primos Hunting Calls pro-staffer Tommy Barham spun and hollered, “There it goes!”
He had held his shot since the only clear one was straight down the path toward our good friend Billy Whitman.
Tommy’s warning had barely left his mouth, when I caught a small brown blur explode from the grass and briars right next to me. I swung, aimed and shot, tumbling the quarry. Not five minutes into my first true rabbit hunt, I had something to slip into the game bag.
Pursuing a Passion
While it was my first experience with beagles and rabbits, for brothers Marshall and Joey Owen and the small band of hunters in our company on this day, rabbit hunting with hounds is a true passion. Like all good hound men I have known-whether their quarry is deer, rabbits, bear, foxes or raccoons-the hunt is truly more about the dogs than the game. There is a music to their cries as they fall onto fresh scent and an excitement to their pursuit that is unmatched by few other experiences in the outdoors.
“I just love to hear the dogs on the trail of a rabbit and watching them work,” says Marshall Owen over a plate of steaming barbecue during a break in the action. “There is nothing like it.”
As with most other types of hunting with hounds, it’s also about sharing the experience with others and enjoying the more social aspects of hunting, such as the full-on tailgate session we enjoyed at lunchtime. While Billy Whitman broke out a pot of barbecue and heated it on a propane stove, Joey Owen got busy grilling hot dogs. A fold-out table was set between two trucks and stocked with plates, cups, soda, chips and other treats.
The other hunters-Todd Cheely, Brad Evans and Billy Smith, all deputies in Brunswick County, Va.-chimed in on their love for rabbit hunting during our break. Their reasons ranged from sharing in an enjoyment of the dogs to the fast-paced hunting action the beagles brought to the field.
Indeed, during the day’s hunt, there was little downtime from one chase to the other.
Plenty of Action
Whether in the fertile farmland of the Midwest, brushy woodlots of the Northeast or the briar-choked clearcuts of the Southeast, cottontails are found in abundance throughout much of the United States. But with whitetails still king of most hunters’ attention, the number of small game hunters remains relatively low, and as long as you’re not trying to gain access to a guy’s secret deer spot, access is still fairly easy to obtain.
In Greensville County, Va., where we were hunting on this day, Marshall and his group have permission to hunt a number of grown-up clearcuts. With logging a mainstay industry in the region, there are plenty of young cutovers with knee-to-head-high pines, broom straw, briars, devil’s club and small sweet gum saplings to provide the cover rabbits crave.
Marshall says they try to move around and hunt different places throughout the season so as to not overhunt a single tract. Guys with land access, but no dogs, frequently invite them to come hunt their place for the chance to get in on a little of the action. The Owens brothers are happy to oblige in such instances.
“It’s always good to hunt some new land and hunt rabbits that haven’t been run,” Marshall says.
With the critters so abundant, one chase generally concludes with a gun shot only to have another chase begun almost immediately. Hunters will dump anywhere from five to 10 dogs into the thickest, gnarliest cover they can find and ring it with standers. The standers generally set up along logging paths or at the edges of small clearings where they can get a shot.
In such cover as we were hunting, though, shots come quick and hunters must always be ready, trying to anticipate how far ahead of the dogs the rabbit is. Sometimes, dogs will literally be within sight of the rabbit, but more often than not, the bunny will be a minute or two ahead of them. Beagles are perfect for this type of hunting, not only because they have great noses, but unlike larger hound breeds, they can get through thick cover easier and don’t push game as fast. This is ideal for hunting small block after small block of brush.
A Decent Day
By the end of our hunt, the group had killed 14 rabbits with only one miss. Several rabbits were also allowed to keep running in order to let the dogs run more. By the group’s standards, it had been a slow day, though I couldn’t think of a single stretch of time where it didn’t seem like a chase was going on.
“We’ve had days with bigger groups of hunters than this where we’ve taken dozens and dozens of rabbits,” Marshall says. Of course, as Billy and I learned that night after the group said we could have the days take, then you have to clean them!
Walking among thick brush and tight-growing saplings for hours on end can make for a wearying day. The fewer pounds you can tote, the better off you’ll be, which means hunters used to toting their 12 gauge, the standard among modern shotgun hunters, will be better served trading down for a 20 gauge.
A 20-gauge shotgun is typically pounds lighter making it easier to carry, hold and aim. It is also generally a little smaller, making it easier for hunters maneuvering through thick brush, and the ballistic performance of a 20-gauge load is more than adequate for the close shots at small game common to rabbit hunting with beagles.