Most hunters in Pender County pursue white-tailed deer in the winter, displaying any newly-acquired buck deer across the tailgates of their pickup trucks for other hunters to admire.

But one group of hunters with a dog box in the back of a pickup in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant at Burgaw were instead checking out a tiny mammal no bigger than a breadbasket. Rural folks are used to in winter seeing deer on tailgates. But in this case, the hunters were looking at a cottontail rabbit and the beagles in the dog box behind it were scratching at the doors trying to get at the quarry just out of reach. “We only hunt rabbits,” said Terrial White, 47, of Chinquapin, “like it says on the hat.” Touching the bill of his cap emphasized the point because it brought attention to a needlework figure. Across the front of the hunter orange cap was a black horse and rider silhouette and the words Strictly Rabbits and 5 Horsemen Hunting Club. “There aren’t any rules or dues,” said Brian Pickett of Chinquapin. “Anybody who wants to hunt can come along.” “We hunt rabbits because it’s fun,” White said. “We got 11 rabbits yesterday on a farm in Duplin County. We hunt wherever we get permission. Sometimes we hunt public lands.” Roland Boney of Rose Hill is president of the club. He said he would like to see more kids in the group because when he was younger, everyone hunted rabbits. “I think young people of today are just too lazy,” Boney said. “But I’ve hunted rabbits all my life and started when I was a boy. “Rabbit hunting is a type of hunting many adults drift away from over time. But for us, it’s a way of life. A few are disabled but can still get around well enough to head off the dogs. It’s good exercise and not too hard on them. “Once they get into position, it’s mostly a waiting game. It’s not like hunting a deer where the chase covers miles. A rabbit only runs in a small circle and usually comes back to the same place where he was jumped.” “This is my seventh hunt this year, and we’ve killed 175 rabbits,” said Alfonzo Pickett of Chinquapin. “They’re fun to hunt, and I like to eat them. I stew them or parboil and fry them.” “This is my first hunt because I work a lot,” said Warren Davis of Burgaw. “I can only hunt on Saturdays. But I love to hunt rabbits whenever I can get away.” The club is a loose organization, with those who have dogs and permission to hunt private property setting up trips by telephone. Once word gets around, everyone shows up who can get to the designated meeting place at someone’s house or a convenience store. The pickups formed a convoy and sped off to bust some bunnies. They also arranged to meet the next weekend at an Onslow County game land. Stones Creek is a two-tract game land acquired only a couple of years ago by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The most recent addition is off Hicks Road west of U.S. 17. It has rabbits but is not much territory to hunt in terms of size and access. The first acquisition is a larger tract. Bounded by U.S 17, N.C. 210 and N.C. 172, it has enough territory for good hunting. It also has good rabbit numbers and excellent access roads. It also has some deer, so hunters who course rabbits should make sure their dogs are broken from chasing deer. Otherwise, they may stray onto the busy highways or to Camp Lejeune’s restricted area. The main parcel of Stones Creek was used for sand mining. There are water-filled pits and the entire property appears to have been laid barren at some point. There are young pines at the tract, along with some hardwood bottoms along Stones Creek and pocosins at the uplands. But there are also lots of broomsedge fields where the land was cleared and they provide ideal habitat for rabbits. The afternoon threatened rain and the sky was overcast. Nevertheless, seven hunters of the 5 Horsemen Hunting Club traveled to Stones Creek. Stopping along at another farm that morning, the hunters already had a pile of rabbits on top of a dog box. “If it rains, the dogs may not run well,” said Charles Dixon of Rose Hill. “But they should jump a rabbit in all of this brush.” Soon the dogs were whimpering and false trailing. But eventually, they puzzled out which a rabbit had gone. “There are lots of droppings and that’s good rabbit sigh,” Dixon said. “It won’t be long before they jump one.” James Vines of Rose Hill was the first hunter to connect. A rabbit jumped and lead the beagles in a circle. They ran beside huge pile of earth then into a pine thicket that had been bedded and planted in rows. The furrows made spotting a rabbit difficult and several hunters in the group saw only beagle tails flashing through the trees. But Vines found a high spot above an opening where he could see well and made a good shot with his 20-gauge shotgun. He held up the rabbit for everyone to see. “I shoot a 20 gauge with 7 1/2s,” he said, “You don’t need big pellets to kill a rabbit. You just need to hit him with enough pellets to do the job.” Before the rabbit stopped kicking in Vines’ game vest pocket, the beagles were coursing again. This time, the rabbit was in tighter cover. The hunters surrounded a low swamp surrounded on all sides by a thick bay growing on the higher ground. The only way to gauge the progress of the chase was by the sound of the beagles and the shaking of the bay bushes swatted by their tails. “That rabbit will never come out of there,” said Sherwood Taylor. “I’m going in after him.” While the other hunters watched the broom sedge fields around the edges of the bay bushes, he worked his way down into the bottom. He finally got to a place where he could see 30 feet. “I bet it’s a swamp rabbit,” said Terrial White. “If it is, he could stay in that bottom just ahead of the dogs all day.” The rabbit made the same loop three times, with the longest diameter of the loop no more than 200 yards across. Each time, he came back to the same spot then turned onto his back trail to try to lose the dogs. Each time he came closer to Taylor and the hunter got a little closer to where the rabbit had turned. A shot from his gun caught the rabbit during its final circuit. “I don’t know if I hit him or not,” Taylor said. “I just got a glimpse of him.” Just as the beagles arrived at the scene, Taylor hoisted the dead rabbit before they could snap at his hind legs and held it high, letting them see it was dead so they would continue hunting for a different rabbit. “I told you it was a swamp rabbit,” White said. “Look at his blue tail. A cottontail rabbit tail is white.” A 12-gauge load of No. 6 shot did the trick, although the rabbit was almost too close. But even at 30 feet, the tight pattern did not do major damage because the rabbit was positioned sideways and the pattern caught him in the belly, leaving the front and rear legs intact where the best meat is located. “Right where I was aiming,” Taylor said. “You need to clean them fast, Otherwise, they might spoil or have a strong taste.” He gutted the rabbit of what was left of his innards and wiped his hands on the wet grass. Then he put the rabbit in his game vest, grinning at the heavy weight against his back. While this hunt was taking place close to home, the 5 Horsemen travel far and wide in pursuit of their sport. They hunt at public and private lands and in North Carolina and South Carolina. “We’re going to Robblyn’s Neck Plantation near Society Hill, S.C., the last week of the season in February,” White said. “That’s an old southern plantation site where they have deer and turkey hunting. But they invite us to down for a rabbit hunt every year. “The folks who run the plantation hunt with us and we always have a good time. There are lots of rabbits there. We also hunt the Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve in South Carolina and hunt at Croatan National Forest in North Carolina.” White’s beagles started running another rabbit and the hunters moved into position to surround him, hoping to head off another chase. “I love hearing my dogs run,” White said. “With beagles, you don’t have to spend the rest of the day looking for your dogs like you do when you hunt deer and they chase them for miles. “But it’s mostly a way to get together with your friends and family. You can talk and walk and have a good time. It’s not like being in a deer stand where you have to sit still and be quiet all the time. “We started the club about 10 years ago. There were only five of us then and that’s why we called it the 5 Horsemen Hunting Club. There are a lot more than five of us now. “I guess we have 20 or more who hunt with us on a regular basis. We’ll take anyone along who wants to go. Some people have to work, so we plan hunts on weekends. But if we can get enough of us together during a weekday, we’ll hunt during the week, too.” The light rain and raw wind had everyone tired by the late afternoon. But fresh rabbit pellets were discovered in yet another broom sedge field. The hunters fanned out, with their dogs divided into braces and trios between them. Soon the beagles were heading off on another chase, the lead dog calling the others together in a tight pack, baying their hearts out at a hot-footing rabbit’s scent. “It’s getting late and everyone’s tired and cold and ready to go home,” White said. “But if they get this rabbit going, most of them will try to get ahead of him and try to cut him off before he heads into the bay.” The dogs entered the bay behind a rabbit that didn’t get shot. The bunny made it safely into the huge expanse of head-high bay bushes with blackberry briars around the edges, making it an impenetrable fortress to everything except a rabbit or a beagle. White called to his beagles, caught them as they came back out to the edge of the jungle and put them in the dog box in the bed of his truck. Looking at the rabbits piled high on the roof of the dog box, he swung the door open and put a dog inside. Most people think beagles are happy little hounds. But they growled at one another, likely in the displeasure of having to end a chase prematurely. “Whether or not you get any rabbits, hunting for them always makes a good day,” he said. “But getting lots of rabbits like this, is a nice bonus because you have something good to eat when you get home. “Sometimes we divide them up among the hunters who want them and sometimes we get together and cook them. “Everybody likes eating rabbit.”