After deer season ends, lots of private land becomes available for hunters to turn loose their packs of beagles.Meanwhile, a group of nine hunters, dressed warmly against the early morning chill, listened intently.

About 10 minutes earlier, they'd pulled their vehicles off a paved road and parked at a wide shoulder next to the woods, well out of harm's way.

They'd loosed a dozen beagles that, after first taking care of the usual round of business, had struck out through the woods with two hunters trailing them.

Within a few minutes Chris Kidd of Burlington said, "Let's go. The strike dog has a trail."

The "strike dog" is a beagle expert at deciphering the track of the last cottontail to pass over ground crossed by dozens of older scent trails. When the lead beagle offers his first plaintive yelps, he means, "Come here, the rest of you. I've scented a really hot rabbit track."

Then the rest of the pack, knowing what the strike dog's cries mean, quickly will assemble behind him, sniff the ground to pick up the bunny's scent, and the race begins in earnest.

Describing yowling beagles chasing a cottontail as a "race" is accurate. However, a beagle-rabbit race isn't a sprint to a finish line similar to NASCAR competition.

A cottontail will take pursuing hounds on a more-or-less circuitous route across hill and dale, open woods, swamps and cutovers, until returning to within a few yards of the spot where the beagles first rousted him from his bed.

The trick for hunters is to decipher where the rabbit will run while making his rough circle so they can intercept him.

"Cottontails almost always run in circles," Kidd said. "If the dogs take off on a straight line, you can almost bet they jumped a deer. But they should get off that track pretty quick because they're trained only to run rabbits."

What hunters have to do is figure out the direction of rabbit's circle, then locate themselves where they can watch the woods in front of the dogs.

"Sometimes that's 50, 60 or 80 yards in front of a pack of beagles," Kidd said. "Watching for a rabbit isn't at all like looking for a running deer - not that deer don't run in front of hounds - but rabbits run low to the ground, so that's where you've got to watch. And you have to watch yards in front of the dogs; that's where the rabbit will be.

"The big problem is to see a rabbit running in thick cover," Kidd said. "You're not going to see a white tail or antlers sticking up in the air like you would with a deer.

"You've got to lower your field of vision to ground level to see a rabbit, especially in a cutover where it's usually thick and where we find most rabbits."

Hunters often will stand on a tree stump or an earth mound to get a better view of the terrain when a bunny's headed their way.

"Another thing you've got to do is be quiet," Kidd said. "A rabbit has good hearing, and if he hears you walking or sees you moving, he'll veer off his path and you'll never see him. Sometimes rabbits pass within a few yards of a hunter who's moving around making noise, and the hunter won't see the rabbit. He'll only know the rabbit came within a few yards of him - after the dogs have run past within easy shooting distance."

If you haven't already guessed, habitat is a major ingredient in finding rabbits.

In the northwestern corner of Chatham County near the Silk Hope community are countless acres of land so undeveloped they create living quarters for many species of wild game. Deer and wild turkeys live there, along with squirrels, raccoons, opossums, bobcats, foxes and of course coyotes. But the landscape seems especially made for cottontail rabbits.

It's marked by pine forests and hardwood ridges, tree-covered hills, cutovers, thickets, creek bottoms and untended agricultural fields regenerating in natural grasses. A few rotting logs overgrown with honeysuckle and briars and the remnants of rock-built chimneys indicate where humans once lived, worked and played before paved roads crisscrossed this part of North Carolina.

Some areas have been cleared for pastures and cattle farming while others have been selectively timbered, with slash piles dotting the understory. Cutovers are plentiful.

Taken together, northwestern Chatham is a haven for rabbits and rabbit hunters.

"Cutovers are the best places to find rabbits and the best places to hunt for them," said Eric White, a friend of Kidd's from Caswell County who almost never misses a chance to exercise his beagles during January and February hunts.

Two hunters can't cover enough terrain to have a successful rabbit hunt. Hound hunting for cottontails usually requires a minimum of eight people spread far enough apart to spot a circling bunny. To fill out the hunting party, Ryan White joined his father Eric, Kidd and several others, including Butch Simmons of Haw River, Johnathan Crutchfield of Eli Whitney, Jim Copland and Phil Smith of Burlington and Manning Outen of Cary.

Kidd, a jack-of-all-trades maintenance supervisor at the Kernodle Clinic, had met Eric White, a state elevator inspector, in 1996.

"Me and Eric found out we had a common interest - rabbit hunting," Kidd said.

Not long after their first meeting, White gave Kidd a beagle puppy. Kidd, who had moved to North Carolina from Virginia in 1993, had been forced to leave behind his own pack of rabbit dogs in the move.

"Now, we've got a circle of friends who are rabbit hunters and try to get good dog owners involved in our hunts, especially when we have a good place to go," Kidd said.

One of the keys to having cottontails for dogs to chase is to not overhunt an area. Just as it's possible to overharvest fish populations in a single lake, too many hunting trips to the same region can ruin rabbit populations even though the animals are prolific breeders.

"We hunt mostly small areas, small cutovers or woods with houses, fields or pastures around them," Kidd said. "I'm talking maybe a couple hundred acres.

"Everything wants to eat rabbits, including foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls, so they receive a lot of pressure from nature's predators in addition to human hunters.

"If you've got good rabbit dogs and guys who know how to hunt, and (you) go to a particular cutover more than once a season, you can hurt rabbit numbers.

"A lot of times, we've had good success one day at a place, maybe taking 20 or 30 rabbits. Then we'd come back a month or two later and jump only three or four. We had no idea if somebody else had hunted the same spot and also killed rabbits.

"So the best idea is to have a lot of places to hunt during one season but change up, hunt each property only once a season."

Rabbit guns needn't be expensive, and it doesn't take a magnum load of shot to kill a rabbit, but sometimes a 12-gauge is the best choice, depending on habitat.

"I've known people who use 20-, 28- and 16-gauges, maybe even once or twice a .410 shotgun, to hunt rabbits," Kidd said. "The problem with small-gauge shotguns is they may not get lead through brush to a rabbit.

"If you could always shoot in clearings or when a rabbit's crossing an old road or path in a cutover, it wouldn't take a large-gauge shotgun to knock him down. But if you're in the typical thick stuff where beagles chase them, a 12-gauge loaded with No. 4 or No. 6 shot will give a better chance to penetrate brush, small limbs and such and hit a rabbit."

Another key to rabbit hunting is having briar-resistant outerwear and comfortable, waterproof footwear. Because rabbit hunting with beagles means lots of walking and expending large amounts of energy, hunters should take care to wear appropriate clothing and comfortable boots. Air temperatures might range from below freezing in the morning to the mid-50s by afternoon, creating different clothing requirements.

Extremely thick or insulated shirts and pants will make anyone sweat while walking - even on the coldest days, so donning too much clothing early could be a mistake. Socks also should keep feet warm but not make them sweat.

Shoes should be waterproofed, but rubber boots can become unbearably hot after several hours of walking. Pack boots work well for some hunters, but many rabbit hunters prefer well-oiled leather boots.

An effective outfit might include brush-buster coveralls pulled over blue jeans and a light brush-buster jacket over a light long-sleeve shirt. Briar-repelling jackets and pants will help a hunter push his way through cutovers and thickets without getting arms and legs ripped to shreds.

State law also requires rabbit hunters to display some kind of hunter orange that can be seen in a 360-degree range. Most wear orange hunting vests and orange caps, which is important in thickets and cutovers where visibility usually is limited.

It's also not a bad idea to prepare a small backpack to hold water, soft drinks, snacks, trail mix or even a can of beans and a sandwich or two, especially if one expects lunch time to pass without notice.

But preparations won't matter unless the pack of beagles is experienced and knows its job.

Kidd and White own 13-inch beagles, which are the smallest variety; the other most-popular American beagle measures 15 inches to the top of its head. The advantage of smaller dogs is the ability to follow a cottontail into the thickest, nastiest cover and force it to move.

Choosing a good beagle is mainly a matter of luck, Kidd said, but hopefully the dog has good hunting genes in its ancestry.

"It's hard to tell (a beagle's hunting instincts)," he said. "Hopefully, when you buy a beagle off somebody, it's from a good blood line."