Quail hunters came from across the nation, with wealthy men erecting hunting lodges in the piedmont to sample fabulous bird hunting. But local farmers and hunters depended more upon a dependable supply of rabbits to fill the family stew pot. Quail were for gentlemen hunters and the wealthy, and hunting leases meant much-needed funds for cash-strapped families.
Today most of the piedmont has been taken over by housing developments and the farming practices at remaining agricultural operations leave just enough upland game habitat for a few rabbits and to keep small game hunters and their beagles happy.
These days, those who are serious about hunting rabbits head to the coast where an abundance of rabbits remains. Piedmont hunters may train their dogs in their backyards. But getting one or two special trips per season to the coast is the highlight of their hunting season. While hunting rabbits was once available for the asking, leases and day rates are the norm for the best rabbit hunting available.
Jeff Warner, an upland hunter from Brunswick County invited several friends to share a rabbit hunt at a Hyde County farm-turned-hunting operation.
A bunch of good old boys from Maco, Bolivia, and Delco loaded their beagles into pickups and headed to a farm operation owned by Bob Hester, a short duck flight from Lake Mattamuskeet.
"I mostly cater to waterfowl hunters," Hester said. "But I have also land enrolled in CREP (one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's NRCS conservation-reserve farm programs).
"The soils are organic so I can't use controlled burning at the CREP land. It would make a ground fire that would burn the soil. So I use mowing to keep the cover low."
Hester mows strips through the sedges and grasses of the former farm fields. He alternates the strips, creating a three-year rotation of mowing and fallowing that will eventually mow the entire field before starting over again. This mowing regimen keeps the field areas in the early plant succession stages that rabbits and quail need to prosper. Hester has even seen nesting ringneck pheasants in his upland cover areas, attesting to the effectiveness of the technique. In fact, if it weren't for the bay vegetation surrounding the fields and poking up here and there inside them, a hunter would swear he was in Kansas or Nebraska.
Hester also plants small plots of soybeans, a couple of acres here and there, interspersed into his upland habitats. The rabbits concentrate around the un-harvested bean fields. He also plants other fields in corn and soybeans that he harvests and floods and has diked fields he floods for his waterfowl hunters.
Hester said his leases are full. To the average hunter, they are also expensive. But hunters can use his experiences to manage owned or leased properties to produce similar upland hunting conditions.
Many hunters across the state lease or own properties at the coastal plain. Rabbit management is inexpensive relative to other wildlife management so getting multiple-use opportunities with small game isn't difficult.
"I've never seen rabbits like this," Warner said. "Last weekend 14 hunters shot their five-rabbit limits in a few hours."
Bragging words for sure but true.
It didn't take long for Eddie Beck's beagles to get the scent of a hot-footing cottontail; a single shot ended the chase. The next chase was longer and more difficult and found Beck pulling his beagles' noses from a rabbit hole.
"There's lots of holes they can run into, especially along the ditch banks," he said. "But there are so many rabbits, all we have to do is get them into the cover to start another chase."
Beck hunts rabbits at home in Brunswick County and was happy for the invitation to hunt in Hyde County. He uses a lever-action .410-bore shotgun to shoot them. The light loads of the .410 save wear and tear on the rabbit, so it is still edible after being bagged.
"I also like the lever action because it's something different," he said. "It's a fun gun to shoot, and you don't see many of them."
The beagles ran so many rabbits the pack split into pairs and trios. The most difficult thing about the hunting was that the only place to shoot was on the mowed lanes. On either side, the cover was mostly too thick to see. Reeds, briars and bay bushes made moving between the lanes difficult in places. Only one hunter could stand on a lane near the chase and have a clear shot unless two hunters stood back to back, each watching the opposite direction.
The lanes were only a few yards apart. So a hunter or a pair of hunters would hunt one lane, announcing their location to hunters on the other parallel lanes for safety.
Scott Humphrey soon shot a rabbit that didn't have the characteristic powder-puff tail with which most hunters are familiar.
"It's a bluetail, a swamper," he said. "The swamp rabbits are in the low spots while the cottontails are around the soybean fields and on the terraces."
Blasts from Warner's shotgun told everyone he had found a covey of quail. He had put his bird dog down for a hunt. Now that he had bagged his quail, he joined the rabbit hunt.
"I really like coming up here," he said. "My friend Dean Hackney holds the lease; he invites me up to hunt with a few friends. Everybody has a good time. It's as much a social event as a bird hunt, duck hunt or dove shoot. It's all about having some fun and working the dogs."
Hester doesn't allow any rabbit or quail hunting until other seasons have gone out so it doesn't interfere with duck and deer hunting. But the lateness of the hunt relative to the season had no impact on the number of rabbits. Every hunter in the group had his limit of rabbits by the middle of the afternoon.
On a more economical scale, another operation caters to day hunters. Mike Noles at Conman's Guide Service has his land enrolled in farm programs, and he manages the acreage he has under lease or ownership for multiple hunting opportunities.
"We hunt rabbits just like deer, bear and turkeys," he said. "Any size party can come to hunt one of our rabbit areas. But the party is limited to 20 rabbits per day. We have several areas so we can give two weeks' rest to each of them between rabbit hunts.
"If they have good dogs, any group can get their limit of 20 rabbits. We get hunters from all over. Back home, they may only get one or two rabbits in a day. But here in Hyde and Washington County, the cover is excellent and we have plenty of rabbits."
Noles' operation, Conman's Guide Service and Vacation Rentals, is at the shore of Lake Phelps. He rents cottages that can hold large parties of hunters located near the hunting areas and also has a campground.
There aren't many other places to stay the night unless a hunter lives nearby. But it's a bargain to stay in one of the comfortable cottages, which were recently renovated by Noles' wife, Connie, after some damage to the campground area by Hurricane Isabel.
The cost is just $30 per man per day for the rabbit hunt, in addition to the cottage rental - a bargain compared to prices for hunting more glamorous game like deer, bear, turkey and ducks. Plus, the hunter usually gets to shoot more and is guaranteed to bring something home. If hunters want to shoot quail along with rabbits, the cost increases by an additional $25 per hunter.
"We grow oats, wheat, winter peas and cultivate honeysuckle, greenbrier and other native plants, which rabbits need for cover and food," Noles said. "We never mow the native grasses and plants below 18 inches high. We mow because we can't do controlled burning in these peat soils. Keeping the cover low is what keeps the rabbit population so high."
Noles is an animal scientist who once worked for Tyson foods. He takes some advantage of farm programs. But he mostly does the habitat management on his own.
"Their programs are more limited," he said. "Most government programs benefit quail, and you have to do different things to promote rabbits and the other game species that form the basis of our hunting operations."
Noles hosts lots of rabbit hunting and beagle clubs. He takes them to the hunting area and goes out to check on them several times during the hunt. Other than that, it's a self-guided hunt.
Hunt areas are blocks of 400 to 500 acres with canals surrounding them, so there's no risk of wondering off the property without swimming a canal.
"We mostly have cottontails," Noles said. "But we have some bluetails that can take a dog out of the county almost as well as a deer. Deer are everywhere so hunters should come with dogs broke from running deer.
"All the areas are different. We have pines, broom straw, swamps and myrtle thickets. We've got whatever cover you like.
"The rabbit-hunting areas border corn and beans. That's the big key to having lots of rabbits after the first of the year. We manage the honeysuckle around the field edges like a crop too, mowing, trimming and fertilizing."
A predator-control program also helps keep the rabbit population high. Calling, trapping and hunting keeps raccoons, opossums, bobcats and coyotes in check.
Hunters not used to coastal hunting need to be aware of copperheads and rattlesnakes. Good briar pants or snake chaps are advised to get through the briars and ward off the rare possibility of snakebite.
"All you need is a shotgun, in any gauge from .410 to 12, shooting No. 6 shot," Noles said. "It's a great hunt for kids because all the shots will be across mowed lanes and broom straw patches where the walking is easy."
Noles lets hunters come and go as they wish, leaving them a gate key which they must give back after their hunt. He has kennels at the cottages that are included with the cost of the rental of $135 per night for up to six hunters per cottage. The campground has a shower and rest room but no water and sewer hookups. Cost is $15 per night.
"Most of my rabbit hunters come from Raleigh eastward," he said. "But some come from much farther. I only book 50 rabbit hunts per season and they fill up fast. What is so impressive about hunts out here is that there are no paved roads where cars might jeopardize your dogs. I have 14,000 acres with about 50 percent of that leased and the other 50 percent we own."
Another good thing about Conman's Guide Service is its proximity to Lake Phelps. Noles has a boat ramp and a pier that only overnight lodging guests may use. In the winter, yellow perch are biting. Once the rabbit hunt is over, hunters can stay a while, picking up a fishing rod to catch a few fish for a surf and turf dinner.
Like any other hunting, it's getting away with a group of buddies or family that counts. Rabbits provide a low-pressure style of hunting. They don't have antlers, spurs or beards or gaudy colored males to bring competitiveness and edginess to the hunting experience.
The abundance of rabbits found at coastal counties makes hunting a joyful time. There's nothing like the sight of a kid toting a shotgun over his shoulder, a heavy bulge in his game vest pocket, and the unbridled howling of a pack of beagles on a hot scent to bring happiness to a hunter's heart.
Chasing rabbits is how most hunters got started; the lucky few never outgrow the sport.