I chased a pack of bunny fanatics a windy January day last year while a winter wind storm chilled the humor from my funny bone.
With hunters bundled up against the chilly breeze, they wore armored briar britches against the organic razor wire that grows at a Northampton County tree farm.
The beagles had fur and spirt for briar protection; the scratchy stuff barely slowed the veteran dogs.
Just minutes after we dropped tail gates, the beagles bawled, but we could spot white tails poking through the weeds just before a dozen eager beagles jumped a pack of rabbits.
A pack of hunters followed the chase through head-high briars between a grove of young pines.
We drove past picked cotton fields to the tree farm near Jackson. From the dirt road, this pine plantation looked like sorry rabbit habitat (about six years ago the landowners planted his fields in rows of pines).
Wildlife biologists often refer to such tree farms as "pine deserts" because such areas offer little in the way of habitat. But at this tree farm, the beagles knew better.
They hit the ground running and put rabbits to flight within minutes, plowing through the thickets until their tails were bloody.
Smart hunters chose to wait for shots in clear areas beside the dirt road. Braver souls fought their way through scratchy thorns to get to the rabbits.
Better hunters know how to kill rabbits in the thick stuff.
James Little from Roanoke Rapids toted a shotgun and followed the chase. He wasn't afraid of a few briars. During this trip, he shot the first rabbit of the day.
Forget cottontails at this farm, he said.
"Follow me," he said. "I'ill show you how to kill a swamp rabbit. Cottontails will run out of the thickets, but not swamp rabbits. Most of the rabbits we shoot here are swamp rabbits. They just tiptoe around in the worse briars. You have to go in after them."
I followed Little through skin-ripping tangles as he listened to the dogs to choose his course, then picked a place to stand and wait. After years of hunting here, Little had a good idea of which way the rabbits would run. He used that knowledge to ambush his prey.
"I look for small clearings in these thickets," he said. "After that, I just wait for the dogs to run the rabbit by me."
Little belongs to a deer-hunting club that leases this land. After deer season ends, the club members turn to rabbit hunting. Deer hunters use their rifles to help the rabbits.
"We shoot a lot of foxes here to keep the predator population down," Little said.
After deer season, the hunters pay more attention to rabbits, and their habits.
"It's about time (February) for rabbits to start breeding," Little said. "Rabbits can be hard to find now. When we do get them, they come in bunches."
Little knew what he was talking about during this hunt. A minute or two later, a swamp rabbit darted between the bushes. Little shot the running rabbit from a few steps away.
"You don't get many long shots here," he said.
It was the first of 13 rabbits for the hunters.
After that shot the beagles didn't stop. During most chases, they would run two or three rabbits at a time. A few seconds later and a few yards over, Alan
Vester of Lake Gaston dropped another running rabbit in this pine thicket. Then in the distance, another hunter shot a third rabbit from the same chase. That was the first batch of 13 rabbits headed for the cookpot.
That January morning, a frigid wind blew from the North, so hunters had to deal with more than the chill. In this sport, they must use all their senses to locate rabbits. Beagles will smell them and spook them from hiding places, but taller hunters can spot rabbits from a longer distance.
Better hunters often will kneel down to listen for rustling bushes, however, a stiff wind usually ruins that technique.
"It's hard to hear rabbits moving through the brush with all that wind blowing," Vester said.
Heavy wind also doesn't help beagles' noses. During such days, it's hard for dogs to detect scent - wind disperses it - and wise bunnies will huddle into a thicket or burrow into a warm, grassy spot and sit tight.
"Yesterday we killed 24 rabbits out here," Vester said. "The weather was a lot warmer then. There was hardly any wind."
Bob Ferguson from Red Oak has hunted many windy days. He survived a tour of duty as a combat infantryman in freezing mountains during the Korean War. This chilly Carolina morning, he watched the chase from theroad. As the chase passed near, he left the road to find a way through the briars.
For protection, he covered his face against the freezing wind. Ferguson, 69, started hunting with beagles at age 13. At this hunting club, members care about the rabbits on their land. They aim for quality hunts every season.
"We have a rule at this club," Ferguson said. "Never shoot a rabbit on the jump. We only shoot a rabbit while the dogs are running it."
During the day, a 13-year-old beagle named Kate stayed by Ferguson's side. At times, the elderly beagle would join the chase until she got tired.
That was fine with Ferguson. Kate earned the right to take breaks, he said.
"Kate is retired," he said. "She is the best swamp rabbit dog I ever saw, and she produced a lot of puppies. "
That morning the hunters hauled several truckloads of dogs to the field. At one point, they turned more than 20 beagles loose in the briar patches. Older dogs hit the ground sniffing.
Puppies followed the older dogs until they got tired, then returned to hang out near the hunters. Puppies learn to hunt by on-the-job training.
Beagles do the hard work of sniffing through the briars. They often suffer bloody tails and snouts for their labor.
Hunters circled the field or crashed through the brush to get shots but it's difficult to see rabbits in such thick cover.
At times the dogs run their quarry close by hunters, who never see the rabbits at their feet.
"Rabbits don't move much when it's this cold," Ferguson said. "All this wind dries up the scent. Beagles have to walk right up on a rabbit before they can smell it."
But nothing discourage a cadre of veteran hunters that ran platoons of eager beagles throughout the day.
In the old days, most people lived on farms in this part of the state. When not working the fields, they hunted for sport and fresh meat. Today developers convert more farms to suburbs and threaten the hunting tradition.
But a few old-time hunters try to keep their rural customs alive.
Edward Taylor, 73, hauled a load of beagles from his home in Henderson. His brother William, 80, carried another pack. They started raising beagles and hunting as children. In those days, they had more rabbits to hunt.
"We don't find that many rabbits near my home now," William Taylor said. "There are a lot of houses close by. House cats roam the woods and kill many rabbits. Every predator in the woods eats rabbits. Now we have to drive for miles to find places to hunt."
It takes a lot of work to maintain beagles, Edward Taylor said. Hunters must be willing to feed and care for the dogs all year, just to hunt for a few weeks in the winter.
"Raise them in cages off the ground to prevent disease," he said. "Make sure they get all their shots. Do that and female beagles will raise healthy litters of puppies for you."
Although rabbit season opens in November, most hunters wait until deer season is over before turning out their dogs. At this farm, as at many others across the state, hunters get more bangs for their bucks. They enjoy small-game hunts after deer season.
Like all dog handlers, Edward Taylor pays close attention to blood lines. He always trades and swaps around to breed quality dogs. But even the best dogs need to practice, especially during the off season.
"Older beagles will teach the younger dogs. Keep beagles busy for the best results," he said. "In spring and summer, we run dogs at least twice a week. During hunting season, we go four or five times a week."
During sessions in the field, Edward teaches the dogs to run rabbits but not deer. He isn't above taking a switch to a careless beagle or using a shock collar.
Long hours of working with dogs are sheer joy for true rabbit hunters becase they truly love their beagles. Beagles are cute dogs, but the better ones are savage hunters when chasing rabbits.
As scent hounds, beagles go to work with noses on the ground, but a good "jump" dog will use ears and eyes as well to locate hidden rabbits.
Once rabbits run the fun really starts. The trick for hunters is to stay close enough to the dogs to get a shot, but not too close. Give the rabbits a little room to run. Try to pick the best shooting locations.
Hitting a running rabbit with a shotgun is a worthy challenge for any expert shooter. Beginners will miss a few times, until they learn how to lead something that hops.
Taylor shoots an old double-barrel gun with the stock taped together. He never practices but seldom misses, he said.
"Shooting rabbits just comes natural to me," he said.
These days Taylor is more likely to let his friends take the shot. He likes to hunt rabbits just to watch the dogs work.
"Rabbit hunting is the third most important thing in my life," he said. "Serving the Lord comes first, followed by family. I love to hear those little dogs bark, and watch those rabbits run.
"I will shoot about a dozen rabbits a year to eat."
Edward also likes to watch rabbits on the table. Swamp rabbit meat is tough if not cooked well. For a tasty delight, he will boil a cut-up rabbit with celery until the meat is tender.