A desert-tan, four-wheel-drive vehicle bounced along a farm road, a cloud of fine dust rising up from its tires. The car had a broad brush-guard on the front, a lighted roll bar on top and a half- dozen hunters seated high and low.

After the vehicle coasted to a stop, guide Tim McBride headed to the back, opened one of the built-in kennels and hauled out one of his beagles by its collar. The other diminutive hounds raised their voices in unison, crying out their disappointment when their feet were not the first to hit the dirt.

To see an honest-to-goodness African bush car on a hunt in North Carolina’s Piedmont seemed surreal, especially since the game was anything as big or dangerous as the Big Five. Nevertheless, a rabbit hunt a Willow Oaks Plantation in the wilds of Rockingham County a few miles east of Eden — the town, not the garden — is a genuine adventure, a sylvilagus safari, if you will, because the object of the hunt was sylvilagus floridanus, America’s cottontail rabbit.

McBride released his beagles one by one, while the hunters climbed down and loaded their shotguns, 12-gauge Remington Versa Max semi-automatics from the company’s headquarters down the road in Madison. For the most part, the hunters thumbed in loaded low-brass shells loaded with No. 7 1/2 shot, but some chose high-brass No. 6s. Rabbit hunters are not discriminating when it comes to shot size.

“I like to shoot No. 5s,” McBride said. “The important thing is that you have a fast-handling gun. A semi-automatic is a good choice because sometimes you only get a glimpse of the rabbit, and it is usually going to take you more than one shot to hit it.”

McBride, 62, from Madison, doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t have beagles. He trains them year-round, except during extremely hot weather in the middle of summer. From the time the state’s rabbit hunting season begins the Saturday before Thanksgiving until it ends the last day of February, he and his beagles are in the forests and fields every possible moment.

“The main thing to think about when you are hunting rabbits is safety,” he said. “You can’t just shoot into a thicket because you don’t want to hit a dog that may be close behind the rabbit. You have to be sure you are shooting at a rabbit. The white tail-tip of a beagle can look like the bouncing tail of a rabbit. You also have to be aware of the locations of the other hunters in your party, because when you shoot at a rabbit, you are firing at ground level, not up in the air like you do on a bird hunt.”

It was easy to see rabbit tracks that were visible in the low, wet spots in the ditches as well as the dry red-clay dust of the road. Tracks told the hunters they were in the correct places. However, the beagles paid attention to what they could smell, rather than what they could see. At McBride’s urging, they dove into the broomstraw and briers and soon struck the scent of a hot-footing cottontail. They started howling and barking at the day’s first rabbit, their flagging tails showing their progress visually as they ran through the briers and broomstraw.

John Haviland, a resident of Montana, was first to spot the rabbit. He shot, missed, fired again and missed again. When the beagles reached the spot where the rabbit had disappeared, the chase continued.

“I never even got the gun up to my shoulder ,” he said. “The rabbit was running along the edge of a barbed-wire fence. It’s the first time I hunted rabbits with dogs, and it sure is fun. They are not easy to hit.”

Tommy Kirby, who manages Willow Oaks Plantation, said rabbits are a new addition to hunting opportunities on the plantation’s 1,828 acres along the Dan River just south of the Virginia border. The restored plantation and its buildings date to the 1820s, and the land has had only four owners since the Queen of England granted the deed. The plantation house is reserved for the property owners, but the outbuildings and guest lodge complex, complete with a silo and water tank, are used for the plantation’s hunting operations.

“People were coming to hunt quail, wild turkeys and white-tail deer,” Kirby said. “Everyone kept seeing all of the rabbits and asking us about hunting them. So last year, we hosted our first rabbit hunt, and it was a big success. This year, we’ve hosted about one hunt every other week since deer season ended. We may be able to have even more. It’s surprising how popular rabbit hunting has become.”

Anyone who hunts rabbits in the piedmont knows how difficult it is to find a good place to hunt. Modern, “clean farming” methods no longer provide good habitat, so most hunters rely on clear-cuts or other second-rate hunting areas. Kirby maintains most of Willow Oaks’ property in the early stages of plant succession by burning and mowing. While he plants some fields in row crops like corn and soybeans and maintains some acreage in pine plantations at various stages of growth, most of the property consists of former fields and pastureland, which now grow broom sedge, blackberry, greenbrier and honeysuckle. While the intent of the early successional habitat management was benefitting quail, the plantation’s premier game, the unintended but fortunate side effect has been the bumper crops of cottontails.

Chases continued throughout the day, with hunters and hounds bouncing from thicket to thicket according to the whims of the wildly bounding rabbits. February is prime mating season for rabbits, and the bucks may travel long distances to find several does. One chase ran through several large fields and through two pine thickets before ending with a successful shot. Some chases lasted more than an hour because of multiple misses. Others ended with a single shot, disappointing the dogs almost before the chase got started.

The deciding factor for success was how efficiently hunters could surround the cover. A network of roads, trails, power and pipeline rights-of-way made foot travel easy.

One hunter shot a rabbit while he was standing in a gravel road. He hoisted the rabbit high, thinking the other hunters were cheering. But, the reason they were yelling was that they were trying to tell him to turn around. Another rabbit, the one the beagles were actually running, raced across the road not 10 feet behind him with the dogs spilling into the road close behind.

“You should always be on guard,” McBride said. “Several rabbits may sneak out of a thicket to get away from the commotion of the beagles, and more than one may come out on the same trail. Once you take a stand, you should be as quiet as you can and not move around too much. A rabbit may see or hear you without you ever knowing. If the dogs come right up to you, then turn around and go right back in, a rabbit knew you were standing there so it didn’t come out into the open.”

Every hunter shot at least one rabbit and some hit two or more. After taking another shot at a fast-moving rabbit, Haviland hustled to see if he had scored a hit. Even before he pulled the rabbit from the tangle to hoist his tiny trophy high for all to see, the sweet smile of success was spreading across his face from ear to ear. 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE — Willow Oak Plantation is east of the Rockingham County city of Eden, which can be reached via US 29 from Greensboro to Reidsville and NC 14 to Eden. From Eden, take NC 770 almost five miles east and turn right on Willow Oak Drive. Follow to Willow Oak Plantation 

WHEN TO GO — Plantation rabbit hunts are scheduled throughout January and February. The plantation also offers deer, turkey, quail, pheasant and duck hunts.

EQUIPMENT — Shotguns are the ticket when running rabbits with beagles. Any gauge gun will work in the hands an experienced shooter. Best choke is improved cylinder, with best shot sizes Nos. 5, 6 and 7 1/2. Make sure to wear some blaze orange clothing, as is required.

MORE INFO — willow Oaks Plantation, Eden, 336-707-7814, www.willowoaksplantation.com

 ACCOMMODATIONS — Hunters can stay and eat at Willow Oaks Plantation’s hunting lodge. For other lodging, Eden Chamber of Commerce, 336-623-3336, www.edenchamber.com.

MAPS — DeLorme’s North Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer, 800-452-5931, www.delorme.com.