After North Carolina’s deer season ends Jan. 1, hunters still have a couple of months to target waterfowl and different small-game species.

But if you don’t plan to target ducks, geese or swans, and you don’t have a crackerjack bird dog and a hidden treasure of bobwhite quail, there’s still hope, because one particular animal is prolific, loves thick cover for protection and is well-suited to hunting with tracking dogs.

One morning last February, Graham’s Mike Harden, Guilford County’s A.C. Weeks and Burlington’s Rusty Huffines met one frost-covered morning for a short trip to an abandoned Caswell County farm.

Harden, a long-time teacher, baseball coach and Farm Bureau employee, filled the dog boxes in the back of his truck with beagles and turned his steering wheel north. After a 20-minute ride, they reached a 110-acre farm that had lain fallow for at least three years. The property had hardwood and pines, overgrown fields of long pasture grass, and sections of brambles and broom sedge.

After parking beside a deteriorating barn, the hunters disembarked, pulled on brush-buster pants and orange jackets, donned orange caps and picked up their shotguns. 

“I used to hunt rabbits with my dad, but he died when I was 10 years old,” said Harden, 61. “We’d hunted rabbits with a guy from Graham, Sol Guthrie, who also hunted with Homer Keck (a legendary Alamance County rabbit hunter). Sol introduced me to Homer. When daddy died, Homer called me and said I’d be welcome to hunt with him.

“I’ve hunted with Homer for 30 years, and he taught me so much about rabbit hunting and beagles; he basically took me under his wing. I was 20 when I started getting my own dogs, which I could have screwed up, but Homer taught me how to handle them, and he was as good as any veterinarian. He had his own home remedy for skin diseases and treated his beagles for heartworms, tape worms and roundworms, the most deadly things a beagle can get.”

That morning, when Harden dropped his truck’s tailgate and opened the doors of two metal dog boxes, a pack of 10 tri-color beagles — Billy, Moo-Moo, Marcelle, Whitey, Junior (after NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Cindy, Suzy, Polly, Clovis and Bebe — sailed off the back of the truck and immediately scattered into the weeds, the tips of their waggling tails visible.

Each dog stuck his nose to the ground, pushing through high grass and briars and made the “huff, huff, snuff, snuff” exhales and snorts of beagles searching for cottontail scent. Within minutes, Billy, one of the oldest of the 13-inch dogs, bawled as the sweet aroma of rabbit filled his nostrils.

The other nine dogs abandoned their own pursuits and headed for the strike dog.

Billy’s discovery soon brought a chorus from the pack as it roared down the side of a grass-covered road, through a field, chasing a bunny that zipped through the high grass, weeds and briars and headed for a hardwood embankment where he could gather speed and put distance between himself and the yowling pack.

“That’s the way it’s supposed to happen,” Harden said. “A strike dog gets the scent and yelps to let the others know he’s onto a rabbit’s track, they go to him, also catch the scent, and the race begins.”

In years gone by, beagle packs might jump a dozen or more bunnies during a day’s hunt. But nowadays, overgrown farms often are bordered by homes or housing developments, close-cropped cow pastures, mowed fields, lawns, hardwoods or pine stands and harvested crop fields.

“We used to hunt around Clinton, Dunn and Spivey’s Corner,” Harden said. “Farms down there had a lot of rabbits. On a typical day, we’d kill 15 and never shoot on the jump. We also killed a lot of ‘bluetails’ (swamp rabbits).”

Those places, like Caswell, have changed with more people and clean farming, plus difficulty in gaining permission to hunt.

Rabbits don’t spend much time in hardwoods because they offer little natural foods to nibble and marginal protection from predators. Pastures and lawns offer no help from hawks during daylight and only a little more cover at night from owls, foxes and coyotes.

So overgrown farms with weedy fields or thick cutovers are about the only places cottontails can live in the rolling hills of landscapes such as Caswell, although the county contains a large game land.

“That’s why we like to hunt private land,” said Weeks, a retired Farm Bureau insurance adjuster. “Some game lands have good rabbit habitat, but you never know how many guys might have hunted in front of you or how many rabbits they already killed.”

Beagles may pop a rabbit out of its field bed or hit a fresh scent trail, usually inside or near ground cover, inside a honeysuckle thicket, or a find a bunny sitting under a blowdown. A cottontail can’t tolerate nearby beagles or humans and surrenders to the urge to flee when a dog or hunter gets within 8 to 10 feet. He’ll break from cover, igniting every mouth in the pack.

“A cottontail’s escape route always is a circle,” Harden said. “Sometimes, if you’re in a really thick place, he’ll run a 100-foot circle, especially if he’s in a cutover. Rabbits are hard to see in cutovers. Hawks and owls can’t dive on them, and they can hear foxes and coyotes trying to get near them.

“If dogs are pushing them, they might run a quarter- or half-mile circle. Some rabbits might run in a mile-long circle. But one thing you can bet on — he’s going to come back where the dogs jumped him.”

Hunters should stand and listen at least 5 minutes to determine which way a rabbit chooses to run once beagles roust him.

“When you figure out where he’s going, you try to get in front of him near where you think he’ll run his circle,” he said. “If (the rabbit) goes left, you go left, and do the same if he goes right. Then get in a place where you can see and don’t move. 

“A rabbit’s usually going to tip along 75 to 100 yards in front of the dogs. If you go toward the dogs, the rabbit will get past you before you get there, and you’ll never see him. You’ve got to look where you think his circle will take him. If he hears or sees you, he’ll veer off. Hunters should pick spots to stand along the circle where the rabbit’s heading back to where he was jumped.”

One of the most difficult problems for novice hunters is to understand these facts and also to watch the ground.

“A lot of guys are so dialed into deer hunting, they look 3 to 4 feet off the ground,” Harden said. “Rabbits only get that tall in children’s books.”

Weaponry is simple — never rifles, but small-gauge shotguns in .410, 28- or 20-gauge with shells containing Nos. 7 1/2 or 8 shot. Huffines, who sells pharmaceuticals to veterinarians, prefers a youth-model 28-gauge autoloader, while Weeks carried a 20-gauge.

“Typical shots are pretty close,” Harden said. “I like (an) over-and-under with a skeet bore. The (shot pattern) seems to be about right. You also want a gun that’s not so heavy, because it’s easier to carry.”

Some hunters prefer No. 6 shot, but Harden said he doesn’t shoot through bushes.

“I don’t load my shotgun until the dogs jump a rabbit,” Harden said. “It’s a safety factor. And as soon as someone kills a rabbit, I unload my gun. In my younger days, I didn’t unload my gun and took snap shots, but I don’t do that anymore.”

Rabbit hunting seems less popular today than in the past because of the expense of caring for dogs, less habitat and difficulty in obtaining hunting permission. Today’s hunters also are older and are not being replaced by young hunters.

But advantages are good companionship and healthy exercise. Older men who can’t jog or ride bicycles get great cardiovascular exercise by tromping through woods and fields. At the end of the day, there also might be makings for rabbit stew, pie or a fried rabbit and gravy dinner.