Hunting over dogs can involve various kinds of game in the Lowcountry. Dog drives for deer come to mind, along with hunting quail over pointers or setters — or maybe treeing raccoons with hounds.
February is a month when small-game is the sportsman’s only focus, a time to join some rabbit-hunting friends in pursuit of cottontails. Beagles will chase the rabbits, demonstrating their instinctive drive, and the hunters will move to cut off the fleeing cottontails, which will test their marksmanship skills.
Rabbit season runs through March 1. After the duck and deer seasons close, we are better able to focus on what the heart of winter brings — prime rabbit hunting. The hunt will demand an early start and vigorous activity as sportsmen enjoy pulse-quickening excitement when rabbits are on the move.
Rabbit hunting usually involves a small pack of beagles. Their keen noses can pick up the faint scent of the cottontail, and the pack, when fully engaged, can sound like a banshee blowing through the area
Nevertheless, individual dogs are well known to their masters, and they can pick out their individual voices, deciphering which animal is leading the chase. Some dogs have special noses that can pick up a cold trail, while others are better suited to trail when the rabbit has flushed and the scent is fresh.
James High Jr. of Eutawville is a life-long rabbit hunter who trains his own beagles and loves the sound of a good chase. High, who speaks with enthusiasm about rabbit hunting, holds a wealth of knowledge.
“I like a good beagle pack to be about 10 dogs of various ages,” High said. “The average take on a hunt is three to four rabbits, even though SCDNR’s daily limit allows for five rabbits per hunter. A cold-nose dog can pick up an older trail, such as the trail a rabbit left at 3 a.m. the morning before a hunt. But once a rabbit is jumped, the hot-nose dogs run to the front of the pack, where they’ll lead the pursuit.”
Hunters train their dogs by letting them run rabbits before the season comes in, and since they aren’t shooting, they can come back to chase them time after time. The trainers teach puppies not to chase deer, fox or other woodland creatures so they can stay focused on the cottontails.
High has six puppies to train this season, and he counts on his veterans “Red-Eye,” “Kissy” and the “two amigos” to instruct the pups as well. Past pack leaders “Duke” and “Frisky” were lost to old age last year, but they will be fondly remembered during this year’s hunts.
This year has been tough on beagles due to the dry conditions, whereas moisture usually holds the scent to the ground. High said, “Dust particles that go into the dogs’ noses makes them sneeze and not hunt as efficiently. Certain particles in the dust can activate allergies in the dogs’ noses, which can be another factor affecting their ability to breathe — leaving them available only to spot-trail the rabbits.”
Most beagle owners are convinced that dogs need to get a good chase on the first rabbit jumped and don’t want anyone to take a quick shot — even though pulling the trigger is not a guarantee that the chase will end in the game pocket of someone’s shell vest. Rabbits can stop on a dime, then turn and go in the opposite direction — like a shooting game at the fair.
Cottontails are usually pursued and found on high ground. Their favorite haunts tend to be abandoned structures such as houses, barns or cattle pens. In addition, if you find a brush pile near one of these structures, you have located an ideal place to hunt. Rabbits eat lots of greens and can get the water intake they need from their food, something that shouldn’t be overlooked in our current drought cycle.
Veteran hunters never overlook a good briar patch. The dog handler will walk his hounds through a chosen area and may stop to stomp on a brushpile, which invigorates the dogs to investigate it more closely. The rabbit won’t make a move when confronted by a man in his thicket; however, a wailing beagle, capable of slithering into thick cover, can make the rabbit nervous.
If a rabbit is flushed, usually some hunter gets a glimpse of it heading away, and the beagle pack will take off in hot pursuit. Hunters will move in that direction, taking stands to cut off the rabbit. Hunters wear plenty of blaze orange so they can be safely spotted as they trudge through the brush and woods, but, Jesse James of Eutawville, a frequent hunting companion of High’s, adds “We know where everybody is at all times by hollering out.”
An interesting trait of running rabbits is their habit to come back around to the spot from which they were originally flushed. They may lay down overlapping scent trails in their circuit, nature’s design to throw off the pursuit. Also, High said, “Rabbits will stop and lick their front feet to keep their scent down, then leap off their back feet to cross a road (or some other obstacle) in order to throw off the dogs.”
During the pursuit, hunters take stands where the rabbit has already passed or in a location nearby that offers enough visibility for a shot. A hunter waiting during a chase must remain on alert, because the rabbit can change from racing along on full afterburners to sneaking through the woods and being very wary of any unnatural sound or movement. These are the moments that can make the hunter’s chest pound with the same excitement as it does when a buck appears or when ducks decoy into your spread — or even when a lovelorn longbeard is about to get more than his heart broken.
A racing rabbit makes a poor target and will generally be accompanied by a pack of beagles in hot pursuit — and in full cry. A shot will either result in a crackerjack story of marksmanship to pass along to your buddies, or the more likely missed shot, which will serve to keep the pressure on the rabbit and keep your hunting party in the game.
Until shouts of “I got ‘em!” ring out and the dogs go silent, rabbit standers are best to stay on Code Red so a rabbit won’t slip right past — sometimes in such close quarters it’s embarrassing. Shots fired followed by beagles continuing to sound off are just part of the fabric of a rabbit hunt — and is the time when everyone is part of the same action.
Hunters usually wear vests to store extra shells and rabbits that didn’t make a quick enough escape. Another must-have are brush pants or brush chaps that can stand up to the rigors of multiple briar patches. Orange hats and shotguns round out the equipment list. Boots are probably the most climate-oriented decision — with rubber boots necessary in wet winters. In drought conditions, plan on bringing some water for the dogs, because they will be thirsty after the chase.
Dry feet in cold weather are essential, but even though you are targeting cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) that prefer high ground, your beagle pack makes no distinction when they jump a swamp rabbit. “Swampy” rabbits (Sylvilagus aquaticus), or “marsh” rabbits (Sylvilagus palustris), prefer to live in habitat where there is continuous moisture.
Swamp rabbits will often run through the water’s edge to try and throw off the trailing pack, and they can be harder to spot in swampy terrain. Since beagles are fairly relentless until the rabbit is bagged, hunters sometimes are pressed into the wet areas in order to bag the swamp rabbit and then lead the beagles back out.
“Swamp rabbits have more claws than a cottontail and sometimes will climb up into a tree hollow as an escape tactic,” High said.
Swamp rabbits are sprinters compared to the cottontails’ “long-run” tactics.
The end of rabbit season is usually dictated by mother nature before the actual closing date. When the warm-up occurs, rabbits start to mate, and an interesting thing happens when females are bred. The scent of a pregnant rabbit changes in a way that the dog’s can no longer track her. High often recognizes that breeding is taking place and signals the end of a hunt.