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One of the drawbacks of writing a column such as this one is that it’s easy to assume that all of your readers are experts “in the field,” and in some cases probably know more about your weekly topic than you do! Outdoor adventures are such that everyone can be an expert after just a few trips, and it doesn’t take long for a hunter or fisherman to consider himself to be the end-all of his chosen pursuit once he’s had a little success at it. In fact, there is nothing like a bit of good luck to bring a novice into the Circle of Sages, as I was reminded during a rabbit hunt last week.
A reader of long experience had asked me to join him and his pack of eight beagles for a mid-week rabbit hunt. Always one to forsake work for a good day in the alders, I jumped at the chance. By the time the dust settled and the chain of invitations had run its course, we had six hunters to go along – and four of them had never been on a hound hunt for rabbits.
We met for breakfast at a local diner and the talk was fast and furious as the new guys listened to the old-timer pontificate about rabbit hunting and his general rules for a hunt. “No jump-shooting,” he said, meaning no shooting at rabbits unless the dogs were in pursuit. Also, “No shooting at rabbits till the dogs have run at least one full circle,” which means pretty much what it says: the goal isn’t to shoot rabbits, it’s to train dogs, so let the dogs run the rabbit out and back before a shot is fired.
The new guys listened but did not hear, although no damage was done. For one thing, I’d recommended that they bring open-choked shotguns with No. 8 shot, but they’d decided that full chokes (meaning small patterns) and heavier shot would get them more rabbits. One born-again expert decided to bring his turkey gun complete with 3 1/2-inch magnum loads – enough to kill a hardheaded turkey at 50 yards, let alone a flimsy little bunny at 25 feet!
We off-loaded the dogs and got them going, but the newbies began shooting at rabbits they jumped as soon as they hit the woods. Fortunately, they were not properly armed for the job and so they missed every hare! The dogs found the trails and took off, and I thought, “Well, now we’ll have us a rabbit hunt.”
The normal modus operandi is to let the dogs get going, find a place to stand near where the rabbit is jumped and just wait for the dogs to run him back around. Most rabbits will come right back to their starting point at least the first time – after that it’s pot luck. So, of course one wants to get into position and wait quietly while the dogs do their jobs.
Did I say quietly? I was astounded (my own fault of course, for thinking these guys knew what they were doing) to see them walking through the woods talking loudly to each other, breaking branches and otherwise making enough noise to alert every rabbit in the county. Time after time the dogs headed straight for one of the hunters but his clumsy footwork (or his own voice) would alert the rabbit and the race would veer off in another direction.
Knowing that a quiet, stealthy approach would work best, I crept into position and waited as the dog-and-rabbit show bounced from inept hunter to hunter, until the rabbit chose the path of least disturbance and headed straight for me.
The new guys assumed (though no one had told them so) that the dogs would be right on the rabbit’s tail, but I knew from long experience that the rabbit could be 100 yards or more ahead of the hounds. I stood alertly, shotgun at port arms, and waited for the rabbit to come my way.
Sure enough, as the din of the dogs grew closer and louder, I spotted the hare high-stepping through the alders – right to me! I waited for a clear shot and rolled the rabbit with a half-teaspoon of No. 8 shot from my trusty .410 – the smallest gun in the crowd.
All hands came to see the rabbit and everyone had a big story to tell about what they saw, where they were and how it all went down. The dogs, instantly bored with the vanished trail, ran off to find another rabbit and, in seconds, went back to work. More talk, more noise and our host slipped in to shoot that hare.
By now some of the wiser heads began to take notice. The woods were quieter and the walking was more stealthy – theories and philosophies aside, these guys were starting to learn what it would take to put dinner in their game pockets.
Elmer Fudd jokes aside, rabbit hunting with hounds is a complicated and demanding game – you don’t just walk out there and start shooting a limit of hares. For one thing, the rabbits won’t tolerate a hunter’s cavalier attitude – they’re running for their lives and aren’t likely to do you any favors. You need to move slowly and quietly, stop talking and pay attention – and even then there are no guarantees.
By day’s end the rookies had learned the basics and all had shot at, or hit, a rabbit or two. The dogs had done a great job and we had plenty of meat for the pot – rabbit hunting doesn’t get much better than that.
As we were leaving the woods a couple of the luckier hunters kept talking excitedly about their next hunt: “Yeah, I know, but next time we should use heavier shot and I think we should try to keep up with the dogs . . .”
Oh, brother!
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