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Beagle Basics For Better Rabbit Hunting
Hunting with rabbit dogs can be more challenging than it looks.
By John N. Felsher
Originally published in the January 2018 issue of AON
Steve Byrd, of Citronelle, with a rabbit he killed with the help of a well-trained pack of beagles. “One of the biggest mistakes people make hunting rabbits is not giving the dogs enough time to do their work properly,” said Steve.
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Across the pine savannah, unseen dogs began howling as they jumped another cottontail. Despite wearing heavy brush pants, I could barely move through thick underbrush punctuated by briars as I tried to reposition myself for a better shot.

“Look out. He’s running your way. Get ready,” one of the other hunters yelled.

Tensing up with anticipation and adrenaline, I listened to frantic howling moving closer and anticipated a quick shot. I picked a small clear patch between two thickets where I knew the rabbit would certainly pass and prepared to swing my Remington 20-gauge 870 into action.

Instead, I heard something about 40 yards behind me. I turned and looked just fast enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of a speedy brown object with a cottony tail vanishing into a brushy thicket at least 200 yards ahead of the nearest pursuing dog. I never saw it again. With so many predators looking for a meal, rabbits know how to disappear.

“A rabbit is hunted day and night from all kinds of predators on land and from the air,” explained James Sealy Jr., of Citronelle. “When I first started hunting rabbits, I underestimated them, too. They are constantly trying to avoid predators much more skilled than human hunters. They can see a person and disappear without the person ever knowing it. Hunting rabbits with beagles is not as simple as one might think, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Rabbits love briars, honeysuckle thickets, logpiles and other places where they can hide from predators. Because rabbits like thick cover, many people turn to dogs, specifically beagles, to root out the rabbits from their lairs. A fully trained beagle could cost anywhere from $300 to $1,000. Although beagles with good lineage already come with hunting instincts bred into them, they still need some training. James trains his own dogs from an early age to chase rabbits.

“I got into rabbit hunting when my daughter and I wanted to do something different,” James commented. “We got some dogs, and I started training them. I start by making a pup use its nose. Some companies make products with rabbit scent on them that people can use to train their dogs. Eventually, I put a pup in a pen with a live rabbit. Later, I’ll put the pup with more experienced dogs, but I don’t just leave young dogs in a pack. I’ll separate them so they start learning on their own. When we kill a rabbit, we’ll let young dogs smell the scent.”

Dogs jumping a rabbit in thick cover does not necessarily guarantee a shot. However, it does guarantee a lot of fun, whether the person fires at a bounding bunny or not. Sure, hunters like shooting rabbits and eating them, but few hunt strictly for the kills. They do it for the howls and the camaraderie. Unlike sitting quiet and still high in a tree all day, rabbit hunters can spread out, talk and have a good social time while walking the fields and forests.

“Rabbit hunting is a very social sport,” James said. “Most rabbit hunters enjoy the company. They’ll take a person out and show that person a good time. We get in competition with the other hunters and tease each other when someone messes up, but it’s all in good fun. The camaraderie is what I enjoy most about hunting rabbits, that and hearing my dogs.”

Many people began hunting rabbits by following their fathers, grandfathers or other relatives at a very young age. As they grew up, they passed the tradition of following howling dogs to new generations.

“My grandfather hunted rabbits with beagles for food,” recalled Larry Meeks, a rabbit hunter from Huntsville. “It’s been a family tradition ever since. It’s a great sport for getting kids involved in hunting. They get really excited when the dogs jump a rabbit. It’s faster-paced hunting. It’s not like sitting in a tree all day. A young boy or girl gets bored just sitting waiting for something to happen. When rabbit hunting, they can be moving and talking. Kids really enjoy it. It’s more about the fellowship than shooting rabbits. It’s about enjoying time with family and having a good time.”

On that frosty morning, my son Daniel and I joined up with James and his dad, Jim James, Roy Shofner and Steve Byrd. When they invited me to hunt rabbits with beagles, I envisioned an easy hunt. I thought the dogs would do all the work pushing rabbits out from entangling thickets impassible to humans. All I had to do, so I thought, was wait for the dogs to chase the rabbit in front of me, so I could make an easy shot.

In reality, I spent most of my day chasing the dogs chasing the rabbits and jockeying to get where a rabbit would certainly erupt from cover at any minute with dogs hot on its trail. That’s a serious mistake for anyone who wants to bag cottontails. I never fired a shot all day, although the more experienced, and patient, hunters in our group did kill some rabbits.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make hunting rabbits is not giving the dogs enough time to do their work properly,” remarked Steve, who bagged the first rabbit that morning. “Some people leave an area much too quickly. I like to hear the dogs running after the rabbits. When the dogs get to singing, you know they are hot on a rabbit. When they start heading closer, my heart really starts pounding.”

At one point, several dogs with their noses pressed to the ground passed barely a few feet from me. They ignored me standing there with a shotgun ready to shoot anything that resembled a cottontail. However, that bunny disappeared long before I even looked for it.

“A rabbit is going to run in a circle,” James advised. “He likes his home territory and knows every hole, briar patch and grass clump in it. The closest a dog will ever be to a rabbit is when it jumps it. A rabbit on the run might be 200 yards in front of the dogs. If the dogs are heading away from me, I might move to another spot, but if they are heading back in my direction, I’ll stay put.”

When dogs flush a rabbit, find a good tree or other cover with at least 30 yards of visibility near where it first took off running and wait. Be quiet, patient and still. The rabbit might return to its old familiar territory. Listen for rustling low to the ground, and watch for any movement. Pay particular attention to thickets, logpiles or other cover and little paths that traverse it. Sometimes, fleeing rabbits jump into a hole or other hiding place and remain still.

“Many times, people make the mistake of listening to the dogs and trying to spot the rabbit right in front of the dogs, but the rabbit will be way out in front of them,” Larry said. “When rabbit hunters hear the dogs heading toward them, they need to stop, keep quiet and start looking for the rabbit. People don’t really need to hide, but they just need to stay still and quiet when waiting for that rabbit to return. Keep alert, and watch for the rabbit. They are pretty sneaky.”

When hunting in heavy brush that rabbits love, hunters need to wear orange, at least a hat, but preferably also a coat or vest, so everyone can easily see everyone else. Determine safe places to shoot before spotting a rabbit. People should never fire unless they can positively identify their target is a rabbit and what is beyond it. This rule especially applies to shooting low. What looks like a brown bunny might be a beagle.

When a rabbit rockets from its lair, shooters must react fast and throw a lot of lead in the direction of the hopping furball. Many people prefer a fast, light .410 or 20-gauge shotgun loaded with number 6, 7.5 or 8 shot. Since many hunters don’t get off more than one or two shots at a rabbit, many carry single shots or double-barrels. Most shots occur at less than 25 yards, so use an improved cylinder or modified choke,

Even with everyone wearing orange, hunters don’t always see their companions. Many hunting teams simply shout out to each other, but others bring radios or walkie-talkies to keep track of everyone and hear updates on what the dogs and rabbits are doing. Sportsmen can buy very light short-range radios similar to systems used by military and law-enforcement personnel that clip on their belts or hunting vests.

Most rabbit hunters use dogs, but people without canine help can sometimes bag a few bunnies. Squirrel and bird hunters occasionally kick up a cottontail and kill it, but to successfully hunt rabbits without beagles takes a lot of work, skill and some luck. Some sportsmen take turns smashing through thickets, kicking grass clumps or fallen logs as others watch the edges for anything that might bolt out. A good pair of thick canvas pants or leather briar chaps and some snake boots come in handy when busting through thorny cover.

For a really challenging hunt, carry a .22 rifle along the edge of a field, food plot, powerline or other opening at first or last light. In low-light conditions, rabbits sometimes emerge from cover to feed. A fresh clear-cut or recently burned forest makes a good place to look for rabbits at dawn or dusk. Rabbits love eating the new green shoots sprouting up. Some people even sit in a deer stand overlooking a food plot with a scoped .22 rifle waiting for rabbits to emerge. Don’t ever use a .22 rifle when rabbit hunting with dogs or other people. It’s just too dangerous of a situation.

Besides eastern cottontails, Alabama sportsmen can also hunt swamp rabbits, marsh rabbits or Appalachian cottontails. Eastern cottontails thrive statewide. Swampers, also called canecutters for their fondness of eating canes, also occur statewide, but prefer floodplains, river shorelines, bottomlands, swamps and other wet areas.

Swamp rabbits grow larger than cottontails and run farther. When chased by dogs, a cottontail might run 200 or 300 yards. A swamper might run 600 to 800 yards before it circles back. Excellent swimmers, swampers readily take to water. Sometimes, they jump into small creeks and hide under overhanging brush, logs or root masses with only their noses sticking out of the water just enough to breathe.

“We run a lot of swamp rabbits where we hunt,” Larry confirmed. “They like the low areas around the rivers. We hunt swampers and cottontails the same way, but swamp rabbits are more likely to head to water when the dogs jump them. A cottontail turns and zigzags and stays more to higher ground.”

Marsh rabbits stay in the brackish wetlands of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Mobile and Baldwin counties. In some swampy areas, creek shorelines frequently rise a bit higher than surrounding wetlands. Rabbits might congregate on that narrow strip of dry land where hunters can kick them up.

Appalachian cottontails prefer higher elevations in the mountainous habitat of northern Alabama, particularly the Bankhead National Forest in Winston and Lawrence counties.

“Huntable rabbit populations can be found throughout Alabama,” advised Jeff Makemson, a wildlife biologist with WFF in Northport. “They are more abundant in areas where suitable habitat of briar and plum thickets, cutovers, overgrown fencerows and brushpiles exist to provide adequate cover. Rabbit populations are higher in areas of the state that are actively managing the forest and trapping to control predator populations. From what I’ve observed, the rabbit population in Alabama is improving.”

Alabama sportsmen can find many excellent places to hunt rabbits in the Cotton State. Many WMAs across the state allow rabbit hunting. Ones managed specifically for small game or quail usually offer the best rabbit hunting. Some better public areas to hunt rabbits include Choccolocco, the Jackson County WMAs, Mulberry Fork, William R. Ireland/Cahaba River, Lowndes, Skyline and Swan Creek WMAs.
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