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The Thrill of a Winter Chase

Rabbits make a fine test for hounds and hunters alike

Dennis Doyle and Charles Rodney with four of his pack of rabbit dogs.

On a cold, crisp morning, ice crinkled underfoot in the brushy field. Clear, dense air carried the clamor of some 25,000 snow geese feeding on a field a half-mile away.
    Then, over that waterfowl music, a hound’s howl broke out about 25 yards in front of me. My guess was that it was Junior, a five-year-old beagle that was part of my good friend Charles Rodney’s experienced pack of rabbit dogs.
    Seconds later, Junior’s soulful wail was joined by his four pack-mates, Slim, Copper, Lou and Jack. The sudden urgency of their baying told us that if they hadn’t seen the rabbit, its scent was red-hot.
    From the midst of the thick stuff, Charles motioned me to move out to the side and ahead to a clearing to try for a shot at the cottontail as the dogs pushed. I arrived promptly and the hounds trailed through, indicating the rabbit was well out in front of us all.
    Don Coleman, the third in our hunting party, had positioned himself a ways behind us in case the cottontail doubled back. At six-foot-five-inches, Don moved easily through the thigh-high grasses. The 83-year-old still pursues rabbits with the passion of his first hunt as a six-year-old in Beloit, Wisconsin.
    This bunny was also experienced and laid a convoluted spoor for the dogs to follow and a drama to unfold. The pack lost and found the scent as we moved along, positioning ourselves but never getting a shot. Finally, out of the corner of my eye I saw a streak of grey-brown fur break out behind Charles heading the opposite way, back into the thicker cover.
    We called out there he goes, there he goes! and moved toward openings that might allow us a shot. But the rabbit was long gone. Rallying the beagles to where we had last seen movement, we began anew.
    The rabbit now circled all the way back to where the dogs first scented him and started to lay a new trail. It takes a seasoned hound to follow the scent of an animal that has crossed over its previous path.
    We waited while the dogs untangled the route, repositioning ourselves from time to time to intercept the wily animal. A disturbed rabbit will run quite a distance, but it is generally hesitant to leave its home territory and tends to circle back. This one had been running about in a 200-by-300-yard swath of cover. We intended to keep it there. If it broke out, it would most likely head for a groundhog hole, and we would lose it.
    Charles, the hunt leader and youngster of our party at 64 (I’m 72), was relentless in powering through the thicker areas along the rabbit’s path to ensure it hadn’t jumped aside and sat. Constantly encouraging his beagles, he directed Don and me to new positions as the dogs moved the rabbit (or the rabbit moved the dogs) through one area and into another.
    At the half-hour mark, the cottontail made a mistake. It hadn’t seen Don move to a new position at the edge of the field and almost blundered into him. Then streaking back into heavy brush, it broke out in front of me. Don and I both had a safe line at it — but only for an instant. Shots echoed out but the rabbit vanished back into the high grass.
    Running to where the cottontail had disappeared, I found only some tufts of fur. It was hit but still on the move. The dogs caught up and continued trailing the rabbit as I followed in hope that it would be lying somewhere nearby. Within about 100 feet, the pack stopped baying and started milling.
    As I neared, Junior emerged from the grass with a furry parcel in his mouth. I accepted the dog’s offering, held it up high and called out we got it! Don and Charles closed on us to congratulate the hounds.
    We had four more chases that morning, each nearly as intense as the first, with only one trickster giving the dogs and us the slip.