Beagles & Bunnies

My friend Steve Schwarz is a retired math teacher and coach who lives on 50 acres of prime wildlife habitat with his wife Jean, a big, yellow Lab and two beagles named Frank and Winnie-The-Pooh.

At this time of the year, Steve can be found running rabbits with Frank and Winnie just about every day. “Beats watching TV,” is The Beagle Man’s motto. Steve only lives a few miles from my wife Nancy and I, so one day last week, when I decided that cottontail would be a fine treat for our supper the next evening, I gave Steve a ring and invited myself out to hunt.

Steve and his dogs were waiting for me when I pulled into his driveway. Judging by the way the two dogs were straining on their leashes, you would never have guessed that they had been hunting nearly every day for the past week. The desire to chase rabbits is in their genes, and a good beagle, even when physically tuckered out just cannot resist the urge to chase one more rabbit. A couple hundred yards into the woods behind the kennel, Steve unsnapped the leash and the dogs were off. Steve and I just stood still and waited, Steve leaning on his walking stick, me cradling a little Beretta 20-gauge over/under, the same shotgun I had used much of the fall for hunting ruffed grouse, bobwhite quail and pheasants.

One of the neat things about hunting rabbits is that you can use any shotgun you want. There is no such thing as the perfect bunny gun. I like a relatively open choke and light, upland loads of No. 6 shot. In the o/u I go with an improved cylinder tube in the first barrel and an improved/modified choke in the second. Both pattern 1 ounce of 6s in Federal’s inexpensive upland load just fine out to about 40 yards.

The author enjoys running rabbits with beagles.
The author enjoys running rabbits with beagles.

You can also use a .22 rifle if you prefer. In fact, when Steve does carry a gun, which is not very often, it is a Ruger 10/22 which he has converted to .17 Mach II, a very accurate little caliber, which is less inclined to ricochet than the .22 Long Rifle.

Steve and I had not stood there in the woods for two minutes before Frank, the younger of the two beagles opened up. “Frank has jumped a rabbit,” Steve announced. “Let’s move on up there.”

Cottontails, once jumped by the dogs, will almost always run in a circle. Of course, the size of the circle varies greatly. Sometimes they will run a short loop and come running back to where they were jumped in just a minute or two. But usually, they run a longer circle and it takes a little patience to wait them out.

“Where a lot of hunters make their mistake, is they are always chasing the dogs. That almost always leaves you lagging way behind the rabbit. I like to get to where the dogs jumped the rabbit and then just wait for them to bring the rabbit around,” Steve told me as we tromped through the snow before halting on a little high spot in the timber where we could see maybe 50 yards to both our right and left.

Both Frank and Winnie were in full-voice. At first their voices were faint, but then it was obvious that they had turned and were now headed in our direction. As the steady bawling got closer and closer, I was beginning to think that the rabbit must have gotten by us before we had gotten into position. But I was wrong. Just before Frank, the faster of the two beagles broke into sight, a full-grown cottontail came scampering through the woods. The cottontail was running full-tilt and out there just at the edge of range, but when I pulled the trigger, the rabbit did a couple of somersaults and then lay still on the crusted snow. Rabbits are fairly fragile critters and all it takes is a pellet or two in the vitals to put them down for the count.

Frank was running so fast that he ran right past the dead rabbit, but when Winnie, who is older, slower and more deliberate than 2-year-old Frank, came along on the track she took a few seconds to mouth and nuzzle the dead rabbit. Then it was off to find another. The old saying “a bundle of energy” easily fits the beagle.

Steve and I hunted another hour or two and were joined by Steve’s friend and fellow beagle man, Mick Macken and his two beagles. It seems like hunters who like to run beagles all know each other and it is common for two or three of them to get together and run rabbits.

With four dogs on the ground, it seemed like one of them was always opening up on a fresh track. Whenever one of the dogs jumped a rabbit, any of the dogs which were not already on a track of their own, would hurry off to join the chase. A couple of times all four dogs were in full voice as they gave chase and I can tell you that that is quite a racket. Of course, Steve and Mick could easily discern which dog was which just by their excited bawling. They could also tell if the dog was working a track or was actually running a rabbit. It took me awhile, but it was not long and I too had a pretty good idea of which dog was bawling and what that excited yapping meant. Listening and then interpreting what is going on, is really a big part of the enjoyment of hunting rabbits with beagles, because much of the time the dogs are not in sight, but are well within hearing distance.

By the time Mick and I had to leave that afternoon, the dogs had run half-dozen different cottontails. I only shot the one, because one is all Nancy and I need for our supper, but I promised Steve’s wife Jean that I would come back and shoot some more this winter. She is mad at them because they eat her garden plants and flowers in the spring. Frank, Winnie and I are only too happy to help her out with that problem.

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