Watch a cottontail rabbit hunting film that takes you into the hound world with a pack of Beagles.
New York is home to a rich history of hunting that includes the traditions of running hounds. In this short film presented by Remington and Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine we experience the traditions of camp life, beagles, and even shotguns. This cottontail hunting story inspired a complain piece in the Spring 2021 issue of Project Upland Magazine that explores the authors love for both Beagles and Snowshoe Hare hunting.
Mysteries of Hares and Hounds – Spring 2021
I shot my first snowshoe hare 11 years ago. Before I had dogs, hunting them was nearly impossible. They took on a slightly mythical status in my mind. Unlike the cottontails that everyone sees grazing on the lawns in subdivisions, the hare seemed so wild and mysterious. They still do. My uncle and I would make long drives north to trudge all day with snowshoes on our feet. We hiked through the mountains trying to jump one for a shot with limited success. There were always tracks everywhere, but the hare rarely materialized.
My first hare, and my only one without beagles, came at the end of a long day. We had arrived back at the car empty-handed as usual. As we were pulling out of the parking area, I actually saw a hare sitting under a small fir tree about 25 yards into the woods. I couldn’t believe it. I drove down the road to the next pull off and stalked back through the woods to sneak up on him. I took a long shot and toppled him. He was twice the size of a cottontail and strikingly white. His huge hind feet had long, finger-like toes. I still admire each hare and appreciate these Ice Age relics as one of the coolest game animals in North America.
I always wanted a hunting dog and imagined having my own beagles to unlock the mystery of the snowshoe hare. So, after many seasons dogless, I got my first beagle, Winnie. By the time she was a year old, she was finding and running hare and cottontail just about every time we went out. A few years later, I added Briar to the pack. Even with the hounds, hare hunting can still be a challenge. But as a team, our success rates are much higher, and the excitement of the pursuit is always excellent. It is hard to imagine a more fun way to spend a day than trying to get ahead of a snowshoe being pursued by your dogs. They can run enormous circles, sometimes over 1,000 yards, and if the dogs get too far behind, the tracking can become difficult, especially with crusty or deep snow.
On this season’s first weekend of hare hunting, we began with a half-mile hike to a small backcountry pond. We had found some hare the previous year in a dense evergreen stand. The location was deep into the Adirondack Park in Northern New York, off a road with little traffic, but I wanted to see if there were some hare farther back where it was safer to let the beagles run. Looking at aerial photos, I could see that the small pond spilled into a swamp and was circled by dense conifers. It was a beautiful time of year to be in the woods; most of the leaves had fallen, and the only fall colors left were on the tamaracks with their golden needles. The hare were also particularly beautiful this time of year, with white feet and ears and a reddish chestnut coat. They are beginning the transition to all white over the next month.
Without snow, hare hunting with beagles has some added difficulties, especially when you are prospecting in a new area. The snow reveals their tracks, but without it, your best bet is to look for the round droppings. Our hare population in New York is not as high as some of New England where there is more logging and public access to timber company land. We are generally hunting more virgin forests where the hare are relegated to the densest swamps and mountaintops to survive. Some more recent state land acquisitions harbor young forests, but those areas are rare. Unlike cottontails, snowshoe hare have to make it through a full year before they can breed. While there are some remnant populations in Pennsylvania and even West Virginia, we are effectively hunting near the southern extreme of their range. However, even with a relatively low population, one of the best parts of hare hunting with beagles is that you can enjoy hunting one single hare for hours. Unlike bird hunting, where you get a point or a flush and you move on, the running of one hare can provide a long hunt if the dog can stay with the track.
We arrived at the pond early in the morning while some dew remained on the ground to provide good scenting. The pond had been dammed by beavers (though the beavers had moved on or been trapped out), lowering the water level enough to provide a sandy, walkable rim around the whole pond as the beagles pressed into the thick cover looking for fresh tracks. We noticed some old moose prints at the edge of the pond and saw a brook trout rising for some invisible bugs on the surface.
I noticed some hare droppings, and we stopped for a minute to let Winnie and Briar work the cover. The sun was shining between clouds and it was in the low 30s. Snow was predicted later in the morning, and the temperatures were dropping. I noticed the beagles’ tails begin to wag frantically, and they made a few subtle whines. Almost immediately, a big grouse exploded from a stand of young spruce and flew over the open swamp. I swung and knocked him down as he began to land in a tall pine. He was a gorgeous big gray male bird with a huge tail fan. Winnie much prefers rabbits and hares, but she won’t walk past a fresh bird track either. They came and gave the bird a sniff before returning to their search for a fresh hare track. A few minutes later, both dogs erupted in a screaming bawl, indicating that they had struck a very fresh hare track or possibly even seen it.
The GPS continued to read farther and farther ahead in a nearly straight line. I got about 150 yards in when I saw that the hare had turned back toward me from about 300 yards away. I worked my way into the thicket and found a large boulder to stand on. Visibility is rarely good when hare hunting, so you have to find decent shooting lanes. I looked down at the GPS and saw the dogs covering ground quickly in my direction. The stillness of the woods had morphed into absolute chaos of squeals and howls. These hare can run at 30 miles per hour, and, unlike cottontails, they tend to make long straight runs with fewer zigs and zags. The two little hounds were closing in on me as the hare retraced its path in reverse. In seconds, the dogs passed by me just out of sight. The snowshoe had snuck by unseen. A heavy snow began to fall, coating the ground almost instantly with dime-sized snowflakes.
I shifted my position slightly to split the difference between the two paths the hare had taken through this area. I looked down at the GPS and saw that Winnie and Briar were coming in fast at about 150 yards. As I glanced to the right, I saw some movement weaving between the deadfalls. It was the hare, and he was moving quickly. I couldn’t quite get a shot off. A minute later the hounds came piling through. I decided to walk the path out again hoping to find an area where the hare passed through more open woods. As I walked, I constantly checked the GPS to make sure the hare hadn’t turned back. It is not uncommon for the dogs to be 200 yards behind the snowshoe, especially if the tracking is difficult. As I pressed on, I came into a patch of open hardwoods that the chase had come through three times already, and I got set up.
As I had hoped, the squalling yodels of the beagles started to get louder as the chase turned again in my direction. I knew this was going to be my best chance, and my heartrate quickened. Soon, I spotted him. He was bounding along through the open toward me. I planted my feet to avoid any unnecessary noise. I lifted up my old shotgun and kept it raised and shouldered so I didn’t need to make much movement as the hare came closer and closer. When the animal was about 20 yards away, I pulled the trigger and he fell into the fresh snow. What an amazing way to spend a morning. Winnie and Briar arrived soon after, and I had to hold the hare high as they jumped for it.
These hounds have taught me a lot about hunting and hare, and together we have taken many home at the end of the day. This season, as the hare are changing to their snowy winter pelage, I noticed Winnie is starting to turn a little white herself as she starts to age. She still seems like a puppy to me, but you only get so many seasons together. I still enjoy every outing as much as the first, and I hope for many more to come.
Bryant is generalist when it comes to the outdoors. He enjoys pursuing the best of what each season has to offer. However, working with hunting beagles has become a year-round obsession