Right in many of our upland covers awaits a whole new world of rabbit hunting with beagles
The two little hounds are whining loudly and scratching at the metal kennel doors. We had just pulled off the road down an overgrown two-track on a mostly forgotten plot of public land. It’s early December and most of the deer hunters have ended their season, so this little piece of paradise is all ours. Struggling to strap the GPS collars on the squirming beagles, I grab my single shot .410. Its amber finish has been scraped away by the unforgiving miles of raspberry patches and young balsam fir.
As we walk down the path, the fresh snow shows tangles of tracks and droppings weaving through the multiflora rose of what was once a tilled farm field just a few years back before the state purchased the land.
My beagle, Briar, begins to chirp and babble. She’s less than a year old and hasn’t quite steadied her excitement enough to stay quiet until the rabbit is jumped. Winnie stays silent, only showing her excitement with a full-body wag and audible snorts as she meticulously sticks her nose in every track to test its freshness. She has many seasons under her belt and her muzzle is starting to grey.
We walk down the trail as the dogs pierce in and out of the cover around me. After a couple hundred yards, I notice they are nowhere to be seen. Looking down at my GPS unit, I see that they are over 70 yards away. I find a well-worn deer path that gives me a small shooting lane and fight my way through the thorns to sit down against an old rotten apple tree. After a couple of minutes, I hear the sound I’ve been anticipating. Both hounds erupt into a screaming frenzy of yodeling howls and screams as the scent of a rabbit freshly moving ahead of them fills their nostrils.
The sound of hounds in pursuit of game is really unlike anything else. The more time you spend listening to hounds, you begin to understand the language of squalls, bawls, and chops. Every hound has its own sound. You can interpret how the chase is going based on the tone and consistency of what is often called “hound music.” When the music stops it means the beagles have momentarily lost the track. Briar will make the first puttering barks when the track is re-found. If the volume increases and Winnie lets out a long sharp cry, it often means they have seen the rabbit or are very close. It’s a language all its own.
The chase is on! I look down again at the GPS and see that they are moving out away from me. Their barking getting softer and more muffled through the snow-covered bushes—100 yards, 110, 120, 130, 140—then 130 again. The rabbit has turned, and the dogs are getting louder and louder . . . 90 yards, 80 yards . . . your heart starts to beat faster as the beagles sound like they’re about to be right on top of you. A small brown shape appears to my right, and I swing to shoot—but it’s an awkward angle, and I decide to wait. No reason to force a bad shot. I’m enjoying the part of rabbit hunting that captivates me, the run and so are the dogs. The scenting conditions are perfect, and I know he will be back soon. The brace of beagles barrel on several seconds behind an Eastern cottontail rabbit.
As I watch, I see that they cross the main path at a spot where a small tree has fallen onto the trail. Rabbits typically do not like to come out of the cover while being pursued. They often will choose spots like this fallen tree to dart through an open area. I make a move back towards the path to set up near the crossing point.
It’s often said that rabbits circle while being tracked, but what they are really doing is staying in their home range. They have routes and trails with which they are comfortable, and they will use them over and over. They do not really circle as much as they are constrained by the perimeter of their own comfort zone, which may only be a few acres. If you find a spot that they have come through once already, there’s a good chance they will be back again. When you begin to learn how rabbits use a specific property, different rabbits will often utilize the same paths in the same property throughout a season.
The hounds have followed their quarry into a frozen swamp and the chase has slowed over the solid ice, but the wind-swept snow on top gives them just enough scent to keep them on the trail. After a halting few minutes I can hear the confidence come back into their voices. The rabbit is coming straight for the crossing point. This time I’m prepared. I see him creeping towards me as I stand frozen, the light-weight gun already shouldered. He makes a momentary pause as he hops into the path, and the old .410 sounds.
Winnie breaks into the open knowing that sound means she can finally catch up. She really loves rabbits, and I let her mouth it a little before I slip it into my vest. Briar seems disappointed that the chase is over and is already looking for another track. The track is their passion, and it’s become mine as well.
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