Chase-And-Release Opening Day Rabbits

Rabbits win opening day races in Laurens County cotton patch.

Daryl Gay | December 10, 1995

Ben Snipes shows an opening-day rabbit to one of the eager beagles.

Opening day of any season is always a learning experience, and none more so than the first morning out trekking around attempting to run down a few rabbits. There are new dogs to break in, others to whip into shape, weather obstacles to overcome — and we haven’t even started yet. So you never quite know just what you’ll be getting into when the beagles first exit the box. As it turned out, on Saturday November 18, opening day of Georgia’s 1995 rabbit season, what we got into was rabbits.

In the Laurens County area where I do most of my rabbit hunting, an opening day jaunt is a rare thing, indeed. Usually, and as is the case this year, the small game seasons opened smack dab in the middle of the whitetail breeding activity.

Obviously, rabbit hunting with dogs and stand hunting for deer don’t mix, so we usually wait until around the first of January to do our rabbit chasing. Also, there are other factors involved, such as weather — which was in the upper 60s on opening day — and terrain that helps hide running rabbits. We hunted a tremendous cotton field with planted pines on all sides. In January, that cotton will have been picked, making it much easier for the hunter to wade through, not to mention making it easier to spot a rabbit. One of the first rabbit-running rules is that when jumped near a cotton field, any rabbit in its right mind will head directly for the protection that cotton offers. Who knows, maybe that’s why they call them cottontails!

On opening day I was hunting with Ben Snipes and my nephew Justin Fountain. Our plan was to meet up around 10 a.m., giving the rabbits an opportunity to do their early-morning moving about to feed and lay down scent for the dogs, as well as to give my elderly and ailing hunting partner time to allow the weather to warm a mite. He was too sick to get out in the cold (what cold? as we found out) of daylight, and if I’m not out at daylight hunting something or other I tend to get sick, so I decided that a second partner and I would seek out whitetails on another tract early, then I would meet Ben and Justin later in the morning at the cotton fields.

There is very limited whitetail activity in and around the fields, or so we thought, and no hunters, so we wouldn’t be in the way of anyone carrying a big bore, especially with the mid-morning start. The plan worked very well, a-t least early on.

I didn’t especially care for the predawn temperatures, much preferring the 30s to the high 40s I awoke to. It was almost balmy as I walked to my Tomcat climbing stand, aleady on a pine deep in the woods. By the time I started climbing it was downright hot. But right on schedule, at 8 a.m. sharp, a big — the fattest I’ve ever seen — spike came traipsing up the trail just like he was supposed to and turned broadside at 20 yards. He might as well have gone ahead and tied himself onto the Game Hauler on the back of my Bronco.

The morning’s deer hunting successfully done, I turned my attention to rabbits.

There seems to be a couple of major schools of thought when it comes to ferreting out rabbits. There are gang hunts, in which up to a dozen hunters fan out with 15-20 dogs, and there is the style that I much prefer — two or three hunters with no more than a half-dozen dogs. I like a small, slow, thorough beagle, one that will work. Saturday morning, I had five of those in my hands. And while I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into before we dropped the dogs off the tailgate, it quickly became apparent: rabbits.

In less than five minutes, I almost stepped on a rabbit inside the 20-foot tail pines that bordered the field. He took off like only a flap-earred ball of it fur can do, but my ancient Model 12 was on him in an instant. At that moment, he was as good as dead, but you just don’t kill the first rabbit of the season that way. I decided to let the dogs, which were snuffling around about 75 yards off, get after him, so I pulled the scattergun down and was about to call them. Before I could, however, Cookie did.

Cookie just happens to be just about the best rabbit-jumping and rabbit-running dog I’ve hunted behind in the past five years, and that’s saying an awful lot. Among females, at least, she is at the top of the list. She does have one major drawback, as we’ll see later, but finding and chasing rabbits is not included.

I cannot compete with Cookie when it comes to calling beagles. She had come across a nose-full of Bugs, and let out that initial bawl that had four sets of short little beagle legs churning toward her as fast as they could go. My rabbit got clean away, the lucky rascal.

Cookie was on the hot track for maybe a minute before she flushed him, and the race was on. If you’ve ever hunted rabbits behind beagles, you’ll know that the day was made right there. There is simply nothing to match that first rabbit, and the pure joy that you pick out of the cacophony of beagle music that accompanies it. Naturally, as expected, the rabbit headed directly for the cotton fields. So did my longtime friend and hunting partner Ben. I had called Ben at the last moment, but a moment’s notice is all it takes for him when it comes to hunting or fishing. My 13-year-old nephew, Justin Fountain, was on his first trip, and I instructed him to stay put, for there was the grand possibility that the rabbit would be returning soon.

If he ever did, I can’t swear to it! The dogs ran that crazy rabbit for nearly an hour before he finally gave them the slip in about a million acres of cotton. It was hot, early afternoon with a little breeze, and how they ran him that long, I’ll never know. My only regret is that we could never get ahead of them and cut off their quarry.

The dogs didn’t take it personally, for within only a few minutes, they were hot on the heels of another rabbit. This one came out of the pines and headed directly into the cotton. This time, however, I got in his path.

The beagles had run for 30 minutes when I saw them swing around and head back my way. Watching the cotton tops rustle, I could tell where they were and how fast they were going — which was pretty darned fast. That meant the rabbit was in sight and not far ahead. The chorus they were raising was nothing short of amazing, and it stood the hair on the back of my neck straight up. Rabbit hunting is a lot of things, but boring is not one of them! Standing stock-still and studying the cotton intently, I finally managed to pick up Bugs, his shoulders hunched up as glided easily along looking to be in no hurry, moving a foot or two every three or four seconds. He didn’t know I was around until I shouldered the shotgun, but when he spotted me, he shifted into one of his high-speed gears. So much so, in fact, that I missed him clean the first shot, but tumbled him with the second load of No. 6s.

Another highlight, or lowlight, depending on one’s point of view, came as my running-flat-out 200 pound fully-equipped with boots, chaps, shotgun, etc. came within a whisker of colliding with an equally heavy whitetail doe bedding in the cotton. Neither of us could get away from the other quickly enough!

Only one lone bunny in the bag was the fault of the hunters and the terrain, and certainly not the dogs. In fact, I have never been more impressed with opening day work such as was turned in by these five beagles. At day’s end, we actually had to run Cookie down, grab her by the collar and carry her 500 yards to the truck.

So, chalk up Round One to the rabbits. But between now and the season’s end in February, somebody’s gonna cut that cotton. Along about then the beagles and I plan to put up a much better fight!

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