The Dodgy Hares Of Woods-N-Water
Family, friends and fine folks from four states converge from an annual weekend of Middle Georgia rabbit hunting.
Smack-dab in the middle of more than 5,500 game-rich middle Georgia acres; beagles squalling and roaring fit to blow needles off the pines; a perfectly frosty, sunny morning; perched squarely in the path of the already half-hour race—and leave it to Blaine Burley to come up with a kamikaze attack rabbit!
Monday, Jan. 16, was a holiday—for everybody but rabbits—and signaled the end of a three-day marathon hunt featuring 15, more or less, hunters, friends, family members and just plain fine folks from Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Missouri, and I probably left a couple states out. The Woods-N-Water Plantation cabin in Wilkinson County housed a heap of them, and its walls are probably still laughing.
Those of you familiar with the GON Outdoor Blast are likely familiar with Blaine Burley, who is gracious enough each year to provide a three-day Woods-N-Water deer and wild hog hunt as part of our top prize in the GON Youth Big-Buck Contest. They’ll never forget the trip—or the host—guaranteed.
Burley remembers what it was like for those youngsters.
“Growing up in south Georgia, Irwin County around Ocilla, hunting and fishing were an everyday part of life,” he recalls. “There were no deer back in those days, but we hunted small game every chance we could during the day and coons at night. When we weren’t hunting, we were fishing, if we could manage it.”
Burley joined the Air Force, spent 12 years serving his country and retired as a captain. But Georgia, and the outdoors in particular, kept calling.
In 1995, he started Woods-N-Water (www.woodsnwaterinc.com), and it has grown to include more than 5,500 acres of prime hunting territory, as well as bass ponds consistently yielding trophies, in Wilkinson, Laurens, Johnson and Washington counties.
In 1998, he invented and began marketing the Plotmaster system of food plot planting machines and farming equipment. Allowing a hunter to hook the system to an ATV and whip out a food plot on the ground of his choosing was a game-changer.
“I always knew that I’d never be happy unless I could turn my passion for the outdoors into my job, which basically means that I’ll never have a job,” Burley laughed. “Fifteen years ago, at the end of deer season, this particular weekend came up as a means of getting a lot of friends and family together. I had rabbit hunted as a kid, but we never had dogs, so it was something new. I’ve always enjoyed hunting anything with a dog, and we had such a great time during the first one, so we kept it going. It was something new we could do between deer and hog hunts and everything seemed to come about at the right time.”
Family is also a huge part of it, as is the way with most hunters. Blaine’s brother Dale is another of those compadres who brings an instant smile to my face each time I see him. His daughter Daci was a large part of this year’s hunt, as was Blaine’s son, Brock. They’re 19 and 21, respectively, although I still find that hard to believe.
As Blaine says, “The hunt was a way to get all the kids together, and it still is. They come home from college or wherever and bring new friends along each year, most of them having no idea what a rabbit hunt is like. The whole weekend is good food, fun and fellowship.”
Yes it is. Not to mention some rather testy hares. One of whom I’m about to meet, thanks to the stars of the show. That would be Shortstop, Goldie, Skeeter, Dakota, Blaze, Gypsy and Sandy. Sandy happens to be Shortstop’s mama. Collectively, they make up the beagle pack of rabbit hunter extraordinaire Greg Malcom, of Eatonton. He’s been in on this gig for years, too, and his dogs are always top-notch. Keep up with him on his Sandy Creek Kennels on Facebook.
They’ve been sniffing and snuffling in near silence for a while now, windshield-wiper tails never stopping, scattered out over a 20- to 30-yard stretch. Suddenly, without warning, here it comes: a single “Yip!”
Short legs racing in from all directions, the seven of them huddle to search out the most important thing in their lives: Ol’ Bugs.
“You can’t teach a beagle how to run a rabbit, and you can’t get anything out of them that’s not bred into them,” Greg instructs. “But it’s an amazing thing to see a young pup that’s run across all kinds of tracks and not paid any attention to them hit a rabbit track out of nowhere and get a nose full of it. The hair on their back stands straight up and tails go to wagging. That instinct bred into them says this is what it’s all about.”
After that initial yip, six other noses join in, the brass band tunes up and the race is on. I can’t tell you how glad I am that no two beagles sound exactly alike. Each has its own part in the chorus—and what a symphony this is!
It’s up to Greg, Blaine, Floridian Joe Stewart and me to head this cottontailed rascal off, but he ain’t having none of it. A single quiet hunter with one or two dogs will almost always kill more rabbits than a crowd like we have. But killing rabbits is not what this is all about. The verbal poking, prodding, calling out and cackling are letting the chasee pinpoint our whereabouts for 30 minutes or so, and he’s highballing to stay ahead of the pack. He’s also staying in the thickest stuff he can find. Until, that is, his followers get a little too close.
It’s easy to keep up with the sound of the rolling train wreck through the trees, but a mite tougher to get somewhere out front to head it off. Experience says slide back hard by where it all started, near one end of a food plot. Unfortunately for my bwana image amongst this group, Greg is at the other end, and he’s about to take in the whole show!
OK, so put yourself in the rabbit’s place. There are seven grumpy, hungry heathens ready for breakfast right on your cotton ball—and you’re the main course. It’s time to do what you’re best at: RUN! Few things on the planet can run like a scared rabbit, and when that one stretched out across that open plot, his afterburners were glowing red hot with every bounce. Problem was, he was headed directly at my ankles!
“These rabbits are under such pressure from coyotes and other predators that they’ve forgotten defense and have gone on the offensive,” Blaine said later. “They’re a mean breed, and they’re just not going to take it any more.”
I managed to get off one round from the 16-gauge, but he didn’t slow a dab and carried through on the attack. In a split-second effort at fighting him off, I kicked with my right boot—and missed, as he slipped directly under it.
The only thing louder than the shotgun blast and the dogs’ yowling was the howling laugh of Greg Malcom as I Watusi-ed back to earth. (Before next year’s hunt, I plan to enroll in those new soccer-style kicking classes; the old-school toe-first method can get a man hurt when it comes to demon rabbits.)
Fortunately, he figured that retreat was the better part of valor and whirled on by, although I did notice that he now had a little hitch in his git-along. It certainly wasn’t from my LaCrosse, so thank you very much 60-year-old Winchester. The rascal even managed to fool me again, as I thought he made it over a ridge and back into a creek bottom; the dogs, however, arrived and sniffed out where he’d fallen for the last time, in a thick brier patch.
Besides kamikazes, there’s also a far sneakier rabbit variety, take the previous Saturday in Wilkinson County, for instance…
We broke for a tailgate lunch in the field, as Mike Rucker discussed why he and Gary Potts pulled a trailer full of boxes loaded with dogs 15 hours from Missouri to Irwinton. Same reason Greg Malcom does likewise to Kansas: he’s a rabbit hunter. It if helps you understand, Mike also mentioned that there was snow on the ground and it was minus-two degrees back home…
Lunch over, we shuffled down to line out a dirt track between 300 or so acres of planted pines, heavy brush beneath. Fifty yards from me, six or eight hunters stood in conversation, ever-present laughter wafting back up the road for maybe 10 minutes. Greg had put the dogs in nearby, and the pack worked its way directly through the legs of the talkers—then erupted!
Obviously it hadn’t entered its opinion into all the chatter, but a spy rabbit was listening, statue-like, mere feet away. If one dog hadn’t gotten a little too close, picked up a stray molecule of odor and sounded the alarm, he’d still be there. As it was, I caught a wraith-like glimpse of no more than a shadow sneaking through the first row of trees. Served him right for not minding his own business.
The final race of the weekend couldn’t have been better-scripted in Hollywood. I had just mentioned to Blaine that I would love to see Daci get a shot. Too, we’d been pulling hard for Joe, up from Tampa for his first rabbit hunt. For three days, we had lined the dirt roads in hopes of a clear shot at a crossing target, but not once did it happen. The rabbits stayed in the thick stuff, very possibly because those roads were lined with coyote tracks. Yotes don’t like that heavy brush and rabbits don’t care for predator-infested open spaces. But finally, after Daci took a quick run to Wrightsville and back to lug several boxes of pizza for the crew, we feasted, finished, ambled back to the hunt—and everything came together.
Comes the chorus, out in the thick again, and we scramble. Daci took the point, Joe scrambled down the road to her left and here came our first magnanimous rabbit—like a rocket down the road and right between them! Daci, well-schooled in gun safety, didn’t shoot in Joe’s direction, then chirped, “I could have shot that rabbit…”
Well, a split-second later, so could Joe, but he was too slow!
Bugs ran right at him, took a hard right, and back into the crud he flew, beagles blaring like buglers. Five minutes later, hunters closing the ring, here he came again, flat-out. Only this time, Joe had moved up onto the roadside and Daci was ready. She clipped him as he hit the road, sending him directly toward Joe—who blasted away at point-blank range with a 12-gauge.
Turns out that we had to chalk up each hunter’s first rabbit as, uh, half a rabbit.
“All I could see was a rabbit and a cloud of dust from Daci’s shot coming down that road…” Joe exulted.
I know quite a few really fine taxidermists but am not sure if any could mount a rabbit on halves and make it presentable, no matter how worthy a trophy it was.
What a fitting end to the show. And I’m already looking forward to 2024 and whatever is whipped up by the great Oz, Chattanooga’s Allen Dickerson, a sublime hospitality host who comes all the way down not to hunt, but to cook for this motley brotherhood and make everybody feel right at home. By the way, I would tell you how many rabbits we wound up with—but I’m not sure anybody recalls…
Woods-N-Water offers deer, turkey and hog hunts, along with bass fishing. Contact them at www.woodsnwaterinc.com or 478.864.9108.
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