Of Hares and Hounds
Danny’s 12-gauge pump boomed out twice off to my left as a streaking gray rabbit cut in and out of a long, narrow copse of briars parallel to us. Raising my 20-gauge and trying to track the tricky rabbit as it neared my position, I fired twice as well, also to no effect.
Then the cottontail melted into cover. He was gone. Dejected, I opened my over-under to reload when out of the corner of my eye I caught a small motion. The rascal had cut back out of the briars and was now sneaking through some thin brush headed for a couple of downed trees that bridged the creek running off to my right, not 20 yards away.
Lefty Kreh’s Tiefest
I barely had time to get one shell into my shotgun when the rabbit leaped onto the trunk of a fallen tree to cross the stream. In two or three bounds, it would be invisible again and in entirely new territory.
Our pack of hounds — Slim, Copper, Junior, Jack and Lou — had been tracking this rabbit for the last half-hour. It was a big runner, taking a wide and circuitous route than most bunnies.
That was because the ground we were hunting was laced with small streams and random pools of water, making for poor scenting and difficult tracking. The terrain also forced the cottontail to run abnormally wide routes, as rabbits are good swimmers but abhor getting wet.
I could hear the owner of our pack, Charles Rodney, off in the distance trying to gather the hounds and move them to the sound of the guns.
Charles knew from the quantity of gunfire and ensuing silence that Danny and I had not only missed but had sent the rabbit accelerating away. If he didn’t get the dogs in fast, it could well be a half-hour before we might get another chance at the clever beast. If at all.
Rabbit hunting was once a popular tradition in Maryland, and packs of beagles were as common as tractors on a farm. But in the last few decades, agricultural changes have reduced the areas that harbor rabbits. The disappearance of smaller, family farms planting from fence line to fence line and the increased use of herbicides all eliminate much of the cottontail’s natural food and critical cover. Consequently hunting them has almost disappeared from our landscape.
As rabbits are incredibly fecund animals, their numbers have remained resilient in the areas where they do survive. There also remains a hard-core cadre of determined hunters who keep the cottontail flame burning.
A number of hunters also continue to accept the challenge of feeding, training and caring for a pack of five to 10 rabbit hounds. Fortunately for me, my friend Charles Rodney (who is also a talented outdoor writer) is one such. Once or twice a year, he invites me to join him and his hounds.
My first rabbit that day did not make it to the other side of the creek. With a lucky shot, I dropped it at the edge of the water. It was to be difficult hunting the rest of that day, however. The cover was beaten down by the harsh weather, and the rabbits were scarce. But our beagles were flawless, and the three rabbits we did encounter were all brought to bag.
Rabbit for Dinner
Two days later, after cleaning and brining my bunnies, I rolled the sectioned pieces in cornstarch for a crispy and moisture-sealing coating and browned them. Then I transferred them to a bed of sliced, sweet onions in a cast-iron pot, sprinkled them with finely chopped garlic and fresh rosemary, salt and pepper and covered them with a layer of onions and sliced mushrooms, pouring a good strong, brown ale over the lot. Finally I put on the cover and let it simmer in my oven for two hours at 275 degrees. It was exquisite.