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Rabbits and Hounds

February is the grand finale of the rabbit hunter’s year

Charles Rodney and his rabbit-sniffing hounds.

Charles Rodney was poised precariously atop a low pile of downed tree toppings, matted with honeysuckle and woven through by sharp briars. The bright orange of his hunting shirt and hat made him visible through the thick undergrowth. He held his shotgun safely off to the side, and stomped the brush pile, first with one foot, then the other.
    “Come on Slim, find ’em. Copper! Here Copper, get over here. Jack, get back in here. Come on Lou, hunt ’em up. Ya, ya, ya, ya, ya!”
    Rodney’s beagles swarmed toward him through the prickly brush, focused only on finding the scent of a cottontail rabbit.
    Within moments the first howl broke out, lighting up the entire pack, their voices mingling in a canine cacophony.
    On the edge of the thicket and some 50 yards down from Charles, I peered in to catch a glimpse of our prey. A cottontail is perfectly camouflaged, until it moves. Then a flash of brown and grey is often all that you see as it streaks away. You’ve got to be alert.

Fishfinder

    Colder temperatures have slowed anglers but not fish. When it’s warm enough to get out, light-tackle jigging returns lots of medium-sized rockfish for catch-and-release. Fat and fighting as if they were twice their length, fish are schooling around the Bay Bridge and off of the Sandy Point Light. If you have trouble finding fish, look for the commercial net boats, which have been hard on the schools of rock around the mid-Bay. If you engage in this catch-and-release fishery, you must flatten the barbs on your lures, use no stinger hooks and have no more than six fishing rods on your boat.
    Yellow perch, especially the big ones, are getting more available with good reports coming in from the North East River on the Flats and a few areas of the Upper Choptank. White perch, oddly enough, are starting up in some locations, as early as I’ve ever heard of them, but this warm winter is doing some strange (but good) things to the early bite. Pickerel are still the most challenging fish headlining the winter season with excellent catches in tidal and sweetwater. The mild winter has even pushed up the trout-stocking schedule. For details, check dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/stocking/index.asp.

In Season

Cottontail rabbit: thru Feb. 29
Canada goose, resident, late season: thru March 3
Light goose conservation order season: thru April 14

    The hounds worked the scent trail slowly and thoroughly. These were veteran hunting dogs with years of experience, and they weren’t about to be fooled by a smart-aleck rabbit. But the trail was as tangled as the thicket the bunny lived in.
    My finger caressed the trigger guard of my old over/under 20, and my thumb felt for the safety, ready to slip it off at the first sign of Brer Rabbit. The dogs slowly worked the trail down through the thicket and toward my stand.
    Some 30 yards across, Charles’ brother-in-law, Danny, was looking for the cottontail. We were both in good position to intercept the fleeing rabbit. But good position is nothing compared to the tricks of a smart rabbit.
    Perhaps the critter had found a groundhog hole, I feared, when the boom of Danny’s 12-gauge shattered the morning. Then he fired his second barrel. One shot means a dead rabbit; two shots mean maybe.
    After long moments of silence Danny’s baritone voice carried through the thicket, “Got him, he’s over here.”
    Charles sang out, “Call the dogs Danny. Let them see it.”
    Danny swung the rabbit up and called the hounds, still baying at the scent.
    They came racing. One dog gave the rabbit a perfunctory sniff, then joined the pack snuffling around Danny’s feet, seeking another trail.
    Suddenly the sharp crack of Charles’ 28-gauge autoloader sounded back behind us.
    “There was another one right here just sitting out in the open. He didn’t move until I almost stepped on him.”
    There was no need to ask if he’d scored, Charles rarely misses, even with the small gauge shotgun.
    It would only take 20 minutes before I got my chance and scored on a cottontail that was running, scorching hot, through a stand of trees off to my left, trying to distance himself from the baying pack hot on his trail.
    Mine was a first-year rabbit, slim but well muscled, and as I picked it up the thought of its tender form spiced with green peppercorns and nestled in a bed of sautéed onions and fresh mushrooms was quite pleasant. In my book, the taste of a fried rabbit is second to none among game animals, or any meat for that matter.
    Rabbits are legendary in the reproductive sense. But Charles ­doesn’t like to hunt a field more than once or twice a season.
    “I like to leave a good population to keep the game plentiful and the dogs — and of course us — happy,” he says.

    If you have access to areas holding rabbits but don’t have hounds, Charles Rodney will be happy to include you and a friend in on a day with his hounds: 301-742-2518; rodcr7@gmail.com.