Tense silence had settled over the tangled, wooded, bottomland. Then in the distance, Copper’s deep-throated bawl once again rolled across the frozen terrain as he re-located the rabbit’s trail.
A second later, he bayed again. Then Slim’s throaty cry affirmed the scent strike, and with that Jack, Lou and Rocky joined up and threw their rich voices into the effort. Our gang of beagles was in full cry. The chase was on again.
The sound of an experienced pack of hounds hot on a game trail stirs the depths of a hunter’s soul. It is a song that is as old as man’s partnership with the dog and as emotional as anything in the field. My heart rate increased and my hands began to sweat, even in the chill of that 30-degree morning on the Eastern Shore.
Fish Are Not Biting …
Few anglers have managed to find accessible water during our recurring bouts with Old Man Winter. Have patience; better times are coming.
Rabbit: thru Feb. 28
With fingers tensed on my slender, 16-gauge double, I peered through the brushy expanse on the edge of the field where I held station. It was a difficult terrain to observe, this narrow woodlot mingled with sections of beaver-thinned saplings, grass and briar along a small stream and ending in a broad patch of phragmites.
Rabbits are reluctant to venture far from the familiarity of their home ground and when pursued by dogs will eventually — if they are unable to shake them — circle back to the area where they were first jumped. This trait can be their undoing.
Patiently waiting along our bunny’s back trail, I knew that at any moment the crafty cottontail that the dogs had been working for the last quarter-hour would be returning. But I also knew there would be only a second, at most, when I would have a shot — if I got one at all.
This wily critter had tried a number of tricks to throw off our hounds. It had doubled back then jumped aside, remained still while the dogs ran by, then bounded off in another direction. It had tangled its trail by moving erratically around and through thick brush, then tearing off a long distance run while the pups, left behind, puzzled out the trail.
It had traveled across patches of ice, making scenting especially difficult, and had pulled any number of tricks that can make good beagles go grey young. But the hounds we were running that day were steady and experienced, patiently and relentlessly solving the trail of their prize.
The clouds of steam from my breath came in shorter and shorter bursts as the pack closed back on my location. At last the crafty rascal burst from cover far to my right, but just for a second. It quickly angled back into the thicker grasses, keeping well ahead of the pursuing beagles.
I peered into the expanse of brush and briars, searching for another glimpse. Then a mottled grey furball broke cover and streaked across the thinning grass in front of me. I shouldered and swung my gun, straining to catch up to the bounding figure. Just before it disappeared into the thicker growth, I fired.
Some of the best memories of my Pennsylvania youth come from hunting rabbits. Thoroughly tramping the brambled fields not far from my home, I would often get a brief, fleeting shot when a cottontail jumped from cover and hightailed away. Sometimes I got the rabbit, but usually I didn’t.
Hunting with hounds that would stay on the track of a rabbit and bring it back around after it had flushed was my fondest wish back then. This day on the Eastern Shore that dream was finally coming true.
I had been invited by a friend, Jim Flannery, who had won the hunting trip at an auction benefiting the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen’s Foundation. Jim and I were accompanied by the chairman of that group, David Sutherland, on whose Kent Island lease we were hunting.
Our group was led by the most critical member of the crew, Charles Rodney, who donated his rabbit hunting expertise along with his eager pack of hounds.
Rodney has been pursuing the wily cottontail since the age of eight, when he followed his more experienced older brother tramping the fields of Pointe Coupee Parish in Central Louisiana. Back in his Creole-flavored hometown of Newroads, he’s still known as Charlo.
Moving to Maryland at age 22 to begin a career with the Treasury Department, he continued his sporting passion in our surrounding countryside, hunting local cottontails with newfound friends and their hounds.
In the late 1990s he began assembling his own pack. Copper, the lead dog, is seven and at the peak of his abilities. Slim is four and the number-two dog, experienced and aggressive but not yet Copper’s equal. Lou and Rocky have also seen four seasons. With three-year-old Jack, they form the solid base of the pack.
A Full Bag
I missed my shot that morning, but I wasn’t overly discouraged. There were already a few of the tasty critters in my game pouch. And just a few seconds later, befittingly, Charlo’s Browning 20-gauge barked, adding that final cottontail to our bag.