Know-How: Rabbits on the Run

posted on December 3, 2016

This horrible thing had happened. Pete Richardson was sitting on the wooden steps of his porch with his head in his hands. He wanted to tell me something. He nodded toward dozens of beagles in pens not far away in the bright October morning sun, then back to me. Pete’s eyes were vacant, and his back was stooped in his worn flannel shirt. He said, “A client shot my best dog. Killed him cold. Just a 2-year-old, but the best, the best. You dream of a dog like that.”

I told him how sorry I was to hear this and glanced at all the other beagles. Their tails were up and excitement was in their steps. There was eagerness to hunt in their yips and barks. As we talked I knew I’d seen what a great dog is capable of doing on many hunts, but I couldn’t really tell much more about beagles than that. To me they were all beagles.

I’ll never know beagles like Pete does or like others I hunt with. Like so many sportsmen, I’m a generalist and know some things more than others, but have only a little experience training dogs. But I also have found that from hunters like Pete you can get brief electric touches of a connection you might not have the time to tap into yourself. Each time I go with him and others I marvel at the choreographed affair that is rabbit hunting with beagles. And I am thankful hunters keep this old-fashioned segment of the hunting sports alive. Sure, there are many other things for a hunter to do at this time of year, but if someone invites you along to run their beagles, go. Keep these things in mind.

Listen to the Dogs
When you hunt with beagles, you listen to them not only to enjoy their haunting sound but also because the dogs’ clamor of voices will tell you what’s up—especially as you learn to understand what they are saying. They say many things. When a rabbit is jumped, the beagles’ voices tell you so. There is this change in the beagles’ tone from a chorus of barks and yips to a clamor of bawling and almost howls.

Think in Circles
This is where all these magical hunts with beagles are similar. When the dogs start, know that a cottontail will circle within its small range, and that a Northern hare will run farther but will also circle back. The beagles likely aren’t running, at least not fast. Think ahead of them; the rabbit will probably come back to where it was jumped. Move where you have a chance of seeing the rabbit circle, and stand still. Old logging roads are great for this. Standing on a stump can open terrain in a cutover to you.

How far does a rabbit circle, you ask? Maybe just 100 yards or maybe 400; a rabbit’s circle varies with the habitat and terrain. In the sage and brushy bottoms along Wyoming’s North Platte River, I once watched beagles go a half-mile up and then back again. In overgrown apple orchards in New York state I’ve shot rabbits that turned after not much more than 100 yards.

Keep Watch
As you wait, realize the rabbit won’t go into blurry motion until it sees you shoulder and swing your shotgun. Rabbits normally slip quietly through the brush, so stay alert and constantly scan the landscape in front of you. I’ve been surprised by snowshoe hares that were so far ahead I could barely hear the dogs. But I’ve also seen cottontails wait for the dogs and then madly run when they are jumped again and again. More often they stay just far enough ahead to remain out of sight of the dogs.

Know When to Shoot
Safety is first, and the dogs should ideally have bells on their collars and orange vests on their backs so you can easily track their moves. Really, you don’t shoot unless you clearly see the rabbit with no dogs in the frame, you know what is beyond where you’ll be shooting and you’re aware of your pals’ locations. All that is first. Next, you don’t look for the perfect shot. I hunted with someone who let snowshoe hares become his white whale. He kept waiting too long and thinking about the shot too much. It took him four hunts to finally get a hare. He found out this kind of hunting requires snap-shooting.

Enjoy the Run
Rabbit warrens are, unfortunately, not what they once were in much of the country. Rabbits live at the edges and need brambles, thickets and such cover to escape predators. So much of the Eastern forest has matured that it can be difficult to find quality habitat. By happenstance, I joined a group of hunters from Queens—yes, the New York City borough—last season. We hunted public areas in New York and had some runs, but it was the conversations with these three Italian-American hunters who knew their beagles that made the hunt priceless.

“No rabbits, no rabbits,” said Vito. “Sure, plenty of them in front yards all over Westchester, nibbling on the petunias, but not in the game units. Oh well, I go to hear the dogs, not my shotgun.”

I’ve found this is the reason why those who run beagles are uncommonly willing to allow someone to join them. They really don’t want to shoot rabbits very much—just enough, actually, to teach the dogs. What they want is to hear and see their dogs work. To them, shooting is anticlimactic.


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