Gearing Up For Next Season
RABBIT HUNTER – Most hunters, other than Beaglers, are able to survive several hunting seasons before they have to consider buying new gear. Truth be told, sitting in a stand or blind might wear out the seat of your pants over time but the majority of “other game” hunters manage to keep their equipment in good shape from season to season. If only that were the case for rabbit hunters!
I have what I call “The Pile” in my shed that contains the remains of boots, gloves, shirts, hats, briar-proof pants, bibs and coats that have been worn and torn to the point of no return, some of them during the course of a single season.
It’s my own fault, I suppose, because I am a big fan of hunting in the briars, where millions of sharp thorns conspire to tear me and my outfit to pieces on every outing. I keep going into those places because that’s where I find the most rabbits, and there are days when the most blood shed is my own. I suppose I could stay on the trails and in the open woods and hope I get a shot at a cottontail now and then, but what fun would that be?
The price for all this fun is my annual spring inventory, where I gather all my gear, head for the shed to decide which stuff is going to make it through another season and which ends up on The Pile.
From the beginning my biggest loss is in gloves. I use them for everything from untangling dog leashes and clearing snow out of the truck bed to forcing my way through the briars – and it shows! Most of my gloves end up being heavily worn along the palm, which I use to push saplings and raspberry canes aside 1,000 times a day. Even the best of gloves are sewn with thread of some kind, and once those stitches are broken it’s not long before the glove begins to unravel. I don’t usually notice the damage till the day is over and I start to feel the pain from slashed fingers, thumbs and wrists where parts of my gloves have disappeared sometime during the hunt.
I have sense enough now to carry a couple of spare pairs with me in the truck but they tend to become mixed in with the bad ones in a pocket or pouch. Once the Beagles are in full cry I don’t bother sorting – I just slip on a glove and get going!
If I had to recommend a pair of gloves specifically for rabbit hunting, I’d go with the heaviest, thickest leather gloves available. I don’t care for the lined variety (too hot and too bulky for me) and anything made of even heavy fabric will be torn to bits in no time. I may get two seasons out of a pair of heavy, work-type leather gloves but that’s about all one can expect when the briars are thick and the thorns are razor sharp. If they can ruin a pair of heavy leather gloves imagine what they’ll do to your skin!
Hats are also throw-away items when it comes to rabbit hunting. I almost hate to wear them because the briars snatch them off my head 100 times a day but the few times I’ve gone hatless I’ve paid a dear price. Briars seem to know when my ears, neck and nose are exposed – they go right for them and they never miss! I’ve had many a bloody weekend battle with briars and could still feel the pain days later. Choose canvas or leather hats and pick one with built-in ear and neck flaps to protect those areas while you are running hard to catch up to the dogs. You won’t eliminate every cut and scratch but you’ll see a difference if you decide not to wear a hat!
I have a problem with upper body wear because I am very hot-blooded and sweat profusely if I’m totally covered in protective gear. I wear a canvas long-sleeved shirt and a briar-proof vest for most of my hunting but even that is too hot for me most days. Still, it’s folly to enter the briars wearing cotton or other light fabrics which offer no protection to your skin and are simply not tough enough to withstand the constant barrage of thorns, twigs and saplings that the average Beagler meets in a day afield.
Wear all the briar-resistant clothing you can stand on your upper body to protect your arms, torso and neck. There have been times when you will have to back your way through clinging vines and briars, and if you are wearing lightweight clothing you are going to come out looking like you’ve been fed through a blender. Stiff, heavy, tight-woven fabric is the key to a great day of rabbit hunting. Go light and you will regret it!
One year (decades ago) I decided to try a famous maker’s bird-hunting coat based on claims of it being made of “strong, briar-resistant” nylon. I knew better the instant it arrived on my doorstep. Soft and stylish, sure. But briar-resistant? Hardly! I wore that coat (which cost a week’s pay!) for one season and ruined it. The “heavy-duty” nylon pockets were torn off, the “reinforced” seams came apart and the nylon-faced sleeves and shoulder area were slashed into bird-nests. I sent the coat back to the manufacturer with a note to the effect that it was not up to a day in the briars. I never heard back from them but I never bought another one of their “briar-resistant” products, either!
A good, stout, heavy canvas-type coat is a good idea for those who can stand the heat of wearing one all day. The best of these heavy-duty coats offer a protective collar, double-reinforced cuffs, pockets and trim and should give the average rabbit hunter a decade or more of service before the briars finally win out. Most such coats designed for hunting include plenty of pockets for shotgun shells, water, leashes, collars and all the other stuff an avid rabbit hunter needs for a successful outing. Cold-blooded hunters may want to opt for the lined variety.
One tip is to purchase a coat that is one size too large. After the coat is broken in (meaning subjected to heat, cold, sweat, rain, snow, briars and several tired dogs using it for a post-hunt hammock) it will shrink down to the proper size. Coupled with a stout briar-proof shirt, gloves and hat, you will be as “briar-resistant” as possible – though that never means 100 percent. You will endure a few scratches and cuts no matter how well dressed you may be.
I have always struggled with the best options for leg protection and have tried it all: Leather and nylon-faced chaps, canvas pants, nylon faced pants, nylon bibs, overalls, coveralls . . . if it looked like it might work I tried it but, in my elder years, have relegated most of those great ideas to The Pile. I’ve found that any basic garment with a “face” ends up with irreparable damage to the facing material. I suppose that means the garment is doing its job but once the facing is shredded and begins to fall apart I find it more annoying than useful. If anything, single or double-thickness heavy canvas-type fabrics treated with beeswax are more durable and briar-proof than any other fabric I have tried. Where I hunt I am up to my shoulders in sharp thorns and briar canes, and fashionable pretenders don’t last long. In areas where the cover consists of more forgiving sapling growth, softwoods and alders those lesser fabrics will do fine, but in the vicious briars of the South, Southeast and Midwest there is no substitute for heavy, bullet-proof fabrics that should be maintained annually with beeswax or similar treatments.
I have tried regular pants secured with a belt but between all the stuff I keep in my pockets, all the walking I do and the unforgiving cover I plow through I end up spending a lot of time dealing with sagging drawers. The situation worsened in rain or wet conditions, and by the end of the day I’ll be “sagging” in more ways than one!
Even back in the days when I could see my belt buckle, gravity was a problem. Suspenders helped but in later years I switched to bib overalls and found them to be far superior for long periods of hunting. Strong, loose-fitting and comfortable, I can get three to four years out of my Filson double-tin bibs. The fabric is as stout as tent canvas and very few thorns get through it. The more persistent sticker points are easily removed by simply pushing them back out.
The benefit of bibs is that you can wear any combination of shirts or jackets over them and not feel weighed down. I normally wear just a wicking-type T-shirt and canvas long-sleeved shirt under my bibs and I’m good to go for most of the season. When the weather worsens later in the winter I’ll add an insulated T-shirt and a heavy-duty canvas vest over the bibs.
The good thing about bibs is that you can leave all your gear in the pockets and just hang them on a nail till next time – no need to sort through everything and keep track of shells, leashes and collars.
I have tried coveralls and overalls of various types, insulated and non-insulated but they have proven too bulky and hot for me. The heaviest, insulated models are pretty much bullet-proof and for protection from briars they are superior, but they are like a sauna to me and I can’t stand to wear them unless it’s bitter cold outdoors. Some hunters are able to wear them year-round (and more power to them), but I’d rather be cut and scratched at the end of the day than be trapped inside cold, sweat-soaked clothes all afternoon!
For most rabbit hunters it’s a matter of dressing in layers, changing the inner layers as the temperature dictates while keeping the outer layer as briar-proof as possible. I’ve seen hunters (youngsters, mostly, and I was young once myself!) who could stay out all day in wet flannel shirts and blue jeans and have a great hunt, but I try to limit my shivering and shaking for deer and bear season.
When I’m rabbit hunting I go for what’s most comfortable while keeping as much as my skin unscathed as possible. Cuts and scratches will occur no matter what you decide to wear, especially if you are an aggressive, fast-moving hunter who wants to be in the middle of the action at all times. There are those who don’t mind standing in the road or hugging the clearings all day even though that strategy will get you very few shots at flying rabbits. If that kind of hunting appeals to you, there’s a high-end “gentleman’s” coat in The Pile that has your name on it!
Down to boots now, and I must say there are none in my Pile. A good pair of rabbit-hunting boots will fit like a glove, offer superior arch and ankle support and seem to get more comfortable with age – you don’t throw good boots away!
Sadly, nothing made by man can withstand endless contact with rough ground, briars, rocks and slash, but even so a good pair of boots should last four or five seasons before the soles and toes begin to give out. I go through hunting boots like most people go through sneakers, but there is one common denominator: excessive wear. I start wearing my hunting boots as soon as I can begin training the dogs in late summer and they stay on my feet through the late spring training season. At that pace it doesn’t take too many years to wear them out!
Rabbit hunters have two choices in boots: calf-high rubber boots for wet conditions (and no briars) or solidly-built leather boots for rough going. I like my rubber high-tops for hunting swamp rabbits or when I’m going to be in sapling cover all day, but I leave them in the truck when rocks, briars and obstacle-strewn landscape is on the agenda.
Rubber boots are waterproof, no doubt, but they lack in ankle support and “grip” (on the inside, mostly), and I find myself slipping and sliding in them when the terrain is anything worse than just marshy or swampy. On hard, high ground I want leather boots that give firm support to my feet, but even the best of them end up in The Pile eventually.
One year I decided to go all out and purchased a pair of $300 “heavy duty” custom-fit boots that were made of what the manufacturer claimed was heavy, “indestructible” leather. Having worked in a shoe factory for five years and having hunted in the briars for 10 times longer I had my doubts, but for the sake of curiosity I bought them. The fit was perfect, the workmanship was top shelf but, alas, leather is leather and no bovine hide is up to the rigors of the briar patch – it’s why nothing goes into the briar patch except cottontails, eager beagles and the hunters who run with them.
I put my expensive leather boots on in early September and by the time I unlaced them for the final run the next spring they were destroyed. I’d replaced the laces twice over the season (routine maintenance for any rabbit hunter) but the toes and quarters were ruined, cut and shredded right through the stitching. The soles held up and the uppers were in fair shape because my double-tin bib cuffs hung over them, but the bottom half of the boots were finished after just one season!
That costly little experiment bothered me for a while till I happened to be wandering through a local department store and stopped to check out the work boot section. Most of the footwear they offered featured the typical soft-tanned leather that I knew would not stand up to the briars. But, one design seemed perfect. Built of hard, smooth leather and therefore more resistant to wear, the boots were lightweight, sturdy and even came with a soft Vibram sole. On sale for (I hate to say it!) $10, I bought two pairs and, five years later, have not had to take the second pair out of the box! Other than replacing frizzed laces a couple of times per season, these boots look almost as good as new and have no worn spots, holes or frayed stitching – and they are priced so low I doubt you could find a less expensive boot anywhere!
I had to mix and match through several pairs to get a left and a right that fit me properly (which is why I bought two pairs – just to make sure) but in my lifetime I have never had a more comfortable, durable boot for rabbit hunting. I’m sure that next time I go to buy boots the price will have doubled, but I’ll gladly pay it – good boots are hard to find!
I must admit that I spend too much time in the worst possible cover trying to help the dogs get a rabbit going, and when the first circle has been closed I try to get back into the area where the chase first began, so I’m extra tough on my gear – hence the existence of The Pile. I wear stuff out and replace it often, but I certainly have a great time doing it!
By Stephen Carpenteri