Among the Best of Friends

Much as I love to hunt rabbits alone, just me and my dogs, there is something to be said for the “gang” experience, especially when there are inexperienced hunters in the group. To keep the sport of rabbit hunting going we are all but required to take youngsters (or oldsters) out for a day in the briars so they can spread the word and add to the network of Beaglers who are already out there enjoying this grand old sporting pastime.

Many folks have never even heard of rabbit hunting, so an invitation from one who knows the ins and outs of the process will be eagerly accepted. Once you open that door, be prepared for questions, educated guesswork and more than one trip to the store for ammo, clothes and other gear. For kids, a rabbit hunt is a good thing to brag about at school, and for old-timers, it’s a chance to reminisce about hunters, dogs and farm fields that are long gone. In all, hunting with a mixed group of hunters is a great learning experience – for everyone involved!

Though it’s always a hoot to call a novice on a Friday night and invite them on a hunt Saturday morning, it’s less cruel to make the invitation at least a week in advance. Last-minute guests are likely to show up in sneakers, jeans and a flannel shirt – and any long-time rabbit hunter knows what that means!

Not only is your friend going to be miserable as he fights his way (essentially unprotected) through the briars, he’s going to be cut, bloody and ready to quit by lunch time. This is not the way to ensure the future of our sport! Give the guy time to get the proper clothing, give him good advice on what he needs (and doesn’t need) and help him get the stuff you recommend even if you have to pay for some of it yourself. This goes double (maybe triple) for female hunters. More women hunters would take a shine to rabbit hunting if they are warned about the conditions and bring sturdy boots, briar-proof clothes, gloves and hats to the party. Even the most beautiful women tend to love rabbit hunting if they are properly equipped for it.

And, if you can introduce a few mothers to the sport, they will pass it on to their kids (or at least approve of their going, too) and on and on it goes.

Be sure to tell the newbies that they will be far from any kind of grocery store so they should be prepared with snacks, sandwiches and drinks when you pick them up. Recommend that they bring a small, briar-proof fanny pack filled with bottled water and snacks, spare gloves and a bandanna or two. Of course, also expect them to forget or misinterpret everything you’ve told them, so bring extra food, water and gear with you to fill in the spaces. For example, I always bring a spare briarproof shirt, chaps and gloves for myself in case I get wet (inside and out!) or a clothing mishap occurs. I have yet to use them for myself, but I have often had to lend them to a newcomer who didn’t think of or forgot to bring his own. Such far-sightedness can save a hunt and make the experience a pleasant one for all involved.

One of the worst things you can do to a new hunter is just bail out of the truck, release the dogs and disappear into the briars.

It’s much the same feeling we all get when we go to a state office and try to figure out which line we should be in. We don’t want that kind of confusion and dismay in the rabbit woods! As you are driving to the first hunting spot of the day, explain to the new hunter how the sport works, what is likely to happen and what is expected of them. Keep safety uppermost in everyone’s minds. No loaded shotguns around the tailgate, no shooting at rabbits if dogs are visible, and no evaporating into the briars without letting others know where you are.

A rabbit can turn on a dime and run right down through a gauntlet of hunters. If everyone is being sneaky and mysterious about their location, it’s easy enough to imagine what havoc a half-dozen eager hunters can wreak on each other. The best rule is to require all hunters to wear an orange hat or vest, with an occasional “shout out” when the action is slow or the dogs are on a check.

Most states require that hunters under a certain age be accompanied by an adult. If that’s the case, be sure that an experienced hunter is close enough to the younger newbies to keep them safe and on track. Of course, it’s best to allow the younger hunters to take the shots, so stay behind them and do the coaching from a safe distance. When a cottontail shows up the action is usually fast and unpredictable, so get out of the way and give the youngster room to make (or miss) his shot.

Whenever a successful shot is made, make it a point to gather around the lucky hunter to show off his trophy, pat him on the back and otherwise cheer him on. Old hunters enjoy the accolades (though they may not admit it) but the younger ones  will feel like the king of the world for a few glorious moments. Take some pictures, pump the kid up and congratulate him on making such a tough shot. Make him feel like one of the gang and, odds are, he’ll come back to do it again next week!

Use caution when dealing with kids and females – I’ve seen them fall on the ground in tears after killing a rabbit, no doubt because it’s the first animal they’ve ever killed and the enormity of their actions overwhelms them. There’s a great deal of social stigma attached to “killing” and when someone crosses the line they feel it! Providing your own meat for the table is a long-standing tradition among those who hunt and it has to start somewhere. Give the kid some time to collect his thoughts, appreciate what he’s done and realize that the death of one creature means life for the other. There’s a lot to think about here – just make the experience an educational and satisfying one. Most young hunters will get over it and eagerly look forward to his next rabbit – the few who can’t do it again will at least understand the cycle of life and be better equipped to deal with similar issues down the road. Many times a kid whose mind is boggled by the experience will be back in a week, raring to go again. Give them time to assimilate all that has happened and let them know that the door is always open for another outing.

In most cases, the kid will want to carry his own rabbit, fiddle with it and admire it, almost oblivious to the fact that the dogs are already on to a fresh rabbit. Keep in mind that the new hunter may not have seen a wild cottontail up close before. It is “his” rabbit and he’ll be curious and fascinated by it for a while, at least. Let the process run its course – he’ll be interested in shooting more rabbits in no time.

The worst thing you can do to a first-time hunter is pick up his rabbit, toss it into a forked branch and just walk away without letting him admire his trophy and enjoy his moment of success.

Sure, after several seasons shooting a rabbit may not be as exciting as it once was, but there’s nothing like your first cottontail – it’s akin to shooting your first whitetail. Overdo the enthusiasm the first time – it is good insurance for the future of rabbit hunting.

At some point during a hunt, you should stop for a break or lunch and discuss what’s been going on, answer the 1,001 questions the new guys will have and explain away any confusion that may exist. It’s likely that some of the new guys will have gotten their first rabbits while a couple of them can’t seem to put themselves in the right place at the right time. Make it a point to work with them, figure out what they may be doing wrong and do what you can to get them a shot.

On one hunt I was with a woman who desperately wanted to kill her first rabbit but was having a hard time getting to the right place before the cottontail did. My guess was that she was over-thinking the process and, while considering all the possible options, was taking no action at all. Rabbits were zooming all around her with the dogs in hot pursuit but by the time the most logical scenario presented itself it was too late.

I’d already shot a couple of rabbits and didn’t feel the need to take any more, so I put my shotgun away and concentrated on getting the lady a shot. Just going by instinct and experience I was able to put her in some good spots where, time after time, the dogs ran a cottontail right by her. She seemed happy to have seen some rabbits but, alas, her shooting skills were such that she’d shoot about 10 feet behind the scurrying cottontail – not a good way to connect! At one point I was standing behind her as the rabbit came straight toward her. The cottontail passed by and I realized she was still going to shoot, so I hit the ground face down beside her as she swung and emptied her 20-gauge pump at the fleeting target. Miss, miss, miss – but she did not complain. In fact, she was laughing the entire time, mostly at her lack of shooting ability. I cut off a short piece of sapling that she had splintered with a load of shot and presented it to her as a “trophy,” so at least she had some fond memories to take home.

It’s not often that a person will miss every rabbit they shoot at but when it does happen the good coach will find the positive spin.  “At least you won’t have to skin a bunch of rabbits tonight,”  I said.  “Right,” she laughed. “I’ll just take some meat from your rabbits!”

Like I said, whatever makes the new hunter want to come back!

Another thing to remember is that new hunters like to participate, so give them a job they can handle and let them work on it. Most new hunters like to take care of the dogs, so if they are up to it let them lead the dogs away from the truck or catch them up if the Beagles are getting too close to the road. Let them know that the dogs are the heart of any rabbit hunt and we want them to be healthy, safe and well cared for. Toss a few bottles of water in the kids’ packs so the dogs can have a drink later. Find ways for the newbies to bond with the dogs so that they lose their fear of them, don’t mind being muddied by them and, most of all, aren’t tempted to try an iffy shot when the dogs are hot on the tail of a slow-moving rabbit.

When the end of the day finally arrives, give the new hunters a chance to help with the skinning and quartering of their rabbits.

It’s important that they understand the full process of hunting – it’s not just about running around in the woods all day having snacks and killing rabbits. In the end there’s meat to be garnered and meals to be prepared.

Be sure to show the new hunters how to properly process rabbit meat. Point out the dangers of letting the dogs eat rabbit entrails (especially the livers). If you happen to find a rabbit with a spotted liver (meaning he’s suffering from tularemia), explain what that means and why it’s important to keep the tainted entrails from the dogs. To set the right example, wear rubber gloves while you field dress your rabbits and dispose of the entrails after the dogs are boxed up and ready to go.

All of this may sound too tedious for the average get-out-andgo rabbit hunter, but my first rabbit hunts were exactly as described here and, 50 years later I feel obligated to do the same. When old Charley Lehman, my best friend’s father, took us out to hunt with Smokey every weekend, he always imparted some element of rabbit-hunting wisdom that stuck with me  over the years along with the smell of the cigars he smoked and the Boilermakers he drank after each hunt (back when kids were allowed into the bar!).

Old Charley is long gone now and Smokey had been chasing bunnies in the clouds for decades. Most of the farms and clear-cuts we hunted back then are gone, too, but, I still remember our many great hunts – great fodder for tailgate sessions while the dogs are out looking for that first rabbit to run.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of good rabbit hunting ahead for more generations of Beaglers to enjoy. If you have a few dogs and know of some newbies who might enjoy a day in the briars, don’t hesitate to invite them along. The joy and the pleasure of the experience may not sink in all at once, but I can say from experience that those great memories will stick with them long into the future. My buddy and I still sit around talking about Charley, Smokey and the “good old days,” memories of hunts and hunters that we will carry with us right to the end.

If you take the time to infuse tomorrow’s rabbit hunters with your own level of enthusiasm the sound of hounds on the hill will never fade away. Even though the most coverage in outdoor magazines goes to big-game hunters, it’s a sure bet that every one of those “experts” started out hunting small game near home, most likely cutting their teeth on rabbits behind a pack of hot-nosed Beagles. I have spoken many times with some of the top-name writers in this country who are better known for their exploits in Africa, Canada and elsewhere, but when it comes down to the best hunts they’ve ever had it’s always something to do with Beagles, rabbits and fast shots at close range.

This season, make room for an extra hunter or two, young or old, and let them in on the rabbit hunters’ big secret: We have the most fun, the most action, the most shooting and the most jokes to tell at the end of the day. And, we don’t have to refinance the house to do it!