Finding Briar

Rabbit Hunter, April 2012RABBIT HUNTER – What follows is an account of one of those hunts that was one to remember for all of the wrong reasons and for the luck that we ended the day on. It started out well enough with my little female Briar jumping a rabbit in a swamp. She and her littermate, Twig, ran this bunny hard out of the swamp right to my brother Pete. He got it with one shot, but his gun jammed; just a sign of things to come. After clearing the jam, we continued to hunt the area in a typical manner. My dogs are very familiar with this spot since they’ve hunted it since they were young dogs. In fact, they hunted here on their first hunt, and ran their first rabbit to the gun in the very spot Pete had just bagged his rabbit; lots of history in this spot for all of us.

The cover was still very thick and the water in the swamp and the ditches that border the perimeter of it had not frozen over yet.  We had progressed to the second part of the property without any action when Pete jumped a rabbit along a thicket. The dogs ran it around a little pothole and then down a fenceline towards a ditch at the end of the woods. We fully expected to hear them turn to circle at any moment upon hitting the ditch, but instead they seemed to be getting further away in a straight direction. The rabbit had crossed that ditch. This had to be the same rabbit that they had run the previous week that jumped this ditch full of water. But this time we were a little more prepared, or so we thought.

Pete immediately ran for the crossover to guard the opposite side of the ditch, but our dad and I held back remembering the last trip. We positioned ourselves at either end of this ditch knowing that as long as the dogs stayed on this rabbit, he would come back to the ditch to cross it. Sure enough, as Pete got in position on the other side of the ditch we heard the dogs start to turn in the distance. I began scanning the pickers along the edge of the woods in front of me across the ditch. My dad was doing the same at the other end. Within minutes he saw the rabbit and made a movement which the rabbit noticed sending him in my direction.

That rabbit probably thought that he’d dodged the bullet when he emerged from the pickers at the end of a large log that had fallen across the ditch. I raised my shotgun and pulled the trigger only  to have nothing happen. For those of you who have read my articles before, you’ll recall that this has happened before with this particular gun. It has been to a gunsmith a couple times and since this latest occurrence has gone back to the manufacturer, but I digress. The rabbit did not waste his good fortune and immediately scampered across the log as I stood by dumbfounded, but ready to throw the gun in the ditch. It would have been a cool video to get of the rabbit crossing on that log, a trick he’s obviously used before.

The dogs arrived not long after, and we got them to cross the ditch and then on the trail again, but the rabbit had a good lead on them. They ran him to the opposite end of the woods where the chase originated before losing him.

My dad and I still had to get to the other side of the ditch where Pete waited for us to continue the hunt after gathering the dogs. We decided rather than walking down to the crossover that Pete took and then have to walk back that we would find the narrowest point and try to jump across. I found a narrow enough point, but it required stepping gingerly on some weeds along the bank to avoid falling in. I did this. My dad did not.

He stepped, but not gingerly and shifted his weight too swiftly on a soft spot. This resulted in him twisting his knee and going over his boot in the water. I took hold of his gun so that he could better extricate himself from the muck. After confirming that he was all right to go on, we started to hunt again. Finally, Twig jumped a rabbit and both dogs ran it a long way back across a path and through the opposite woods. They had run straight off again and were now out of hearing. The rabbits here do not generally run too big, but it’s been a strange year with the rabbits.

After several minutes of no barking and being unable to locate the dogs I went after them in the direction that I’d last heard them. I found them both on the other side of the ditch that we’d just crossed trying to track down the rabbit.

I called the dogs in so that we could hunt back to the original area and to the truck. So far we’ve had two firearm failures, an injured and wet hunter, and a wild run that the dogs seemed confused on. How could this hunt get any worse? Read on.

We headed out to a corner of the original swamp that we usually save for hunting on our way out. The dogs jumped a rabbit in front of us in the swamp grass and  headed off as if on a normal run, but it certainly did not end up that way. As we moved to get into position to try to intercept the rabbit as it came around, the barking of the dogs stopped, or at least we could no longer hear it. The wind had picked up considerably, so we could not hear their bells, or any barking. After several moments of not hearing anything, I began to worry. If they were making a check then they should open up soon, but it seemed to be taking longer than it should have. I called. No bells or barking. I called again with more emphasis … still nothing. I shot my gun, an action that always gets the dogs’ attention and brings them back nearly immediately, nothing after several more minutes. What had happened?

My mind raced through scenarios. I knew Pete was somewhere along the hillside in front and to the left of me, and I didn’t hear him calling for the dogs as if he’d seen them. Did they run the rabbit over the hillside only to bump into some bedded deer on the other side? Would they have taken off after those deer or maybe a coyote? But I never heard them open up hot as if sight chasing a deer. And I don’t think they would be that interested in running a deer just off scent, not when they had been running rabbits. I pulled out the shock collar transmitter.

I hated to shock them if they weren’t running trash, but hitting them with a low setting would elicit a bark which would let me pinpoint where they were. I hit Twig first with a low setting and a yelp immediately came back from somewhere ahead of me in the distance. I started calling non-stop. The dogs usually come back to me immediately after getting shocked. But I heard no approaching bell this time. I kept calling for both dogs now.

Still nothing, but then Pete must have sensed my urgency because he called too. Now I needed to confirm where Briar was. I didn’t know where or how they ended up where they were, but I knew Briar could get there and into trouble faster than Twig, but I hated to shock her even on a low setting because of her timid nature when it comes to such things.

I hit her with a low setting, and over the wind moving all of the brush I thought I’d heard her give a yelp, so I began calling in earnest again repeatedly to allow her to get a fix on my position, but there was still nothing coming my way. I moved forward and heard Pete call out that Twig was on the other side of a large ditch that contained quite a bit of water and he wouldn’t come back across. I made my way through the tangles all the while calling for Briar as loudly as I could. I had hoped that she was by Twig and they were merely on the other side of the ditch. But when I got to Pete and saw only Twig my heart dropped. The task remained to first secure him before getting after Briar.

I unloaded my gun and went down the ditch to where I knew it narrowed and crossed it, but then I realized that what I had crossed was only what was draining out of the swamp and that   the true ditch still was ahead of me, steep sided and with a couple feet of water in it. Twig stood on the other bank cowering in confusion over everything. I imagined

Briar must be somewhere doing the same. I gently called for Twig to come across, but he was not going to come freely through so much water. I went down the steep bank, hoped the bottom was not muck that I would sink into, and took a long stride into the middle of the water. The bottom was muddy but firm, and I was able to cross in three steps with the water going over my knee high rubber boots the entire way.

I got to the opposite side and pulled my self up the bank to where Twig waited. He let me put the leash on him and lead him to the edge of a nearby field where I began scanning and calling for Briar as I took the shock collar off Twig and began petting him heavily. He was very glad to see me. He probably thought nothing of being over there until all the shooting and shocking started and he found no way to get back to me, then he probably got frightened as dogs will.

Now Pete and dad were calling for Briar, as I had told them I had Twig. Both shot their guns and listened. After more minutes of nothing I tried to shock her again though I dreaded to do it. At this point I knew she was not running trash. She was somewhere trying to find me or running scared due to all the confusion, but if we didn’t know where she was, we would not know which direction to move to. I hit the button and we heard a yelp way in the opposite direction by where we had entered the woods after coming back to this area; at least it sounded that way in the wind.

Pete immediately headed that way. Dad slowly went to where there was a chair someone had left in the woods to sit due to his hampered mobility from the twisted leg. I went back down the ditch and crossed the water dragging Twig behind me. He was not too anxious to get in there. I passed Dad and grabbed his leash and passed Twig off to him. I told him to take his time and head out to the open field as I raced ahead to get out there. I heard Pete calling and by the time I was out through the woods and to the edge of the field he was already up on the hill overlooking the area. He saw nothing as evidenced by his continued calling. I called too as loud as I could. I went to the ditch and looked across it to the field behind the woods we had entered but saw nothing. I tried to replay in my mind what she had done. She must have been on the other side of the ditch with Twig, and for whatever reason they got separated enough so that when he got shocked he stayed where he was, but she must have been moving along the ditch trying to find a way back when I shocked her. She must have run all the way along the ditch back to where we had crossed and then been in the field when I shocked her again. But now where was she?

After several minutes of calling, my dad emerged from the woods and decided he was going to take Twig back to the truck  and see if maybe Briar had gone back there. I almost wished that she would not have done that because there’s a busy road not 50 feet from the truck. As my dad passed Pete along the field, Pete called for me to come back to the truck to drop off the guns and organize our thoughts. I had no other options, and by this point I thought Briar was gone for good. For all I knew she might have been so frightened she just kept running some other direction out of sight and sound.

Dad had a good start on Pete and I as my brother had waited for me to catch up. As we approached the truck, our dad was sitting on the ground behind the truck with Twig. It did not surprise us as his leg bothers him on a good day when he doesn’t fall in a ditch and then dash through swamps looking for lost Beagles. But as we walked towards them into the wind, Pete said that Briar was there, too. I looked not believing such an easy solution to this problem was possible and said that he was seeing Twig there next to dad. We walked a few more steps and Pete said again that in fact Briar was there. I looked at the ground behind the truck and began to quicken my pace; still not believing that Briar had found her way back there. And not only that, but had sat there waiting for us instead of running out into the road as cars raced by. Sure enough there on the ground was my dad, Twig and Briar. I don’t know which of those three was smiling more, but the smile on my face was pretty broad I now that.

He said that when he approached the truck he saw legs hanging down from the bumper and that he thought Pete had gone back and hung his rabbit there. But it was Briar standing up with her paws on the tailgate. When she saw him she went under the truck until she saw Twig, too. Then she came out.

We’d hunted this spot so many times that it’s really not a surprise that the dogs know their way back to the truck. But to have the luck of her not going into the road was too much to hope for. And also to have the sense to go back when she realized she did not know where we were was also something I’ll never forget. I still think she had ended up on the wrong side of that ditch and circled the entire area and then headed back. But we’ll never know for certain.

That evening both dogs got warm baths to wash the mud and swamp smell off of them and some ground venison mixed in with their dog food, that and a lot of extra petting.

By Matt Cogswell, 28653 Alvin Street, Garden City, MI 48135