Gearing Up for Cold Weather Rabbits

Rabbit Hunter, Dec 2011By now every state with a rabbit season is open for business, and business is likely to be brisk – in more ways than one. Come December it gets cold even in Southern states with temperatures low enough to bother hunters, dogs and sometimes even the rabbits, but that’s no reason to stay home.

Hunting season is too short as it is, and going out only on sunny days will definitely limit your hunting time.  Having hunted winter rabbits with hounds from Northern Maine to South Georgia and every state in between, I’d have to say that the bottom line for a successful day is just getting
out there. There may be a cold rain going on, snow or a biting wind, but the rabbits are out there and, given the time to work, the dogs will find them. While this certainly sounds like a simple concept, rabbit hunters of experience know that there’s just a little more to it than that!

This I discovered on my very first December hunt, which took place in the early 1960s. A friend at school had a Beagle and his father was taking them out that cold, windy Saturday just before Christmas. Already a seasoned stalker of rabbits and other game with my trusty Crosman pellet rifle, I jumped at the chance to go on a “real” hunt and use a “real” gun, a borrowed .410 shotgun.

I was on Cloud Nine just thinking about it.

Of course, when the dream became reality there was a bit of a crash. I showed up to hunt in my best rubber boots over a thin pair of cotton socks. I had my best (tattered) pair of blue jeans on, a flannel shirt and an insulated, hooded sweatshirt (which, in those days was worn for warmth, not as a gangsta uniform). No hat, no gloves – I’m surprised they let me hunt.

My friend’s father took one look at me and shook his head, but I got that a lot from adults in those days (even now, come to think of it) so I just took it in stride. I was too excited about the hunt to care about the ominous looks or my lack of proper gear. It was a poor time for my family – we made do with whatever we had.

Unfortunately, hunting rabbits in the December briars requires just a tad more preparation, as I quickly discovered.

I was fine sitting in the truck and I was fine during the tailgate session (though I didn’t understand a word the older guys were saying about races, checks and strike dogs). It was raining lightly and that didn’t even bother me, at least till the dogs started howling. My friend said, “We need to get set up where the dogs started barking,” and that’s the last time I remember being warm and dry on that trip!

Light rain is fine for standing around the truck, but all that moisture ends up somewhere, and I found most of it when I started crashing through the briars. Even with him breaking trail, my jeans and sweatshirt were soaked before we reached our destination, and during the wait for the dogs to bring the rabbit back around I suddenly realized that I was wet right down to my cotton socks – mostly because I had cleverly tucked my jeans into my boots!

Like most average 10-year-olds, I was skinny as a rail, no meat on my bones and no fat to insulate me against the cold.

I spent the rest of that day shivering uncontrollably and suffered as only a soaking wet kid in a cold December rain could. There was no such thing as hypothermia in those days (well, there was, but it didn’t become the theme song for cold weather survival till decades later). All I knew was that I was cold, wet and scratched from head to toe. In my shivering state I missed the two rabbits I shot at and by midday I didn’t care about much other than trying to keep warm.

Naturally, we stayed out till near dark and on the ride home the truck’s heater blasting felt good through my wet clothes.  I staggered into the house, got undressed and dove into my bed, so cold I could not even move my toes. The worst of it was that I couldn’t wait to go rabbit hunting again!

I learned a lifetime lesson that day. By the time my next hunt offer came up I was ready – sturdy boots, canvas pants, my father’s old bird-hunting vest, leather gloves and a railroader’s hat. With a tattered set of woolen underwear beneath it all, I was ready for the cold. I think it was because I was so well prepared that I had a great time on my second hunt, shot a couple of rabbits and got that “I love this stuff” feeling that has kept me going back every season for 50 years. Of course, when I became older and starting inviting my own kids’ friends along on a hunt, I’d make sure they
were equipped for it so they would not have the same miserable experience I did.

The point of all this, of course, is to be sure you and your fellow hunters are equipped and dressed for the weather.  There is no glory in being unbearably cold all day long, and it may even make some potential hunters quit the first day out, which does not bode well for our sport. When planning a hunt and the weather is looking bad, make sure that everyone involved knows what to expect and what to wear for the event. Cold, shivering, unhappy hunters rarely come back!

Being comfortable during a cold-season hunt is one thing, but bad weather can also create problems for the dogs.  It’s not so much that the Beagles get cold, it’s that scent conditions differ markedly during periods of extreme cold (however that is measured in your part of the country). The dogs will likely hit the ground running no matter what the weather and they will warm up quick once they are on a track, but getting there can be a challenge.

Perhaps the worst of days is when it is cold, dry and windy. Scent doesn’t seem to hold and even the best of dogs will stumble right on past a rabbit that’s sitting fully exposed not five feet away. I have seen this happen many times and quit blaming the dogs long ago. No experienced Beagle is going to ignore a rabbit just because it’s cold and windy. The reality is that the dogs can’t always get the rabbit’s scent as they pass by. Things may change later in the day as things warm up (however slightly that may be) but when blustery conditions prevail the dogs are at a disadvantage, at least in finding a rabbit. Losing a scent halfway through a run can happen on the best of days, but the dogs can’t run a rabbit till they find one. Knowing all this, it’s the hunter’s job to assist in finding rabbits.

Though it’s more fun to huddle by the truck and wait for the dogs to start a rabbit, on cold days it’s a team effort and everyone has a job to do. The first time I saw my dogs run right past a sitting cottontail I knew I had to get involved.

They aren’t being stupid or lazy – they just can’t smell the thing!  To counter bad scent conditions, each hunter should take it upon himself to kick every brush pile, thump every fallen log and walk zigzag through every patch of tall grass, briars and saplings he can find. Somewhere in all that mess is a rabbit sitting tight against the weather. Get him started and the dogs will take over.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not much fun to wade through wet brush knowing that a rabbit may or may not be in the first 100 places you stomp. The same goes for bitter cold days when the briars and saplings are like razors, biting and slapping at every step. How they know to aim for the tenderest spots (ears and noses) is beyond me, but it’s the price we must pay if we want to see the dogs work.

By the way, rabbits are affected by the cold, too, and often require a second or third kick before they decide it’s time to hightail it out of there. Spend a full, cold December day kicking brush piles and grass bunches three or four times each and you may start to have second thoughts about this rabbit hunting stuff. Of course, it all seems worthwhile when a cottontail squirts out from under brush pile number 101 and you holler the dogs up to take over. The time, effort and frozen digits it took to get there are instantly forgotten. It’s human nature to remember and focus only on the good things that happen over the course of the day, which is a lucky thing for rabbit hunters!

One of the great mysteries of rabbit hunting in snow is: Where did they all go? I am always astounded at the number of rabbit tracks there will be in the snow-covered briars – too many to count and in every possible nook and cranny – and yet the dogs occasionally have a hard time getting the first cottontail going.

When we think “snow,” it could be a dozen different variations on the theme. There is dry snow, wet snow, deep snow, light snow, old snow, dirty snow, grainy snow or powder … the list goes on and each one creates a different situation for the dogs. Dry, light snow, for example, doesn’t seem to hold scent very well, but a heavy, wet snow is perfect for holding scent. I have seen Beagles pounding through three feet of wet snow at full cry in hot pursuit of a rabbit they won’t ever see, but I have also hunted on a frigid dusting of wind-swept snow and have had the most difficult time
finding a rabbit, let alone a scent trail.

One year while hunting in Georgia (where snow is a fourletter word no matter what the event) there was a light dusting of snow overnight. The briars were full of rabbit tracks but we could not pick up the first scent – not even a false bark from the dogs all morning. But, around noon the sun finally broke through the clouds and things warmed up almost immediately. Before the sky cleared the dogs had found a rabbit and we spent the rest of the day in hot pursuit.

Where those cottontails had been hiding all morning is anyone’s guess, but we stayed vigilant, hunted hard and ended the day with enough rabbits so that no one had to eat beans that night.

All of this would at least suggest that regardless of how bad the weather might be on any given day, there is a chance for some good running if you time it right. After many years of experimentation I discovered that my dogs run best at midday or in late afternoon, especially on those cold, miserable, wet days that most hunters try to avoid. Toss in a little wind or snow and the majority of hunters will take a seat by the wood stove and talk about hunting all day long!

I am one who can’t stand to waste good hunting time, so I’ll be out there rain or shine. But, when the weather is storming I’ll pace around the house, clean my shotgun or visit with the dogs till there’s a turn for the better. I’ll keep busy taking care of torn briar pants, patching my vest, sorting my shells or cleaning out my pockets, getting ready for the next hunt.

I know in the back of my mind that bad weather is a minor setback – and I’ve certainly endured worse. On the coldest, rainiest of days I’ll get a chill just thinking about that first hunt: I don’t think I’ve been that cold since! The spirit of the hunt has kept me going this long, I just make sure I’m well equipped and ready for whatever Mother Nature wants to throw at us.

I sometimes wish I had been born a Beagle. They just sit and watch while I putter with boots and gloves and hats, perhaps wondering why I need all that stuff, anyway. They are always ready to go, wearing nothing but a collar, and they are willing to pound the brush all day long with no more reward than the hot scent of a fleeing cottontail. I have seen a lot of hunters come out of the woods at the end of the day looking sad and dejected at being skunked, but so far I have never seen a Beagle show any signs of disappointment after a fruitless winter hunt. They’ll be cold and hungry, no doubt, but it’s easy to tell that, after a day’s rest, they’ll be raring to go again.

After all, any day in the briars is better than none, and unless a driving rain or blizzard persists throughout the day we’ll load up and see what trouble we can get into. When energy levels and optimism are high it’s difficult to have a bad day no matter what the forecast may be.

Remember, it takes just one rabbit to make a hunt. My pervading thought in winter is that, good weather or bad, the rabbits are out there braving the worst of it as best they can. If a little old cottontail can tough it out through periods of bad weather, so can I. And if I can do it after 50 years, so can you!

By Stephen D. Carpenteri, 989 South Waterboro Road, Lyman, ME 04002, 207-247-6098