The Joys of January Rabbit Hunting

January 2012 Rabbit Hunter MagazineOne of the most difficult tasks facing the January rabbit hunter is finding the will power to get out there when the temperatures are in the single digits, the ground is hard and the snow may be knee deep – or worse. There are days, I’ll admit, when I have to kick myself an extra time or two just to get into my stiff, frozen canvas overalls, and on the coldest of days some Beagles may have to be forced out of their cozy boxes with a shoe horn. In fact, some of my hunting buddies are even worse!

When I think back on the first few years I hunted rabbits with Beagles, I shudder at how ill-prepared I was. Barely out of middle school and one of six kids in a family poor enough to qualify for a weekly allotment of government cheese and potatoes, buying hunting gear of any sort was beyond out of the question – it was impossible. My father cobbled together the cheapest hunting ensemble he could find (dime store rubber boots, handme- down jeans, a couple of oversized flannel shirts and an ancient canvas hunting coat that had more patches than original material). Cold, uncomfortable and ill-fitting for sure, but I didn’t care – I was going rabbit hunting!

Youth has a lot going for it, ignorance and stupidity being the most common virtues. I’d spend every Saturday and holiday with my best friend, Wayne, whose dad owned the Beagle (Smokey) and even though I’d come home chilled to the bone, usually wet and shredded from constant contact with briars and saplings, I was as happy as a kid could be, because next week we were going again!

I remember that in those days I didn’t even have gloves. I’d just stuff my frozen hands down into my jeans and shuffle through the brush like a zombie, but when old Smokey hit a hot track my cold hands were no longer an issue. I’d put my hands up my sleeves, my rusty, trusty .410 in my arms and head for the nearest cottontail crossing. I wasn’t often the first or fastest one there, but I got my share of rabbits. It only took one cottontail to make my day (still does, in fact, over 50 years later) and I still remember the first successful shots I made, not how cold it might have been.

“Young and dumb” is how the saying goes, but most rabbit hunters get somewhat smarter as they age and I was no different. When I was old enough to work I immediately started saving my tobacco farm money (90 cents an hour in those days!) for some “real” hunting clothes. Gearing up was a slow process on a tobacco picker’s paycheck. A serious pair of boots cost a week’s pay, and when I started looking at briar-proof clothes I knew I’d end up watching the curing fires in the sheds all fall.

Doesn’t sound bad at first, but imagine a tobacco shed closed up tight against the weather with dozens of small charcoal fires going night and day for weeks. Due to the open fires, the insurance companies would not cover the wood sheds against fire, so a person had to be inside the sheds at all times to keep the fires going and to put out any fires (using a water barrel and a bucket!) that might have started. Great work for less than a dollar an hour, but that’s all there was available for ambitious kids in my age group.

By the time rabbit season opened, I had my boots, pants, coat, gloves and hat, but still had to hunt with my old .410. A new shotgun in those days would have cost my whole summer’s pay, and I still had to buy my own school clothes and lunches (only 25 cents a day, but hey, over a 180-day school year it adds up!).

I was pleased to find that having the right gear made rabbit hunting much more enjoyable, even on the days when Smokey was not able to find many cottontails. Even an empty-headed school boy can learn that if you are ill-prepared for a day in the briars you are going to suffer, but if you anticipate the worst and dress right for it, you can have a great time no matter what the weather conditions.

Just a year or two into my new-found love of rabbit hunting Wayne invited yet another friend, Eugene, to hunt with us one cold, windy Saturday in January. All decked out in my new, cool hunting clothes, I felt nothing but sympathy for Eugene when he showed up in cheap rubber boots, blue jeans, a flannel shirt and a worn corduroy coat that was three sizes too large.

Eugene didn’t come from a hunting family so he had nothing to beg, steal or borrow – not even a shotgun. He did his best and didn’t complain about the cold or snow, but on the drive home he shivered like a puppy at the pound and when the next Saturday rolled around he found a reason not to go, and by the end of the season he was happily enrolled in an after school basketball program. I don’t know that Eugene ever went hunting again after that. A bad introduction to winter rabbit hunting can certainly have lasting effects!

The bottom line is that to enjoy a January day behind the Beagles it is imperative that you have the proper clothing. These days the options are endless, although covering your carcass in top-end gear could easily cost $1,000 or more.

Thumbing through the pile of hunting magazines and catalogs that fill the mailbox just before Christmas, I decided to find out what it would cost to have the best stuff from head to toe.

Starting with $40 socks, $100 long johns, $300 boots and $200 bib overalls, I added a wool shirt ($75), a canvas hunting vest ($200), a $40 hat and $30 gloves. Shotguns are considered cheap now at $400 each plus a $50 case to put them in, plus shells ($10 a box), and we haven’t even delved into the cost of transportation, Beagles, kennels and food, all the stuff one needs just to enter the woods in pursuit of rabbits.

January is a tough month to learn what you lack when it comes to gear and clothing, but one trip should do it. Those who love being outdoors, Beagles and rabbits will find a way to get back in the game even after a disappointing, uncomfortable trip where the main focus of the day was how to keep both hands and feet from freezing. It’s no fun to spend all day wishing you were somewhere else, and time slows to a crawl when you are miserably wet and cold.

My catalog spending spree is not necessarily the way to go.  You can get good-quality hunting gear for much less if you shop around and buy the right stuff for the right price. Spend the extra bucks on gear that meets your needs (better gloves if you suffer from cold hands, better boots and socks if your Achilles’ heel is cold feet). A complete, insulated briar-proof outfit can be purchased for much less than the cost of the best high-end boots. Know your needs and limitations; buy the best you can afford and plan for the long haul. Odds are you will hunt more than one January, so get sturdy stuff you know will last.

About the only area that can’t be protected by store-bought gear is the face and ears. I have never been able to deal with face masks (can’t see) or ear muffs (can’t hear), and so I resign myself to suffering a major slash or two from those unforgiving briars and saplings that are part and parcel of the best January rabbit cover. I have noticed that the worst briars occur in the Deep South, and the farther north you go, the less evil the thorns will be. You can’t avoid the occasional blood-letting due to thick briars no matter where you hunt, but if you dress for it and use your hands (and shotgun) for defense you may at least reduce the number of injuries suffered while in pursuit of Mr.
Cottontail or Mr. Hare.

One of the most effective ways to get yourself and others into the briars in January is to have a productive day. Though I often dread the thought of getting up and out when the wind is blowing and the thermometer is dangerously close to zero, I roll out of bed and head out because I know that somewhere out there is a rabbit that’s having a much harder time of it than I am. I can stand in my warm office with a hot cup of coffee in hand and admire the frost that has formed on the trees outside and think, “Boy, it’s mighty nice in here. Maybe I’ll take the day
off.” But, when my Beagles see me in the window (why did I put that kennel so close to the house, anyway!) their howls remind me that their job is to find rabbits and they want to go to work.

One common aspect I’ve noticed when doing any kind of hunting from squirrels to deer to rabbits is that once I get out of the truck and into the woods it actually feels good to be there.  And, once I get moving and warmed up it even feels comfortable, even when it’s well below freezing.  If I’ve picked the right spot and the dogs are in the right mood, we’ll start a rabbit almost immediately. It seems impossible that the Beagles could find a rabbit scent in that much snow and when it’s that cold, but it’s been the name of their game for centuries and the purest of breeds are very good at what they do. Suddenly the cold and snow are forgotten and the chase is on.

Start running around in the clinging brush trying to get ahead of the dogs and you won’t even think about the cold. And, when the dogs complete the first circle and the race is coming your way, the last thing on your mind will be the temperature. Get the gun up, get ready and find that target!

There have been many, many cold-season hunts where I could not find a buddy to go with me and, truth be known, I couldn’t blame them. But, at the end of the day I’d swing by with a pickup full of tired hounds and a limit of rabbits on the tailgate just to rub it in a little. Most hunters of experience know they should have gone, but that frost on the window in January has a tendency to make mice out of the toughest of men. They’ll feel guilty for having stayed in bed, but I make sure the regret is even worse when I come by to show them what they missed out on. Success in the briars is its own reward, and as I mentioned, even one cottontail can make a hunt.

To be fair to those who find the thought of a sunrise hunt in January just a little daunting, there is an alternative. Morning hunts are great when that’s all the time you have, but if you have the full day available, don’t be shy about sleeping in if you can plan a hunt for the afternoon. Even in the dead of winter the mid-day period can be relatively warm. If there is going to be any sun or warmth at all it will occur in the afternoon, and often the dogs do a better job when the sun has had a chance to warm things up a degree or two. Scent lies well on frozen ground or snow once the sun has had a chance to shine on it, and those extra few degrees feel good to hunters as well.

To optimize your winter hunts, go when you can but if there’s an option, go later in the day. It will be cold, no doubt, and frost and snow present their own challenges, but when the Beagles are able to run any rabbit hunter will want to be there to enjoy the show.

Every so often I am reminded that January Beagling can be very productive. One year the snow was late in coming and when it did finally fall there wasn’t much to go on – just a dusting on top of the cold, hard ground. There were rabbit tracks everywhere but, just after sunrise, the dogs weren’t able to get anything going. I kicked brush, tossed rocks into briars and bulled my way into some unforgiving thickets but not one rabbit could we find. I was all but ready to head for home but I knew the cottontails were there, they just weren’t ready to come out and play.

I let the dogs wander around all morning doing little or nothing, but then at noon I had a little lunchtime pow-wow with them and we decided to take a break and go back in around 1:30 or so. I had my sandwich and coffee while the dogs curled up in their boxes, and when the sun was at its zenith (just over the tree tops) we headed back in.

What a difference a few hours made! The Beagles jumped the first rabbit within minutes, and by the end of the day we’d put our limit in the truck. We continued running till dark for the pure joy of it. Coming out I reminded myself once again that even when things look their worst they can change in a heartbeat.

Some folks think of rabbit hunting as “easy,” but in truth there are some days that will challenge the best of hunters and dogs.

January Beagling can often be the most difficult of the year, but there are days when the dogs outdo themselves in spite of the harsh conditions. Sometimes on the bitterest January days my dogs act like they’ve never run a rabbit, and then an hour later they are hot on the trail. There is no way to know how the day will go unless you get up, get out there and put your boots on the ground.

Get the right gear, expect the worst and put your time in this month. You won’t find a lot of hunters in the briars at this time of year, but you know I’ll be out there, and I hope you will be, too.

Don’t forget to invite a kid along – any kid. Dress him up right and do all you can to give him a good hunt. If he has fun he will want to go again next week, and that may be all it takes to get you out of bed on a cold January morning, too!