The dead of winter is a trying time for avid hunters. Deer, fall turkey, duck and quail seasons are gone or fading fast, and it’s a long haul until the spring turkey season opens in April. It makes me grateful for cottontails.
This time of year, I also am grateful for Dave Urich, a retired coworker who loves rabbit hunting enough to maintain a pack of hunting dogs just for that purpose. And I do mean a pack. When we met at a mutual friend, Scott Gerlt, for a hunt at Scott’s family farm last Saturday morning, Dave had eight dogs in his pickup. Although I recognize that each of his five beagles has a distinctive voice and personality, I can’t keep their names and faces straight as they weave in and out of brush piles. They are just a swarm of snuffling, wagging scent unravelers.
Dave’s other three dogs are another matter. One is a basset hound. I can’t explain why the name Porterhouse fits him so perfectly. Maybe it’s his brown-black-white markings, like a grilled steak. Maybe it’s because he looks so prosperous, with spare skin that puddles around his feet. Whatever the reason, Porterhouse’s methodical approach to trailing is a perfect complement to the beagles’ frantic bunny quest. When rabbit tricks bamboozle the rest of the pack, Porterhouse’s plodding determination to snork up every molecule of rabbit smell eventually results in a deep, soulful yodel that translates to something like “Ohhhh, fellas, I think you missed something over here!” The beagles get back on track and the chase is on again.
Filling out Dave’s rabbit pack is a pair of Labrador retrievers, one black and one yellow, appropriately named Smith and Wesson. Their job is to walk at heel until a hunter dispatches a rabbit, then fetch it before it becomes beagle food. At 15 months of age, the labs still are learning the “heel” part of their job, so hunters must take care not to let fly with a load of No. 6 shot when an over-eager retriever has jumped the gun. In another year, they will understand the game plan and constitute the pièce de résistance of the Urich method of rabbit hunting.
The action was especially hot along a 250-yard strip of bulldozed locust and hedge-apple trees.
We had lots of rabbits and lots of shooting for an hour or so. By then Scott had bagged his sixth rabbit. Dave and I had only five between us, and we were down to a few shells each. Good sport that he is, Scott walked back to the trucks to unload his hefty game vest and fetch more shells for his less adept hunting buddies. With a fresh supply of ammo, Dave and I eventually got our limits, too.
The hunt dovetails nicely with my ambition to try a new recipe for rabbit backstraps in a wine sauce. More on that later. Rabbit season runs through Feb. 15 if you’re looking to squeeze the most out of this hunting season.