I was five or six years old when Dad began to take me hunting. I had a cap gun, but all the rules of safety applied as if it were real. Those rules have carried me through many an outing since those early years on the farm. I can still hear Dad saying, "Keep your finger off the trigger... Have you got your safety on?... Careful son, let's keep each other in sight as we go through these briars."
Our first rabbit dogs were two miniature beagles. One was named Thunder, the other Too Sweet. Lady, a miniature red bone/beagle mix female, soon joined our pack. She sure could hunt rabbits! A neighbor and friend, Darrell Seely, had another mixed-breed dog called Old Rusty, who loved to chase bunnies and other critters.
Rusty was more of a pet than a hunting dog, but we didn't care. Darrell and I spent hours in our dads' woods with our dogs, traps and whatever else two boys could dream up to get into.
As you can tell, Dad put great effort into naming his dogs. However, Darrell just named his dog Rusty because of his color. He did not consider any potential problem even though we had a neighbor farmer named Rusty Sulliens.
This soon proved to become more of a problem than one might imagine. Rusty may not have been a world champion rabbit dog, but he had one trait that is invaluable around the house in "Swamp East" Missouri. Rusty hunted snakes. I believe he could have held his own with a mongoose.
Anyway, Darrell came by one day and Mom overheard part of our conversation. It seems Rusty had been busy with a copperhead and the snake bit him on the cheek. Mom, hearing this, assumed we were talking about our neighbor Rusty, and she came running out of the kitchen.
"What is this about Rusty?," Mom asked. "Well, he was down in the weeds over yonder and got bit on the face," Darrell explained.
"Is he OK?," she asked.
"Oh, I guess he will be all right," Darrell answered. "His face is starting to swell. His tongue is hanging out and one eye is closed. He's just lying up against the smoke house now taking it easy."
Well, Mom started moving to help Rusty. She was about to kick in her afterburners when Darrell was able to explain it was Rusty the dog, not Rusty the farmer, who got snake bit.
I no longer live in the country. However, the old saying 'You can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy' is true in my life. Like the saying, I have found others who grew up under similar conditions and now we hunt together.
Harold McLain, or "Mac," is my rabbit hunting buddy. He is a Mississippian who cut his teeth on swamp rabbits and is a walking, talking encyclopedia on rabbit dogs. Aside from that fact, he's just an all-around super fine fellow.
Like me, Harold grew up knowing about gun safety and this is top priority when hunting with him. Don't make the mistake of mishandling a shotgun, or that will be your last trip out with him.
If you want to run a smile across someone's face, just bring up the subject of rabbit hunting around Mac and sit back. He will carry the conversation from that point on. Mac and I start talking rabbit hunting in the late days of summer and carry on with trips to local areas where he can run the dogs before season. These short trips fine-tune the dogs for the fall and winter season.
Although the season officially starts the first of October, we usually don't get out until after the weather turns cooler. Sometimes this isn't until mid to late November, after deer season and, preferably, after a good frost.
Mac has some fine dogs and talks to them just as if they were his children. Seven-year-old Clyde still gives the younger pups a lesson when a smart bunny tries a trick or two. Junior and Champ, two of Clyde's offspring, also are in the pack. The fourth member of the McClain pack is Cindy, a little female who is my favorite. When she closes in on a rabbit, her chop bark turns into a loud squealing holler that is simply music to my ears.
This is what I enjoy most when out with Mac - the sound of those beagles. The friendship one develops with others who enjoy the outdoors creates an experience I wish everyone could have.
Our first rabbit hunting trip is usually to a farm in central Missouri. Once we park the truck and start putting on our coveralls, the dogs are ready to go. They want out, and it's funny to hear Mac saying, "Settle down kids, Daddy is going to let you out in a minute."
Those dogs know the year's wait is about over and the fun is about to start. Someone in the group will holler out, "Wheeehhh ... let those fire trucks loose!" The doors to the crate open and four calico balls of muscle hit the ground almost at the same instant. They take a second to check the area and then the race is on.
Once one of them crosses a rabbit track and lets out a squall, it isn't but an instant and they all join in. In unison, four heads to the ground, tails wagging and 16 paws go off tearing up real estate. It is a pretty sight! If Mr. Rabbit doesn't throw in too many tricks, the pack will bring him around in front of the hunters.
All true beagles have an inborn desire to chase bunnies. But just like race horses, some are faster than others. You can't successfully run fast dogs with slow dogs, or medium speed dogs. It just does not compute. One needs to run a pack that is all about the same speed. This way they stay and hunt together better. In Mac's case, he has always sought and tried to run fast dogs.
When you ask him about speed and his beagles, a grin will appear. He calls slower dogs "foot freezers." By this he is suggesting that, on a cold day, a slow pack of dogs will force you to stand in the same spot for a long period of time, causing your feet to get cold quicker.
We usually call in the dogs and quit hunting around 1:30 p.m. With five or six rabbits weighing down our game bags, we don't walk as lively as we did in the morning. Thankful for another day outdoors, we tease each other about shots we missed. Always the game is shared with others who didn't get but one or two rabbits. I, for one, have been on the receiving end more than once in this category.
If you too have caught the bunny fever, or would like to know more about rabbit hunting, there are several books, articles and videos on the subject at the library or local book store. Also, there are several good articles in back issues of the Missouri Conservationist magazine - check the January 1994 issue. The article "Briar Patch Puzzle" also includes some good rabbit recipes. The Conservation Department's television program "Missouri Outdoors" also includes rabbit hunting features.
You might note that the Missouri Department of Conservation manages thousands of acres of public land that are suitable for rabbit hunting. Contact them for a copy of the free Discover Outdoor Missouri map or buy Missouri's Conservation Atlas. This book includes county maps of the entire state, and public lands are shown on the maps.
The Conservation Atlas is $15. Include $5 for shipping and handling, and Missouri residents should include 6.225 percent sales tax. Order from: Books, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180.
If you wish to hunt on private land, contact the landowner before hunting season. Don't drive up to his home with a carload of dogs and hunters and ask at this time. You might get lucky, but more times than not you will be turned down. So go early. And if you open a gate, close it; don't litter and don't clean your game in the field, leaving all a reminder you were there. Respect the property, respect the animals you hunt! Be a good steward of the trust that is given you and be careful.
For my closing hunting tip, I feel every hunter in your party should at least wear a hunter orange hat while hunting upland game. Stay in vocal contact with each other, so everyone is constantly aware of the other's location.
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