Brent Smith’s head was on a swivel as he knelt on the forest floor in a Washington Parish pine plantation. Ice Man, Law Man, Boss Man, Hawk, Sugar and Ruby had just recently passed on a line where Smith now took a knee. They had announced that they were hot on the trail of a rabbit by tonguing a melodious mix of howls and yelps as they passed, and Smith could tell that the rabbit was now running his beagles in circles about 100 yards to his front.
"That rabbit’s running for his life," Smith told me as his eyes continued to survey beneath the understory below the towering pines. "He passed by us only 20 yards away just a few minutes ago, and neither one of us saw him."
In his years of rabbit hunting, Smith has discovered that rabbit’s don’t just run crazy to try to get away from the dogs; they run with full awareness of what’s going on around them.
"I bet that rabbit saw us and made a little turn away," Smith said. "If I know anything about rabbits, though, I imagine he’s going to come right back through here before too long."
Smith’s beagles soon stopped circling, and their unbroken baying grew louder as they trailed the rabbit in a straight line right back at us. Each howl grew louder. Every yelp became more distinct.
A blur of gray rabbit fur burst from under a patch of briars on the edge of the little bottom, and it immediately made us out amongst the maze of pine bark and tree saplings.
In the split second it took for the rabbit to figure out its next move, Smith expertly shouldered his short-barrel Remington 870 Express, and let fly a wad of 6-shot before the rabbit could make up its mind.
"Hey Hut!" Smith called Moak’s nickname out through the woods. "How many shots was that? Sounded like one to me!"
Rabbit No. 2 was now in the bag.
Our hunt had actually begun earlier that morning about five miles away in an area that Smith knew had more rabbits and was easier to get around in, but it wound up having something that he didn’t want any part of.
Another group of rabbit hunters was working the same patch of woods, and their dogs wound up getting mixed in with Smith’s dogs.
It all looked good to my inexperienced eyes. The more dogs running around, the more rabbits jumping up, and the more shots we could get. However, Smith definitely didn’t see it that way.
"You saw what it was like when they all got mixed up," he reminded me back at his truck as he and his hunting buddies Ben Moak and Lavon Magee began loading beagles back into their kennels. "Dogs were running everywhere, and it was mass confusion."
As it turned out, the other dogs were what Smith called large pack dogs, whereas his beagles were SPO, or small pack option, dogs.
"SPO dogs are more of a line-control dog," Smith said. "They stay together and work as a pack.
"The large pack dogs are more search dogs, and they don’t really pack together like SPO dogs. When one dog jumps a rabbit, the others don’t really come to help because they’re out there searching for more rabbits, and they don’t really contribute to the chase like these dogs do."
Smith dropped his dogs at the edge of a deer food plot at our new location a few minutes later, and they immediately began sniffing all over the place. I didn’t really see any of them lining up to work together, so I wondered aloud why they all seemed to be going in different directions.
"They’re just checking things out, and they’re smelling old scent from rabbits that were in this grass patch last night," Smith responded. "They know it’s old, so they’re all looking for a hot scent. When they hit on a rabbit and jump it, then they’ll all line up and start working together. You’ll see."
The group of hunters began walking through the surrounding woods beating on briar patches with their shotguns while bellowing in long, drawn-out tones, "Haaaaay, looook in heeeerrre. Looook in heeeerrre."
It didn’t take long for me to see exactly what Smith was talking about. Ice Man jumped up a rabbit, and within seconds the other five beagles fell in line behind him tonguing right along with him.
Their muted baying indicated that the rabbit was running away from us.
"The best way I could describe it would be to think about somebody yelling in a different direction than where you were standing," said Moak. "You could definitely hear them, but it sounds less distinct and more distant than if they were hollering right at your face."
As they turned and circled, it became easy for me to determine what was going on just by the direction all the noise was coming from or going to. Just about the time I thought I had it figured out, they stopped completely.
"That rabbit done checked ‘em," Moak continued while barreling through a head-high briar patch to try to get into position. "They’ll get back on him in a minute."
It didn’t take long for the beagles to start tonguing again, and Smith explained that rabbits have all kinds of tricks they pull on beagles to try to throw them off the trail.
"The main thing they do is double back on their own line," Smith said. "They run a line and then turn around and come back on it when the dogs are behind them. Then they’ll jump off the line one way or the other to try to throw the dogs.
"The dogs won’t run a covered line, so when they run that line up and that rabbit doubles back they think they’re trying to run a covered line, which is a line they’ve already run."
I had to get Smith to better explain how the dogs knew they would be running a line that they had already covered. He told me that when a rabbit doubled back on its own trail, the dogs would turn around and follow it until they realized that they’ve already covered it because they can smell their own scent on the line.
Although I never gave rabbits much credit as being elusive creatures, the trick Smith told me about next caused me to rethink their intelligence.
"One of the things a rabbit will do when the dogs put a lot of pressure on it is get ahead of them pretty good and stop to lick the bottom of its feet," Smith said. "That covers the scent the same way water would cover it if their feet got wet."
Just about that time, we heard three shots ring out to our left. Apparently, Smith had jumped a rabbit as he walked through the understory, and it headed in a straight line right at Moak who was so surprised that it took him a shot or two to get on the rabbit as it ran right at his feet.
It might not have been the traditional way a beagler wants to put a rabbit in the bag, but we were finally on the board, and Moak dutifully took the ribbing that came his way for taking so many shots to kill our first rabbit.
The rabbit that Smith’s beagles had been trailing eventually evaded them by crossing a highway that ran to the north of the piece of land we were hunting. Without wasting any time, Smith gathered up his dogs, and they followed him, Moak and Magee through the woods in search of another jump.
That’s when they jumped the rabbit that eventually froze right in front of Smith.
Not wanting to get home too early, the crew of hunters went to work helping the beagles jump another rabbit. Only this time, the rabbit tried to make fools out of all of us.
Smith missed it after realizing that it was sitting there looking at him from behind a log not 10 yards away from him. Then Magee shot and missed twice as it came out of the other side of a patch of briars.
The rabbit circled back toward Smith and crossed the lane, where Smith missed twice more. Crossing the lane one more time, Magee shot three times and finally connected, but he only injured the rabbit.
"Tally Ho ... Tally Ho ..." they began calling toward the beagles. That meant that they had located a rabbit and the dogs, which were still back in the woods a piece, were supposed to stop what they were doing and come see.
The squealing distress call coming from just inside the woods indicated that they found their prize.
"Dead rabbit. Dead rabbit." Smith kept saying while letting the dogs sniff and get a mouthful of fur. "That lets them know this rabbit is dead and it’s time to go find another one."
Only this time, we decided to call it a day.
Smith, Moak and Magee are three of hundreds of hunters who take to the woods during February to wrap up their seasons with rabbits.
It’s about this time that the landscapes along the rural roads in Washington Parish take on a different look as single trucks nosed into the woods where a lone hunter began his trek to a deer stand are replaced by a cluster of trucks each with a metal dog kennel in the back.
And although rabbits are their target, hunters like Smith say it’s really more about the friendship and fellowship of sharing the experience with like-minded folks.
"All that mess back there with that last rabbit — you don’t get that with deer hunting," Smith said. "It’s more fun to kill you a good nice deer than it is a rabbit, but to me a rabbit hunt is a lot more fun than a deer hunt because you can enjoy yourself with your friends."