Going Coastal

If you’ve never made a rabbit hunt in the marshes of South Louisiana, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Has there ever been a better match-up than the rabbit and the beagle?Not Godzilla versus King Kong. Not Ali versus Frazier. Not even Frankenstein versus Dracula can equal centuries of classic confrontations between relentless, barking canines and the elusive, long-eared jumpers. And it’s a confrontation even the likes of a 25-foot storm surge and 150-m.p.h. winds can’t stop.

From Europe to North America, there have probably been more hours spent by small-game hunters following packs of beagles pursuing bounding bunnies than anything else.

And there’s probably no other form of hunting that offers a group of shotgunners following a pack of bawling, whining hounds more camaraderie than rabbit hunting. No need to wake up at 3 a.m. It doesn’t require a fortune in expensive equipment, and best of all, it’s “team hunting” in its truest sense.

Louisiana offers a long season running from the first Saturday in October until the last day in February, and a generous eight-per-day bag limit.

But it’s only after the weather cools enough for dogs and hunters to chase all day, and especially after a vegetation-killing frost, that rabbit hunting reaches its peak. Deer and duck hunting usually take precedence in November through January.

That still leaves a full month of prime rabbit hunting.

By far, most rabbit hunting happens in bottomland hardwoods lined with creeks, briar patches and palmettos, but that type of choice terrain is not always easiest to get permission to hunt. It’s considered choice terrain because it’s the choice of convenience, not necessarily effectiveness.

I’ve hunted all the types of terrain Louisiana has to offer from palmetto swamps to piney woods, and by far the most productive habitat type is coastal marsh.

This could be for a lot of reasons, such as the absence of trees, meaning fewer predators like owls and hawks. Plenty of lush grasses mean no shortage of food, and that same thick grass offers concealment from the four-legged predators, the coyote being No. 1.

The marsh levees and spoil banks that are much easier for hunters and dogs to walk than the gumbo mud of the marsh are set off by waterbodies, and this again offers rabbits more protection from predators.

The fact that southern marsh areas have very few if any days below freezing probably helps the overall health and breeding capability for rabbits. All of this adds up to the marshes being slap-full of rabbits when compared to other habitat types.

Although some of our marshes have obviously been lost forever to the twin terrors of erosion and subsidence, we in Louisiana still have plenty of public marshland open for rabbit hunting.

We’re especially fortunate this year because even though Hurricanes Katrina and Rita disfigured our marshes, plenty of rabbits were able to survive. Don’t ask how they managed to make it through the floodwaters, but I’ve seen rabbits in places that were 14 feet underwater just a few months ago.

While St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes were temporarily closed by the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, most of Plaquemines has been reopened. The only public WMAs that normally allow rabbit hunting with dogs but are now closed are Biloxi and Pass a Loutre.

Here’s a list of the state Wildlife Management Areas with coastal marsh habitat allowing public rabbit hunting with dogs:

Atchafalaya Delta WMA, Feb. 1-28.

Pearl River WMA, Jan. 21-Feb. 28.

Salvador WMA, Jan. 1-Feb. 28.

Wisner WMA, end of waterfowl season to Feb. 28.

Rabbit and other small game hunters are required to have, in addition to a basic hunting license, a WMA permit, which can be purchased wherever licenses are sold. Some WMAs require free daily permits to be completed prior to check in, kept in possession while hunting and deposited at a check station when leaving.

On WMAs, there are specific rules and regulations not required on private lands. Those are outlined in the LDWF Hunting Regulations Pamphlets, and on the web at www.wlf.state.la.us.

For hunters and even dogs, hunting the marshes is a big change from traditional bottomland terrain. When making the switch, there are some special considerations to be aware of.

First, most marshland hunting is done from a boat — not the actual hunting, but at least transporting hunters and dogs. The boat needs to be big enough to handle several hunters and a couple of boxes of beagles, yet shallow-drafted to get into the flats that border the marsh.

Some rabbit dogs that hunt well in the bottomlands and briars don’t make it as marsh dogs. Maybe it’s all the water they don’t like or the different smells of the marsh that confuse them, but some dogs can’t make the adjustment from woods to marsh.

Everyone knows the problem of a deer-running rabbit hound. In the marshes, there are virtually no deer, so dogs that are useless hunting rabbits in deer country find a new lease on life marsh hunting.

However, there are plenty of coons and nutria, which some dogs just love to chase.

Often the marshes have roseau cane, and the stubble associated with broken or burnt cane can be tough on a dog’s foot pad. It takes a lot of “toughening-up” to make a good marsh dog.

Hunters need to be in good condition, too. Following dogs through a gumbo-mud marsh can be a pretty strenuous ordeal.

There are a couple of other pitfalls you might encounter while marsh hunting that you don’t find in the woods. Especially on warmer days, snakes are more abundant in these areas. In the low spots around willows and cypress, you’ll find water moccasins. While on the marsh ridges in certain areas, watch out for rattlesnakes.

Like hunting the briars, the pines or hardwoods, marsh hunting in the tall grass can mean close shots, but if you’re hunting a recent burnout, you might see a long chase and get some pretty long-range shots.

In the marsh, 20-gauges are adequate, but 12s are probably the most popular. Low-brass loads of 4s, 5s and 6s have enough firepower to down a bounding bunny without leaving too many pellets to remove from the meat.

My favorite combination is a side-by-side 20 with modified and full chokes, and low-brass No. 6s.

Most of the rabbits found in the marsh are cottontails, although occasionally you’ll see a swamp rabbit, also known as a cane cutter. I’ve always found that marsh rabbits are healthier than rabbits found in hardwoods or piney woods. They’re physically bigger and heavier than rabbits found in other habitat types.

More distinct than the rabbits themselves is the chase. Hunting the marsh means multiple, simultaneous chases known as “relay races.”

Usually a chase in upland habitat or swamp bottoms goes something like this: The dogs jump a rabbit from cover, and the dogs pack in near the jump spot. They search for a scent path, and when they find it, it’s off to the races.

Knowing that rabbits generally run a wide circle back to the original jump spot, hunters will align themselves where they have a clear shot somewhere along that circular path.

Occasionally, the dogs will bump another rabbit while chasing the first. In the marsh, it’s practically a given that the dogs will bump not one but several other rabbits. This makes for an interesting situation with several chases splitting the pack and going in different directions.

If you’re following along with this scenario, you’ve probably already figured out that the more dogs and hunters you have, the better for marsh hunting.

Where five or six dogs might make a decent woods hunt, 20 or more dogs isn’t too many for a marsh hunt.

So if you love to hunt rabbits or want to get started in it, but don’t have a place to go, think coastal marsh and go public.