Several hunters meet up every year for a rabbit hunt on rice-field levees that is second to none.
The dictionary defines instinct as “a complex, unlearned, adaptive response to some situation or experience.”
A rabbit hunter defines instinct as “a necessary impulse by which your brain forces your hands to raise your shotgun to your shoulder and pull the trigger in the direction of a lightning-fast furball before said brain has fully even realized there is, in fact, a rabbit in your field of vision.”
Pete Arnone was operating on just such instinct last February during a rabbit hunt he makes annually with a group of friends.
Arnone positioned himself on a roseau-shrouded levee, while his buddies walked ahead to take their stands. At the same time, Deron McLin and Tommy Boudreaux were motoring even farther ahead on a beagle-toting four-wheeler.
Arnone heard the four-wheeler motor shut off in the distance, and he knew the hunt was about to begin. He took his shotgun off his shoulder, and held it tightly in the ready position.
“A lot of times these rabbits will try to sneak way ahead of the dogs,” he said.
Within minutes, Arnone could hear the pack of five beagles working the levee. One would howl that sweet music rabbit hunters love to hear, and the others would instinctively run back to their compatriot, hoping to pick up the same smell. They inevitably would, and five beagles — nature’s gift to rabbit hunters — would sing their song in unison.
The beagles were still 75 yards away, but Arnone watched a clearing next to a patch of roseau with eyes as wide as a barn owl’s.
Out of nowhere, a flash of brown caught his eye to the left, heading for the patch of roseau to the hunter’s right.
Arnone shouldered his shotgun, and pulled the trigger. The other hunters heard the report, but were too far to see the rabbit that tumbled into the roseau patch. Pete Arnone had taken the first rabbit of the day.
“You never know when they’re going to show up. You never know what they’re going to do. That’s what makes rabbit hunting so much fun,” the Independence resident said.
Arnone and his buddies hunt land in an area known more for game that flies rather than hops. Tell a friend you’re going to hunt Gueydan, and he might offer to loan you his best goose call or his shiny new duck decoys. Tell him you’re going there to rabbit hunt, and he’ll probably look at you like you’ve just grown an extra nose.
Going rabbit hunting in Gueydan is somewhat like going redfishing at Toledo Bend. The welcome sign at the edge of the town even reads, “Welcome to Gueydan, Duck Capital of the World.”
But that’s precisely where Arnone and the gang make their annual hunt during the month of February, when the duck season is but a memory and the geese are few and far between.
They hunt land that is hit hard by waterfowlers, but is untouched by rabbit hunters until this annual pilgrimage.
Rabbits, both monstrous cane-cutters and demur cottontails, crowd the levees that rice farmers place around their fields to hold in water during the growing season. The levees are thick with briars and blackberry vines, perfect habitat for secretive rabbits. They never leave their hiding holes during the day, except when forced out by a pack of howling beagles.
“You’ve got to have good dogs,” McLin said. “That’s the key. You need dogs that will stay on rabbits and won’t chase deer.”
McLin owns seven such beagles, but he says hunters can get by with fewer than that.
“All a man needs is three or four (dogs) to have a good rabbit hunt,” he said. “But the more, the better, I think. You’ve got more noses out there picking up scent.”
But, of course, more dogs means a higher annual food bill. That’s a price rabbit fanatics like McLin are more than happy to pay.
“The rabbit season stretches from October through February, but really it only lasts five weekends,” McLin said. “Nobody’s going to let you hunt their land during deer season, so you’ve only got the end of January and all of February.
“So basically, you feed dogs all year for five weekends. That’s fine, though, because I love it. I love doing this.”
McLin hunts most of that time near his Lakeland home in Pointe Coupee Parish. The prime terrain there is mostly cutover thickets, a stark contrast to the marshy levees he and the rest of the group hunt in Gueydan. McLin’s been making the trip to the Duck Capital of the World since 1995.
The 34-year-old honed his hunting skills early on in his life hunting as a child with his father and grandfather.
He likes to work the dogs, but he also uses his head to try to outsmart the rabbits. He’ll frequently let the dogs range a good distance from him, while he camps out in an area he feels strongly will show a rabbit.
“Wherever the dogs jump the rabbit, if you stop there and wait, 75 percent of the time the dogs will run the rabbit right back to that nest. That’s an area that the rabbit knows, and he feels comfortable and safe in, so he’s going to try to get back there,” McLin said.
The veteran hunter stands waiting with his 16-gauge loaded with 6-shot.
Marion Peco of Independence, a 6-year veteran of the annual Gueydan hunt, prefers a lighter gun. He targets rabbits with a 20-gauge, and lets the shells fly when the rabbits are running.
“I just enjoy the challenge of shooting rabbits,” the 34-year-old said. “If you can come out here and hit a few rabbits, you can feel good about your shooting.”
But more times than not, rabbits give hunters reasons to not feel good about their shooting.
“They’re hard to hit. They’ll make a fool out of you,” he said. “I enjoy getting together with the other guys and watching the dogs work. There’s really no sport like it.”
Peco likes to range ahead of the dogs to intercept smart rabbits that are creeping away from the commotion. He stops in areas where he has some measure of visibility.
“If (the underbrush) is real thick, don’t even stop there. You won’t see anything. Keep going until you can see around or under that brush,” he recommended.
The Gueydan crew finished their three-hour morning hunt with 21 rabbits, but for each one they hit they missed many more.
And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s fun watching somebody miss and getting on his (butt). You get to laugh at him, but you know five minutes from now he’s going to be laughing at you,” Joe Lavigne of Independence said while parked in a chair at the camp reflecting on the hunt. “That’s what makes rabbit hunting so much fun.”
The Gueydan crew could find the fun to be limited this year because of the flooding rains the area received in October, but the forecast for the rest of the state looks better than average.
“Most of the areas outside of the coast should have a good season,” said the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ rabbit biologist, Fred Kimmel. “The drought seems to have ended, and we had good conditions last summer, so reproduction should have been good.
“Rabbit hunting is so dependent upon the conditions the previous summer.”
That’s because rabbits are very prolific, but they have an extremely short life span.
A female rabbit will have two to three litters a year, consisting of about four bunnies per litter. So a male and female rabbit — and their subsequent offspring — can populate a large chunk of land in short order.
That’s important because most rabbits don’t live to see their first birthday.
“The average life span of a rabbit is less than a year,” Kimmel said. “They have an annual mortality of 80 percent.”
Primarily because of a rabbit’s short life-span and its legendary fertility, wildlife managers set long seasons with generous limits on the species. This year, the season opened on Oct. 5, 2002, and will close on Feb. 28. The limit is eight rabbits per hunter per day.
Kimmel said prime rabbit habitat is thick.
“You want land that’s not totally forested but has a lot of low growth, like blackberries and greenbriar — viny, grassy habitat,” he said. “Cover is really the limiting factor because rabbits will eat just about any type of vegetation. If you have a lot of cover, you’ll have a good rabbit population.”
The levees along the rice fields in Gueydan have more than their share of cover, so even if this year is slow, the rabbits should rebound easily for next year.
That’s good news for hunters like Arnone, who was champing at the bit to get back out in the field during a lunch break last year.
“We left a lot of rabbits out there,” he said. “Let’s go get ’em.”
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