Secrets of the Wily Wabbit

These furry quadripeds get creative when trying to get a pack of beagles off their trails.

With cold, black noses pressed firmly against the steel door of the cage, the beagles whimpered in nervous anticipation. The smells of mud, cut-over pine and honeysuckle permeated the air, as 10 pair of puppy eyes watched camouflage-clad men remove shotguns from cases.

The men had little to say, but the dogs somehow knew that something big was about to happen. They could smell it. They could taste it. And inside the cage, untethered emotions peaked as one of the beagles yelped as if to say, “OK, OK, let’s get on with it.”

The dogs knew they were here for one reason — to hunt rabbits. It’s what their parents did. It’s what their grandparents did. And now it was their turn to carry on a tradition that goes back centuries.

It was what they were born to do.

Outside the cage, their owners, Frank Joy Jr. and his 7-year-old son Gavin, prepared themselves for the morning hunt. The elder Joy, subdued by comparison, checked his son’s jumpsuit, his little hat and boot laces. He then made sure the youngster’s bright-orange vest was conspicuously secured, and his .410 shotgun out of harm’s way.

Joy touched the door handle of the cage and realized just how cold it was. The steady 20-mph wind whipped down the dirt road, causing the 38-degree temperature to feel more like 38-below.

“Are we ready yet?” Gavin looked up and asked his father in a child’s tone.

“Just about,” he answered.

At the age of 7, Gavin was nearly a veteran hunter. On a nearby tract of land just that morning, he had killed a 150-pound doe. And the Jonesville youth will be the first to let you know that this deer was not his first. He harvested his first buck — a spike — while on a youth hunt when he was just 6.

Dad opened the cage door, and a veritable sea of small dogs spilled over onto the back of the Polaris six-wheeler. Some were fortunate and managed to land on four paws. But others stumbled and rolled into each other and onto the hard red clay ground below.

Their recovery was fast, however, and with noses to the the ground and tails in the air, the dogs ran off in six different directions, on their sniffing and searching mission.

“Four, five, six,” Joy counted to himself. “There’s seven, eight, nine, 10 …. 11. We’re missing one. Oh, there you are.”

He found the last beagle, huddled nervously in the back of the cage.

“C’mon, get out of there,” he said, grabbing the lone dissenter behind the head and placing him on the ground with the others. “This one’s just a puppy. Never been on a hunt before. I guess he’s got to learn like the rest.”

Joy was right. All it took was a little encouragement. As soon as the rookie hit the ground, he put his nose to the dirt, tail in the air, and did like the other beagles. The dog probably had never even seen or smelled a rabbit before, and didn’t have a clue about tracking one. But the game was in his blood, and Joy had faith in the young pup.

The Joys had brought their dogs to a rural area near the Ouachita River in Caldwell Parish. Here, outside Columbia, they met with their friend Jackie Reeves, property owner Ken Hammons, and outdoor journalist Dan Chason of Monroe. Chason, who hosts Dan Chason Outdoors, arrived with his son/producer/videographer Andy Chason to film a segment on rabbit hunting in North Louisiana.

Veteran rabbit hunters say there is nothing else quite like this sport. They point to the anticipation that had overwhelmed the dogs just moments before as the same thing that makes it so exciting for people. With carefully-chosen adjectives, they described the feeling of standing on the edge of a clearing, as the distant bellows of dogs get closer and closer.

“When the dogs pick up a scent, and start baying and barking,” Joy said, “that’s intense. That’s when you know they’ve jumped one, and it won’t be long.”

Hunters use the sound of the dogs to determine the speed and direction the dogs, and their prey, are traveling. They can often guess the exact area that the rabbit will emerge from the cover. But many times, the quick and unpredictable rabbit will fool the hunters and their dogs, and that’s what can make rabbit hunting so comical.

Joy, his son and the dogs walked ahead, methodically covering each 10-acre block of woods at a time. The men and their dogs entered the cover of the woods from a road. On another road that runs parallel, some 600 yards off, the hunters were ready and waiting with loaded weapons.

The dogs were directed to work one block at a time, so that every square yard of the woods would be covered.

As the dogs worked the block, Joy could be heard in the distance, calling out signals to the beagles.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey,” he directed the animals. “This-a-way. This-a-way. This-a-way.”

On the other road several hundred yards to the south, Hammons reflected on exactly what he loves about rabbit hunting.

“It’s just so relaxing, and it’s fun to watch the dogs work,” he said. “It’s a social hunt. You can talk, laugh at your friends when they miss, and they’ll laugh at you. It’s not at all like deer hunting. That’s a book-reading deal.”

Hammons said a rabbit hunt can be a great outing for the family, especially youngsters who are becoming acquainted with the sport. But it can be extremely challenging, and calls for sharp senses and fast reaction time, because rabbits can be very, very elusive.

The barks and yelps echoed through the woods and over the rolling hills. The short, staccato barks went almost ignored by the veteran hunters. But suddenly, one of the dogs went into a long, sustained howl, or a bay, and Chason’s eyes lit up like a neon sign.

“That’s what we want to hear,” he said with a grin that stretched from ear to ear. “That’s the jump dog. His job is to figure out which of the scents is the hottest.”

Chason said that every dog has its own task to execute if the team expects to be successful. Like hunters, some dogs are more experienced and talented, and the jump dogs usually have the more experienced noses. Like the quarterback, they are often looked upon as the leaders of the team.

When the lead dog finds a new, or hot, scent, it alerts the other tracking dogs, which will follow in a heated pursuit. The pack dogs have what the veteran hunters call “a cold nose,” and contribute by staying on the old scents or trails.

But the sweetest sound to a serious rabbit hunter is the long bay of the jump dog. This usually means that the prey has been spotted or jumped, and very soon a swamp rabbit or cottontail will be blazing across the bunny trail.

“That’s when the fun starts,” Chason said.

As the howls and yelps drew closer, the hunters assumed their stances, cradling shotguns in their arms. When it became obvious that the prey was close, Chason pointed a finger to the edge of a nearby thicket.

“He’s going to come out right over there,” he said. “I promise.”

His prediction was right on the mark, and a brown streak flashed across the dirt road. Chason was one step ahead of it, and squeezed the trigger of his 12-gauge Browning. But the rabbit continued running into the thicket on the other side of the road, with the pack of dogs noisily following.

“I hit him,” Chason said, looking a tad confused. “At least I thought I did.”

A moment later, a proud beagle emerged from the woods with the brown rabbit hanging from its mouth, and the others followed. They had performed like seasoned pros. There was a hop in the lead dog’s step, and the sweet smell of victory was in the air.

“Well, I guess I did get him,” Chason said smiling.

There are two distinct species of rabbits that are hunted in North Louisiana. The cottontail is a relatively small rabbit with a white tail. These rabbits are about the size of a beagle puppy.

There are several distinct mannerisms that separate cottontails from the other species, the swamp rabbit, or cane-cutter. First, the cottontail will run a shorter distance when trying to evade the chase of the dogs.

Both species will make evasive runs in circles, but the cottontail may only run a radius that is up to a half-mile across. By comparison, the swamp rabbit will run a much larger circle, which can range up to four miles across. Cane-cutters are a much larger species, with long athletic legs. They are about the size of an adult beagle. This species is generally tougher, faster and will go to greater extremes trying to elude dogs and hunters.

Hunters will usually shoot at cottontails from distances of 20 to 40 yards. However, they may take shots at a swamp rabbit from up to 100 yards.

“They’re called swamp rabbits because they’re more apt to hit the water,” Chason said. “They’ll just about go anywhere. They’re a lot like a deer.”

When it seemed that the dogs had moved down into the next block, the hunters tried to match them step-for-step. Occasionally the beagles would pick up a scent, but would appear to become confused and lose it.

Veteran rabbit hunters say this can happen. The wily rabbit will resort to a number of tricks to give hunters and their prize dogs the slip.

• They’ll squat. They’ll just plop down in any type of cover. Often in the thick briars and thickets, rabbits will squat, sometimes letting the excited dogs run right over them.

• They’ll submerge. Rabbits, particularly the cane-cutters, have been known to go into the water to lose their scent. Creeks are a favorite area for the rabbits to go into the water and wait for the dogs to go yelping on their merry way.

• They’ll cross trails. In one of their most ingenious tactics, rabbits have the ability to run into an area that they know is heavily populated with other rabbits. They will then cross their trails with other rabbit trails, sending the dogs off in an entirely different direction. This tactic puts a jump dog’s ability to a true test.

• They’ll backtrack. In what is considered to be perhaps their most elusive tactic, rabbits will run back through their own trail, really confusing the dogs. For instance, they’ll run back through in a straight line, while the dogs will continue to run in circles around them.

Cover may be a rabbit’s best friend. When working the dogs through the blocks in the woods, Joy will get the dogs to concentrate on areas of extreme cover. He often finds rabbits hiding in abandoned or collapsed buildings and pieces of sheet metal that have been discarded in the woods.

“Cover is the key to finding a good rabbit area,” Chason said. “The other thing is to try to find an area where there is a lack of natural predators, such as bobcats, coyotes and foxes. I’d say the perfect area would have a lot of cover and trapping.”

Briar patches, cut-overs and fence rows, are all good areas to hunt. Basically, the more cover, the better.

In areas where there are a lot of rabbits, the action can get frantic. The team of dogs will sometimes pick up multiple scents and will split on separate trails. Dogs barking from different directions can make it even more difficult for hunters.

“I’ve had as many as five packs running with 15 dogs,” Chason said. “Three (dogs) in each pack. Barking everywhere. The best description I can come up with for that is mass confusion.”

Because shots are often being taken fast and low, wearing hunter orange is recommended for rabbit hunters. Preferred shotguns are .410, 20- and 12-gauges, with low-brass shells. The high brass shells are not necessary because a rabbit’s fur is thin and easy to penetrate. Also, if you do happen to pepper someone’s prized beagle, the animal is less likely to sustain any critical injuries.

Rabbit hunting is as old as time, and to many hunters it evokes nostalgic feelings.

“My first rabbit hunt was in Marksville, on the Atchafalaya bottom, when I was about 10,” Chason said. “When we came in at the end of the morning, there was this big Cajun woman cooking rabbit jambalaya in an old cast iron pot. We were hungry. You know, right now I can still taste that rabbit jambalaya.”

Most hunters say there is not much tablefare that will equal rabbit. Some of the more popular dishes include fricassee, broiled, fried, barbecued, gumbo, and of course, jambalaya. The smaller cottontails are generally a more tender and desirable rabbit.

“The meat is tender and white,” Chason said. “The only thing is you have to watch out for pellets.”

Many hunters will not take a rabbit until the first frost of the winter because of a worm parasite that embeds itself in the meat until the first cold snap.

“This is great,” Chason said. “Being out here in the woods with friends, and you can make all the racket you want to.”

Then, in the distance, came the long, low bay of a beagle. The rest of the pack responded in a chorus of barks. To the hunters, it was sweet, sweet music. The anticipation started to build, and Dan Chason grinned.