Swampers in the Marsh

Rabbit hunting in marshland is not for the weak of heart.

Although large numbers of rabbits live in marshes, you may have problems hunting marsh rabbits. But 73-year-old Melvyn Verdin of Barataria has made it his life’s passion. “I’ve had rabbit dogs all my life,” he said. “When I was old enough to own a dog, I bought a beagle. I’ve never been without a pack of rabbit dogs since then.”

The size of beagles that make up Verdin’s pack doesn’t impress him nearly as much as the hunting capabilities of his dogs.

“I’ve got 11-inch and 15-inch beagles in my pack,” Verdin explains. “I don’t believe that the size of the beagle matters when I’m hunting marsh rabbits. If the 12-inch dog hunts well, I like the 12-inch dog. When the 15-inch dog hunts well, then he’s my favorite.”

When Verdin goes rabbit hunting, he conducts the hunt much like he will a dog deer drive.

“I put my standers out where I think they’re likely to get a shot at the rabbit,” Verdin said. “I usually try to make a horseshoe around or completely circle the section of marsh that I want to hunt with standers. Then, I turn my dogs loose, and wait to see what’ll happen.”

Generally, Verdin and his hunting buddies take plenty of marsh rabbits. But, Verdin quickly mentions that, “We don’t have as many rabbits in the marsh as we did before the nutria became so thick and ate the rabbits’ habitat. But most of the time with three or four hunters, we’ll get a limit of eight swamp rabbits.”

According to Verdin, to pinpoint a bunny hotspot in the marsh, you must find dry land.

“Rabbits have to have dry land to raise their young,” Verdin emphasizes. “They can live out in the marsh throughout most of their lives, but to produce more rabbits and to have a good rabbit population, rabbits have to have dry ground for nest building. If you hunt extremely low lands, with a lot of water fluctuation, then that high water can kill the young rabbits.

“So, when you look for a place to hunt bunnies in the marsh, try and find high ground first. Remember that rabbits raise young all year long. So the more dry ground you can locate close to or out in the marsh, the more rabbits you can expect to hunt and take.”

If you want to get into the swamp-rabbit hunting business, Verdin suggests that you purchase older dogs with experience hunting in the marsh.

“I believe a beagle needs about four years to learn how to hunt marsh rabbits,” Verdin said. “You can start hunting with a pup when he’s about a year old, but if you don’t have some older dogs in your pack, you won’t take many rabbits.

“Not only will marsh rabbits swim across, through and possibly under water to throw a pack of yapping beagles off the trail, the long-ears also know how to throw tricks on dogs. I’ve seen a marsh rabbit run inside a hollow log all the way to where the log’s stopped-up and then run back down the same trail that he’s gone on and jump off the trail to fool the dogs. When the beagles follow the trail, they may pile up at the end of that log, never realizing the rabbit has tricked them.

“When a rabbit puts a trick on a pack of beagles like this, you need an older dog in your pack that knows how to backtrack and circle to find the rabbit’s trail and continue on the race. Young dogs will continue to try to get inside the hollow stump and never know the rabbit has thrown a trick on them.”

Swamp rabbits also like to play the lost-trail trick on beagles.

“I’ve seen a rabbit come up to a canal, ditch or pond, and jump in the pond, but instead of swimming across the water, turn downstream for 25 to 50 yards, and then get out on the same side of the bank that he entered from,” Verdin says. “If the beagles follow his track up to the water, they’ll swim across the water, never knowing that the bunny has tricked them.

“But after an old dog has searched up and down the bank on one side, he’ll often swim back across the water and find the rabbit’s tracks on the right bank. You can’t train a dog how to avoid the tricks that rabbits play on them. The dog needs years of experience to know what to expect from these marsh rabbits.”

Some older rabbits also have learned the double-back trick.

“I’ve seen rabbits run across an old road in the marsh, and as soon as they get across the road, they’ll hop off the trail and sit really still,” Verdin recalls. “When the beagles cross the road running the rabbit’s tracks, they’ll often run within 2 or 3 feet of the rabbit and never smell it. After the beagles have passed the rabbit, it’ll jump back on the same trail where it’s been and run back the way it’s come, which will keep the dogs confused for a while. But, sooner or later an old dog will figure out what’s happened, and the race will be on again.”

Verdin doesn’t like beagles that won’t pack.

“I want my beagles all on the same track and packing together,” he said. “When you have six beagles running a track, you’ve got six noses and six brains trying to figure out where the rabbit is and where it’s going. If you have six dogs trying to run six different rabbits, most of these swamp rabbits will beat an individual dog and lose him. But usually, they won’t be able to fool a six-pack for long.”

Also, Verdin doesn’t mind if hunters shoot rabbits that the dogs haven’t run.

“We hunt rabbits to shoot rabbits, so if one of my hunters jumps a rabbit, he can go ahead and take the rabbit,” he said. “There are plenty more rabbits out in the marsh for the dogs to run, and I don’t believe my dogs are bothered when hunters take rabbits they aren’t running.”

Yapping dogs sound like music to Verdin’s ears, and he hunts as much to hear the dogs talk as he does to take rabbits. Verdin’s pack consists of three dogs with names and three dogs without names.

“Ruby, Sassy and Tippy are my old dogs,” he said. “When I got these three young dogs, I let my grandchildren name them. I didn’t like the names my grandchildren gave the dogs, so rather than hurt the grandchildren’s feelings by changing the names of the dogs, I just call them dog.”

Verdin hunts rabbits throughout rabbit season, but he’s careful not to go into the marsh when and where the duck hunters hunt because he doesn’t want to create a problem for either party.

“There are plenty of places to hunt rabbits without interfering with the duck hunters,” he said.

Gators are seldom a problem, Verdin said, but one other toothy critter sure is.

“I’ve never had a dog bitten by an alligator,” he said, “but I have had dogs in season bitten and cut by nutria. Nutria are mean and tough animals, and they can really hurt your dogs. The way the nutria population has been growing, our beagles get bit and cut more often than they did years ago.”

Verdin can’t think of anything more appealing to him than a pot-roasted marsh rabbit laying on a pile of steaming rice with a side of red beans.

“That’s my favorite dish to eat,” Verdin says.

With plenty of rabbits in the marsh and opportunity to hunt them, if you listen to the wisdom of Verdin, you, too, can take bunnies all season long.

For more information on rabbit hunting in the marsh, contact the Lodge of Louisiana at (504) 689-0000 or e-mail info@lodgeoflouisiana.com.