The bawl of a loudmouth beagle hot on the trail of a brush-busting cottontail or big-footed swamper is sweet music to the ears of every rabbit hunting fanatic.
Regardless of how many chases a beagle pack takes up, they never seem to get enough of it. This means both the dogs as well as the hunters.
As far being a rabid rabbit hunter is concerned, this aptly describes Max Phillips of Taylorsville, one of the top rabbit hunters in the state.
Phillips has earned a long-standing reputation for a lot of things over the years, but when it’s all boiled down among his closest friends, he’s known as one of the best rabbit hunters and beagle dog handlers around. That’s a status of achievement that didn’t come easy.
Max Phillips’ playbook
Many high school agriculture students from years past have known Phillips as a dedicated vocational agriculture teacher, sponsor and counselor for chapters of the Future Farmers of America. He could always be seen at the annual Mississippi State Fair with troupes of blue-jacketed FFAers in tow.
His love of agriculture came the old-fashioned way: He was raised on a farm growing row crops and livestock. He graduated from Mississippi State University, and later worked for them developing vocational curriculum.
Phillips’ whole life has been wrapped up in agriculture, prompting many friends and supporters to encourage him to run for the elected state office of Secretary of Agriculture. Though unsuccessful in two bids, Phillips earned a considerable amount of name recognition across the entire state. Some continue to speculate that he will run for the office again.
Meanwhile, he runs a farm feed and seed supply business, and keeps his hands in two other main interests. That would be raising a pack of top beagles, of which he currently has over 30, and plying their skills in the fields chasing rabbits.
Marshalling a good hunt
Watching a really well organized rabbit hunt unfold is like standing witness to a great painter creating a work of art. Participating in one of these hunts is even more exciting.
One quickly learns that pulling off one of these concentrated hunts is a heck of a lot easier said than done. It takes a blended set of skills to put a pack of dogs in the field and also control a group of hunters at the same time.
At this endeavor, Phillips can serve well as a grand marshall.
Doing it right in order to maximize the chase potential for the dogs and position hunters in the right spots at the right time takes considerable planning. Such hunts as conducted by Phillips and his team of bunny busters takes marshalling a rabbit hunt to new levels.
First and foremost is securing access to good rabbit hunting grounds known for the types of ideal habitat to house a ready supply of rabbits for the chase. Luckily for Mississippi hunters, there are plenty of good places around to rabbit hunt. Many landowners are open to allowing hunters access to their lands to conduct a rabbit hunt if they respect the land and care for the property.
In Phillips’ resident county, Jones, gaining access is not a problem. Oftentimes the landowner is one of the hunting team members anyway or joins in at the invitation.
Good rabbit habitat means thick brushy cover, but it also means having access trails or roads for the hunters to maneuver around the area. While the dogs are piled up in the middle of the thickets hot on the scent of an escaping bunny, hunters have to be able to move quickly to head off the chase in order to be in position for a shot at the passing flash of fur. All of this has to be done with complete safety in mind with numerous hunters carrying shotguns in the field.
A good rabbit hunting grand marshall will know the layout of the hunting property well in advance of the hunt. He has to know the best spots to let out a pack of hounds to start the hunt but also have in mind an area to finish the hunt to gather up the hounds in case they should wander off too far out of range or before they completely exhaust themselves.
Otherwise things can quickly get out of control with dogs and hunters wandering about willy-nilly. Phillips has a knack for managing a good, well orchestrated hunt.
“Running this type of hunt is a lot more than just driving up in a field and letting a pack of hounds out of the truck boxes,” he said. “We have to have some idea of the likelihood of which direction the chase will tend to go.
“It is a must to have open pathways for the hunters to walk so they are not wading in the thickest of the thicket all the time. Such areas allow the rabbits to dodge out in the open for fast-action shots with plenty of clearance between hunters.”
Even so, sometimes hunting action has to be realigned or adjusted during a hunt.
Hunting or chasing?
For Phillips and other dog handlers, hunting rabbits is essentially just a means to an end for the opportunity to get their dogs out in the field for a good run. Phillips totes his old Mossberg on every hunt, but it’s probably been years since he’s pulled the trigger.
One of Phillips’ big rabbit dog buddies is Jack Batte of Mount Olive, who has been casting beagle hounds to the hunt for years. Together on the same hunt, it is a wonder to witness these two old houndsmen banter each other back and forth about which dog owner has fielded the better dogs.
“I usually bring six hounds to a hunt, sometimes maybe more,” he said. “I have raised every single one of my beagles from conception through puppy hood to field-trial training.
“Most hunters never believe me when I brag that I can tell the difference in the bawl of each of my dogs when they’re in the heat of the chase. I can call every one of them by name just by listening to their barking cadence and tone.”
Beagle pack rituals
A big part of the fun of a rabbit hunt marshaled by Phillips is some of the extra antics and time-honored traditions he maintains during the hunt. Many times after the group receives its safety sermon and marching orders, the head organizers appoint an honorary “Hunt Master” for the day. The role and responsibilities are roughly defined, but it’s always fun assuming the post on behalf of all the hunters.
This person receives a “hand-carved” walking staff fashioned quickly in the field by one of the members of the hunting team. The one staff I received over 20 years ago was made up by Batte from a willow sapling just before the hunt commenced. I still have the “hunt master staff” today as part of my own collection of assorted hunting memorabilia.
Another ritual is the noontime tailgate lunch break. All hunters are encouraged to bring along a brown paper sack filled with their own assortment of portable lunch favorites. All of these delectable items are spread across a couple truck tailgates, blessed, and then shared by everyone.
The assortment of goodies is always rather eclectic. There is usually a big box of saltine crackers and several blocks of cheese, but the hands-down favorite is always the red rind yellow variety. Small cans hold sardines, potted meats, Vienna sausages, canned tuna and corned beef. Somebody always brings mayo and yellow mustard. Bags of chips, a cooler or two of cold soft drinks and cookies complete the menu. It’s always a true rabbit hunter’s full meal deal for certain.
But of course, the real reason for the lunch break is actually to get water and food for the first pack of dogs from the morning run. After lunch, the second pack is brought out for a fresh run, and it starts all over again with hunters sufficiently rested and fed.