Get on it!"

The cry rings out from the dense undergrowth laid out in front of the shadowy figure leaning slightly against a young plantation pine. Ever since daylight broke, the lone hunter has been on stand watching the cold morning world come to life.

Now the dim murmur of dogs and drivers in the distance that seemed to be 100 miles away is bearing down on his stand with an urgency that's indescribable. The cry of the dogs has wavered from mildly interesting at a distance to a raucous chorus of a pack on a hot trail.

Briars crackle as the hunter strains to see through the almost impenetrable undergrowth that lies between him and the pack. A single tunnel into the tangle of new growth and old briars suddenly fills up with a slightly softer shade of brown, punctuated by a liquid black pupil.

The big cane-cutter shifts into overdrive as the hunter levels the cold barrel of his Winchester at the retreating rabbit. With checkered wood stock pressed firmly against the hunter's shoulder, the firearm's loud report silences the dogs and sends the rabbit into an abrupt nose dive, landing just inches from the safety of yet another thick patch of briars.

Without question, a Mississippi rabbit hunt is among the most tradition-rich hunting activities in the Magnolia State. Many an experienced hunter can trace his beginnings to time spent in the woods and fields with friends and family, listening to the baying of the dogs, smelling the crispness of the cold morning air, feeling the weight and majesty of that first real gun, and learning under the watchful eyes of their elders. Those who have grown up with these experiences have memories they cherish often.

Tony Swindoll is one of those fortunate hunters who grew up in the full tradition of an outdoor family, hunting and fishing under the tutelage of his father. A native of Petal, Swindoll's father Buddy was instrumental in raising his son on hunting dogs and shotguns.

"We rabbit hunted all over South Mississippi," Swindoll said, "and as much as things have changed since I was a boy, and even though my Daddy is gone now, we still rabbit hunt pretty much the same way."

Rabbit hunting for Swindoll is a way to stay connected to his past and still enjoy the sport in the present.

"I can remember as a kid the anticipation while the hunters were being divided up and put out on stand," he said, "and especially when I was old enough to hunt by myself, the excitement of hearing the dogs working."

For those not fortunate enough to have lived it, Swindoll reviews what it takes to make a great day of stand hunting Mississippi rabbits.

Location

"Any great rabbit hunt is going to take place in the briars," he said.

The two keys to locating great rabbit locations are cover and food. In most situations, Mississippi's coastal plains and pinebelt area will hold plenty of both. The lowland areas and multitudes of thick growth briar patches offer plenty of new growth so that there is always a combination of ready cover and available food.

"The best rabbit-hunting land combines thick briar patches and young-growth pines," Swindoll said. "The pines offer some open areas to the hunters, both to set up standers and offer natural shooting lanes - pine rows, firebreaks and especially lots of edges."

Edges near thick cover are feeding grounds for rabbits, and the critters will often hang up in the thicker grass before darting across open areas to escape the dogs. Savvy hunters have even been able to pick off stray rabbits walking into their stands or spotting rabbits that aren't being pressured by dogs and are just browsing in the edges.

While many rabbit hunts take place on private land, the De Soto National Forest located between Hattiesburg and Gulfport offers thousands of available rabbit hunting acres that are comprised of different age classes of pine and thick undergrowth briar patch.

At 378,538 acres, De Soto contains two separate wildlife areas - Black Creek Wilderness Area and Leaf River Wilderness Area - as well as public land located around Camp Shelby, an army training camp just south of Hattiesburg. The ranger district management office in Wiggins is surrounded by the National Forest on three sides - north, east and south.

De Soto National Forest is also easily accessed by Highways 49 and 98.

The tactic preferred by Swindoll and his regular group of rabbit hunters is traditional stand hunting. Once an area is designated for a hunt, standers set up in strategic locations around the perimeter of the area while drivers work behind the dogs and push the rabbits toward the perimeter of the area and the standers. The size of the area is determined by the number of standers in the group.

When stand hunting for rabbits, the standers need to be far enough apart for safe shooting, but still close enough that rabbits can't slip undetected between two hunters.

"Distance is pretty similar to hunting a dove field," Swindoll said. "Some rabbits hunters may use larger calibers and ammo, but here in South Mississippi, the best calibers are smaller, the shot size smaller, and open bores work better. With this much cover, hunters will likely get shots as close as 5 yards as rabbits tend to try to sneak by rather than bound way ahead of the dogs, as is typical with rabbit hunting in other areas."

Dogs

"For me, rabbit hunting is all about the dogs," Swindoll said. "We use the old-style beagles."

Short-legged beagles are preferred by Swindoll and his hunting companions.

"The smaller dogs have the ability to put it down in low gear, and when you see them coming full speed, they are really going no faster than walking speed," he said.

A good pack of dogs will hunt together and work through the brush shoulder to shoulder. A well-balanced pack will work two or three dogs wide, and will pull each other toward the scent. The owner of a pack can tell by the report of each individual dog what is going on and how the dogs are working a particular rabbit.

"The dogs will bark four times for every step they take when on a hot trail. That's a big part of the excitement of being on stand or working behind a good pack of dogs - knowing which dog is striking a trail and which dog is cheating on another dog's nose," Swindoll said.

One of the mistakes made by rabbit hunters is to overwork dogs, especially on warm days. The best conditions for beagles to work are cold, moist days where the dog's nose can pick up fresh scent and easily distinguish hot and cold rabbit scent. The ideal temperatures will be in the high 30s or low 40s - the cooler the weather stays, the longer a single pack of dogs can be effective. Cooler weather also helps the dogs' endurance so they can last longer.

On the other hand, rainy conditions remove scent, and warm conditions wear the dogs down quicker, and they won't hunt as well.

A good pack of dogs should be able to work at 100 percent for half a day. If the hunt is scheduled to last all day, it's best to have two separate packs of dogs so that the pack can be changed out after lunch without overtaxing any of the dogs.

"A lot of hunters will run every dog they have," Swindoll said. "In my experience, I like to run a six-pack at a time. Six dogs creates a very competitive environment, and each dog in the pack will push the others. That's another part of rabbit hunting that makes it special - the dogs love to hunt as much as the hunters do; they really enjoy it."

Gear and guns

"We're fixing to start a fight when it comes to choosing a favorite gun," Swindoll said.

A lot of serious rabbit hunters he has been associated with over the years hunt with single-shot .410 shotguns. It's a small caliber, lightweight gun that's easy to maneuver in cover. Swindoll's preference, however, is a 20-gauge over-and-under with one modified barrel and one improved cylinder barrel for close work.

His best advice is to shoot a gun that you're comfortable with.

"I have a 12-gauge over-and-under that I shoot sporting clays with that's as smooth a gun as I've ever owned," he said. "With a light load of size 7½ shot, it works great for rabbits too."

A heavy-duty pair of brush pants makes pushing through briar patches much easier work as well as a briar-resistant jacket that won't get you bogged down. Swindoll completes his rabbit-hunting attire with a pair of rugged, lightweight boots.

"You might think that you don't cover much ground stand hunting, but if you're running a pack of dogs, you're going to cover as much ground as they do - and if there's any water around, you're going to be in it, so a pair of boots that's water proof doesn't hurt either," he said.

Speaking of dogs, having leashes and sturdy dog boxes mounted in a truck bed makes rounding up and sorting the dogs a lot easier. Take along some antiseptic ointment and plenty of water. Field dressing scratches and cuts helps minor wounds heal, and may prevent a trip to the vet later to treat an infection. Dogs can also suffer dehydration, even on cold days; make sure they have a ready supply of fresh water between hunts.

Care of game

At the end of a successful hunt, there's nothing better than sitting down to a hot plate of freshly cooked rabbit. To ensure the meat is as good as it can be, a little care is required to preserve it for the table.

"If we're working a large area that holds a lot of rabbits, we may be on stand for awhile," Swindoll said. "If I can't field dress the rabbit immediately after shooting it, I like to hang it upside down from a small sapling. This keeps the meat clean and dry and off the ground until I can field dress it and store it in a cooler after or between hunts."

It's important to get the intestines out quickly so the meat can cool off rapidly. Then it's just a matter of skinning and paring the carcass, depending on how it will be prepared.

Few wild dishes can rival a plate of fresh fried rabbit with hot biscuits and rabbit gravy.