Hunting dogs have a ritual prior to getting down to business. Perhaps it comes from days in a pen and hours in a dog box, but they must complete this ritualistic activity before they can get down to business. Once the hounds are done decorating the tires of the trucks and adorning clumps of clay, it is anticipation time. Beagles sound like vacuum cleaners as they snuffle the ground for the sweet scent they crave. Watching a brace of beagles hunt for rabbits is delightful to the senses - both canine and human. The anticipation builds.
Eugene Hunter cares for his dogs as a serious collector might care for a vintage automobile. They repay him with loyalty to the prey they pursue: They get tempted by deer, fox and coyotes, but they come right back and search the briars and thickets with gusto.
Hunter is rewarded by the beckoning bawl of his band of beagles. With a little luck there'll be a few pounds of sweet meat added to larder, as well.
"Not every day is a complete success," he said as we rested on a tree felled by a past summer windstorm. "Some days are so good the dogs will split up and run two rabbits at the same time. Other days the rabbits hold tight wherever they are, and the dogs never find them."
February is a time for houndsmen, as squirrel and rabbit hunters are free to run their dogs on the land where deer hunters staked claim just a month earlier. While rabbit season opens in October, many deer hunters are incensed by hunters and hounds clamoring through the thickets.
Truth be told, rabbit hunters probably stir the deer so the deer hunters have a better chance of catching a deer slipping away, ahead of the commotion.
"Most of the private land in Mississippi is either posted or leased to deer hunters," Hunter said. "We're lucky in that we have a lease where we have rabbits and deer, and hunt both at our will and pleasure.
"In February, a lot of land opens up to rabbit hunters. I know some deer clubs that only allow still hunting, and I start getting calls at the end of January with invitations to come hunt. A lot of those clubs have an excellent crop of rabbits."
And Hunter is always ready to accommodate.
"There were 29 days in February 2012. I rabbit hunted 25 of those days," he explained.
Hunter also said the level of enjoyment is enhanced by the ability of the dogs. He uses training collars that deliver a mild shock to the dogs if they are known to be chasing a deer or other undesired animal: Hunter’s beagles learned quickly that there is pleasure in chasing rabbits and pain in chasing deer.
"I will say this: For the person who wishes to invest in a pack of top-rated rabbit dogs, be prepared for a lot of expense and work," Hunter said. "Feed alone is a major expense; vet bills, keeping pens clean and sanitary, and other expenses can exceed several thousand dollars a year.
"But all that is negated on a cold winter day when the dogs and rabbits are the focus of the hunt.
Tat Simpson of Morton is another rabbit hunter with a passion for the sport. His has a pack of hounds, including beagles and beagle-mixed. The dogs are singular in purpose — the pursuit of rabbits.
"We have some land set aside, and I guess you could say managed, just for rabbit hunting," said Simpson. "For us, it’s all about the camaraderie of the hunt, the pleasure of the working dogs and enough rabbits for the stew pot."
Simpson said he likes to see young people get involved in small game hunting and especially rabbit hunting. He and fellow hunters have included their children and friends for many years.
"So many television shows and magazine articles are dedicated to deer and turkey hunting. And that is OK — it gets people outside and into nature," said Simpson. "But small-game hunting with dogs is a lot of fun, and is perfect for the young person or even the adults who want something a little more fast-paced."
According to Simpson, each of their hunts is planned around safety. Hunters are required to wear hunter orange, and rules of shooting are well understood before the guns are ever loaded.
"Rabbits run in circles, at least until they find a safe hiding place or manage to elude the dogs," Simpson said. "Hunters wait along bush-hogged lanes at our place and are instructed to pass on shots that might be close to another hunter or a dog."
Not every rabbit hunter has a pack of beagles. In fact, kicking up rabbits is a Southern tradition that remains alive and well. T. E. Beasley of Lauderdale County said hunting is his favorite pastime, and rabbits are a large part of that.
"I don’t have a dog," said Beasley as he emptied his tattered hunting jacket on the tailgate of his truck. "I just walk and watch, kick a few (tree) tops and the Lord provides me some targets."
A retired pulp-wood hauler, Beasley has permission to hunt some private farmland, in addition to several tracts of family owned property. His tactics are simple, but effective.
His harvest is, more often than not, a mixed bag of squirrels, rabbits and an occasional dove or raccoon. On this day, he had three rabbits, two cat squirrels and one fox squirrel. Not a bad tally by his admission.
"First you have to hunt where rabbits feel safe," said Beasley. "The rabbit is on everybody’s menu. Bobcats, hawks, foxes, coyotes, owls and us hunters all want a little rabbit meat in the pot, so to speak. So (the rabbit) has to be close to his cover just to survive as well as he does.
"The day was when we could kick them up out of old garden patches and along fence rows where the grass and weeds were thick. Today, those places aren’t as common as they once were."
Beasley looks for areas where grass and briars provide cover and food. Where he finds droppings on stumps and logs, he knows rabbits are in the area.
Hunting with a well-used Stevens double-barrel, Beasley zigzags through likely cover at a moderate pace. When a rabbit is jumped he swings on the fleeing animal.
If a shot does not present itself, he waits a few moments.
"A spooked rabbit will sometimes run just a short distance and stop; sometimes you get a better shot that way," Beasley said. "Sometimes he’ll let you get a little closer. Shells are expensive, so I like to make every one count.
"I may see 10 rabbits or squirrels in a day, but if I know I can’t hit them, I don’t shoot. They’ll be there another day."