The swarm of hunters mounted their ATVs and UTVs and drove into the thickets of a CRP area near Greenwood on an early morning hunt on the last day of the 2013-14 season.
While most of the hunters rode into position to wait for the dogs to strike their first rabbit, Timmy O’Bryant dove into the mass of briars and weeds on foot with beagles on all sides.
“Now y’all don’t shoot the first rabbit they jump until they run him a little bit and get warmed up,” O’Bryant said during pre-hunt instructions.
Suddenly O’Bryant jumped a cane cutter and a lone dog bawled out, and then another squealed and another chimed in until there was a chorus of beagles sounding out from the almost impenetrable mass.
The blast from a 12-gauge shotgun ended the race, and our Delta rabbit hunt had started with a bang. It would continue for a while, with dogs barking and shotguns roaring.
In seconds another race was on and the hunters were lined up on both ends of the thicket watching lanes, while a few hunters looked into the grass between lanes. A split second was all it took for the rabbit to appear and vanish.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Another volley sounded as two different hunters missed the rabbit. They were shooting where it was, but the blur was just too fast. As the dogs bore down on the rabbit and turned him, I watched as Sheriff Billy Banks watched the thicket intently. Closer and closer they came until I heard the boom and saw the smoke belch out as Banks killed his first rabbit of the day.
“I’ve been hunting since I was a kid,” Banks said. “I was one of nine kids and we hunted for food back then and we kept plenty of meat on the table.”
Nowadays Banks still loves to eat fried rabbit, with biscuits and gravy, but he hunts more for the thrill and camaraderie.
The action continued hot and heavy as we moved forward. I caught a ride with Robert Smith until we came to a ditch and dismounted. I moved through the ditch and took up a position between thickets with UTVs on either side of me taking stands. Suddenly the man to my left fired twice and the dogs turned and were rocking the woods, with the whole pack barking, bellowing and bawling.
Suddenly I spotted a rabbit trying to slip between us. He turned and tried to run over me.
My old Remington Wingmaster smoked the rabbit, my first of the day, but already the dogs were bearing down on me again, and things were about to get crazy.
A nearby stander shot a rabbit.
With dogs running all over the thickets, the rabbits were running in all directions. The beagles were on some of their trails, while other were just trying to get away from the commotion. They kept the shooters busy.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Rabbit fever and ATVs
Along with Judge Jim Campbell, Timmy O’Bryant and Leflore County Board of Supervisors President Wayne Self, Banks has a core group of rabbit hunters who love to hunt and kill rabbits.
And, they all have one thing in common they rabbit hunt off of ATVs and UTVs. Now these avid hunters don’t shoot off the vehicles while they’re running, but they do use them to access almost impenetrable thickets and tangles of briar patches, vines and towering weeds.
While some of the hunters run their ATVs on the backside of a thicket and take stands along open lanes when they can find some, several others will line up and push their way through the thickets with the ATVs making it possible to access some areas heretofore not touched. If the dogs strike, they’ll cut the wheelers off, climb atop and search for rabbits.
That makes for a more exciting hunt — jumping rabbits, making drives and shooting hares.
“You can definitely cover more ground with ATVs and UTVs,” Campbell said. “Being on an ATV gets you up off the ground so you can see into the thickets and spot any rabbits slipping through. But somebody’s got to be on the ground driving with the dogs, and Timmy O’Bryant or I will stay with the dogs and work them. When Timmy is working offshore I’ll get down and drive the dogs and usually get up a lot of rabbits.”
The dog drivers always have plenty of killing opportunities as well when they’re toting a shotgun for sure.
“An added benefit to driving the dogs on foot is the exercise I get,” Campbell said. “I’ll drop 10 to 15 pounds during the season and it’s nothing to walk 5 to 6 miles on a hunt.
“When Timmy’s hunting with us he gets down there with the dogs and they jump lots of rabbits while they’re pushing through the thickets.
While most of the hunters are on ATVs you’ve always got to have a driver to lead the pack, get them headed into the right direction and keep them moving. Campbell and O’Bryant are both excellent drivers and both have a rapport with the dogs and know how to get the best out of them.
When you hear somebody jump a rabbit they’ll usually holler and let everybody know and call the dogs over because there will be a hot trail and if the dogs smell them they’ll burn them up.
“Sometimes you’ll go right by a rabbit on an ATV and they’ll just squat and not move until the dogs come by and jump them and then they’ll pack up and usually have a good run,” said Campbell.
Sometimes you spot them moving through a thicket and pop them, and sometimes they shoot where they were! That’s just the way it is with rabbit hunting the Delta swamp thickets with rabbit dogs.
“We started hunting CRPs back when they started getting thick and rabbits became plentiful,” Campbell said. “Most of the rabbits are in the thickets, in the thickest places you can find. If they weren’t, then the coyotes, fox and bobcats would have a field day.”
February is beagle time
“We’ve got a five-week window to rabbit hunt now after the deer season,” said Ricky Banks. “If you respect the landowners and take care of their property they’ll usually allow you hunt rabbits after the deer season is over.”
When the season is short you’ve got to keep a good number of dogs to hunt if you’re going to hunt all day several weeks in a row and Banks and the others have some jam up rabbit dogs, a.k.a. beagle packs.
“It takes about six to eight years to get the dogs going like we like them,” Banks said. “You’ve got to work with them about 3 years to get them trained to where they’ll do what you want and run with the pack.”
Most of their dogs are deer-proof, but if they find one that won’t leave a deer trail alone they’ll break him from the habit or take him out of the pack.
“Our core group of hunters have been together for about 10 years and have some really good dogs that will pack pretty well now,” Banks said. “Deer proofing dogs is pretty hard but most of ours are deer proof. If we get a young one that wants to run a deer we’ll work with them to correct it but if they won’t stop we’ll take them out of the pack and get rid of them.
“It really takes something to keep them off of the deer and it’s a lot of work but Judge Campbell is a good trainer. And Timmy’s pretty good also and they like to work them and train them and that’s what’s important. You’ve got to work them and hunt them regular to get the best out of the dogs.”
Once you have all of your dog’s deer proofed they’ll be good to go anywhere in the country.
The group uses only females in their current pack.
“They hunt a little slower and run the track longer,” Campbell said. “We’ve hunted both but we found that if you have all females you’ll spend more time hunting and get more out of your hunt. If a female comes in season and there are males in the pack they’re more interested in the female than in the hunting.
“But if they’re all females they just keep hunting, and they pack together better.”
They were certainly working together on our hunt.
The dogs jumped another rabbit, which took them in a long, wide figure 8. The chase almost went out of hearing, before turning and burning it up towards us.
Shotguns roared at the rabbits. Johnny Cumberland and another hunter connected on rabbits trying to slip out ahead of the dogs and they were just getting started too.
Scott Barrett’s family owns this piece of delta rabbit heaven and Barrett manages the land for deer and rabbit by providing food, cover and cutting lanes at selected locations throughout the CRP zone. Barrett hunts deer on the property and plants green fields and cuts lanes through the maze of thickets.
In February, it makes for some fine rabbit habitat.
As more hunters lined the lanes in front of the dogs some hunters moved forward on their ATVs and O’Bryant beat the bushes and jumped a couple more rabbits. In seconds the dogs were bawling, barking and burning another hot trail.
Judge Campbell spotted a blur of fur and instinctively shouldered his shotgun, swung through the flash and rolled another swamp rabbit before it reached the safety of the briar patch.
The hunt was on in full force and shotguns were roaring all over the property with dogs and hunters pushing the rabbits out in all directions. If you’ve never experienced the excitement of a Delta rabbit hunt then you’ve missed out on some phenomenal hunting.
A southern tradition
Hunting has been a family tradition in the Delta, passed down through the generations, and there’s no better way to get kids involved in hunting than taking them on a rabbit hunt.
“We take a lot of kids and they really enjoy it,” said Banks. “They don’t have to be still and sit quietly all the time in this type of hunting. They can have a lot of fun and work out some energy and have some excitement too.”
Banks has been hunting with his friends, family and young hunters all his life and he has really enjoyed taking his children and grandchildren over the years.
One of his grandchildren, Banks Tucker, was on our hunt and nailed a few rabbits of his own. Now a college student at Delta Community College in Moorhead and soon headed to Delta State University, Tucker appears to have learned from his grandfather.
Suddenly the dogs turned and bore down on us yipping and yapping and pushing another rabbit. Tucker swung his shotgun around, squeezed the trigger and rolled a rabbit crossing the lane right in front of us. Tucker was standing on the back of the UTV and spotted the blur about to pop out into the lane when his youthful reflexes took over and he nailed him.
“I’ve been hunting with my grandfather and them since I was little and it’s some kind of fun,” Tucker said.
Self loves the adrenalin rush
As the dogs were running the thicket just ahead of me I could see Wayne Self standing up on top of his ATV scanning the brush for a rabbit. With the dogs yipping and yapping right in front of him they were about to pass by when Self swung around and fired a shot and nailed another delta swamp rabbit.
The rabbit almost slipped by under the cover of the thick briars but Self’s keen eyes and quick reflexes were just the ticket. Self’s smile said it all after he triumphantly raised the rabbit high for the dogs and other hunters to see.
Self, of Itta Bena, is the President of the Leflore County Board of Supervisors and he’s been a friend of Banks for over 20 years, and a member of the hunting group for quite a while now.
He’s a crack shot, who’s like a kid when the chase is on.
“When those dogs are bearing down on you and you’re looking for that rabbit to bust out any minute, my adrenalin’s really flowing strong,” said Self. “There’s just nothing like hunting rabbits in the Mississippi Delta with a bunch of friends.
“I wouldn’t take nothing for this type of hunting and the whole experience is just fantastic. I love to hear those beagles bawling and barking and running, but hunting with this group of guys is the best part of it. They’ll share anything they have with you and they all have a lot of fun, joking and carrying on too.”
Of course, after the hunt there’s always some fine eating.
“One of the guys who hunts with us too is Cedric Adams and he can cook a rabbit so good you’d think you were eating steak,” Self said. “He can make it like your grandmother used to!”
By the end our hunt, Self did his part to put food on the table, scoring on a half dozen swamp rabbits.
“We’ve had a couple days when we killed 71 and 79 rabbits,” Banks said. “And Wayne got more than his share on those hunts too.”
During an average season they’ll kill between 350 to 450 rabbits, and one year they killed 600 rabbits.
ATVs and UTVs allow hunters to access thickets and briar patches in places where they might not otherwise be able to hunt. And it gives older hunters additional opportunities in the field with more time spent hunting instead of trying to keep up on foot.
If you’re looking to have an exciting hunt with fast paced action and plenty of camaraderie then you need to try your hand at ATV rabbit hunting. But be forewarned, the action can be fast paced and frenzied and when you miss you’re sure to get some good-natured ribbing from the guys.
“Hot Delta rabbit hunting action is hard to beat!” said Robert Smith.