“Yeah, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles, and they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go.”
One would surmise that Jimmy Driftwood, who penned those lines in his song, Battle of New Orleans, which singer Johnny Horton took to No. 1 on Billboard charts in 1959, was a hunter.
Anybody who has ever hunted rabbits knows the kind of stuff the rascally animals will hit to escape a pack of beagles, and the hardest-working hunters have probably hummed that tune as they’ve pushed through dense cover to work their hounds.
“If you haven’t come back to the truck bloody from the briars, and soaking wet from the swamp, then you haven’t really been rabbit hunting,” said Tony Holeman, an avid sportsman from Flowood. “Those critters will lead you into hell and back.”
February is the peak time for rabbit hunting throughout most of Mississippi, mainly because it comes after the close of deer season in all but the southeast corner of the state. The season opens in mid-October and always ends on Feb. 28.
It is also coincides with the region’s coldest weather, which is perfect for the dogs. Warmer months will drain the endurance of beagles, and the warmer, dryer ground won’t hold scent as well as damp and cold terrain.
“Good thing that it’s cold, too, because a hunter car wear more layers for protection from the thorns and the briars,” Holeman said. “You can tell the real rabbit hunters on a hunt; they’re the ones wearing Carhartts over a few layers. And, they usually won’t be wearing a vest (which means they get stuck carrying rabbits).
“They do the hard work, getting in the thick of it with the dogs and helping jump rabbits that the dogs can then run out of the thick stuff to where the shooters are standing in the open, leaning against the golf cart or ATV they rode in on.”
The shooters are the ones wearing vests.
“Yeah, let them carry the load, at least as far as their rides,” said Holeman, who relishes his role as briar-buster or marsh- wader. He can be both because Mississippi has two different species of rabbits, and each has its preferred habitat.
There’s the bigger swamp rabbit, a.k.a. canecutter, which loves water and usually includes it in its escape plan.
The other is the smaller cottontail, a.k.a. hillbilly — or bunny rabbit — which loves the thick, gnarly cover.
Both are fun to hunt, tasty to eat, and tough to chase.
Habitat: Pick your poison
Which rabbit is easiest to hunt, the swampers or the hillbillies?
“I really don’t have a preference, but I bet you anything the dogs do,” Holeman said. “Swampers will take them on bigger chases, for miles sometimes it seems, but that is easier on a dog than chasing a hillbilly through the briars. That can tear up a dog, and a lot of time they can get hung up in the stuff.”
There are two key differences in the two species: size and habitat preference.
“They are a lot alike outside of that,” Holeman said. “They way they run depends on the habitat. Swamp rabbits will hit water and use it and take off in more of a long haul. Hillbillies will do more stuff with briars, zig-zagging and stuff, using what they have so they don’t have to go on long runs.
“Both have their up and down sides, and both can plum tucker you out.”
Because of the different habitats they prefer, it is rare that hunters get both on the same hunt.
“There are some hunts where there are overlaps, but most days we don’t see many swamp rabbits and hillbilly rabbits in the same game bag,” said hunter Phillip Long of Meridian. “A good swamper race can last a long, long time, with the dogs running slap out of hearing range. We like them because we usually find more concentrations of them that we do the hillbillies.
“We run a lot of hillbillies just because there are a lot of them around, but you put a pack of good dogs in a creek or a river bottom with a few deer-green food plots around, and swampers will be thick. We find a lot of concentrations of hillbillies in the Delta in turnrows or on old overgrown levees. We once killed 17 hillbillies in 30 minutes on a 250-yard railroad bed levee running through a big cotton field.”
Hallman loves to hunt in the Mississippi Delta, and he has a choice of species there.
“Rabbits depend on fresh, tender, green growth, and there’s a lot of that in the Delta fields,” he said. “But it’s what the terrain is around those fields that dictates the species. If there is a cypress brake or a creek or ditch bank on the edge of the field, you’re going to chase swampers.
“If the turn rows are mostly dry, you’re going to find bunnies. Or, if you are hunting old catfish ponds that have been drained and converted back to natural cover, that’s where you’ll find a lot of hillbillies. That’s some of the toughest hunting, but also some of the best.”
Holeman also likes to hunt swampy areas, like islands around Barnett Reservoir near Jackson.
“We found out how good those islands can be while duck hunting one day,” he said. “We didn’t do so good with ducks that day, but we kept seeing rabbit pellets on every log and stump so I knew there had to be a lot of them around. We went home and got the beagles and went back and killed a lot of swamp rabbits that afternoon.
“They love marshy areas, and they know how to use it. They can run on top of marsh, while dogs and hunters can get bogged down in it. They feel safe from predators like coyotes and bobcats there.”
Going full circle, or not
Most hare hunters believe rabbits will always circle back to where they were jumped and use that to decide where they need to stand to get a shot.
“One of my favorite things about going rabbit hunting with a lot of novice hunters is watching them scramble to go where the dogs are going,” said hunter Jimmy Turner of Vicksburg. “They think they can get ahead of the chase and cut the rabbit off just by listening to the dogs. What they don’t know is that the rabbit is long gone by then.
“I just ease over to where the rabbit was first jumped and wait. I know that there’s a darned good chance, like 75 or 80 percent, that the rabbit is going to circle back. Swamp rabbits, especially, will come back. They may take the dogs clear out of hearing range, but sooner or later you’ll hear the barking coming back. When it sounds like the dogs are about 200 or 250 yards away coming back, you best be ready and have your gun up. That rabbit is going to be way ahead.”
Holeman doesn’t always buy into that strategy.
“I don’t know about that circling stuff,” he said. “Sure, I’ve seen a lot of rabbits circle back, but that’s usually when they don’t have options of escaping without abandoning cover. I’ve had swamp rabbits run a straight line away on a creek bank and never stop. We have to run to cut the dogs off before they cross the property line or a highway.”
One of the best hunts I’ve ever experienced was in the Delta along an old, dry levee adjacent to a cotton field.
The bank of the levee was dense with briar, bramble and hillbilly rabbits. If the dogs were on their trail and they felt cornered by hunters in front of them, they’d make a sprint — often finding faster gears because of close misses from shotgun blasts — into the cotton stubble before circling back to the levee.
I found a secret to hitting them in the cotton. I’d shoot ahead of them to blow a hole in the stubble and then shoot a second time in the same place. It worked!
“You do see hillbillies do more circling because they like to stay tight in that thick cover,” Holeman said. “A swamper, heck, he’s liable to run clear out of the county on you. He may circle back, but it could be a day or two.”
‘Rabbitat’: CRP boom passed
Rabbit numbers have seen a steady decline over the past decade, and that reduction is easily explained. It’s due to the loss of habitat, which biologists, like Rick Hamrick, small-game coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, call “rabbitat.”
Rabbit numbers increased in the 80s and 90s when the Conservation Reserve and Wetland Reserve Programs saw an increase in rabbitat.
“Even before CRP and WRP, agricultural land was being reforested because landowners were looking for an alternative to farming for land use,” Hamrick said. “During the first five or 10 years after trees were planted, those sites provided ideal rabbit cover, as they were essentially fallow or old field habitat. That boom has largely subsided as many of those forest plantings have grown up to the point of shading out grasses and broadleaf plants in the ground layer.”
The loss of that habitat, however, has led to a movement to develop more by other means. That boom in the 80s and 90s renewed interest in rabbit hunting, and more hunters are working hard to create more places to hunt.
“We often have the flexibility to enhance CRP fields for wildlife habitat, and often those non-native grass fields can be shifted to a more wildlife-friendly native plant community,” Hamrick said. “However, county USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) personnel need to be involved before making changes to existing CRP plans. Contact a wildlife biologist for more information on managing rabbit habitat.”
In southeast Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina provided a boost to rabbit numbers over the past decade. The storm decimated a lot of forestlands, produced a lot of brush piles in which rabbits hide, and opened up the forest canopy to produce more dense undergrowth for even more rabittat.
“But that impact has come and gone,” said hunter Jimmy Thomas of Hattiesburg said. “We got about five or six good years beginning in 2006, the year after Katrina, when the rabbits exploded, and we had such great hunting that we saw a rebirth in the sport and in big packs of beagles.
“We still have some good territory to hunt on public lands, like Leaf River and Pascagoula Wildlife Management Areas, and there is still some good, young pine habitat on private land. The downside to the deer season being open through Feb. 15, is we just don’t get to hunt rabbits as often as we’d like.”
Both are good to eat
Wild rabbits are wonderful table fare, said Dr. Henry Jones of Kosciusko, a longtime rabbit hunter and veterinarian.
“Probably would still enjoy hunting them if they weren’t, because I love running my dogs and hearing the chase, but it’s a bonus that they are so good to eat,” said Jones, who once produced a series of rabbi- hunting videos that he made by carrying a camera more than he did a gun.
His wife, Terry Jones, followed his lead and published a cookbook with rabbit recipes — After the Rabbit Hunt.
“There are so many great ways to eat rabbits,” Terry Jones said about the book, published in the mid-1990s, “that I felt I could do a book. It includes our favorite, Rabbit Nuggets, which we like to serve with biscuits for breakfast, and even Hasenpfeffer, a German dish.”
Rabbit and dumplings are a favorite in many Mississippi households.
“I guess I prefer the swamp rabbit when it comes to eating,” Holeman said. “No. 1, they’re so much bigger that you get as much meat from one big swamper than you do two or three hillbillies. No. 2, they’re such a bigger target that hunters have a better chance of hitting the. No. 3, they run in the open more than hillbillies, so it’s more likely they will present a good shot.”
Big swamp rabbits can be tough, and are used most frequently in recipes that include parboiling to tenderize the meat.
“When you slow-cook them down, it allows you to pull the meat from the bone and to help find all the shot pellets and bone fragments,” Holeman said. “My favorite way to cook them is to put that pulled meat back in a crockpot with a good barbecue sauce and slow-cook it on low to infuse the sauce in the meat. Makes great pulled rabbit sandwiches.”