By every small-game hunter’s time clock, it is the rabbit-running time of year. Rabbit hunters know the woods and fields have settled down since the end of deer season. The only orange vests being worn now by most hunters across the state are out rabbit hunting.

For some reason, small-game hunting has been on a general decline over the past 20 years or so. I suppose it parallels the overall decline in hunter numbers, but the ranks of the small-game hunters seem to have particularly fallen on hard times. A few of the diehards, though, are keeping the sport alive.

Max Phillips is well known for many things in and around Jones County as well as all across the state. Max has been a candidate for the state Secretary of Agriculture, because it’s in his blood. Phillips is very active in statewide agriculture issues. But perhaps above and beyond all those credentials, he is a rabbit-dog runner and hunter.

“I’m not really exactly sure how I got into this rabbit dog running thing, but it has become one of my favorite outdoor pursuits,” he said. “Decades ago I started out with a beagle or two, then got hooked on buying dogs, trading dogs, running them with and against friends in the competitive pursuit of rabbits. We just love to listen to the cries of our hounds as they run down a bunny on the chase.”

Sometimes Phillips doesn’t even carry a gun.

“Today I have 13 hounds all running good from young dogs to just over a year old with one old female, Goldie, who is 10 years old but still running,” he said. “I run mostly 13-inch females, but currently have four males, which is more than usual for me.

“I finally retired my old J.C. Higgins 12 gauge in favor of a lighter weight Remington 20 gauge. I really prefer to carry my walking stick, but there are so many coyotes that I am reluctant to get very far from the truck without some kind of weapon.

“I have been kidded for a long time that I really don’t rabbit hunt as much as I just run rabbit dogs. I suppose I’m guilty on that count, but any time we’re running our dogs we’re hunting rabbits. Sometimes we just don’t shoot any of them.

“These days I hunt with my old high school students and their sons. We teach them the sport and how to run a safe hunt, how to handle firearms safely and to learn that hunting can be a fun fellowship.”

It doesn’t really take a lot to pull off a good rabbit hunt. It takes a place to do it, either public land or private. It can be done with very few hunters or a dozen. Rabbit dogs come in handy, maybe two to a half dozen along with shotguns and shells. Cooperating weather is nice.

You don’t often hear about hunters getting shot or pelted with lead shot during a rabbit hunt, but the circumstances are sure ripe for it. Typically there are a number of hunters wading into thick cover trying to get a glimpse of their dog on the tail of a rabbit. This chase can be very up close and personal. I’ve seen hunters almost shoot their own feet off as a rabbit jets by with a hound hot on the trail. At times rabbit hunting can be fast, furious and confusing.

“The way we like to run a rabbit hunt is to start off with a briefing meeting,” Phillips said. “We detail how the hunt is going to work, where we will release the dogs and how many. Hunters with guns will be counseled on watching their muzzles, keeping the gun safety on and not having fingers in the trigger guard until the moment of the shot.

“Paying attention to the other hunters around you at all times is paramount to rabbit hunting safety. Always wait for a clear shot in the open with regard to other hunters’ positions and the dogs, too.

“I like to have hunters spread out roughly in a straight line like quail hunting, but sometimes that is nearly impossible especially in thick cover. These days we definitely wear hunter orange vests and hats to be as visible as possible. I want hunters to keep their gun muzzles up in the air or pointed at the ground ahead of them as they walk. This has proven the safest way to work a rabbit hunt.

“We haven’t harvested as many rabbits this past season as we normally get, but weather conditions, limited time in the field and an apparent reduction in the rabbit population has had an effect. The old timers say that rabbit populations follow a 7-year cycle. I wish somebody could confirm that. All I know there have been fewer rabbits in our part of the state. Maybe the coyote numbers are having a negative impact as well.”

Small-game hunting has definitely taken a hit in terms of hunter popularity over the past couple of decades, and that is sad news. Rabbit hunting is an exceptional outdoor pursuit, loaded with fellowship opportunities, chances to teach young hunters the ropes about safe hunting and a great way to get some fresh air and exercise.