With apologies to — name your favorite musician here — there is nothing more pleasant to the ears than the sound of a pack of beagles in pursuit of a rabbit.
“If you’ve never heard it, you don’t understand,” said Tony Holeman of Brandon. “It is the finest sound in all the world.”
From the moment the first dog strikes until the shotgun roars, the chorus of beagles is a perfect mix of joy, satisfaction and excitement — especially the latter.
“The whole time they’re in the thickets or the swamps, out of sight, you hear the chase,” Holeman said. “You might hear it getting faint, and you relax, knowing they are headed away from you and just enjoy the sound. Then, when the rabbit turns and heads back, which they almost always do, that’s when you start getting excited.”
The louder they get, the closer the rabbit is coming to gun range and the more the anticipation builds.
“You listen, trying to gauge the sound. Is it getting close or heading to one of your flanks?” Holeman said. “You’re tying to outguess the rabbit and get either yourself or another shooter in the right place. Usually, we get there too late, and the rabbit has passed and on its way to the next shooter.”
Frustration is part of the fun: standing there, eyes and ears peeled, and the dogs come out of the brush, nose to the ground on the trail of the rabbit that passed behind your back when you weren’t looking.
“I can’t tell you how many times it happens to all of us rabbit hunters,” Holeman said, “but I can tell you how many times the hunter catches grief about it from the rest of the hunters — every single time. Hey, that’s part of it, and we’ve all been there. And let me tell you, don’t you dare empty your shotgun on a rabbit and miss. You’ll catch grief about that for years and years and years. Like, ‘Cleveland, you remember that time a rabbit ran right between your legs and you missed it three times and the last one you were shooting straight down?’”
Sadly, yes, I do, and I’m reminded of it often.
Rabbit season continues through Feb. 28. The limit is 8 per day per hunter.
Hillbillies and canecutters
Mississippi has two species of rabbits: the cottontail, aka hillbilly, and the bigger-bodied swamp rabbit, aka canecutter or swamper.
Both are relatively common across the state, but cottontails are probably the most numerous and widely distributed. Swamp rabbits are most-frequently found in wetland habitat and are the most desired by hunters interested in the sporting aspect.
“Swampers probably are, because of the long, circular chases,” said hunter Phillip Long. “A good canecutter 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 food plots around, and swampers will be thick.
While the bigger canecutters are good to eat, purists prefer the sweet, tender meat of the smaller hillbillies.
“We find a lot of concentrations of hillbillies in the Delta in turnrows or on old overgrown levees,” Long said. “We once killed 17 hillbillies in 30 minutes on a 250-yard railroad-bed levee running through a big cotton field.
“Truth be known, I prefer the hillbillies for eating because they are more tender and tasty to me. About three or four of those little rabbits in a pot of dumplings, shoot, they will melt in your mouth and give it a buttery taste.”