February is Fred Mitchell’s favorite month, for a very special reason. Mitchell is a beagle man with a kennel full of dogs.
“It’s not like I don’t hunt them in October, November, December and January, it’s just that I turn them loose every day in February and we run rabbits until those dogs run out of want to,” said Mitchell, who is from Florence. “Basically, I use those first four months of the season to get these pups ready and in top shape for February.
“It puts me in shape, too. I lose about 20 pounds every year during hunting season from walking so many miles behind those dogs. It’s what my daddy did and what his daddy did, and I’m so proud they passed that passion on to me. I don’t think there is any more of a pure form of hunting than a man, his beagles and rabbits.”
A very busy man
His passion makes Mitchell a popular man in February; he and his dogs were booked by Dec. 1 for 26 of the first 28 days this month.
“About half of next year is already on the books,” Mitchell said. “Everybody becomes a rabbit hunter when deer season or duck season ends, and that’s when a guy with good beagles is in high demand. I can cherry pick the places I hunt and the people I hunt with, and that’s what makes it so great.”
Mitchell, who retired at 52 from a lucrative career in commercial real estate, has no sprawling properties of his own to hunt, but he has the means to hunt as often as he wants, and he wants to hunt every day the weather allows.
“Half of the places we hunt every February are the same lands we’ve been hunting for the past decade,” he said. “We’ve got all the weekends booked with the same people we’ve had them booked with for 10 to 15 years. They turn their deer camps into rabbit camps for the weekend, and they turn it into a party. We’ll hunt Friday through Sunday, daylight to dark.”
On the road
Mitchell has two friends who helps handle the dogs. They have three trucks, two with big, custom-built dog pens in the beds and the third pulling a 30-foot bunkhouse travel trailer.
It’s a nomadic lifestyle, so to speak. In the Delta one week, in the hills the next. Canecutters, aka swamp rabbits, on one hunt, cottontails. aka hillbillies or bunny rabbits, the next.
“I don’t really have a preference, but when we get on the bunnies, we usually get into more rabbits,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got this one place we go every year for a weekend that is about 2,000 acres of grain fields in the black belt prairie where we can run 200 or 300 hillbillies over two days. There was a time last year when we turned the dogs loose in this one block, and within five minutes, we had 10 different rabbits running in 10 different directions. I have never laughed so hard in my life. People were yelling ‘There he goes,’ constantly for about a minute. Shots were ringing out in every direction. We took eight in the first 10 minutes of hunting and the dogs were still running two different races.”
Mississippi’s two species can be found statewide. Swampers tend to inhabit land around creek and river bottoms. Hillbillies inhabit everywhere else.
“I love lands with young pines or is in the second or third or fourth year after a total cutover,” Mitchell said. “The more dense the cover, the more rabbits will be around, especially the hillbillies. It’s tough hunting but it’s worth it.”
Mitchell is disappointed that no allowance has ever been made for leap years.
“You know, 2020 is a leap year, which means there’s a February 29th on the calendar,” he said. “That could be another day of rabbit hunting, if they’d change the law. I’m a glutton for punishment.”