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By Steve McCadams

     Thumping tails inside the dog box signaled high levels of enthusiasm. A solo bark from two different inhabitants further alerted the black and tan tribe as to the forthcoming door openings.

    In a few seconds the game would begin. When tailgates falls interest levels rise.

    From their temporary housing emerged the beagle brigade with plans to investigate briar thickets, honey suckle covered ditchbanks and bull dozer piles that often provide good canopies for cottontails. After the five man roster of canine companions said hello to a frosty February morning they slowly meandered toward good looking habitat.

    Like any athlete warming up before the contest ahead each dog paused and stretched tight muscles. A few pit stops before entering active duty is standard operating procedure.

     Our little crew of rabbit rousers boasted names such as Toby, Spook, Goober, Bo and Tuffy. No ladies allowed in this pack of chunky dudes who sported hefty frames and muscle tone, a testament to their experience on the front lines of battle since season opened back in early November.

    Handshakes and verbal greetings got the outing jumpstarted as Larry Hicks and John David Cowan of Yorkville, joined by former Henry Countian Joe Hill of Union City, backed a big olive drab all-terrain vehicle off its trailer. I gladly accepted an invitation a few weeks ago to join the hunt before season’s end.

    Watching tail-wagging beagles work thick cover and listening to their unique voices once they strike a hot trail is indeed a sight for sore eyes. The choir’s delivery increases in magnitude as each dog darts from deep in the woods to the scene of the action and joins the race, proclaiming to all the world that somewhere ahead there’s a rabbit on the run.

    I love to watch a dog in the distance when he stops to listen for his partner’s howl of discovery. With cocked ears he turns his head and listens intently, trying to pinpoint the location. When the second bark sounds he’s off like a fireman who just heard the alarm; no hesitation now as those “here-he-is” yelps are calling for reinforcements and indeed help is one the way.

    “Good jump dogs are vital to the success of the hunt and we lost our best one last year when we had to put ole’ Blue down,” said Hill, when resurrecting the memory of a four-legged friend now running races in the sky. “We took several hundred rabbits with him over the years and it has been a tough season without him.”

    From beagle hounds to bird dogs and retrievers, those of us in the hunting fraternity know what it’s like to lose a canine companion as bonds are quickly established from many days in the field. A man and his dog: sharing God’s garden together while making footprints on the heart one hunt at a time.

    Blue’s memory was alive and well as we rekindled his attributes when suddenly a bark from the edge of an infested pond bank sent us into active mode. A finicky cottontail was playing tricks on the dogs that teamed up and channeled their talents, combing thick underbrush where wet conditions worked to the rabbit’s favor.

    It took a few minutes but not to worry; the dogs pushed him out of hiding and the race got hot as all chimed in. Five little hounds in harmony and what a song they were singing.

    Although I like to shoot as much as anyone, just hearing the dogs run is well worth the trip. Rabbit hunts are easy on the mind and body. No fast pace required. Enjoying the peace and tranquility in-between races and taking the time to look over the landscape. A deer track here; fox den there. Checking out old hollowed out oaks where the squirrels and raccoons compete for sleeping quarters.

    After gathering my thoughts that drifted away with the fading sounds of the pack it was showtime when the dogs abruptly changed directions and headed toward my locale. Darting from the underbrush came a brown blur that sprinted to the edge of the winter wheat field and as luck would have it I was in good range and rolled him on the first shot.

    It took a minute or two for the dogs to catch up and sniff their prey, sharing the success one nudge at a time as tails swayed like pendulums. Larry quickly grabbed the rabbit and showed it to the other dogs, a jester to show the race was complete and time to move on.

    It was a beautiful day that warmed quickly as light winds and sunny skies had us all trading fish tales. All of us were overdressed and began shedding clothing. It was a good day for rabbit hunting but it could have doubled for a fine fishing day too. Calm winds and warm days are rare in late February and it had been a nasty winter.

    Dogs were coming out of thickets and flopping down in field puddles to cool off and quince thirsts. Short reprieves were taken between races as we worked our way down fence rows and ditches. Wet ground marred boots as the gumbo caked around soles and added weight to each step.

    The old guys gathered around the rabbit wagon and swapped hunting and fishing tales while John David displayed youth and adrenalin, running toward the dogs when they jumped a fresh rabbit. His aggressiveness paid dividends as he was in the right place at the right time and wound up bagging a limit of five rabbits with five shots that morning with his 20-gauge.

    “We’ll never hear the last of it,” said Larry, sporting a sheepish grin.  “He usually shoots two or more times at a rabbit but today he is on the mark. I’ll bet he’s already on the phone bragging to someone.”

    By midday our tally of eight rabbits had culminated a nice hunt. We weren’t on a marathon and our route ran out of huntable habitat at just the right time.

    The dogs were a bit tired and ready for rest after the long hikes in this rural wonderland. Parking the rabbit wagon on a hill overlooking the Obion River bottom provided a nice setting for cheese and crackers, strips of bologna and a follow up cookie or two. Settling in the seat felt good too. The hounds seemed ready for a return to the dog box where a siesta awaited them.

    “It’s been a pretty good year and we’re somewhat ahead of last year’s total,” said Joe, when asked to sum up the season. “I think we’ve encountered a few more rabbits than last year and I hope that means the numbers increased and that next year will be good too.”

    “No doubt coyotes are factors as are hawks and owls on the rabbit populations. They take a toll on the quail too. Coyotes seem to be everywhere. And habitat loss is always a concern.”

    Over our cheese and cracker feast in the aftermath of an enjoyable hunt we managed to solve a few of the world’s problems. Several fish were caught and numerous rabbit races were run as we soaked up a little sun before parting ways.

    Season was about to end and spring was fast approaching. Soon the door on the dog pen would shut and hunting coats would return to the closet for hibernation in favor of tackle boxes and fishing poles.

    Despite season’s end the baying of beagles never really leaves the ear of a true rabbit hunter!