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Running Rabbits

The music of the hounds inspires East Texas rabbit hunting.

By Henry Chappell

Dean Turlington follows his beagles Hank and DJ into a tangle of briars and vines growing along a logging road in the Sabine River bottom. Fifty yards back, Patsy and George, chained to their perch on Dean’s four-wheeler, voice their displeasure at being left behind.

Hank and DJ snuffle easily beneath and around the tangles as Dean fights his way along. They’re not just rabbit hunting; they’re after a certain swamp rabbit known to live in this stretch of bottomland. They made its acquaintance several weeks back and drop by often to visit. Dean knows about where it will be this damp, cool, late-October morning and what it will do when his dogs issue their greeting.

Within minutes, DJ lets go a yelp that the uninitiated might interpret as a response to sharp pain. Hank follows up with a tortured bawl that means only one thing: They smell the resident rabbit, and it’s close by. Back at the four-wheeler, the tone of Patsy and George’s howling changes from outrage to hysteria. Donny Lynch, a hardcore coon hunter from Marshall, cradles his shotgun and smiles. Hound music.

The beagles plow through the brush in full cry, then clamber out of the ditch and cross the road. Dean sends Greg Franks back to the four-wheeler to release George and Patsy. The two come barreling down the road and enter the woods at exactly the same spot where Hank and DJ disappeared.

The chase is on. Four distinct voices merge into a houndy chorus. Dean steps out of the brush and explains his dogs’ names: It seems he’s a country music fan. We have George Jones, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline. “And that one that sounds like he’s got a thorn in his tail — that’s DJ,” he says. Yes, for disc jockey. Dean points out that even though he feeds, houses and hunts him, DJ is no longer his dog — he’s been officially “claimed” by Dean’s grandson, Larami Morehead.

The barking grows distant, then stops. Dean seems unconcerned. Moments later another yelp wafts out of the woods. “That’s old George,” Dean says. “They overran the trail, and George picked it back up.”

A higher pitched howl follows. Dean nods toward the sound. “That’s Patsy. She doesn’t have George’s nose, but she’s faster. She’ll get out in front with Hank and really push.”

The dogs begin circling back. Dean points to a spot about 40 yards up the road and tells photographer Earl Nottingham to get ready. That’s where the rabbit will cross.

As the din grows nearer, all eyes are on the edge of the woods. Nottingham readies his camera, and the rabbit streaks across the road at the predicted spot. Seconds later the beagles cross: Patsy, Hank, DJ, then steady old George.

Nottingham thinks he got the shot, but there’s no reason to worry. The dogs are locked on and Dean says the rabbit will cross again, this time about 40 yards away, from the opposite direction. Ten minutes later, the rabbit proves him right.

We all stand in the road enjoying the chase. Dean mentally follows the progress, describing the terrain and obstacles. Then the barking stops. I assume the dogs will pick up the trail shortly. “No,” Dean says, “I imagine it ran under a big brush pile that’s back there.”

I don’t doubt him for an instant.

Rabbits are sporty, abundant, tasty and popular with small game hunters throughout the East and Midwest. In Texas, they’re virtually ignored.

“The tradition seems to be dying out, and I don’t really know why,” says TPWD biologist Carl Frentress. “I suspect that today most rabbits are taken incidental to other kinds of hunting. And they seem to be fairly abundant.”

Two species of rabbits inhabit Texas’ fields and forests: the familiar eastern cottontail and the much larger swamp rabbit of the East Texas lowlands. (Despite their common name, jackrabbits are hares, not rabbits.)

The eastern cottontail, generally known simply as the cottontail, can be found in the eastern three-fourths of Texas and in parts of the Trans-Pecos. Though it’s primarily associated with weedy, overgrown fields and brushy fencerows, it’s quite common in mature woods where sufficient undergrowth and tangles of briars and vines provide escape cover.

Cottontails feed on a variety of grasses and forbs and, as orchard growers know all too well, the bark of young trees. Cottontails are solitary animals and live their lives in a home range of 200 acres or less and may refuse to leave even when pursued by dogs.

“I think that if you managed for bobwhite quail, you would be serving rabbits,” Frentress says. “They need escape cover and suitable areas for breeding and rearing their young. And they must have a continuous supply of green vegetation.”

Cottontails are prolific. They have to be. Everything with teeth, claws or talons eats them. Females may rear four or five litters of one to eight young annually. Mating is stimulated by temperature and rainfall, which determines vegetative growth. After a gestation period of 28 to 29 days, the young are born blind and helpless. By 5 months of age, they’re nearly indistinguishable from adults.

As any suburbanite knows, cottontails are most active at twilight and at night, though they become quite vigorous any time they’re rousted by a pack of beagles.

In Texas, swamp rabbits thrive in the river bottoms and coastal marshes in the eastern third of the state, west to Montague, Wise and Bexar counties. The swamp rabbit is darker in color and about a third larger than the cottontail, with thick pelage that insulates its skin from cold water. Beagles had better be prepared to swim in swamp-rabbit country.

Along the coast, swamp rabbits live in cane thickets, hence their common nicknames, “cane-cutter” and “cane jack.” Inland swamp-rabbit habitat resembles that of the cottontail, although it’s restricted to floodplains of rivers and streams. In wetter areas, the two species often overlap, much to the delight of houndsmen who love to speculate on what kind of rabbit their dogs are running.

Like the cottontail, the swamp rabbit eats grasses, forbs and shoots of shrubbery. Perhaps because of their more restricted range, swamp rabbits are less prolific than cottontails. Breeding season runs January through September, but peaks in February and March along with the availability of young, green vegetation. Following a gestation period of 39 to 40 days, the young rabbits are born blind but covered with fur, unlike eastern cottontails, which are born naked.

As any farm boy who ever kicked a brushy fencerow can tell you, dogs aren’t a requirement for rabbit hunting. Bird hunters often spot rabbits while their pointers are distracted with other matters, and deer hunters sometimes slip out of camp to collect a cottontail for the skillet.

Walk overgrown field edges, kick brush piles, brave the briar thickets and you’ll flush rabbits. But stay ready. Unlike the suburban bunnies that hop away a few yards, twitch their nostrils and eye you with mild interest, truly wild rabbits vanish in a blur.

But cottontails and the swamp rabbits have in common one consistent evasive maneuver that makes them the perfect quarry for hounds. When pursued, uh, doggedly, but not so hotly that that they hole up, rabbits tend to run in wide circles within their home range. A pack of good beagles can often keep a rabbit moving for an hour or more. Swamp rabbits tend to run wider circles than cottontails. After a round or two, hunters can predict the rabbit’s movements and take up stations accordingly, though serious hunters usually hate to end a good race by shooting the rabbit.

When the time comes to collect a meal, a 12- or 20-gauge shotgun and light loads of No. 6 or No. 7 shot will do the job. Circling rabbits often pause to rest and perhaps to see if they’ve lost the dogs. A hunter patient enough to wait for those rare stationary shots might enjoy the challenge of a .22 rifle.

What makes a good rabbit hound? Nose, drive and, for the aesthetically minded, a mellow voice. And something indefinable called “rabbit sense.” “You can’t teach it. A dog either has it or not,” Dean says.

Although field-trial beagles are expected to plod along astraddle the rabbit’s scent trail, most hunters prefer slightly faster hounds that keep the rabbit moving. And rabbit dogs should cast about to relocate the trail whenever they lose it. (In Pineywoods vernacular, a dog that loses the trail is said to have “made a lose.”) This is especially important when rabbits cross paved or gravel roads that may not absorb scent. Swamp rabbits often cross creeks or sloughs, so beagles have to hit the water, then search for the scent trail once they climb ashore.

Dean prefers a pack made up of dogs with different hunting styles. “You need a strike dog with a fairly cold nose,” he says, “a dog that won’t bark when the trail is too cold, but will follow up and jump the rabbit. Then you need a push dog to keep that rabbit moving.” In his pack, George and DJ are his strike dogs. Patsy and Hank are his push dogs.

Unlike bird dogs and retrievers, which require intensive training, beagles need only learn to come when called. Then you take them hunting. Glenn Hyde, a longtime rabbit hunter from Mabank, recommends running young beagles with an experienced pack if possible, but stresses that it’s not essential. “If your beagle is any good, it won’t take long for him to show you,” he says.

Although most rabbit hunters enjoy the clamor of a small pack of hounds, a single beagle will provide plenty of action. On the other hand, individual voices tend to get lost in a large pack, and houndsmen love to hear their own dogs.

Kids love rabbit hunting whether or not they’re old enough to carry a gun. “I started my kids with rabbit hunting because there’s lots of action to keep them interested,” Hyde says. “If they didn’t get a shot the first time around, then more times than not they’d get another chance. And you can have a good race without ever shooting.”

It’s late morning now, and things are getting serious. For the past hour or so, Dean’s beagles have been running another swamp rabbit in the woods. We’re waiting along the perimeter of the imaginary circle, watching the likely openings, trying to gauge the rabbit’s progress by the sound of the pack. The little hounds are soaking wet, their white-tipped tails whipped bloody against the brush. But they’re still at full cry. There have been several missed shots.

Dean calls me to a stand of oaks from which he’s watching a grassy clearing. The hounds are drawing close in the woods on the far side. He points to opening in the trees across the clearing. “That rabbit will come out right there,” he says. “Be ready.”

I thumb my safety and listen to the music. I don’t doubt him for an instant.

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