Eden — By February, the most popular hunting seasons have ended. Duck season is out and so is deer season. However, for a dedicated handful of hunters, the month of February is prime hunting time.
Tim McBride reached into the kennels of a hunting car. The four-wheel drive looked like an African safari car, with leaf-stenciled camouflage and a brush guard supporting two swivel seats jutting from the front bumper and a bench seat on top behind the roll bar.
McBride removed his beagles, one by one, while the hunters climbed down. Removing 12-gauge, semi-automatic shotguns from the gun lockers they thumbed No. 6 and 7 1/2 shot shells into the magazines. For several out-of-state hunters, this was a safari, even if it was for one of America’s smallest game animals. The object of the hunt was the eastern cottontail rabbit.
“You need a fast handling gun to shoot a rabbit,” said McBride, 61, a Madison resident. “Sometimes a glimpse of the rabbit is all you’re going to get and it can take more than one shot to hit it.”
McBride cannot remember a time when he did not have beagles. He trains them by releasing them to hunt all year round, except during the heat of July and August. But the shooting begins the Saturday before Thanksgiving and ends the last day of February.
“The main thing is safety,” he said. “You can’t just shoot into a thicket because you don’t want to hit a dog. You have to be sure you are shooting at a rabbit.”
Indeed, the beagle’s white tail tips were the first thing visible in the thicket once they struck scent. To the untrained eye, their wagging tails might have looked like tail of a departing rabbit.
“We have lots of jackrabbits back home,” said John Haviland, 58, of Deer Lodge, Montana. “I’ve read about hunting rabbits with beagles, but this is the first time I’ve tried it.”
Soon, the beagles struck scent and gave voice. The chase was on. Haviland stood beside a briar tangle, a Remington Versa Max Sportsman shotgun in hand. Suddenly, he raised his gun. He shot once. After a short hesitation, he shot again, then again. But, when the beagles reached the spot where the rabbit had disappeared, the chase continued.
“I never got the gun up to my shoulder ,” he said. “The rabbit was running along the edge of a barbed wire fence.”
Tommy Kirby is Willow Oaks Plantation Manager. He said rabbits are a new addition to the plantation’s hunting. The plantation sits on 1,828 acres along the Dan River just south of the Virginia line. The restored plantation house was built in the 1820s and the land has had only four owners since the Queen of England granted the deed.
“People were coming to hunt quail, wild turkeys and white-tailed deer,” said Kirby, 46, of Greensboro. “But they kept seeing all the rabbits. Last year, we hosted our first rabbit hunt and it was a big success. This year, we’ve hosted about one every other week since deer season ended.”
Kirby maintains the property in early stages of plant succession by burning and mowing. While there are a few planted fields and pine stands, most of the property grows broom sedge, blackberry and honeysuckle. What benefitted quail also grew a bumper crop of cottontails.
Chases continued throughout the day, with hunters and hounds bouncing from thicket to thicket following the whims of wildly bounding rabbits. Some chases lasted more than an hour because of multiple misses. Others ended with a single shot, almost before the chase got started.
After taking a shot at a fast-moving rabbit, Haviland moved quickly to see if he had scored a hit. Even before he pulled the rabbit from a tangle and hoisted the tiny trophy high for all to see, a smile of success was spreading from ear to ear.