He hunts pheasant in the Dakotas, deer in Texas and fishes for halibut in Alaska, but for Mike Harden of Alamance County, nothing tops rabbit hunting in the North Carolina Piedmont.
He speaks with a lifetime of experience inherited from his dad, the late Tom Harden of Graham.
I can take you right now to the spot where I killed my first rabbit, Harden, 60, said. I was 8 years old.
Talking about the past, Hardens thoughts stream to squirrel hunting and hunkering down in the cab of an old pickup truck with his dad at the wheel hauling a pack of beagles down a country road. They pull over most any place and find a farmer welcoming them to hunt.
We walked many a mile through the woods behind a pack of eight or 10 beagles, listening for em to jump a rabbit, he said. We had some wonderful times fishing and hunting. Life was a little simpler then. I went with my dad and his buddies every Saturday during the season and wed hunt from 8 to 5 and bag 10 or 15 rabbits.
Hardens life continues to revolve around outdoors pursuits, no matter the season.
Im all about the outdoors, he said. If the weather permits, you wont find me inside and if Im not hunting or fishing, Ill be in the garden or yard.
Harden has worked as an insurance agent for the past 20 years after leaving a career in teaching and coaching in 1994. His last assignment was baseball coach at Elon.
It got to the point I realized if I wanted to go any higher in the college ranks I would have to go to another school, he said.
Harden describes his career in education and sales as a good ride. I dont regret one day of it. He plans to retire in three to five years, and what will he do then? More hunting and fishing.
You cant beat hunting with your own dogs, he said. The dogs in my pack are 4 to 7 years old and this should be their peek year. Theyre about as good as theyre going to be.
His beagles are tagged with such names as Marcell, Odell and Vernell characters in the fictitious Ledbetter family created by Jerry Clower, a comedian and storyteller.
Its fun listening to a good pack running a rabbit. I can tell each dog by his bark. Any rabbit hunter can, he said.
The standing rule on Hardens hunts is no shooting the rabbit on the jump. The dogs must run a rabbit before a harvest.
These are running dogs, he said. All they know to do is to smell a track and run it. The goal is a lot of races, not how many you kill.
Harden said a beagles instinct is to pick up the smell of a rabbit and run it, with the greatest challenge preventing a beagle from running a deer. He compares a beagles ability to that of a ball player some have the skill and some dont.
A harvest of five rabbits makes a good hunt for Harden and his cronies. They will hit the woods at 8 a.m. and knock off at 2.
Well take the dogs back to the truck. Put em up and break out the grill, he said. Our favorite is blow fish. We fry em and eat some cheese crackers and jalapeno peppers and maybe a cold beer. Its out of this world.
Harden grew up loving his moms fried rabbit and gravy. Now he savors rabbit stew a concoction of rabbit meat, wine, carrots, onions and cream of mushroom and celery soup prepared in a pressure cooker then ladled over Texas toast.
Its so good and with a glass of Merlot itll make you wanna slap your mama, he said.
Harden sees a bright future for his sport as long as cut overs with cover are around to protect rabbits from hawks and owls.
There are more hunters than you might realize because the rabbit population has improved over the last 10 years, he said.
On a recent December morning, Harden and about 12 fellow members of the Alamance Wildlife Club prepared for a hunt, fueling up with scrambled eggs, country ham, sliced tomatoes, grits, red-eye gravy and biscuits. Then Harden turned out the hounds, boosting them along with cries of Whoop, whoop, find em in here, find em in here, whoop, whoop, look in here, find em Billy Boy, right here Odell, hunt em up, whoop, whoop
Before long the beagles jumped a rabbit and the race was on with the howling cries from the hounds drifting out of the woods.
Thats what we came for, Harden said. To listen to em run. Theres no other sound like it.