Rabbit hunter follows sound of a beagle on the run

CorrespondentDecember 18, 2013 

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, Harden’s 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 we’d hunt from 8 to 5 and bag 10 or 15 rabbits.”

Harden’s life continues to revolve around outdoors pursuits, no matter the season.

“I’m all about the outdoors,” he said. “If the weather permits, you won’t find me inside and if I’m not hunting or fishing, I’ll 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 don’t 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 can’t 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. They’re about as good as they’re 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.

“It’s 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 Harden’s 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 beagle’s 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 beagle’s ability to that of a ball player – “some have the skill and some don’t.”

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.

“We’ll 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. It’s out of this world.”

Harden grew up loving his mom’s 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.

“It’s so good and with a glass of Merlot it’ll 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.

“That’s what we came for,” Harden said. “To listen to ’em run. There’s no other sound like it.”

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