While the opening dates for most hunting seasons, including doves, ducks, squirrels and deer, had already clicked off the calendar, one dedicated group of hunters were still counting down the weeks until its opening day festivities. It wasn’t until Nov. 19, when the members of the Horsemen Hunting Club gathered as other groups had done before to share a hearty breakfast before the first rabbit hunt of the season.
On a skillet heated on an open fire, Warren Days stirred bacon, sausage and eggs into something resembling an omelet that he called “ugly eggs.” Before the members began eating, they said a prayer for the safety of the hunters, those who were unable to attend and those who had passed away over the last year or were in poor health.
“Hunting on my farm for the first hunt of the season has been our tradition going back a long time,” said Terrial White, 57, the club’s secretary-treasurer and owner of the farm on which the hunters would hunt on opening day. “I grew up hunting rabbits and it is something we all love to do. We don’t have to get up early, we can get together and people can come and go all day and have a good time. It is how our friends and family to keep up with each other. It is a social event.”
After they had eaten, the hunters drove a short distance to an abandoned hog pen overgrown with weeds. Releasing 30 beagles, they fanned out into the surrounding woods and brier tangles to wait for the sound of the chase to begin.
Two beagles nosed into a honeysuckle maze until only their wagging behinds and the flashing of their white tail tips showed. Their first howls lit up the woods with sound. Days took a shot at the fleeing rabbit but missed.
“There he goes!” shouted Days, 57, a Pender County Animal Control officer from Burgaw. “I knew they dogs were about to jump by the way they were acting. But, I still could not get on him good enough. The cover was so thick and he was moving so fast.”
The sound grew deafening when the other dogs packed with the first two to share in the scent. It wasn’t long before Roland Boney, president of the Horsemen Hunting Club, fired the shot that ended the chase as the rabbit attempted to beat a bouncing escape through a soybean field.
“I got him,” he said. “Dead rabbit! Dead rabbit!”
The hunters would repeat the shout throughout the day, signaling to the beagles that the hunt ended and it was time to head back into the woods to jump another one.
“Last year, we shot 435 rabbits,” said Boney, a 65-year-old farmer from Rose Hill. “We hunt on our family farms and on the property of friends who give us permission to hunt. Some of the hunters go off on their own to hunt deer and turkeys or wild hogs. But when we get together on Saturday mornings, our motto is, ‘strictly rabbits.’ ”
The motto is embroidered on club members’ caps and coats, which are tattered and torn from protecting their wearers from scraping and clawing through miles of some of the toughest vegetation in the state. Wherever a rabbit trail tunnels through the vegetation, a beagle can follow and Horsemen members will fan out behind, in front and to the sides of the ensuing chase to try to cut off the rabbit.
Within moments, the hounds had jumped another rabbit from its bed. Once again, the woods and fields reverberated with howls and barks. Days made his way to the end of a peninsula of trees and underbrush dividing two sections of the soybean field. White, who lives in Chinquapin in Duplin County and owns White Lawn Service, saw the rabbit break cover about 100 yards from the end of the peninsula, sneaking closer through the soybeans. His shotgun came to his shoulder and he pulled the trigger. His first shot was a miss.
White kept his cool, waiting for the rabbit to appear again, watching in all directions. It ran, keeping its cottontail below the tops of the soybeans to avoid detection. When it appeared in the open again less than 20 yards away, White downed it with a shot pattern that made the dust rise.
He held the rabbit aloft for the dogs to show them the hunt was over. Then they dug into the thicket again.
The beagles began losing their enthusiasm, so the hunters began walking from the field to their pickups to try another spot.
The hunters worked that section of the farm for about three hours. Then they loaded the dogs into their pickup trucks. Resting for a few minutes, they shared snacks and soft drinks or bottles of water. Then, they headed off to another section of White’s farm.
The hunt ended at around 2 p.m. with some of the original eight hunters having left for family or work obligations and a couple of other hunters joining the hunt. The total take for opening day, which White characterized as too hot and dry for the dogs to trail well, netted five cottontail rabbits.
“The dogs haven’t been out since last season ended,” White said. “But give them a week or two of hunting and cooler weather and they will be back in top shape. Our shooting will improve, too.”
The rabbit hunting season runs through Feb. 28.