A caravan of vehicles pulled onto the shoulder of a dirt road. In the backs of two of the pickups, beagles whined impatiently, waiting for the tailgate to drop and free them to hunt for rabbits in a regenerating clear-cut alongside a harvested soybean field.
Thorn-tattered clothing with patches of hunter orange on the backs and shoulders were the formal wear of the day. Several jackets were embroidered “Raleigh Wrecking Crew Sportsman’s Club,” while others were stitched with “Horseman Hunting Club – Strictly Rabbits.”
“Six of us keep up a pack of 10 beagles together,” said Gabriel Houston, 73, a retiree who worked at Litho Industries print shop in Raleigh. “We brought seven of them with us today and are hunting as guests of the Horsemen Hunting Club. We come to the coast on occasion because there are more rabbits. I like to hunt deer, too, but hunting rabbits is better because you get to shoot a lot more. I hunt rabbits four or five times a month. I shot five this year and four were on opening day. I try to hit them in the head so it doesn’t tear them up too much. But, the hardest shot is when the rabbit is running right at you. You can shoot right over them when they do that because they run so fast.”
The dogs sniffed their way into the cut-down, making headway much easier through blackberry and Devil’s club briers woven between head-high pines saplings. In minutes, they jumped a rabbit from its form and howled in hot pursuit. Larry Wall, a 58-year-old car salesman for Anderson Automotive in Raleigh, kicked his way through the heavy brush, found a high spot to stand, and waited. He shot one rabbit. Moments later, he shot another one. Both were marsh rabbits.
“Those are the first rabbits I got all season,” he said. “I haven’t had much time for hunting because I have been too busy working. It’s wet in here, so I thought they were probably running marsh rabbits.”
Turning one around, he looked at the bluetail. Rather than bagging only cottontails that are prevalent in the Piedmont, he said that when the club came to the coast, they bagged a mixed bag of cottontails and bluetails.
One hunter remained behind. Sitting on a tailgate behind the empty beagle kennels was Greg Williams. The 51-year-old former locksmith listened and smiled
“My left foot was amputated due to blood clots,” Smith said. “I lost my vision in the last six months and have also had a stroke. I rode with Gabriel because I still love to get out and work with the dogs to the best of my ability. I can tell the ones that are running from the ones that are just making noise by listening.”
Cupping his hand around his mouth, Williams gave a whoop. He said he was urging one of the dogs that was normally a good one but was being lazy to open up and get in on the chase.
The dogs put up another rabbit and ran it for a long time before another shot came from the shotgun of Sherwood Taylor. The shot missed. The beagles continued onward.
“He was a long way off,” said Taylor, 64, a retired N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles worker. “But I let him know I saw him. Some of the other hunters move around, trying to get ahead of the dogs. I find a place where I can see a good way and wait for the dogs to bring the rabbit around.”
Another hunter hit the rabbit and the group loaded the dogs into the pickup trucks to move to another area. The farm had an unharvested soybean field due to a spate of wet weather. The decaying soybeans were a great food source for rabbits and the timber surrounding the field had been cut three years ago, leaving a naturally regenerating border of hardwood saplings, broom straw, grape vines and blackberry briars. The area had produced 31 rabbits for the Horsemen Hunting Club during two previous hunts.
“I grew up with Roland Boney, president of the Horsemen,” said Terry Usher, 64. a retired City of Raleigh firefighter. “We went to Charity School in Rose Hill together. We come down to hunt with them because it is harder to find a place to hunt near Raleigh. We used to be able to hunt within a few miles of Raleigh, but the land is now housing developments or the landowners have passed on. Either the people who inherited the land are not interested in hunting rabbits or we don’t know them well enough to get permission. I have been four times this year and only killed three rabbits. We come here once or twice a year because there are more places to hunt and they have more rabbits.”
The dogs soon took up the chase again. Rather than stick to the thicket as the marsh rabbits had, the cottontails ran for a short time in the cover before bounding thorough the field.
The hunt was easier and the hunters and the shooting was certainly easier. As the afternoon wore down, the tired hunters and their tiny hounds headed for their vehicles. Eleven members of the combined clubs bagged 11 cottontails and bluetails, but the take was not evenly distributed. One hunter shot three, others, two or one. Some hit none. Warren Days, 56, of Burgaw, a member of the Horsemen who works for the Pender County Sheriff’s Animal Control Department, hit the last one after a long chase in heavy cover. Four of the beagles running it belonged to him.
“I had to go in after him,” Days said. “It was a bluetail and they won’t come out into the open like a cottontail. I have killed nearly 20 rabbits this season because we have good hunting territory. I like to shoot at least one rabbit on every hunt. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it is always fun.”