Beagles and Cottontails

For most of two hours, the little beagle had struck trail after trail, and hotly pursued a half dozen cottontails in circles that wound around broam-sedge, cedar thickets and patches of briar and sumac.  I had missed one and bagged one. My partner had two.

As the latest cottontail led the baying little beagle on a wide swing, we both looked for a strategic spot to wait for the rabbit’s return.

I found a brushpile with a log in the top of it and carefully situated myself there. I faced west and the little beagle pushed the cottontail toward me from the north.  I figured I was about to bag cottontail number two. But the rabbit veered away and I caught a glimpse of him coming down a trail to the east of my brushpile, about to pass behind me.

There was no way to turn, I could do little more than swing my 20-gauge with my right arm, lead him a little and squeeze off an awkward one-hand shot.  To my surprise, the cottontail tumbled, intercepted by a wide pattern at 25 yards.  There wasn’t much recoil but I nearly lost my balance.  My friend, who was watching, was laughing at my gyrations atop the brushpile, but he couldn’t believe it when I retrieved the cottontail.

We went on to bag several rabbits in three or four hours of hunting.  But the best part was listening to the beagle, almost constantly trailing a rabbit. It is a beautiful sound, if you are a hunter.  I can’t tell you why that is, but if you go out there and listen to a chase, you’ll see what I mean.  And the more beagles involved, the more fascinating it is to hear the sound.

There are rabbits to be found almost everywhere in the Midwest.  But good beagles are not easy to find and if you have a good one you are indeed a lucky man.

It seems almost certain that when God was creating the animals of the earth, he made beagles right after he made cottontails.   Without the cottontail, what would a beagle have to live for?

Actually beagles have been developed in the last few hundred years.  The ancestors of the modern beagle were brought to America between 1860 and 1870 but they were larger dogs, probably used more to trail deer than rabbits. In fact, even today there are two sizes of beagles recognized, the 13-inch-at-the- shoulder dog, and the 15-inch dog. Taller beagles are still used in much of the south and southeast to trail deer. The shorter ones are popular in the Midwest where running deer with dogs is illegal but chasing rabbits is not.

The shorter and slower the beagle, the better the results as a rabbit hound. The reason for that is … a cottontail prefers not to leave his home area and he runs in a circle when pursued. Eventually, he’ll come back around to the thicket or briar patch where he was originally scented and put to flight.  If he is hotly pursued, he runs harder and the circle is much larger and wider.  If he feels pushed, in danger of being caught, he’ll look for hollow logs or holes in the ground.

Trailed slowly and methodically, the rabbit will hop along at a medium gait, and travel a much smaller circle. The advantages of hunting with a good beagle are obvious;  you’ll see more rabbits and you’ll have a second chance at many, because the beagle continues the chase and the cottontail will meander and circle again over a new trail which will likely bring him near the waiting hunter again.

If you hunt rabbits without a beagle, you will jump some ahead of you and never see them, simply because they hear you coming. With snow on the ground you can track cottontails but even then you’ll see far fewer than you’ll find with a beagle.  The little hound can track them with or without snow.  Hunters who jump-shoot cottontails get hasty, close shots at rapidly fleeing rabbits and the back legs too often catch too much shot, ruining the hindquarters as far as table value. Rabbits taken by waiting hunters as they are trailed by beagles can be head-shot and some hunters take them with a .22 rifle when they hunt with dogs.

But if you ask any beagle enthusiast, he’ll tell you that finding more rabbits and getting better shots is not the main reason he hunts with a beagle.  It’s the music of the chase, and until you’ve heard a brace of beagles baying on the trail of cottontail, you haven’t really heard music. It is a song of elation… of pure, free excitement, from a little hound that never stops to think that he is engaged in a chase of futility. He’ll never catch a cottontail.

You can read the account of an adventure I had just last week on my computer site, larrydablemontoutdoors. Visit my website to see my books and magazines. It is www.larrydablemont.com.  You can write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, MO. 65613 or email me at [email protected]   And if I am in my office you can phone me at 417-777-5227.

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