As a young man growing up in North Carolina in the mid 1950s, Bill Bethune liked quail hunting, but the birds always flew up in flurry, were fast on the getaway and were hard to hit with a load of birdshot.
Then one day his family dog flushed a cottontail and the rabbit bounded away, but Bill nailed it with a load of No. 8’s. He thought to himself, “Hum, I think I like this rabbit hunting.” Soon his dad, W. H. Bethune, who ran a country store in Lindin, North Carolina, gave him two beagle puppies, and he was in business. He hunted rabbits and trapped them in rabbit boxes. Occasionally a possum would walk into the trap, and most critters were sold to local folks for 25 cents each, which kept him in shotgun shells. He loved rabbit hunting, and that began a lifelong pursuit that continues very strong to this day.
After college, Bill worked in farm fertilizer sales and then went to work as a regional sales manager for World Book Encyclopedia, from which he retired so he could do more rabbit hunting.
For many years, he has kept a pack of beagle dogs in his kennel in Bibb County. He quickly discovered that beagles are great sporting dogs that were made to rabbit hunt. Their short legs keep them from chasing down a rabbit, but their slow and methodical pace behind a flushed rabbit makes them the perfect breed to bring a rabbit circling back to home territory and awaiting hunters. He says that beagles and hunters make a perfect rabbit hunting team.
In looking for the perfect rabbit beagle, he bought and sold dogs and that led to breeding together the best, performing dogs to improve the beagles hunting ability. He also started competing in beagle hunting field trails and learned the many tricks of the trade to train great beagle hunting dogs.
Recently, in January 2016, Bill competed in the 7th annual Southern Classic Beagle pack trial, which was held at Beaux Eden Planation near Fort Valley. The hunts were organized by Joe and Courtney Hester, of Fort Valley. Out of 12 packs competing, Bill’s “Bill’s Pack” finished second in the three-couple class. In the five-couple class, which had seven entries, Bill’s Pack finished in first place. These were outstanding results for Bill and his beagles, among some very tough competition.
There are primarily two styles of hunting competitions, AKC and Progressive Pack, says Bill. The AKC dogs hunt close to the hunter, while Progessive Packs, which Bill prefers, get away from the hunters and actively pursue the rabbits in the briars and brambles.
He and a friend, Marvin McAllum, of Macon, swapped and traded beagles for several years, and they bred “Flat Creek Blake,” a champion hunting beagle that is listed in the Beagle Hall of Fame, to some of their beagles. On my recent hunts with Bill, we were hunting with three different generations of beagles whose family lines run back to Flat Creek Blake, and the dogs performed in remarkable fashion.
Bill rabbit hunts mostly in central Georgia on his private land and also on some WMAs. He likes to hunt Oaky Woods and sometimes gets over to Ocmulgee WMA. He prefers early regeneration habitat that has 3 to 5 years of growth. This allows the rabbits to have plenty of young plants to eat and thick cover for protection from predators. On his own lands, where he grows pines, he practices prescribed burns about every three years to keep down undesirable species and maintain the best browse for game animals.
On Nov. 28, we took his pack of beagles to a tract of land in south Houston County to see if the rabbits were ready for a race. On this day we were hunting with Ron Thompson, of Macon, a retired manager from UPS, and Larry DeFore, a retired employee of the Georgia Department of Corrections, both avid rabbit hunters. All these hunters are members of the Martha Bowman Methodist Church in Macon and talk a lot of rabbit hunting.
As Bill released each beagle from the dog box, he put Garmin Tri-Tronics shock collars on each dog. He says the Tri-Tronics collars have worked great for him and are essential for proper beagle training. Dogs that chase squirrels, deer or start digging after a critter in a stump hole might get a gentle reminder to stop that behavior. Bill says that rabbits that escape down a hole are given a pass for the day because he does not want to the dogs to get bitten by a rattlesnake.
Dogs sniffing after a rat in a brushpile is another problem, but Bill does not shock the dog in this case. He says that rats and rabbits must have a similar smell as it a common problem for young beagles not to be able to distinguish the difference between the two. He says after they get more hunting experience, they learn the different between rats and rabbits and will stop chasing rats.
We had a great day to rabbit hunt, except it was very dry, and the beagles have a hard time scenting and tracking when there is very low humidity in the air, says Bill. But the dry air did not hurt the beagle’s enthusiasm to hunt. They hit the ground raring to go, and in just a few minutes the dogs let out an excited howl that let Bill know the beagles had hit pay dirt.
“They are on him now,” he said. “Let’s see if they can stay on him.”
We spread out a safe distance from each other along openings in the trees and along the woods road to try to see the rabbit running ahead of the dogs. It took about 15 minutes, but the dogs ran the rabbit in circles around us, but we could not catch a glimpse of the cottontail. Rabbits are famous for running big circles over a 1- to 5-acre tract of land because they don’t want to leave familiar territory. But soon we heard the roar of Ron Thompson’s 28-gauge shotgun and a little chatter between us confirmed the rabbit was in the bag.
Then we moved the dogs a short distance and started looking for more rabbits, but this time we got a real speedster. The dogs howled constantly, then lost the trail and soon were back on him. Or was it a different rabbit? Bill says when you bump several rabbits at one time, the chase gets real interesting. The dogs were still back behind the rabbit at least 50 yards when he came barreling through, like his tail was on fire! Bill got in a hurried shot but missed.
“Did you get him?” hollered Larry. “No, no,” said Bill. “I was just using some of these catch-and-release shells again!”
The rabbit ran another loop, and this time Larry dropped the hammer but shot behind the rabbit with his 1897 pump shotgun handed down to him by his father. “That rabbit has got to be getting tired, and so am I,” said Larry.
The dogs ran the rabbit on another big loop, but this time Bill picked a lucky spot to intercept the rabbit and nailed it. Both the hunters and the dogs celebrated a great run.
A few days later, we hunted the same property with Dave Seagle, another friend from Martha Bowman church, who is retired from UPS and now installs low-voltage cameras and security systems in schools. We had several good chases, but most of the dogs were young pups getting in their training, and we did not fire a gun.
It was obvious to me that rabbit hunting to these guys is more about watching the beagles than the rabbit meat on the ground. The camaraderie and friendship of a great group of like-minded guys is an additional plus.
We all had on hunter orange vests and caps for safety, along with brush-busting pants to keep the briars at bay. Bill prefers a lightweight 20-gauge shotgun and uses an older model Remington 1100 with an improved cylinder choke loaded with No. 8 shot. He says most of his shots are up close, and that combo of small shot and wide pattern keeps hits from damaging too much rabbit meat.
His wife Nancy is a great cook and slow cooks the rabbits in the crockpot until they are tender, and then she substitutes rabbit meat into a chicken salad recipe, which is delicious.
Georgia’s WMAs are great places to rabbit hunt, says WRD Game Management Biologist Bobby Bond, but for best results, try early season hunting. He says many WMAs have good rabbit populations, like Oaky Woods, Ocmulgee and Rum Creek, but he says it’s more important to seek out the proper habitat of clearcuts with 3 to 5 years of regrowth.
He recommends hunters look at WMAs off the beaten path and then do some visual research on Google Earth to locate some good areas with recent reforestation to investigate.
Then it’s just a matter of letting the beagles run!