I spend just about every Saturday in December, January and February with good friends. We meet at daylight, finish coffee and biscuits, cut-up for a minute or two and then get down to serious business: rabbit hunting. I’m blessed to hunt with Aubrey Holcombe, aka Daddy Rabbit. We’re both very lucky to have access to large tracts of hunting land full of briars.
Each Saturday, Daddy Rabbit will give the word to drop the gates and open the dog boxes. I’ll put my six beagles on the ground, and he’ll drop anywhere from six to eight hounds. They’re usually pretty quick to jump a rabbit, and when they do, look out. They’ll pack together and make a terrible racket, a steady roar of nothing but the most horrendous mouths you ever did hear. It’s fun, exciting and just plain awesome to hear that many dogs pile up together in pursuit of game.
They’re fast, too. When you get that many hounds after a single cottontail, it’s usually going to run wide-open and straight for a while until it decides to think about shaking the dogs and circling back to its bed. And if it’s a canecutter, sit back, relax and enjoy the show. They’ll sometimes run a big swamper clear out of hearing before bringing him back. Add a check or two and some hard-to-see terrain, and we’ll sometimes listen to a race for several hours before somebody gets a shot.
This type of hunting is fun to me. I get to listen to beagles for long stretches make big loops and figure-8s all over the countryside through large spans of briars. Unfortunately, and the reality of it is, this type of long-range rabbit hunting is getting tougher and tougher to do in the Piedmont area of Georgia.
Keith Fielder of Eatonton is the Putnam County county-extension agent, and he’s learning to evolve to a changing landscape around the Lake Oconee area, where shopping malls and subdivisions are covering what used to be rabbit-hunting land. Keith says hunting smaller tracts of land with only two beagles is becoming more common, and it’s an effective way to have some great small-scale rabbit races.
“With two beagles you don’t push a rabbit near as hard, they don’t make as big a circle, you don’t run them slam out of the country and you keep the rabbit and dogs on the property,” said Keith.
Keith said 500-acre-plus tracts of land are getting harder to find in his neck of the woods, thanks to the big bump in interest from folks wanting to leave the rat race of Atlanta.
I met Keith and his two beagles, Grace and Zippy, at daylight on a 60-plus-degree morning last month. He turned loose on the edge of a 15-acre cutover that had been re-planted in pines and was supporting some pretty attractive briars. I was curious to see if the dogs would jump a rabbit and keep it inside the cut, which was surrounded by big woods.
“At one time I had 16 dogs, and we’d sometimes turn all of them out,” said Keith. “It took a big area to run that many dogs. They ran rabbits; you may have had a half-dozen races going on at one time. You’d have a lot of long runs and rabbits moving around everywhere. It’s some fast-paced action. There’s just not a lot of places where I can feel comfortable in Georgia’s Piedmont turning out that many dogs. There’s no way I’d turn out eight or nine dogs on a 12- to 15-acre tract with just routine traffic that’s on a county road these days.”
One of the hounds opened up about the time Keith saw a rabbit slipping out the back door of a briar patch. Hounds and rabbit took off down the hill and turned right, going straight away from us. As they made their ascent back up the hill, only about 100 yards away, we both were sure the dogs were fixing to push the cottontail back our way. Two minutes later I was slipping into an old roadbed and saw the rabbit just down the hill.
Busted. I stayed still as the dogs shot up the hill toward me right where the rabbit had been. One minute later the rabbit popped into the road I was standing in and began to tip away in the opposite direction. I shouldered my .410 shotgun and fired. The cottontail took off through the briars.
“It looked like I hit that joker,” I thought to myself, but I couldn’t find a dead rabbit anywhere.
The dogs were working a check, or the area they lost the rabbit’s scent, below me, so I worried that too much time had elapsed and the rabbit would likely escape this race.
Keith made his way up to me, and we called the hounds in and put them on the last place I saw the rabbit. Keith and I stood together and watched as the dogs picked up what we believed was the check and silently hunted with happy-tail syndrome down through the briars on what looked like where the rabbit had gone.
“These smaller, four-, eight-, 10-, 15-acre tracts are typically overlooked by a lot of folks,“ said Keith. “People are looking for a lot bigger areas to rabbit hunt. We typically see the size of clearcuts being reduced, too. With timber companies selling off their lands in the Piedmont, you don’t see the super-sized cuts as much anymore.
“You can find smaller clearcuts in the Piedmont areas on public land. Hopefully we can find some on national-forest land. They tell me they’re going to start doing a little timber management. On WMAs, and even private tracts, you can find these small areas that are in three to five years of succession. Some of these smaller spots may not have a bunch of rabbits in them, but you can get some work for your dogs.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never seen it before, but Keith’s hound, Grace, was headed my way with my rabbit in her mouth. The only rabbits I have ever seen in a beagle’s mouth were the ones getting shredded to pieces; man… I hate that. We had our first rabbit after a short, small-scale rabbit race through a small clearcut.
“If you turn seven to 10 dogs loose on a place like this, every rabbit you have will probably go off the property line, and that’s something you don’t want to happen,” said Keith. “And if you put that many dogs behind a buck rabbit, forget it; he’ll go slam out of hearing and across half the county and then come back and be a quarter of a mile in front of the dogs.”
Buck rabbits are known for long-distance runs, but Keith said you can actually hunt these big bucks on small tracts — using two dogs, of course.
“We used to have some 30- to 50-acre tracts on the Ocmulgee River in Monroe County,” said Keith. “We had patches of greenbriar, and we would take one or two dogs purposely to run these buck rabbits. We’d take them on a leash from briar patch to briar patch. The dogs would jump a buck rabbit and make a 100-yard circle, if it would run that far. It would just kind of tip along in front of the dogs as they made a circle back to their briar patch.”
Not long after the aforementioned hunt, Keith returned to the Ocmulgee River bottom with a big pack beagles.
“They took off, and it was nothing but a running derby,” said Keith. “They took the buck rabbit out of hearing, and it was 200 or 300 yards in front of the dogs. It really proved the effectiveness of hunting with only two dogs.”
Keith and I eased along on this slow-paced rabbit hunt. It gave us an excellent opportunity to chat. Keith and his wife, Rose Anne, are hunter-safety instructors. In fact, this summer they taught my niece, Savannah, who killed her first deer this year.
“This small-scale type of rabbit hunting is suitable for a young, beginning hunter, a small kid who wants to keep up with mom and dad,” said Keith. “It won’t wear them out; they get to hear the dogs run and have the chance to take a rabbit. It’s an opportunity for a young person to get out and hunt without keeping up with a big pack of hounds on 400 acres of land.”
Keith’s medium-speed beagles nosed rabbit No. 2 and ran him in a beautiful circle, right down the edge of the clearcut but never outside the 15-acre block we were hunting. This time Keith connected on the loping rabbit.
“With only two dogs these rabbits will just hop around in front of the dogs,” said Keith. “They may run a decent distance, but they shouldn’t leave the property. That rabbit ran the edge and never got off the tract. He knew where the cover was.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have been hunting with a big pack of hounds in a narrow strip of woods and had a rabbit shoot out across open woods just to put some distance between itself and the dogs. Keith said that with today’s rabbits having extracurricular races from coyotes, it’s more reason not to pour a lot of heat to a rabbit on a small tract.
“Two dogs are going to overrun the trail and stop and pick the trail up; they’ll work it real slow,” said Keith. “When you have eight to 10 dogs out there, they rarely loose the track. It’s an effective way to move a rabbit, but nowadays a coyote-resistant rabbit won’t make a 30-yard circle and come back to its bed when it gets a lot of heat. If you put that kind of pressure on one of those rabbits, he’ll turn on the afterburner and put as much distance between him and the dogs as possible.
“If we had been pushing that rabbit I shot along that same edge with seven or eight hot-running dogs, who knows where he would have gone. With two dogs behind him, he didn’t look particularly worried when he came tipping up to me, which is the kind of movement this kind of hunting inspires.”
We sat together and let the dogs rest a while from the unusual warm weather we had last month.
“Even with two fast-running hounds this place would be difficult to hunt,” said Keith.
Beagle speeds range from Yugos to Ferraris. If all you own is fast-running dogs, you may not want to take a chance on hunting these smaller areas.
There weren’t a ton of rabbits where we were hunting, but it was certainly enough to make it worth hunting. We ran two, killed two and heard some great dog work. With temperatures in the 60s, and beagle tongues on the ground, we called it a day before lunch.
As Putnam County, and all of north Georgia, continues to grow, Keith and Rose Anne will continue to rabbit hunt small tracts of land with a pair of family beagles.
“The two of us enjoy what we do,” said Keith. “It opens doors’, my wife and I have the opportunity to go spend some quality time together and quality time with the dogs, have some good races, enjoy some good hunting, enjoy being outdoors and getting fresh air and we put a few rabbits on the table.”
As a man who loves nothing more than rabbit hunting with beagles, whether it’s two or 12, that’s one of the most refreshing statements I’ve ever heard. The future of the only big tract of land that I have left to hunt is now up in the air. Keith’s small-scale rabbit hunting gave me inspiration that the sport I love so much may just make it. I’ll just have to evolve how I do it, which sure beats the alternative.
“That’s just where I am in my life,” said Keith. “I’ve had good days in the heydays when you expect to kill 12 rabbits apiece. I enjoyed them, but that’s not where we are anymore. We’ve lost a lot of small-game habitat. We’re growing up and filling in, and what we’re doing is just a strategy to cope with urbanization.”