We were 45 minutes into a steady, hot rabbit run. Thanks to a pack of well-trained beagles, this particular swamp rabbit was having a tough time trying to end the race.
Scott Hulsey from Maysville, long-time swamp-rabbit hunter, had three males on the ground, and I had two females in there with them. Standing still in shin-deep water, twice I heard the big rabbit take the dogs nearly out of hearing.
I stayed put, trying to catch a glimpse of brown fur through the privet in front of me. I was looking hard, too. All five beagles were bawling with excitement about 100 yards in front of me as they splashed loudly through the swamp. I froze, knowing a wise swamp rabbit knows how to dodge a load of No. 6s much better than his smaller cousin, the cottontail.
Michael Russell of Winder, the other hunter in our party of three for the day, had just rolled his first swamp rabbit 60 yards down from me.
“Dang, that rabbit was way in front of the dogs,” I thought.
“I have killed swamp rabbits when I could barely hear the dogs,” Scott had told me earlier that day.
Sure enough, the dogs were headed right toward Michael, so I sloshed my way across a small creek and through several inches of standing water to Michael. He held up a small swamp rabbit.
“That ain’t the rabbit the dogs were running,” said Scott.
Michael and I looked at each other in confusion.
“How do you know that?” Michael asked.
“That rabbit ain’t wet,” Scott said.
Geez…. you wouldn’t have thought it would have taken a veteran swamp-rabbit hunter to tell you that, but it sure became obvious when he said it. Apparently, the junior swamp rabbit was tipping away from the commotion of the race when Michael intercepted it with a spray of lead.
Shortly after Michael shot, the dogs lost the track of the big rabbit they’d spent 45 minutes chasing. It seems the swamp rabbit had fooled the dogs, and would live to run another race, another day.
This trip took place in late December in Jackson County. Scott called me last year after I did a rabbit story with Larry Marchinton, and he’s been inviting me to go chase swamp rabbits, or canecutters as he calls them, ever since. I’m mainly a cottontail man, although I’ve dabbled in swamp-rabbit hunting. If you’ve never done it, it’s one heck of an adventure for hunter and dog.
“Canecutters run different than a cottontail,” said Scott. “Canecutters run a lot farther, they run faster, they run longer and they’re smarter. You can’t make a noise when these things are coming at you. You won’t ever see them.
“He’ll slip through the swamp and get so far in front of the dogs that when he comes up on you, he’s just slipping through there. It’s kind of like you’re deer hunting. I just love doing it.”
If you’ve never seen a big canecutter, their size will take your breath away. According to the University of Georgia’s Museum of Natural History’s website, mature swamp rabbits will range from 17.7- to 21.7-inches in length and weigh between 4 1/4 and six pounds. A mature cottontail averages between 14.2- and 16.9-inches long and weighs between two and four pounds.
The website also says you can identify canecutters by a black spot present between the ears and their bluntly rounded ears. They can be found in Georgia north of a line that stretches from Elbert, Putnam, Houston and Clay counties. Above that line, you’re likely to find swamp rabbits if you’ve got the right habitat.
“They’re restricted to that swamp-type habitat,” said WRD biologist Nick Nicholson. “You can find them locally abundant in creek bottoms and in the larger floodplain areas. There are some areas that don’t seem to have as many, but you’ve got the same thing with cottontails, too.”
Scott said the canecutters need standing water and plenty of cover. We hunted a grown-up powerline that had a series of creeks going through it, and it sat at the bottom of a pasture where rain water collected. It was covered with briars and broomsedge, and the place looked to be covered up with swamp rabbits.
“When you get into swamps and start seeing rabbit pills up on stumps, you know you’ve got canecutters,” said Nick. “That’s one good way to know there are swamp rabbits around. They just have a habit of sitting up on elevated objects and defecating. They run on these logs, too.”
If you’ve got a beaver pond or a duck-hunting spot that you can get access to, you may want to consider giving these hot-running swampers a try. However, Scott says that not every good-running rabbit dog is cut out for canecutter races.
“It’s such a harder challenge for your dogs, due to the fact the rabbit runs in the water, sometimes over head deep. It takes a rare breed of dog to hit that water over their head.”
Scott runs medium to large beagles. He said the larger breeds run a little quicker and are able to keep up with the faster-running canecutter.
“With a slow dog, the rabbit will get so far out in front of the dog that you’ll never see the rabbit,” said Scott.
The other challenge to the dogs is trying to follow a scent across pockets of water.
“When that rabbit hits the water, he’s got a body scent that lays on the surface,” said Scott. “It floats on it like an oil. When the dogs hit the water, they’re following that. A swamp rabbit will hit moving water, too.
“That scent will get washed downstream, and the dogs may come out on the bank 10 feet below where the rabbit really went out. He’s like a prisoner trying to escape. They’re smart. These ain’t ordinary rabbits.”
If you think you’ve got the dogs that’ll handle a fast-paced race, but don’t have a private swamp to hunt, Scott said there are still places for you to run canecutters this month.
“We’re real big in to the WMA hunting,” said Scott. “We hunt the Redlands, Clybel, Hart County, Wilson Shoals and Lake Russell.”
Scott said that public-land canecutters receive very little pressure from the public.
“Nobody ever goes in there because people usually don’t want to go walk around in a swamp,” said Scott. “Plus, the swamps are usually farther from the road than people like to walk. I don’t know of any swamp on a WMA where you can just pull up your truck and start hunting. We go to a place on the Redlands, and it’s close to a mile walk.”
When I think about the most pressured WMA for rabbits, Clybel immediately pops into mind.
“Clybel is good behind those lakes,” said Scott. “Those are areas most people never think about rabbit hunting. You can go down there right now, and there are places people haven’t taken their dogs. I guarantee you.”
Hunting swamp rabbits isn’t just rough on a dog.
“It’s physical on everybody. It’s rough in that swamp,” said Scott. “You better wear your rubber boots.”
I wore my rubber boots and got bogged down in some of the soupiest muck you could imagine. When I tried to take a step, I came right out of my boot and fell over on my side. There’s nothing like being wet and muddy when it’s about 35 degrees out. Be prepared, it can be rough in the swamp.
“It’s just something that I’ve always done, and I’ve got guys that ask me all the time to take them to the swamp. I’m
telling you, once you do it, you just get addicted to it,” said Scott.