The old man was thinking how good it felt to be walking behind the dogs again, having been hampered by ankle surgery in mid-October. Fall and winter was not the time he would have chosen to be laid up, what with small game, large game and ducks in season. Fall and winter was the time for a southern sportsman to be on top of his game, literally, and that was hard to do when you had your ankle bone fused to your leg bones in a major surgery, now in early February, he was back in bushes and briars.
The old man had been rabbit hunting since the deer season went out in early January but doing so by riding on an ATV, that four wheeled gasoline powered machine that would go just about anywhere he could walk, however, it was not the same as walking the dogs which had been his custom for over sixty years of Januarys and Februarys. Driving that noisy, briar crushing machine down into the thickets scared the rabbits into the next county making it harder for the dogs and it wasn’t good for the habitat. The old man was glad to be walking the dogs again, even though still hobbling a bit, he was confident that they could slip up on some rabbits more quietly and have some fairly short races yielding better chances of bagging some of those mystical masters of the canes and briers converting them to menu main courses.
The young adult man was just happy to be out of the house for this day of sportsmanship with the old man and the boy. Married for several years and father of three girls then finally a boy who was now about two, he was the son of a southern sportsman who was the son of a southern sportsman who was the son of a southern sportsman and you get the idea. A unique product of the south, the young man, for his age, knew most things southern and especially most things sporting. In addition to his business of selling and installing seating and furniture into the biggest college football stadiums in the south, he was a pro staff representative for about anything sporting from fly rods to knives. While he knew a lot about most everything, he had a special love for hunting dogs, which brings me to the beagles.
We only had three dogs to put on the ground; Reba, Penny and Nila. We have had as many as forty dogs at times counting puppies. Breeding, raising and training beagles can be compared to what college football coaches go through with their players. They start with a lot of prospects and try to cull them down to a manageable number through the recruiting process which is what we do with a litter of puppies. You look them over for the characteristics that you can see, physical shape and condition, watch how they get along with each other and then which ones seems to mean business about hunting compared to which ones are easily distracted. Then you try to judge how fast they learn when they are young and estimate how much better they will get when they are older. Like football coaches, we get rid of the majority of them through this early scrutiny and the beginnings of training. Someone with lower standards that will be after lesser game can take the culls and see what they can do with them. We are going after the buck rabbit which can be compared in college football to winning the Southeastern Conference Championship, and maybe playing for the National Title in the world of rabbit hunting. There are other types of rabbits to hunt such as cotton tails and blue bellies but the cane cutting buck rabbit is the wiliest of all critters and live in the hardest places that there are to hunt. Their haunts are a combination of canes, briars of all types, mud and water. I will sum this college football analogy up by saying simply, we have to breed somewhere between eight and ten dogs to get one that makes our pack temporarily, and then we are constantly looking for better performers with no bad habits. The best performers we have had come at a ratio of about four hundred to one, which I think many college football coaches might agree that they play four hundred pretty good players to find one that might make their hall of fame and then they won’t know for sure till the playing is done over several years time. The old man had only been blessed to handle three dogs out of maybe a thousand or so that was a hall of fame keeper no matter what, all the rest had been up for sale or trade constantly. Fancy was the first hall of famer and she overlapped with a dog named Link, and both were followed in time by Rose, one of Fancy’s offspring. Now Fancy, Link and Rose were all gone; deceased of old age. Dogs like those three get to retire to live their days out on the porch and are never sold or traded. They become family members. Now today, we had three dogs, one the old man thinks is a future hall of famer, Reba, while the other two are mostly place holders till the old man’s son, who does the dog breeding and trading finds better ones. There are four of Reba’s puppies in early training now and two of them seem like they may put these other two, Nila and Penny, on the trading block or up for sale. In fact, Penny is here on trial but the old man has seen enough over the last two weeks to know she would not be bought but would be going soon back for her owner to try to sell her to someone else. So the dogs were three in number and one was a wonder dog, Reba, while the other two were place holders, which now brings me to the boy.
The boy was only eleven years old but he would be quick to remind you, his birthday was in thirteen days, the day after Valentine’s Day and then he would be twelve. A hunter since he was about three because the old man had started the boy’s dad when he was two and still in diapers. This boy had the privilege now of working the kennels; feeding dogs and keeping the kennels clean.
So here we went about mid morning after the frost had melted, three southern gentlemen of different generations dressed for a day of sport in boots, briar resistant clothes and some orange colored something somewhere. We slipped straight off into a canebrake filled with briars, and before the dogs had snaked their way fifty yards down under the briars, the younger man heard a rabbit burst through the dried debris on the swampy forest floor. The boy was assigned the task of dog handler and huntmaster in the absence of his father who had a work thing to do that day which could not be denied. So the boy called the dogs to the bed the rabbit had left and after some false starts Reba finally straightened out which way it went and they were off. The dogs ran that rabbit hard for a big loop which is the rabbit’s normal practice, running in circles if they are true to their nature. The hunters couldn’t see it but just beyond the thicket they were in, there was a sinkhole with water standing in the mud, and that buck rabbit went in there trying to confuse the dogs who had not even bobbled on following the trail so far. When the dogs got to the muddy water they did get stymied but just for a moment and Reba figured it out, so the buck rabbit made a short circle and went back through the mud. After the rabbit had circled through the mud maybe five or six times, even Reba couldn’t figure out which trail to take out of there, so the boy called them off thinking we will come back and get this big shot of the briars before the day is over.
Shortly, the younger of the threesome stepped near a rabbit’s bed and the dogs were right there and opened up, barking every breath immediately. As that rabbit left the bed he ran a short circle coming back quickly; the boy missed a shot on him and then of all things, the old man missed two shots turning the rabbit up the hill and out of the swamp. The old man motioned for the boy to move up on the hillside and try to get a shot as the rabbit was a cottontail and might stay up on the hill. The boy barely got settled up the hill when the rabbit came slipping back down having doubled on his trail. The boy missed again as the dogs were trying to figure out the double and the rabbit went flying when he saw the boy raise his twenty gauge pump gun. In a few minutes the dogs ran out the double and chased the cottontail further up the hill almost out of hearing and then they hushed. The boy went to see about them and found that the rabbit had climbed into a hollow so he decided to lead the dogs back to the swamp where we could maybe run another buck rabbit.
Back in the bottom, the place where they were was mostly open except for one pretty good sized briar clump so that’s where Reba headed. The old girl didn’t waste time looking for a rabbit out in the open; she knew from experience of four years that they would be hidden from the coyotes and bobcats in some thick spot. Reba went in on one side of the clump while Penny entered the other end. Nila was back out in the open woods because she only liked to go into the briars when she had a rabbit running in front of her and she was lazy about jumping her own rabbits to run, content to let Reba do the hunting. The old man had lectured the boy on the way to the woods that morning that when the dogs opened up on a rabbit to stop and sit dead still where he was if he was near to where the dogs opened. In the instance now being described, the old man saw the rabbit in the thickest part of the briars slipping away from Penny who was whimpering as she followed that rabbit’s trail while at the same time the cottontail was headed straight at Reba who was only a few feet away in the thick stuff as Penny’s whimpering had attracted her attention. The old man got a big kick out seeing Penny coming in behind the rabbit while the rabbit in trying to escape was slipping directly at Reba who exploded with one of her patented bellows of sound that a real rabbit dog makes when a rabbit is seen, mostly they whimper when trailing and bark when the rabbit is running unseen out in front of them; somehow they find another few thousand decibels of sound in their voice when they have what is called a sight chase. A rare thing, a lengthy sight race, but here the old man had the rabbit exploding out of the briar clump into several hundred yards of open ground with two maniacal beagles coming hard on a sight race and all of this attracted Nila who cut into the race only a few feet behind the rabbit going berserk with her barking. The old man raised his gun to shoot but with the dogs so close he would be shooting just over their heads; he lowered his gun and looked for the boy who had already chosen his stand and was sitting on a stump dead still waiting on the rabbit to circle. That race lasted only maybe one minute as the rabbit did circle and head straight back to the briar clump and in so doing presented an open shot to the boy and though the cottontail was running in high gear it was no match for the twenty gauge handled by the boy. The race was over in one shot. As the boy showed the rabbit to the dogs he said let’s go back and get that buck rabbit.
Off we went back to check on the buck rabbit that fooled us at first, and our younger adult friend all but stepped on him in the canebrake. The dogs scorched him on a long loop to the creek and back towards his bedding area. The old man had him flanked on the east and the boy had him on the west, but he slipped through and went straight back to the bed. It was so thick in those canes interspersed with tall briars that the younger man couldn’t see him. Reba and the two girls stayed on him like they were tied to him with a string. The old man was watching close on the east side of the muddy hole where that buck rabbit gave them the slip earlier, with the boy on the other side sort of hiding behind a big oak tree. When the buck rabbit left the bed area the second time, that scoundrel broke out of the canes just east of the mud and the old man saw him flinch when the boy shot the first time and then saw the rabbit’s white belly as the boy’s second shot flipped him into a one and a half with a full twist, thumping him to the ground, graveyard dead. The old man could see the boy with the pump gun, the rabbit in the air and Reba and the girls coming with ears flying, barking every breath, all in the same viewing. The wily wizard of the woods, a cane cutting buck rabbit, was felled to the frying pan by an eleven year old boy and three black creek beagle bitches which were really rabbit running machines. It was an awesome sight and a proper time to call for a lunch break.
One of the highlights of every rabbit hunt is lunch, and this day was no exception considering that the old man had brought some homemade chicken tortilla soup which was made with his wife’s Southern Living recipe and some tortilla chips. The younger man brought some secret recipe cheese and sausage rolls which his bride had gotten up early and made for our benefit. The old man also had brought some Mary B buttered biscuits stuffed with some real homemade preserved Georgia grown figs about as big as a half dollar that would make your tongue slap your eyeballs. Those figs made the younger man pontificate on all the fig preserves he had enjoyed over his lifetime starting back when he was a child and then describe some memorable hunt lunches. The old man enjoyed hearing a southern sporting man discuss his heritage. Who would want to hear someone tell about the high times of their youth spent going to the mall or some gizmo electronics they had played which is what many kids of today’s generation will have to tell about?
It made the old man’s heart warm watching the boy handle the dogs and serve as huntmaster, especially when the younger man said, “there’s not enough eleven year old boys handling hunting dogs to keep the sport going. I’m glad to be able to see this boy coming along.”
When the younger man made a fine shot on the last race, we called it a day. The old man told the boy how well he had done filling in for his dad, handling the dogs and managing the hunt, even promised him a milk shake on the way home, but the boy was asleep before the two of them got to the paved road. He didn’t budge till the old man shook him awake at the kennels.
And so it goes in the southern woods during February, big doings for a young huntmaster.
Written by: Bill Prince, February 2, 2013 © All Rights Reserved