by Bill Bennett
The bright morning winter sunlight leaves a false impression of warmth across the clear blue sky along the St. Francis River bottoms. The temperature hovers slightly above the freezing mark as you turn into the narrow driveway of Johnson’s Country Store & Service Station. The stark white building with its’ twin orange gas pumps standing guard near the front door looks out of place in this isolated river bottom land of the Delta. A stranger would not suspect its post office and myriad of human necessities stacked on old-fashioned shelves until crossing the weather worn threshold of the front door.
A large black pot-bellied wood-burning stove stands in the right corner, surrounded by a half-dozen unmatched chairs. Even though they are now empty, the chairs proudly proclaim their silent authority as kingly thrones for local folks who profess to be experts on everything from world politics to master guides of the best hunting and fishing places this side of Alaska. The distinct smell of wood smoke mingles with the odor of spices and a variety of sandwich meats as you and your friend Joe Stevens survey the dimly lit room.
Joe moves easily toward the counter as you search the old style lift top soft drink box for your favorite beverage. The muscular middle-aged storekeeper politely hands Joe a box of number 6, twelve guage shotgun shells as requested. Joe is one hundred eighty pounds, distributed on a six-foot frame, and towers over the counter as he reaches for his wallet. His soft gray eyes light up his grayish beard covered face with a grin as the store keepers asks if the twenty-five count box of shells will be enough to get him through the days hunt. Joe smiles and responds in his pronounced Southern Missouri drawl, the store keeper might best keep the front door open for him to return later for another box.
As you move toward the counter to pay for your soft drink, Joe throws another one-dollar bill on the counter top and pushes your handful of coins aside. He jokingly tells you the one-dollar is his total contribution to the trip expenses as his face lights up with a wide grin. Dressed in insulated coveralls and blaze orange cap, he has the appearance of a long lost country boy, totally within his element, rather than a sophisticated college professor employed by the local university. Your friendship spans a decade of varied experiences, from hunting and fishing excursions to resolving people problems in the human services field. Joe exhibits the high intellect expected of a college professor and at the same time retains his southern country boy demeanor with a passion for the outdoors. His personality is the perfect combination of higher education with the ability to maintain the common touch with people.
Minutes later you turn west off the blacktop highway onto the gravel road leading to the Jackson Farm. The ungraded road is filled with countless bumps as the pickup truck bounces along the remaining two miles to the entry of the farm tucked between a gentle sloping hill and a huge Corps of Engineers constructed ditch.
The rough narrow road takes you across two rickety wooden bridges traversing large drainage ditches. The wooden planks in the second structure creak as the weight of the pick-up slowly creeps across to the opposite side. Joe’s face reflects a sigh of relief as the truck tires strike the relative safety of solid ground.
A scant two hundred yards from the bridge, you swing the truck onto the deserted narrow levee road, which serves as he access to the farm. The road is guarded on both sides by stands of white oak and sugar maple trees; their bare limbs bidding you a silent welcome. Scattered beneath the trees are thick blankets of green honeysuckle vines, winter killed Bermuda grass and briar patches.
You pull off the levee road onto a nearly invisible field road and shut off the motor. In the quiet you can hear the Beagles whine softly from the carrier box in the cargo bay of the truck while you and Joe survey the surrounding terrain. The first order of business is to decide which area to hunt first.
The farm offers several options; all of them excellent choices for rabbit hunting. On your right is an overgrown farm lane stretching three quarters of a mile to the south, ending at an abandoned house. Nearly invisible from growths of Bermuda, Johnson, and sage grass as well as wild oats, the lane is used only during planting and harvesting seasons to move heavy farm equipment from one field to another. Even the ruts created by the large tires of combines and tractors have disappeared beneath a blanket of thick weeds and vegetation. The west side of the lane gently rises four feet above its twin on the opposite edge.
You scan the companion lane that leads two hundred yards to the east. This unused lane has succumbed to stands of stunted green cane stalks, thorn sprouts, briars, and a tangle of remnant grape vines. The dilapidated fencerows on both sides are nearly invisible to the casual observer. Once a proud productive grape arbor, years of neglect and the ravages of mother nature have converted its twelve foot width and two hundred yard length into a haven for rabbits, quail, song birds and a host of small creatures as it connects with a thirty acre copse of mixed hardwoods at its east end.
The mixed hardwoods are bordered by an adjoining covered fencerow that snakes its way for one-quarter mile to the south. The thirty foot wide mass of tangles joins a smaller field ditch that splits the timbered section in half from north to south. The bare limbs of the hardwoods stretch to a clear, blue sky, dotted with a few lonesome white puffballs of clouds. Giant cypress trees stand as proud reminders of this once swampy ground, now drained and overgrown with tangles of honeysuckle, acres of ten foot stands of cane, numerous briar patches, and curtains of vines hanging from the treetops like loose ropes dangling from the mast of a monstrous clipper ship. Interspersed among the giant cypress trees are sycamore, elm, sweet gum, shaggy bark hickory, red and white oak trees whose fallen leaves provide a soft carpet of flooring for a few hidden clearings. Mostly, the ground is obscured by the thick tangles of vegetation. Lying helter-skelter fashion are numerous rotted stumps and deadfalls covered with blankets of briars, dead weeds, vines, and honeysuckle patches.
Across the levee road to the north, a giant Corps of Engineers constructed ditch cuts through the flat Delta on its long silent trek to the St. Francis River, three miles to the east. Its banks are covered with sprawling honeysuckle patches, saw briars, clumps of sage grass, winter killed crab and Bermuda grass, and a host of dead weeds. Several stretches of the high banks are covered with stands of willow, water locust, cypress, elm, ash, and persimmon trees. A few white barked sycamore trees gleam in the bright sunlight in contrast to the drab grayish-brown coloring of their hardwood cousins. Thick stands of sassafras, ironwood, and black thorn sprouts stubbornly guard the embankment and bid welcome to an array of small game animals including muskrat, beaver, quail, raccoon, and rabbits.
A harvested two hundred acre soybean field hugs the western end of the huge ditch. The carpet of soybean stubble gently cascades down its west to east slope in a struggle to hold the elusive topsoil from eroding. Small fingers of thick cover stretch from the bank in a valiant attempt to reclaim the cultivated soil for mother nature, but they are no match for the army of farm machinery that keep them at bay.
You make a mental note; the Jackson’s have left a four-acre block of uncut soybeans standing thirty yards from the bank. It is obvious the area was left unharvested due to a thick growth of three-foot high, dark brown cocklebur stalks that have nearly strangled the frost killed soybean plants.
You taste the cool morning air as you and Joe quickly pull on rubber boots and blaze orange vests. Bell and Sam whine softly from the canvas covered carrier box as they sense your movements and hear your voices. Shotguns are quickly uncased from behind the seat of the truck as the Beagles signal their readiness for the hunt with wagging tails drumming against the sides of the carrier.
A weak southern breeze sets the remnant leaves on a black walnut tree rattling in a winter’s death song, as you open the carrier box door. The dogs move swiftly to the cargo bay of the truck while you suggest to Joe the hunt proceed east along the covered fencerow toward the woods. Lowering the tailgate of the truck, both dogs jump to the ground. They respond immediately to your command to check the heavy cover of the deserted grape arbor and fencerow.
You and Joe slip to the south side of the thick tangles and begin walking in the direction of the woods. The dogs search the tangle strewn area sniffing for a fresh scentline as a pair of blue birds fly to the safety of the upper branches of a bare limbed crabapple tree, protesting the invasion of men and dogs. High overhead a large flock of snow geese play follow-the-leader in a constant changing “V” formation as they move off to the south. Their honking floats through the cool, clear morning air as you adjust the bill of your blaze orange hunting cap to block out the bright morning sunlight.
As you and Joe move steadily east, the soft gumbo mud of the two hundred acre harvested rice field sucks at your boots. Your legs quickly tire from the heavy wet clogs of mud that cake to your waterproofed boots. The corner of the woods appears more distant than its two hundred yards but you both stubbornly struggle along in an effort to remain close to the dogs.
Arriving at the fencerow corner, you step onto solid ground and rest for a minute. As Joe reaches your side, Sam’s thundering bawl bounces off the silent standing timbers. Bell races toward him, leaping effortlessly over the sagging, tangled covered fenceline. Seconds later she joins her bracemate and both dogs race to the south, their chorus of howls echoing across the cool morning air. The harmony of Bell’s chopped mouth tonguing and Sam’s loud baritone bawl are tuned together like duet piano players, playing a spine tingling melody that is the purest form of music to a Beagler. You feel that familiar thrill stabbing at your heartstrings as you listen to the sounds of the race moving through the thick cover.
Joe takes a post on top of a two-foot rice levee, twenty yards from the covered fencerow while you quietly slip into the canopy of the trees. Joe flashes a wide grin as the sounds of the race moves steadily toward the south corner of the hardwoods. He tells you simply listening to the dogs working in harmony is worth the effort it takes to be outdoors. You smile back at him and take a post beneath a giant bare branched white oak tree.
The sound of the race grows dim as the dogs continue to push the rabbit in an ageless theme of predator, pursuit, and prey. Minutes later, the inevitable check screams with a deafening silence as the dogs temporarily loose the scentline. The rabbit has apparently looped sharply to the east where the smaller drainage ditch joins the woodlot. You hope the quarry will return to his “home base” instead of making a getaway into the adjoining three hundred acre cotton field on the eastern edge of the hardwoods.
You wait patiently as the minutes tick by slowly. The chattering of a fox squirrel cracks through the chilled morning air from a shaggy bark hickory tree off to your left, protesting the presence of dogs and men into his territory. The calling of a pair of blue jays answers the squirrel’s excited chatter as the minutes slip by in slow motion.
You are about to move in the direction of the dogs when Bell’s chopped mouth tonguing announces to the world she has found the scentline. Sam joins his bracemate with his loud baritone bawl as the race heads in your direction. You feel your heart pump and the palms of your hands sweat as you listen to the clamor of the hounds threading their way through the tangles of briars, thorn sprouts, and honeysuckle vines. You nervously move two steps to your left in a effort to spot the cottontail; hoping he will chance crossing a small clearing. The rabbit either sees or senses your slight mistake and hurries off to the right for the protection of the heavily covered fencerow.
“He’s headed your way, Joe!” you call out, as you watch the tops of the thick vegetation quiver in the wake of the quarry’s escape. The baying of the hounds grows louder as the blast of Joe’s shot thunders across the still morning air. You immediately know Joe missed the speeding target as you listen to the rustling sounds of the rabbit moving quickly through the thick stuff. The rustling movement stops as the rabbit approaches the safety of a vine covered deadfall twenty-five yards away.
The fresh scent fills the noses of the Beagles as they tongue excitedly along the scentline. The noise of the chase flushes a woodcock from its hiding place beneath a weed covered briar patch. It explodes skyward between two bare limbed persimmon trees like a brown ground to air missile and disappears over the canopy of the hardwoods.
Seconds later the hounds find the hiding place of the elusive cottontail. Bell tunnels beneath the vine covered white oak deadfall while Sam moves to the opposite side searching for a possible hidden escape route. Bell whines and barks in frustration, as she smells the fresh scent coursing beneath the honeysuckle vines. Sam gives up his scouting mission and joins her. Both dogs try to dislodge the rabbit from his vine-covered fortress. The smart late-season rabbit has apparently decided to barricade himself in the safety of a hole beneath the rotted log evidenced by the sounds of the dogs pawing the dirt in an effort to dig him out.
Five minutes later both dogs poke their heads above the mass of vegetation for a breath of fresh air. You walk toward them, talking in a smooth tone of voice, assuring them its OK for the rabbit to remain hidden in the safety of the hole. Both dogs protest as leashes are placed around their necks. You lead them in the direction of a stand of ten-foot tall green cane stalks. Seconds later another race is underway; the frustration of the cottontail hidden beneath the vine covered log instantly becomes a forgotten memory in the minds of the dogs.
The next two races end with the cottontails taking refuge in holes beneath thick tangled covered deadfalls. The races have been great with scenting conditions nearly ideal. But the availability of a myriad of holes beneath the massive vegetation has left the dogs frustrated and opportunities for filling the gamebags woefully lacking as you and Joe lead the dogs in the direction of the truck.
Reaching the truck, the dogs are quickly loaded into the carrier box as Joe breaks out a plastic bag containing bologna sandwiches and a cooler of soft drinks. The early lunch provides a much-needed rest, a lift of spirits, and time to plan a different hunt strategy. Perched on the lowered tailgate of the truck, you both survey the surrounding terrain and enjoy one another’s company. You slip two pieces of white bread from a plastic bag and give the Beagles a treat. They respond by drumming their wagging tails against the walls of the fiberglass carrier and quickly gobble down the tasty morsels.
The mid-morning sun is bright and the air is crystal clear as a soft whisper of a south breeze stirs the burnt brown remnant leaves of a nearby red oak tree. A flicker of white movement among the short brown crab grass in the middle of the lane to the south catches your eye. A closer inspection reveals a family of meadowlarks searching for seeds. A marsh hawk floats quietly overhead on silent thermo winds in a never-ending search for survival.
Your thoughts turn again to the hunt. You wonder out loud if the uncut soybeans choked with the dark brown cocklebur stalks might hold some rabbits. Located between the levee road and the giant ditch bank, it is surrounded by short soybean stubble. Perhaps it is totally void of game or if rabbits are using the cover they might simply run in short circles and refuse to cross the openings.
Deciding the possibilities are worth an effort, you place the empty soft drink cans in a plastic bag and store the items behind the seat of the truck. Refreshed from the short lunch rest, Bell and Sam eagerly bounce off the tailgate. They trot ten feet ahead as you and Joe slowly walk across the levee road in the direction of the dark brown cocklebur stalks.
The soybean stubble crunches beneath your feet as Joe takes a post at the bottom of the gently sloping field near the large ditch. If a rabbit breaks for the cover of the ditch, the twenty-yard open area will offer a challenging target.
Reaching the halfway point along the south edge of the cocklebur stalks you whistle to the Beagles, point with your left hand at the cover, and give the command to “check”. Sam and Bell quickly disappear into the mass of stalks, sniffing the ground and showing their excitement with wagging tails. The thick mixture of tall dark brown stalks and nearly invisible soybean plants swallows them from view. You track them by the wagging tops of the thick vegetation.
Before you can load your twelve-guage shotgun, Bell and Sam open together with a chorus of howls announcing a fresh found scentline. As they race to the east, you watch Joe lift his shotgun as not one but two rabbits sprint across the open stubble and disappear into a honeysuckle patch laced with yellow stemmed Johnson grass at the edge of the large ditch bank. Joe shakes his head and readies himself again for the next target.
As Bell barks on a hot scentline, Sam bawls on a separate line off to the left. Joe raises his gun again as two more rabbits streak twenty yards in front of him toward the ditch. His first shot drops one of the speeding targets in a heap. The second shot spins the other rabbit in the air. It somersaults from the impact of the blast and lies still in the shallow furrow.
Sam’s thundering bawl heads in your direction as a glimpse of movement catches your eye near the edge of the thick cover. A cottontail momentarily hesitates. Fearing the open area, he darts back into the protection of the cockleburs. You can trace his movements by the wiggling tops of vegetation. He is headed in the direction of Joe’s post. Without warning, another cottontail breaks from the cover on your left and streaks across the short stubble in the general direction of the levee road. A shot from your twelve-guage pump drops the speeding target before it can reach some sparse cover forty yards away.
The Beagles join forces again as the cottontails weave their way through the tick brown cover. Several blasts from Joe’s twelve-guage tell you rabbits continue crossing the open stubble for the safety of the ditch. At the same time, rabbits break from corners of the four acre block of cover; some offering reasonable targets; most out of shotgun range. An hour of this test of quick reflexes, good marksmanship, and constant howling Beagles results in Joe bagging six rabbits and your game bag is heavy with four.
Hot on another scentline, Bell and Sam work the cover thirty yards in front of you as Joe walks purposefully in your direction. “Out of shells!” he exclaims, as you hand him a half dozen shells from your vest. The dogs turn the rabbit in your direction. Quickly loading his gun, you let Joe have the opportunity for the shot. He puts the rabbit down with one shot as a second rabbit speeds to the right. You find the bobbing, brindle-brown target in the sight picture and pull the trigger. The sound of the shot carries across the open stubble as the rabbit lies still at the edge of a shallow depression. You eject the empty hull and deftly catch it in your right hand and place it in your pocket.
The Beagles follow the scentline of the rabbit to its resting place and account for the bunny by quickly mouthing the quarry. Sam picks it up in his mouth and with his tail held high, swaggers over to you and drops his prize at your feet. The unmistakable smirk in his eyes tells you he is pleased with himself.
As you slip the rabbit into your game vest, Joe nods in agreement as you suggest, calling it a day. Even the dogs are weary, evidence by their lack of protest to the leashes coming out. As you head in the direction of the truck you observe the numerous cockleburs clinging to the dogs. The small pin-like sticker covered burs are matted in the tall hairs and coats. Neither seems to be in any discomfort as you arrive at the truck. Together, you and Joe remove the aggravating burs from each dog. You carefully inspect each paw and foot for hidden burs lodged between the toes, which could result in pain, and lameness. Other than bits of caked mud, nothing is found and you load both Beagles into the carrier box.
Short work is made of cleaning the game and placing it in plastic bags. Storing your hunting garb in a waterproof bag and placing your cased shotgun behind the seat of the truck, you change into dry shoes and socks. You climb behind the steering wheel, totally exhausted but relaxed as Joe hands you a cold soft drink from the cooler.
The excitement in Joe’s voice is uncontained as he tells you how much he enjoyed the hunt and the marvelous work of the dogs. Deep down, you feel the warm satisfaction that comes from sharing the outdoors with a companion; the opportunity provided by your Beagles. You will tuck this experience away in a memory bank hidden in the back of your mind. You can only wonder what adventure your Beagles will provide next.