by Gord Follett
Partridge hunting, in my humble opinion, is the most enjoyable form of outdoor recreation offered in these parts.
Although I’ve never had what one would describe as a “good” bird dog, I’ve spent enough time on the barrens with setters to appreciate the opportunity of watching them work. And when they stand, the feeling is… well, it’s tough to describe. Bird hunters know where I’m coming from.
But between my mediocre setters and lack of birds on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland – although reports indicate they’re making a relatively healthy comeback, particularly on the Southern Shore – I decided a couple of years ago to give rabbit hunting a more serious look. The snowshoe hare was quite plentiful after all, and I didn’t have to travel are – either by foot or by vehicle to get a few. In other words, it was far more feasible in my neck of the woods to focus my small game hunting attention on rabbits, though I still relish the occasional opportunity to cover the barrens in search of ptarmigan.
At first, until I began to truly admire the sport of rabbit hunting, I went with friends and their dogs… when they were available. But I wanted to go whenever the mood struck me and conditions were there, and of course you can’t always do that when you have to depend on somebody else.
Last fall I purchased my first Beagle and I was quite impressed with this young hound. And although I took to this sport instantly, I quickly realized that eight or nine starts a day would be too much to expect from one young dog, and hunting with a lone hound obviously won’t produce the same action as with two or three Beagles.
What to do? Get another dog, of course.
Friend Andrea Bassan mentioned that his father Peter had some fine young Beagles from excellent hunting stock, and that he may be willing to part with one.
Peter didn’t have to try any “sales pitches” once I saw – and heard – this 16-month-old hound in action. Started at less than five months – and from champion stock to boot – I knew Rocky had a full-time hunting partner the first time I took “Domi” for a test run. His long, heavy howl would probably start as many bears as rabbits.
I ran the dogs on several occasions during the weeks leading up to the season opening, and by the time they had their last two training runs, they were finally spending more hours hunting as a team, as opposed to being on separate hares at the same time.
With my hunting gear all checked, cleaned and ready to go, not to mention two anxious hounds in the pen, the final days leading up to the start of the season seemed to pass ever-so-slowly.
When the sun finally began to present itself on Oct. 9, the sound of collar bells broke the morning silence as the hounds hopped out of the truck and answered their calls to Nature.
Okay, this is it boys: “Get’em out!”
And off they went.
This was also an opportunity for me to test my new custom in-the-ear “Sound Scopes,” a tiny electronic hearing protection device which also allows you to pick up the smallest of sounds while hunting.
I learned several months earlier that sometime over the previous few years I had suffered irreparable nerve damage in my inner ears, likely from rifle and shotgun blasts. The first option the specialist suggested was to quit hunting.
Well, that’s not going to happen. Next option?
I eventually agreed to jam plugs in my ears while hunting, even though I realized this would present another dilemma: I had trouble hearing the dogs and my hunting partners at the best of times, so how on earth could I expect to pick out sounds with my ears plugged?
Two months before the ’99 season got under way, co-worker Michael Wells suggested I pay a visit to Andrew Burns of the Newfoundland Hearing Health Center in Mount Pearl.
“What I need,” I told Andrew, “is something that will help me hear the dogs and their bells, along with other sounds around me in the woods, yet I want it to act like a plug the instant the gun goes off. When they invent something like that, let me know.”
“They already have,” he said, “The Sound Scope.” The sound of gunfire is reduced, while important environmental sounds are enhanced.
“It’s not called a hearing aid,” he quickly added, noticing my reluctance to wear such a device at the tender age of 41. “These are designed for hunters, trap shooters, target practice and so on. You don’t wear them at home or at the office.”
I was fitted for a pair of Scopes and received them a week later. Testing them during pre-season runs with the dogs, I was pleasantly surprised by the sounds I was picking up, particularly those of the dogs’ bells, which in recent years I couldn’t hear from much more than 10 meters away.
On this season-opening morning, though, as the dogs were diligently searching for a rabbit, I was equally concerned about the “protection” aspect of the Scopes.
Domi and Rocky were in the woods less than 30 seconds when I heard the heart-pumping and unistakable sound of a hound on a hare. It was Domi, and he was joined within a matter of seconds by Rocky.
“A fine start to the morning indeed,” Dwight commented before heading towards a bog 50 meters west. Sure enough, three or four minutes later the rabbit hopped out of the bushes and Dwight fired just as the huge hare hit the bog. One in the bag already. Dandy.
The dogs followed up for a sniff shortly after and we brought them to the other side of the bog. They were gone about 10 minutes when Rocky let out a few yelps.
“They’re inside a fair distance, off to the right,” Dwight said, remembering the previous season when I often had trouble detecting the general direction of the dogs’ howls.
“I know!” I said enthusiastically. “I can hear them as plain as day. They’re circling and heading back towards the trail. Get ready; that rabbit will be coming out…”
“That fella was certainly flyin’,” Dwight said as he scurried to the edge of the woods to see if the hare was hit. Then he glanced back: “I was fairly close to you when I fired. Was that hard on your ears?”
“No sire-e,” I responded proudly. “They clicked off the instant the gun was fired and clicked back on again right after…
“Hang on… listen,” I said joking, “I can hear the rabbit scratching himself about 200 yards inside the woods.”
The hounds were still in pursuit, with hot-scented Rocky tonguing just enough to let us know he was still on the rabbit, and Domi howling like a banshee. The hare circled twice more over the next 25 minutes before offering a shot. I raised my 12-gauge over-and-under and waited for the slow-moving creature to hop into a clearing to my left, then pulled the trigger.
I waited for the howling hounds to get close enough for another sniff (chomp) of the furry creature before putting it in the bag and moving a few hundred meters along the trail where I told them once again to “Get ‘em out!”
They had two more starts over the next 30-40 minutes but neither myself, Dwight, or his brother-in-law, Wilf Lundrigan and Bob MacKinnon, were able to get a clean shot. Once the tonguing stopped for more than 20 minutes, the dogs were leased and brought to a cutover, where they went their separate ways and each got a rabbit going.
Dwight, Wilf, and Bob followed Rocky’s howls further inside, while I retraced my steps back to a clearing where Domi appeared to be heading. His howls were getting closer as I stood at the edge with my thumb on the safety. Then, like something shot out of a cannon, the young hare flew by. I fired but the animal continued unharmed across the clearing and into the trees.
Not wanting the dogs to make a habit of going their separate ways, I grabbed Domi as he searched to regain the scent and released him on Rocky’s rabbit. Dwight bagged that bunny after a 20-minute chase and I shot one shortly after, bringing the count to four by nine o’clock.
Despite three more starts over the next 90 minutes, our good fortune had taken a late-morning break. Each rabbit took the dogs well into the forest before shifting into high gear and shaking them. Oh well, three more to search for later in the season.
We followed a moose trail – with plenty of fresh tracks and droppings – to a small stretch of barrens where Domi got another hare going and Rocky quickly joined in the chorus. Wilf fired two shots as the rabbit sprang out in front of him, but he was too close to give the shot a chance to spread.
A short time later both dogs continued to circle a low, bushy evergreen. As I peered inside I was surprised to see the tiny hare running around the base of the tree as if playing with the dogs. Then it sprang out, with Domi bouncing right behind; much too close for either of us to fire.
“Over here, Gord; they just ran over here!” Dwight’s son Joshua shouted, pointing to a marshy area just beyond the barrens. The dogs lost and picked up the rabbit again several times over the next hour, until Lady Luck rejoined Dwight and No. 5 – his third – was in the bag. In fact, the next three hares would be his as well, plus a grouse to boot.
As good as the day was shaping up, we decided to call it quits around 1:30 when I noticed Domi trying to keep his right front paw off the ground. He still wanted to hunt, however, and I had to chase him into the woods and practically jump him in order to snap the leash on.
I didn’t notice blood or any object stuck in his paw, but rather than risk aggravating his injury, I decided to rest him and bring him to the vet.
While cleaning the rabbits at the cabin later that Saturday afternoon, Dwight asked me to hand him a beer when I was ready, adding with a grin; “you’ll have your rabbits finished long before all of mine are done.”
Indeed I did, but I can say in all sincerity that I was just as satisfied and proud of the dogs that day as if I’d shot every hare myself.
Monday morning, I took Rocky for a couple of hours around Paddy’s Pond, where we had four starts and came home with two rabbits. As this issue went to press less than two weeks later, Domi was back on four healthy legs and he and Rocky had another 18 hares between them under their collars. I ask you; is there a better sport than rabbit hunting?
Okay, one. Maybe.