by Gord Follett
One would assume that the older you get, the more indifferent you become towards a particular event or activity. Take birthdays, for example; they’re not such a big thing to most of us anymore. And “booking the couch” for the first televised game of the National Hockey League season isn’t quite the treat it was 10-15 years ago.
“Mellowing with age,” I think they call it.
Well, perhaps this is where I should skip straight to the actual hunt, for this 44-year-old was anything but nonchalant during the weeks and days leading up to the opening of the 2001 snowshoe hare hunting season. “Like a kid at Christmas,” is the familiar term that comes to mind.
The main reason for my passion overdose, particularly on this Oct. 12 morning, was a package I had received from the United States four months earlier. Actually, its was a plastic kennel containing two eight-week-old male Beagles from the Mojave Desert Beagles kennel in sunny California.
You’ll no doubt be reading more about Cassius and Clay in future issues of the Newfoundland Sportsman Magazine and here on the BEAGLES UNLIMITED Magazine, but during this, their first season, my primary attention was basically to continue their training routine – individually, as a brace, and with small packs – then hopefully, as the season progressed, shoot a few hares over them. I’d convinced myself not to allow my expectations to run high, at least until next season, even though the pups were improving with each and every run heading into the season.
With me on opening day were friends and veteran hare hunters Tony and Gary Vinnicombe, along with Jimmy Harding. Tony, who was instrumental in helping me get the pups “started” on rabbits when they were five months old, had in the kennel his seasoned female hound Pepper and 18-month-old Jenny, who was also showing great promise over the previous four weeks. Jimmy took two of his Beagles, Dukey and Ducky, ages three and six, respectively.
At first light the tailgate was dropped and we leashed six anxious hounds before walking them half a mile down Old Track in Blaketown, where we had done reasonably well on a few outings the previous season, and letting them loose. Within minutes Dukey opened up on a hare and the others quickly honored her find by joining in the chase. Soon four of the dogs were tonguing, with Clay keeping up and letting out the occasional bark and Cassius, unfamiliar with Jimmy’s hounds, back at my feet, where he stayed for the first few runs until joining his brother with the others later in the morning.
We bumped into another hunter, whose dogs heard our hounds and decided to investigate, when the hare hopped onto the rail. Tony quickly raised his semi-automatic 12-gauge and fired. The season’s first rabbit was in the bag.
“Now that we got that one, we should get the dogs and move away from the other hunters,” Jimmy suggested.
Ducky, however, had other plans and could be heard howling in the distance.
“She’s not gonna come back until we shoot that rabbit,” he said, so we unclipped the others to assist. For almost 30 minutes that hare managed to elude us until the dogs ran it through a marsh and into a stand of spaced spruce trees, where Tony fired his second shot of the day: “Got im!”
As the hounds followed up for a sniff, Tony informed me he caught a glimpse of the rabbit heading in my direction until it spotted Cassius and turned back towards him. Just my luck.
Pepper got the next one going and within seconds was joined by her kennel mate Jenny. From across the trail came three more hounds to lend a nose, but after another couple of minutes of constant howling, they all suddenly went silent, as they did a couple of more times on that and at least two other hares.
“What the hell is goin’ on?” Jimmy wondered.
Plenty of places for the rabbit to hide in this area,” Tony said, “and they’re obviously taking advantage of the great cover.”
We remained patient, however, and allowed the dogs to continue searching, rather than call them off too quickly and move on.
We were chatting on the trail when Gary said, “shhh, listen.”
From 100 meters or so inside the woods we heard a squeaky howl.
“That’s Jenny,” Tony said, “let’s go.”
Through thick forest and floating bog we pushed and slogged, with each man taking up a position and shouting once to let the others know his location. Safety is always uppermost in our minds and we often remind one another that no amount of rabbits is worth a few pellets in the leg, or worse, a dead Beagle.
The hare was now taking all six dogs on a rather lengthy run, prompting big Tony to call it “the marathon rabbit.” Twice it sounded as if the dogs had crossed the trail before turning back, so I headed out and waited near a six-foot mound of branches and light windfall.
I was about to remove my knapsack to get a bottle of water when I briefly spotted the hare moving through the wood. The last time I heard Tony he was on the other side of the pile, so I waited for the rabbit to hop onto the trail. He never did.
I walked onto the wood expecting the hare to spring out, then called a couple of dogs and put them where I last saw it, but the hounds were unable to pick up any scent and the rabbit somehow made it back into the thick stands of balsam where it will no doubt offer a challenge to us or other hunters later in the season.
We then moved towards a nearby cutover where Jimmy made short work of a run that one of his dogs got under way.
Along another mossy trail we proceeded until Pepper jumped another. We heard the squeal of a rabbit and figured one of the dogs had caught it, but before moving in to take it from the dogs, the squealing ceased and the Beagles continued to how as they ran.
“Gord,” Gary shouted a short time later,” come over here; I’ve got something to show you.”
“Yeah, sure,” I responded, “what are you up to now?”
“Just come over, b’y.”
I didn’t, but I wished I had. What he wanted me to see was my pup Cassius coming towards him with a full-grown rabbit in his mouth; not a wounded hare that wasn’t capable of outrunning the dogs, but one he apparently jumped on or ran down, killed, and delivered on his own.
Of course, I figured Gary was pulling my leg.
The other five hounds, meanwhile, were still on their rabbit, which Gary also took with a single shot from his 12-gauge side-by-side. When we walked over to Gary, he was holding two rabbits.
“Either you’re kidding me, or the one Cassius brought back to you had already been dead for a while when he picked it up,” I suggested, still refusing to believe his story.
“Gord,” he said, “it was still warm when he brought it to me. And nobody fired a shot at it. I’m not joking.”
“Well,” I said, “if this was anything but a fluke, I’ll be saving on shells in the years to come.”
As it turned out, I saved all my shells on opening day, unfortunately, I was skunked. I didn’t even fire a shot!
We (they) bagged several more rabbits by day’s end for a total of 14. Three or four hares escaped unharmed.
Back at the camper, as we were attempting to get the dogs looking my way for a photo, Tony said he had a question to ask me.
“Go for it,” I said while focusing the 35mm Canon.
“I was just curious,” he began with a grin; “did you ever shoot a rabbit?”
Funny guy, that Tony.
Oh, by the way, ol’ pal, I did check under the seat of the truck for the waterproof camo pants you didn’t need that day. Not there; sorry. Perhaps you left them by the camper. If I see a couple of hunters wearing them, I’ll let you know.