by Larry Gavin
Up north, in Minnesota, winter lasts a long time and the rabbits run big. We hunt lots of public land and literally have hundreds of acres to ourselves once the deer season’s over. From December until mid-April we can use public land but after April 13 the public land closes to dog training until August. The hunting season, however, ends at the end of February so there’s almost six weeks that old bugs gets chased with out the threat of some chilled six shot. In spring, the bucks cover a lot of ground and really lay down scent. On the other hand, for about the same six week period from August to the end of September Mr. Bunny can get chased but not gunned; and in August rabbit numbers are usually up.
That’s when my ten year old son, Fergus, and I find three or four evenings a week to train what he calls "The Falls Creek Pack". We load the hounds in the kennel and in five minutes we’re at a good running spot. There’s cover for every preference. We have small pine stands, river bottom willows, and thickets of wild raspberry, plum trees and crown vetch.
On this March evening we choose river willows and thickets surrounded by an open field. My son handles the dogs and lets Roxy off with the command to "get on". Then he lets Donna follow. The dogs know this place and start hunting cover that has produced rabbits in the past. Roxy opens on a hot scent and I push the stop watch feature on my wrist watch to time the run and keep track of the checks.
Roxy is a classic tricolor with a deep bawl mouth. Donna, who opened a second later, is a little red dog, and when she’s on the trail the bunny better be moving because she’s like a 24 pound guided missile. The rabbit gets driven to the willow edge but isn’t quite ready to to make the dash for the briars. I head for high ground to get a good view of the run, but Fergus stays with the dogs. He likes to see first hand who figures out the checks and, generally, be in on the action. So far there aren’t any checks, but the row of willows runs out after a half mile and the dogs are getting to the end. The buck cottontail is going to run out of choices real soon. He can double back along the other side of the willows or make a break for the briars and wild plum fence line to my left.
There’s a check so I figure the bunny has doubled back. Even as I think this, the little red dog picks up the check. Her high pitched bawl mouth carries through the trees and I can’t help but smile. Roxy joins in and I also hear a big whoop from my son, who is running along behind them both. They, Beagles and boy, are drawing closer, and there’s nothing better than the sound of hounds bringing a rabbit around. Old bugs thinks different, however, and breaks from the willows across the open field below where I’m standing, and into a finger of stag horn sumac. But the sumac, bright read with early spring, offers little cover. Besides, here come the dogs right on the line, Donna swings a little bit, but settles in behind her brace mate. I see the cottontail crawl low into the raspberry bush, and seconds later the dogs follow. For a while I judge the progress of the chase by the dogs incessant bawling and the motion of the thicket quivering with the search. Fergus circles to get a view of the run and the rabbit rockets past him out into the field of switch grass, and blue stem. Now the chase opens up. The hounds circle the rabbit wide with no checks. Fergus stands on the hill by me catching his breath. The sun creeps lower in the west casting a dull orange glow in the prairie grasses.
The dogs circle the rabbit back to the briars and plum thicket and we know this bunny is almost out of tricks: except one. He makes a last chance sprint past us to the plowed field and races a quarter mile down the furrow to a rock pile of field stone right where my son first let Roxy off the lead. This pile of field stones is riddled with holes that have hid many a rabbit over the years.
"This will drive the dogs nuts," Fergus says.
And sure enough the dogs have a check at the plowing. Falls Creek Roxy gears down, but Donna, who has no gears except overdrive, overruns the check by ten yards pushing up clods of thick black soil as she puts on the brakes. By this time Roxy is making progress down the line. Donna, always competitive, pushes her, but Roxy won’t be pushed, and Donna falls in behind her brace mate.
We follow down the fence-row because we know that smart old buck has taken refuge in the rocks. I hit the button on the stopwatch and the dogs continue to hoover the rock pile before settling on a likely opening in the rocks to claw and whine over. We praise them and then couple them up. Just then, my son notices a single strand of barbed wire at the mouth of the hole, and stuck to it a tuft of fur from the underbelly of a rabbit.
We walk back to the car in fading light; load up the dogs, and head home to a hot supper, and the sound of two tired Beagles sleeping on the couch.
"How long did the run last," my son asks before heading up to bed.
My watch, still in the memory mode, says 57 minutes.
"About an hour," I tell him. And he smiles and goes upstairs. I smile too, but more at the memory of us in the field together, as the darkness comes down; running Beagles like countless generations before us.