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Beagle Breakout

The music echoed from the frozen swamp and forced me to laugh out loud. The two Beagle voices were complete opposites: Kandy’s deep baritone contrasting with Tinker’s high-pitched squall. But when they harmonized it was sweeter than a choir. The bewitching sounds grew closer as I squinted into the midmorning sun. The dogs were 100 yards out now, and I knew the cottontail had to be close. A flash of brown to the right caught my eye and I whirled to spot the bunny just as he saw me. He did an about-face in a blink and was headed straightaway as my 20-gauge barked in concert with the oncoming hounds. It was just more motivation for the rabbit as the No. 6s hit a foot behind him. He kicked it into hyperdrive and disappeared into the heavy thornapples as my pattern plowed snow at his heels.

The winter blahs can be torture for many outdoorsmen. You sit inside, watch football, and dream of spring turkey season, half-heartedly wearing out the pages of outdoor supply catalogs.

Well, I’ve found an escape, and I guarantee it will knock the hell out of those January and February doldrums, could even turn them into your favorite months of the year. Take two Beagles to a nearby fencerow and call me in the morning.

Cottontail hunting with Beagles is as stress-free as it gets. It feels great to sit in a diner before a rabbit hunt having a second and third cup of coffee, knowing that it makes no difference how much time you take for a breakfast. Pre-dawn outings are not mandatory. No getting up two hours before you went to bed just to beat someone to your prime spot. Rabbit hunting can be enjoyed alone or with partners and there is no better way to get a young person started in our sport. I think it was my early rabbit hunts that burned the love of hunting and the outdoors into my soul forever.

There are many ways to pursue these tasty critters, but hunting cottontails with hounds is by far the most enjoyable. The singing of Beagles on the track of a rabbit on a late-winter afternoon is one of my favorite sounds. I enjoy it often, because here in western New York, the season runs through the end of February. Most places have comparably long seasons, and in many states out west there is no closed season at all.

Hooking up with someone who owns Beagles is the best way to get started. There is hundreds of Beagle clubs across the US and they are looking for new members. Experienced Beaglers are usually glad to help a newcomer get started.

My Beagles went silent as they reached the spot where I had given the cottontail a hunting lesson. Kandy’s nose plowed the fresh powder as she worked to pick up the deteriorating scent. Here head darted back and forth, snorting in all of nature’s smells like a vacuum cleaner, trying to filter through them to find rabbit. Tinker darted a sweeping circle around my feet, thinking (after hearing the shot) that a dead cottontail was nearby. It is always a good idea to leave a dead rabbit lay where it was shot when the dogs are chasing it. That lets them run the track right up to its finish, and they know then to start looking for a new track. Kandy will usually retrieve dead rabbits to me when she gets to them, a rare trait in a Beagle.

As the young hound searched the area around me, the old veteran worked the thornapples. She had seen me shoot too many times in her 13 years to figure the sound of a shot from by gun was a sure thing. Her hard work paid off as she found the cottontail’s scent in the thick cover and let out with a bellow. Like a shot, Tink left her circle at my feet and raced to join the chase with her mentor.

It is always a good idea to break in a young dog with a veteran rabbit hound, but too much “tutoring” can make the youngster too dependent. The dog becomes what seasoned Houndsmen call a “me too, hound.” They add voice to a chase, but little else to help bring the rabbit to the gun. Tink was starting to show signs of this lately, and I vowed to get her out on her own the next time. She needed solo work, not just to depend on Kandy to find all the checks.

The chase was in full swing again, and Beagle howls filled the late-February air. What a melody they played. Appealing as all this is, there are plenty of do’s and don’ts that should be learned before a novice goes out and obtains a rabbit dog. First, beware of the freebee. Chances are he is a deer-runner, the cardinal sin of a rabbit dog. If you have a dog that runs deer, you have big trouble. Take it from a guy who has spent hours, and sometimes days, searching for lost dogs because of their love of a deer chase. That being said, there are many ways to steer clear of these problems. Electronic training collars are gold to the modern Beagler. There are many on the market now made especially for Beagles. Used properly, a collar can help correct a deer-running problem right on the spot.

The dogs’ voices were starting to fade back in the direction of the swamp where they first jumped the rabbit. I was sure one of my hunting partners had worked his way over to the start of the run and would be waiting for this bunny’s return. Just then a shot rang out, and I knew it was Jim Miller’s old Winchester Model 12 at work. I waited silently, listening for the dogs to hush, the signal that Miller had connected on our first prize of the morning. The dogs’ singing never skipped a note as they passed the spot where Jim’s shot had been fired. This signified a miss: the chase was still on. Apparently, this bunny had played the game before. The hounds turned the rabbit back in my direction again, and I maneuvered quickly to get into the clearing it had crossed earlier.

I wanted to get up on his old track where, hopefully, I would have a better poke at him. It is uncommon to have a cottontail run the exact same trail twice. I had taken him to grammar school with my misses, and Miller took him to high school. The odds of this rabbit making any more mistakes were getting slim.

The scenting conditions were ideal – two inches of fresh snow and temperatures in the mid-30s made for a steady chase with very few missed checks. A “check” is the houndsmen’s term for a sudden changing of direction by the pursued animal. Cottontails are very notorious for this trait, constantly veering, making it tough of their pursuers.

I could see great in my new location and knew the elusive fellow would not get by me this time. Kandy’s voice dominated the tune, with Tink adding background vocals as I readied my 20-gauge. The cottontail would be here any minute now, and I wanted to redeem my first miss. Suddenly, a shot rang from the other side of the hedgerow. The third member of our hunting party, Tom Hickey, had figured out the rabbit’s circle. I heard him praising the now-quiet dogs and knew he had ended the furball’s education. He was on his way to the frying pan.

Cottontails taste best when cleaned right in the field, and you can dress one quickly with little mess left behind. First, cut off the head and all four feet. Then make a small cut at the rabbit’s back, put two fingers from both hands under the skin, and pull the skin off. It’s almost like peeling a banana. Now you’ve removed all the hair before making a small cut along the belly to release the entrails. This helps keep most of the hair off the meat.

I then place the cleaned rabbit in a leakproof bag and into my game pouch. At the end of the hunt when I’m dead tired, I don’t have cleaning chores to take care of, just a quick rinse and my kill is ready for the freezer. One important thing to remember is that all the fur and entrails should be hung in a tree or bush so the Beagles can’t get at it. Given the chance, they’ll wolf it down quicker than if it was prime rib.

Practically speaking, if you are going to own only one hunting dog it makes sense to own a Beagle, simply because rabbit seasons are so much longer – in most states at least five months – than seasons for upland birds or waterfowl. You will have to decide if you want a pup or a running dog. And while there is nothing cuter than a Beagle puppy, remember one thing – Beagles typically don’t come into their own until they are two years old, and nose plays a major role in how the dog turns out. You cannot train a dog with a weak nose to become a good rabbiter. I have spent hundreds of hours on pups that never did develop. Instinct plays a much great role in a hound’s final ability than is the case with other hunting breeds. That is why a started Beagle may be the best bet – what you see is what you get. Most good Houndsmen will give you a 30-day trial on any dog they sell. Don’t buy one without it. Buying a running dog may not be as rewarding as training a pup yourself, but nothing is more frustrating than putting hundreds of hours into a young dog that doesn’t have the instinct it takes. Usually by the time you accept this fact it is too late – you and your family have grown attached to the dog, and while you may have a pet, it’ll never be anything more.

Reassembled at the base of the hill, Miller, Hickey, and I swapped barbs about our missed shots while the dogs looked for another rabbit to chase. It was mid-morning and the sun felt good on my face as it reflected off the melting snow. It was great to be outdoors with friends enjoying the New York winter. This was rabbit hunting. The dogs worked, we told lies and just relaxed. If cabin fever is getting you down, find a hunting partner with a Beagle, or better yet, get one yourself. I guarantee you’ll never have a case of the winter blahs again.

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).