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Rabbitat

by Robert L. Mason
          Rabbitat is a term I sometimes use to describe ideal habitat for rabbits, and the search for rabbitat is almost as compelling as the search for cottontails themselves.  With the decline of rabbit populations throughout most of their range, the eternal quest for choice hunting grounds assumes greater and greater significance.
          Whenever and wherever I travel, I enjoy letting my eyes sweep over the ever-changing countryside.  Studying the scrubby brush, weed-choked fields, briar-thicketed hollows or honeysuckle-carpeted woodlands, I wile away the hours by visually exploring for rabbitat.
          I love the pastoral beauty of America, the ebb and flow of the countryside.  But when I'm scanning the country for prime rabbitat, I find denuded pastureland and neatly manicured fencerows almost offensive to my eyes.  And new subdivisions and shopping malls are utter abominations.
          It's always a thrill when I spot an old, overgrown farmstead holding out against the encroachments of time and change.  The sagging doors and sunken roof of a dilapidated farm house set my mind to wondering about the nameless generations warmed by the fires of that old dwelling, the countless meals prepared in its kitchen and the endless hours of quietude wiled away on its collapsed front porch.
          Old, untended farms seem almost to beg to be hunted, and you can sense those fat, sleek cottontails squatted nervously in warm, winter beds--waiting to run their wild, desperate races before the menacing cries of fast-nosed hounds.
          Unfortunately, unworked and overgrown farms, like clear-cut areas hosting little or no food or cover, may all too often host a paucity of game. However, most hunters can recount the thrill of turning out the hounds in a new location and the breathless rush that comes with the realization that you're smack dab in the middle of rabbitat.
          Any hunter who has ever tried reloading his gun and stuffing a rabbit in his coat, while keeping his eye peeled for a second or third rabbit being driven by a splintered pack, has probably been there.  And any hunter who has been there longs to return.
        On a hunt with my dear friend, Earl Pennington, a few seasons ago, we stumbled onto a farm in eastern Kentucky that yielded an unexpected abundance of game.  We had hunted in another location, with mixed results when, around noon, we spotted a small farm with excellent cover, and decided to see if we could gain permission to hunt it.
         Gracious and accommodating, the lady of the house made us welcome to hunt.  Volunteering that some 40 rabbits had been killed out of her fields in the first couple of weeks of the season, she noted that she yet saw plenty of rabbits along the 200-yard private drive up to her home.  The knowledge that the place had already been heavily hunted gave us second thoughts, but grateful for the landowner's kindness, we decided to take a chance.
         As always, we offered to share any game we bagged.  But even when we offered to clean the game, the lady of the house declined.
        Turning out our dogs we began working a five-acre weed field, situated to the right, front corner of the property.  In no time at all, our hounds gave cry, and we maneuvered to find available shooting lanes in a field that, in places, ran heavy of briars and thickets.
         Earl made the first kill as the rabbit leaked out along the far edge of the field.  But in no time at all the hounds had opened on a second and a third.  I managed to swing and make a snap shot on a bunny streaking back through the middle of the field.  A close shot, it was the only shot I had, and it tore the rabbit up more than I would have liked.
         The action ran fast and furious for the remainder of the afternoon.  However, when the weed fields gave way to a series of huge bulldozed piles, the hunt became highly tactical.   With the piles distributed variously across the back of the property, it was all but impossible to anticipate the escape route the rabbit would take.  Consequently, many of our shots were either long or hasty.  But with the topographical features heavily favoring the rabbits, we knew that there would always be game on the farm.
          Still, by the close of the day, both hunters and hounds had given a good accounting of themselves.  And there was no doubt in our minds that we had been in rabbitat.  We had simply gotten there two weeks late.

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