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The Retrieve

by Bill Bennett


          The Black River serves as a formidable border between the northeast Arkansas Delta and the rolling foothills of the Ozark Mountain range. This meandering river is a landmark for migrating waterfowl. The river bottoms are home to a substantial deer herd, turkey flocks, and an abundant population of swamp and cottontail rabbits.

          The current hardwood bottoms are a mere remnant of its' original sprawling woodlands. Timber and farming interest have swallowed huge chunks of the once vast forests. Nevertheless, the riverbanks contain sufficient timber to harbor wildlife populations and are a Mecca for Northwest Arkansas sportsmen.

          The east bank differs from the typical Delta flats with gently rolling hills. These low hills form shallow hollows and small drainage ditches, which constantly feed the flowing river with runoff water. During the wet seasons, the standing bottomland hardwoods soak up huge amounts of water. The forest floors are frequently covered with standing water; the trees refusing to allow it to escape to the river channel.

          During the cold winter months the standing water freezes, creating skim ice to form around the base of the trees. It is nearly impossible to walk through these areas unless a person is wearing chest waders. Even then, the area is dangerous as hidden beneath the ice are countless sinkholes, which if stepped into can result in a sudden cold dunking. There are also the risks of serious injury by accidentally tripping over hidden logs, branches, and stumps covered by the water and ice.

          Invisible to the untrained eye, among the timbers are numerous 'islands' of higher ground which wildlife seeks out for shelter from winter winds, rain, and snow. These 'mini-islands' contain sufficient feed, water, space, cover, and arrangement for them to wait out the inclement weather. The islands are covered with honeysuckle, swamp grass, sumac, cane breaks, Bermuda grass, briar patches, wild raspberry vines, crab grass, Johnson and blue grass, wild oats, and muscadine vines. They are a virtual smorgasbord for the wildlife species that inhabit the area.

          The timber is as diverse as the smaller vegetation. Red and white oak trees provide a feast of acorns. Black walnut, persimmon, water, and shaggy bark hickory yield much welcomed food. Willow oak, sugar locust, sweet gum, dogwood, redbud, and honey locust are numerous, sprinkled with stands of cedar and wild plum thickets.

          Your hunting party of five arrives at the Colter farm as the bright morning sun reflects off a five-inch blanket of snow. The air is crystal clear and the tree limbs are weighted with the heavy white stuff. The gravel road leading to the bridge is not impassable but driving conditions are certainly less than favorable as the blue van creeps toward a small opening alongside the wide ditch line.

          The top water of the large drainage ditch, which runs east and west, is frozen with a two-inch layer of ice. You can see the water moving beneath the ice and shiver at the thought of a sudden cold dunking.

          On the top of the south bank there are several clearings, which resemble small fields. A closer inspection reveals these areas are covered with honeysuckle, Bermuda and panic grass. Stalks of sage grass rise above the snowline like brown needles sticking up from a giant white pin cushion.

          The Colters' no longer farm this five-hundred acre tract but lease a portion of it to the Dixon family with the understanding the land will not be altered without due consideration to the varied wildlife populations.

          The five member hunting party consists of sixty-five year old, Steve Dennison, a retired Air Force Colonel and veteran Beagle owner; David Conner, his son-in-law; Stan Filmore, your close friend; and Garret Dennison, Colonel Dennison's brother. Each of these men are experienced in the safe handling of firearms and are ethical sportsmen. They are knowledgeable outdoorsmen and you have enjoyed their company on numerous hunting excursions.

          'Colonel Steve' pulls the van into a small clearing on the south side of the bridge. You hear your dogs whine inside the carrier box in the rear of the van as the motor stops. Undoubtedly, they are anxious to hunt.

          The hunters climb out of the van and begin to put on foul weather gear, including knee length rubber boots, warm wool hats, and gloves. Each is wearing blaze orange vests. As you slip into your hunting garb, you are thankful for bringing a wool neck scarf, as a chilled north breeze bites the bare flesh of your face.

          One by one the hunters begin to reach for their shotguns stored near the rear of the van. Stan is handing the guns to each of the men as you note the action of each gun is opened and clear.

          The snow crunches beneath your feet as you survey the wooded area to the south. Ice has formed on the standing water surrounding the lower trunks of the trees. A dusting of snow on the ice gives it the appearance of giant candleholders as the tree trunks stretch skyward with their bare branches.

          You notice numerous rabbit tracks and droppings in the snow along the forty-foot wide bank. There is several small snow 'caves' at the edge of the bank within inches of the frozen water leading into the timber. You surmise the rabbits have left the mini-islands in the woods and have sought the shelter and feed of the ditch bank. They are using the snow caves next to the ice for quick escape routes across the skim ice.

          'Colonel Steve' suggests the hunt strategy be to slowly travel the wide ditch bank in an easterly direction, allowing the dogs to work in front, criss-crossing the snow covered tangles, briars, ironwood sapling thickets, and honeysuckle. When jumped the rabbits will likely move east, loop to the north, and return along the runs near the edge of the large ditch. If they loop to the south, some might escape across the skim ice in the woods, but the signs on the ground reveal most will not risk the openings in the trees.

          Safe shooting lanes are assigned as you open the carrier door and Bell and Sam scramble out. You give them an affectionate pat and a word of encouragement as they jump from the van floor into the five-inch snow covered ground. They immediately begin searching the area for a fresh scent line.

          You have just loaded your twelve-gauge pump shotgun when Bell opens; her bark cracking the cold, crystal clear morning air. A fraction of a second later Sam joins her with his thundering bawl as the race heads east through an ironwood thicket. Each hunter stops, waits, and listens.

          As the race heads east, you take a few anxious steps in its' direction, hoping the rabbit will loop to the left. The howling of the dogs grows louder as the rabbit makes a short, quick loop and heads in the direction of the waiting hunters. As Colonel Steve predicted, the rabbit has looped to the north and is zigzagging up and down the steep sides of the bank and spurts across a clearing.

          The dogs turn up the volume as the fresh scent fill their noses. Their tonguing is a perfect duet of Bell's high pitch, chop mouth, and Sam's deep baritone, bawl mouth, echoing off the standing water soaked timber. You feel that thrill; a shiver stabbing at your heart as the ground grows louder. This, you tell yourself, is what rabbit hunting is all about!

          Without warning, David's twenty-gauge roars through the cold air. "He's headed your way, Stan!" he yells as Stan chides him with a remark that next time David might try throwing a snowball at the speeding rabbit instead of trying to shoot it.

          The rabbit moves across the edge of an opening in the sage grass. Stan spots the brindle brown target against the pure white snow, aims his sixteen-gauge and fires. The rabbit falls next to a wind blown log and lies still while the dogs stubbornly stay with the line.

          Stan walks over to the downed rabbit, holds it up for the dogs to see, and praises them with "Good work, puppies!" Bell is obviously excited as she mouths the rabbit. Sam sniffs it with that 'So What?' look on his face and trots over to a snow covered briar patch in search of another fresh scent line.

          As the dog works the entanglement of the briar patch, a flock of mallards zoom high overhead, moving off to the south. A flicker of gray movement catches your eye. Two gray squirrels chase one another up to the top of a bare branched white oak tree. On your left, a pair of cardinals call from an ironwood sapling, their bright red color clashing with the white snowy background.

          "There he is!" Garret shouts as a cottontail flushes from beneath a snow covered brush pile. You watch him weave in and out of the briar patch as Bell strikes the fresh scent line. Her high chopped mouth shatters the cold morning air. A second later, Sam joins the race with his thundering bawl and they race off to the east.

          You listen to the clamor of the hounds as the rabbit loops to the right into the woods. You wonder if the dogs will be able to stay with him as the quarry bounces across the frozen water in the standing timber.

          As the race draws nearer, your heart pounds and your hands perspire. The hounds give full cry as they draw closer.

          The rabbit suddenly heads for the cover of a honeysuckle patch along the edge of the bank. The dogs stay with the hot scent and tunnel into the snow covered vegetation. Howling at the top of their lungs, two rabbits burst from the cover and head in the direction of the waiting hunters.

          A blast from David's twenty-gauge stops one of the rabbits at twenty-five yards while the dogs turn up the volume on the hot scent of the remaining cottontail. The race heads east again, the sound slightly muffled by the blanket of snow.

          The hunters move slowly through the thick snow in the direction of the race on an unspoken cue; the soft snow silencing their footsteps. Their blaze orange hunting vests stand out against the white snowy background like growing neon lights, as each hunter stops, takes his post, and listens to the sounds of the race.

          The honking of a flock of geese descends through the chilly air. You look up into the clear blue sky and watch the sun reflect off the white wings as the 'V' formation of snow geese slips off to the southwest. You are completely absorbed in watching and listening to the large flock when you suddenly realize the baying of the hounds is growing closer.

          The dogs hold to the scent line as the rabbit zigzags through a small cane thicket. The dogs push the elusive target in the direction of Garret who is standing on top of a snow-covered stump. You watch him shoulder his twelve-gauge pump and hear the blast of the shot as the rabbit spins head over heels and lies still at the edge of a clump of sage grass.

          You watch him walk silently through the snow toward the downed rabbit. The howls of the dogs grow louder as they arrive at Garret's feet. He praises them and allows them to mouth the game before slipping it into his game vest.

          Colonel Dennison calls for a break and everyone gathers at an uprooted sycamore tree. Its windswept top serves as a comfortable open-air bench as the hunters clear their guns and find a suitable seat.

          You open the action on your twelve-gauge pump, hand it to Stan, and leash both dogs. They are panting heavily from running through the heavy snow. They give little resistance to being leashed.

          From a knap sack; the Colonel breaks out ham sandwiches and a thermos of hot tea. As the group munches on their snacks and rest, you wonder if life can really get any better? Good friends, good dogs, beautiful snow scenery and the opportunity to be in the outdoors!

          As the men relax and talk, you look north across the frozen water of the large ditch. One hundred and fifty yards away, gray movement catches your attention near the edge of a deserted cornfield. Two whitetail deer...an eight-point buck and a doe, stand staring in the direction of the group of hunters. You point in the direction of the deer and the group immediately picks up the sight of the deer's graceful movements. A puff of cold south wind sets the bare branches of a shaggy bark hickory tree in motion, carrying the dreaded 'man-scent' toward the deer. The buck shakes his head once and followed by his mate, slips quietly into the cover of the nearby timber.

          Sam and Bell whine softly as they scent the white bread of the sandwiches. They sit but their tail wagging signals they want to share in the lunch. Stan holds your cup of hot tea and sandwich while you reach into your game bag and find a plastic bag containing four slices of plain white bread.

          Both dogs watch your every move as you unwrap the treats and hand it to them. They gobble it down, tails wagging and look up at you as if to ask, "Is there more Boss?"

          The talk turns to hunts of earlier days, the ever changing terrain and the work of the dogs, as the sun begins to slightly warm the cold air. You open the zippers of your coveralls and the warm steam of perspiration clashes with the cold air.

          The snow and ice is beginning a slight thaw, evidenced by the sounds of cracking ice in the woods. You and Colonel Dennison decide to allow the group to jump shoot with a word of caution about knowing the exact location of each hunter and the dogs.

          Lunch comes to an end and the group begins trudging east through the snow which has a bit of slush; a result of the suns slow warmth. You unleash the dogs and they immediately begin searching for a fresh scent line. Bell is slightly to your left as Sam works the area along the standing timber. You notice numerous small snow caves next to the thin layer of ice. Rabbit tracks are leading into the small caverns, evidence the rabbits are using the caves for protection form the elements.

          The Colonel is on your right near the woods as Sam flushes a large cottontail from one of the small snow caves. He bellows loudly as the rabbit scoots across the skim ice heading toward the safety of the woods. The Colonel stops the fleeting target with one shot and the rabbit slides another ten feet on the ice before coming to a complete stop.

          "Uh, Oh, I shouldn't have shot that one," the Colonel says in a tone of self-disgust. Knowing Sam has retrieved wounded and dead rabbits before, you respond, "Let's wait and watch for a couple of minutes."

          Bawling at the top of his lungs, Sam plunges onto the ice. The thin ice breaks through, dunking him into the freezing water. Bell runs to the edge of the bank, barks excitedly, but does not follow.

          Sam claws his way to the top of the ice. The downed rabbit is lying fifteen feet away. He strikes the scent with a loud bawl that echoes through the silent standing timber. In seconds he reaches the rabbit, gently picks it up in his mouth, and begins to travel back in the direction of the bank.

          As he approaches the spot where he broke through the ice, he hears the ice crack a warning. Cautiously, he backs away and drops the rabbit on the ice. Turning east without the rabbit, he tests the ice leading to the safety of the bank. Hearing no warning of cracking ice, he returns to the rabbit, picks it up, and heads for the safe crossing.

          Suddenly, a slight crack can be heard and Sam slowly backs away. Again, he lays the rabbit on the ice, not knowing what to do for a moment. He again picks up the rabbit and this time heads west for twenty steps and attempts to cross the ice, still holding the rabbit in his mouth.

          Again the ice signals a warning. He moves back and lays the rabbit on the ice and trots ten feet further west. He walks across the ice to the bank and stops. He decides this is the place to cross and returns to pick up his prize. Picking p the rabbit, he tiptoes across his chosen path, rabbit in mouth, and reaches the safety of the bank.

          He struts about, carrying his prize with his head held high, tail straight in the air, and a smirk of pride in his eyes.

          You call him to come but he ignores you as he heads in the direction of the Colonel, who has watched the entire proceedings with a look of disbelief on his face.

          Reaching the Colonel, Sam drops the rabbit at his feet, turns and swaggers off to find a new fresh scent line.

          The Colonel stares at the rabbit, dumb-founded and says, "I wish I had a movie of this because in over fifty years of Beagling, I've never witnessed anything like it. I don't believe my eyes. An no one else is going to believe me!" He smiles widely as he stuffs the rabbit into his hunting jacket, shaking his head in disbelief.

          You smile to yourself as your chest swells with pride. This is not the first time Sam has retrieved either a dead or wounded rabbit but it is his most outstanding feat. It will remain etched in your memory for years as an example of what hunting adventures with Beagles is all about.

          The dogs run another race as the afternoon sun begins to slowly sink toward the western horizon. The dogs make three separate 'checks' as the melting snow plays havoc with the scenting conditions. You miss the rabbit with you first shot. But the second shot from your twelve-gauge pump puts the quarry down in a heap as the hunt comes to a close.

          The hunting party trudges through the melting snow to the waiting blue van, tired but satisfied. The guns are quickly unloaded, checked, and stored. The game is dressed and placed in plastic bags before everyone piles into the van.

          The talk centers on the hunt and Sam's exceptional retrieve as the van heads slowly toward home. There is the usual good natured teasing of missed shots, lucky shots, gripes about cold feet, minor scratches, and bruises. But the real hunt is bound by common thread of companionship, as this hunting adventure will become etched in the memories of the ones who took part. The adventure and the memory would be impossible without the dogs. You are forever grateful for their contribution.

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).