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From Tuck To Tuck

by  Gord Follett


          When commenting on somebody being quite knowledgeable about a certain subject, particularly as it relates to geographic locations, we often describe him or her as knowing it “like the back of their hand.”

          In that regard, the lines on Joe Cleary’s hand must run like a map of the south west coast of the Avalon Peninsula, for the number of places he hasn’t explored between St. Mary’s and Placentia Bays are few and far between. Actually, his outdoor pursuits combined with his Avalon North Wolverines search and rescue duties make him somewhat of an authority on the entire Avalon Peninsula.

          Born and raised in Southeast Placentia, he had no formal training in the lifelong pleasures of fishing, hunting and the outdoors in general. His father had little interest in such activities, but that didn’t stop young Joe from exploring the great outdoors, often in a tent with friends for days at a time.

          “My father often asked, ‘Where did I get you from?’” Joe recalled with a chuckle.

          An equipment operation inspector with the province’s transportation department, 44-year-old Joe Cleary elevated his love and knowledge of the outdoors to the “guide” level some time ago, whereby for a fee he takes resident moose hunters less familiar with the country - in particular, Area 32, the Cape Shore - to get their animal. And in most cases, the end result is “mission accomplished.” In 1996, for example, he helped five different hunters get their moose in one day. He “guarantees” hunters their animal, or at least a shot at one. No shot, no payment. How’s that for confidence? And recently he began offering his services to anyone interested in a day or two of rabbit hunting.

          In mid-January, Dwight Blackwood and I took Joe up on an offer to spend a day doing just that near his cabin in the Bachelor’s Pond area, five kilometers from his home. Actually, the trail to his cabin begins at the end of his driveway, from where we traveled via snowmobile.

          Even with snowshoes, hunting conditions were far less than ideal for us. To the 12-inch Beagles it was considerably worse. But with more snow in the long-range forecast, we decided to “go for it” anyway. (With the incredible amount of snow that’s fallen since, it’s a good thing we did.) Besides, we were assured there was no shortage of snowshoe hares in this area.

          “When the dogs start one rabbit,” Joe told us over a cup of coffee at the Sportsman office a few days prior, “you can get ready for two or three others to pop out of the woods.”

          Well, Joe didn’t lie. He didn’t even exaggerate! I saw more rabbits during this brief trip that I’d seen in any other area over twice the amount of time. And no, I’m not exaggerating, either.

          We actually hunted two days. Joe’s friend Bren Whittle joined us for Thursday afternoon’s four-hour adventure, then Joe, Dwight and I hunted most of Friday.

          We arrived at Joe’s cabin across from picturesque Sawyer’s Hills in time for a light lunch, anxious to get going as soon as the last spoonful of soup was slurped. Joe handed each of us a VHS radio “just in case” before we jumped back on our snowmobiles and headed to Grey Marsh where he opened the kennel, which he towed on a sled, and set the dogs loose into a “tuck” of trees.

          I glanced at the second hand on my watch as four-year-old Katie and eight-year-old Missie, with her deformed right front paw, moved inside.

          “Arf, arf... arrr, arrr.”

          I pulled back my sleeve and looked at the watch again - 52 seconds.

          My three partners separated and pushed inside towards small clearings, while I remained on the edge. A minute later the hare appeared, running along the edge of the treeline. I fired and missed as the animal disappeared back into the woods, then heard a shot 200 meters behind me; obviously not the same rabbit the dogs were on. The first rabbit of the day went to Bren.

          As the hare that I fired at doubled-back and faced me, I raised my gun to the sound of two quick shots. My bunny - the one the dogs were chasing - went into overdrive and was gone before I could release the safety, while Dwight made an unsuccessful attempt at another animal 100 meters to my right.

          “Get ‘im?” I shouted.

          “No,” was the response.

          “Boys,” came the voice from my inside pocket, “you can use the radios if you like.”

          “Oh yeah,” I said, laughing, “thanks, Joe. Over.”

          After losing the original hare for a minute or so, Missie picked it up again and was heading in a westerly direction, while Katie jumped another and was moving south. Then I heard another shot - from the east - but wasn’t sure who fired.

          Leaving foot-deep snowshoe tracks, I slogged inside towards a small cutover where another rabbit emerged from the cover of a downed spruce tree and sped in among the heavy woods.

          “Who got that one?” I asked while passing by Dwight.

          “Not sure.”

          My question was answered when Joe stepped into the clearing holding a large hare by the back legs.

          Bren finally nailed the hare Missie was on, and within a matter of minutes she had another one going in the same area. Katie, meanwhile, was barking on-and-off in the distance, so we concentrated on Missie while waiting for her partner to return.

          I saw the rabbit coming through the woods towards a narrow trail and fired. Missed again. I let loose with another No. 6 shell as the hare flew across the trail not more than 40 meters away and nailed nothing but snow yet again. Dwight fired twice and missed as well.

          Figuring Joe and Bren had to be wondering how many rabbits we’d shot, I took out my radio before they got a chance to ask: “Joe, Bren,” I said, “did one of you guys take the lead out of our shells?”

Bren finally shot that one as well, and Joe picked off Missie’s third start 10 minutes later.

          By 3 o’clock we were back on our 10-year-old Enticers for a short ride to the main trail, from where we walked no more than 50 meters before Joe moved a couple of dozen steps off the trail and fired a shot. We didn’t hear the familiar “Got ‘em” report, so we assumed his shot missed its mark. Then we heard a couple of quick shots from Bren’s 12 gauge.

          “Keep your eyes open; there’s two rabbits running together,” Joe reported.

          “Yeah, I know,” Bren responded, “I got both of ‘em.”

          Shortly afterwards, Bren followed the aroma of “jiggs dinner” to his home, while we rode back to the cabin for a feed of tender caribou roast and steaks as the dogs curled up on the old couch near the stove for a well deserved rest.

          I asked Joe what it was like to hunt this country in “ideal” conditions.

          “Non-stop action,” he said, adding they’ve shot as many as 43 rabbits in one day.

          We awoke the next morning to a temperature of minus-16 C, with the forecast calling for sunny skies later in the day. During breakfast, Joe suggested we travel the open country towards Branch and hunt from one tuck of trees to another along the way.

          We rode almost seven kilometers before making our first stop, where we sent Katie and Missie into a stand of trees little more than a couple of acres in size. Rabbits were obviously “holed up” pretty well in this area because the dogs failed to jump one after 10 minutes.

          On to the next tuck we moved, spotting three large caribou along the way, and within a couple of minutes Katie was hot on a hare. When the rabbit emerged from that tuck shortly after, it did so in top gear and managed to stay ahead of Dwight’s shots. The dogs followed it into a heavier stand of balsam where Dwight eventually nailed the fleeting hare with a single shot from his 12-gauge over-and-under.

          A three-minute walk to the next tuck yielded similar results, with me toppling my first rabbit of the day on the second shot as it sped across the open country.

          Shortly after, we each picked off another, prompting me to inform Joe that Dwight and I had “found the shells with the lead in them.”

          We decided to head to the cabin for lunch, then back to Grey Marsh where we figured our tracks/trails from the previous day should make it somewhat easier getting around in snowshoes.

          While walking towards my snowmobile across this picturesque, open country - under blue skies and sparkling sunshine - I took a moment to look around and, as I’ve done on numerous occasions while experiencing our magnificent outdoors, wondered what we could possibly have done to deserve such luxury. My answer was the same as it’s been the other thousand times I’ve asked that question - “who knows; just enjoy it while you can.”

          Minutes after consuming lunch at the cabin the dogs were sent into a larger tuck of trees where they jumped a hare within a couple of minutes. Again Joe moved in, and after five minutes suggested either myself or Dwight join him from the other side. “Just one of you come in,” he said, “and the other wait outside.”

          Off Dwight went while I played the sentry role. Joe shot one and quickly informed us it wasn’t the one the dogs were on. Two minutes later, about 100 meters ahead of the howling dogs, I spotted the rabbit coming straight at me about 50 meters away. As I put the gun to my shoulder he darted to the right and was a few meters away from the safety of the trees when my shot dropped the hare in its tracks.

          One more tuck stop along the way produced two more rabbits, and the two-hour hunt at Grey Marsh yielded seven, four of which the dogs weren’t running.

          With sunset less than an hour away, we agreed to let the dogs go “a few more times” on the way home, and each time we shot at least one hare. The final one of the day went to our guide/host, who drove the rabbit himself and informed me not only the direction in which it was heading, but exactly where to stand. I hesitated when I first saw it coming at a leisurely pace, believing there was “no rush.” By the time I shouldered my gun, however, the hare turned and sped back in the line of fire of Joe’s 20 gauge.

          Before leaving his driveway that evening, Joe convinced me to take a short ride with his son back over the trail about 1.5 kilometers to see how many rabbits we could spot now that it was dark. The first creature I noticed was a large cow moose 40 meters straight ahead, and over the next kilometer I counted 10 rabbits. Joe said it’s not uncommon to spot 30 hares on his way to the cabin at night.

          If only 50 per cent of the snowshoe hare population in that area manages to survive this harsh winter, I have a strong suspicion there will still be enough left for yet another great season of hunting.

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).