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World Class Runs

by David Fisher        
              It must have been the fourth rabbit of the day.  I know because we had three nice cottontails about a quarter mile back hanging on the chain-link that protects the major highway we were hunting along.  This was a new section of the ridge for us, and after about a 20 minute lull in the action we came to what appeared to be a very old pasture, a few rusty strands of barbed wire still clung to an old locust post here and there.

              I'm not sure which dog struck the track first, it sounded like a team effort, and in just a few seconds they were streaking straight north and  would have been out of hearing, if it weren't for the sound of four distinct voices bouncing off the opposite ridge across the valley.  We were in perfect position;  my usual hunting partner, Bob Clarke was straight up hill about a 100 yards from me, and my friend Tony Rinaldi from New Jersey was downhill about the same distance.  Tony usually comes in from Jersey once a year in late winter to hunt with me.  Tony enjoys the 'big runs' and the huge cottontails we have in some sections of western Pennsylvania.

              For the first day of the hunt we were using all my dogs:  Bowser, Jeanie, Sammy, and his sister, Stormy.  Although a very efficient pack on most days, I was not overjoyed with their performance this season.  Oh, we had killed a ton of rabbits in front of them, and Storm and Sammy have become excellent jump dogs, but Bowser had his ups and downs and his fault of 'racing' and constantly fighting for the lead had created too many choppy runs and many losses this season.   When he's having a good day he is an awesome dog to watch, and he can flat out run down a rabbit.  His philosophy in life is dog simple;  "I'm going to run this rabbit .... you other dogs can help me if you want, but I'm going to run this rabbit!" 

            But, Bowser's main fault is he is too fast for his own good.  He can stick with a track like it's glued to the end of his nose, but his feet are moving so fast, he over shoots the end of the line on many occasions.  He is smart enough to go back and pick up the track, but it makes the chase rough, and the other dogs trust his ability so much, he pulls them over with him.   During the course of an entire season, he creates losses that we should otherwise never have.

            The pack was running pretty well today, however, and I knew there was no chance of this rabbit eluding them.  You know .... you can tell when they are 'locked on', and the three other dogs were not without experience.  Jeanie or Storm would not allow Bowser to screw up this run.

            The sound of the chase was unbelievable with every dog barking to its fullest.  The area was gouged with ravines and cuts and every once-in-awhile the dogs would drop into one of the ravines and you could barely hear them, then suddenly they'd top out somewhere and the sound would again be bouncing around the valley.  It was one of those runs my buddy Al from New York affectionately calls 'world class'. 

            The dogs reached the top of the steep hill where Bob was, then swung down toward me.  The chase had been going for at least 25 minutes now, and they were bearing down on my position.  Just about 40 yards away was a thick stand of crab apples with scattered honeysuckle vines clinging here and there.  It seemed like the dogs were going to break out of there any second, and my legs even trembled a little in anticipation of the bunny blasting into view.  Ahhhhh, should we never lose that feeling!

            My eyes hurt from looking so hard, but the pack flew on by and went down over the hill toward Tony.  I couldn't quite see him, but knew about where he was.  I expected the shot at any second, but again it never came.  The dogs broke hard left and straight north again dropping into another unseen ravine.  I relaxed my death grip on the gun and crept forward maybe 20 yards.  There was a large tree slightly uphill that the wind had taken most of the main structure and laid it down, and I thought I would get there and sit down.  Only the gentle music bouncing off the east wall of the valley told me the dogs were still running.  

            I reach the tree, but cannot find a suitable seat, but I can see a little more from here.  The problem with hunting unfamiliar territory is you have no idea what's in front of you.  Of course, that is some of what makes rabbit hunting exciting, those elements of unknown.  In fact, if I would have moved up another 40 yards through the screen of the crab apple grove, I would have come to open woods at the crest of the first ravine ... where the rabbit had already made two passes.

            I stood there among the fallen branches of the rotting tree trying my best to keep track of the dogs.  It was difficult, and they seemed to be all over that mountain.  After another half hour they seem to be working to the top of the hill again.  I'm getting desperate now, and I would like one of us to kill this rabbit.  It's almost a duty we owe the dogs!  When the hounds are still 100 yards down range I whistle to Bob and motion for him to move up.  He instantly throws his hand up for me to be quiet .... I know he's seen the bunny.

            he dogs are coming hard when Bob shoots .... WHAMMM!! .... WHAMMM!!  Since Bob started hunting with me four years ago his shooting has improved tremendously and he doesn't miss too many rabbits, but I remain on stand and wait.  The dogs got to his area and quickly cut around him ..... a miss .... or worse a nick!   I see the dogs coming, but they are just inside the screen of crab apples, then they break hard left for the third and final time.  The chase ends quickly two ravines over at a ground hog hole.  It's a sad few minutes as we all gather at the hole!

            We sit for a few minutes, eat a sandwich then slowly work on out the ridge.  Suddenly, I hear something behind me and I see a big cottontail streak away, about the same time Bob shoots above me (Hey!, Stop that jump shooting!).  The dogs are split trying to run both rabbits and I know this is never going to work.   Bob gets Bowser on his rabbit (that he missed!) and with his giant hound mouth Bowser quickly pulls Sammy and the rest to him.  It's another nice chase, but the rabbit stays near the top of the mountain.  Bob shoots two more times and collects his rabbit.  It's another nice woods cottontail, but the whole scene is anticlimactic after letting the "world class" rabbit slip away.

            It's late in the afternoon and I really want to go to the truck.  I know it's an hour back home ..... clean rabbits, feed dogs, we have a long evening ahead.  But, the dogs and rabbit have other ideas.

            Tony calls the dogs to him, and I know he must have jumped a rabbit.  I didn't know it then that we were in for two more 'world class' runs.  This rabbit heads up the mountain and Bob still swears he never saw it, but it does go right by him, and slowly over the next hour the dogs work it down over three benches into the main valley.  I slowly work down there and when I enter a large cut field, Tony is up the valley several hundred yards to the north.  Incredible as it seems the rabbit has jumped a large stream (something he would do four times in his attempt to shake the dogs), and the dogs are going up the bank of a small hard road where the truck is parked about half mile south.  Tony seems to have this rabbit pegged, but the dogs spin around and head back down the creek.

            I'm almost running trying to get back to the end of the field where the main ridge connects, but I'm not too fast anymore, and the dogs hit the ridge again and start up.  Fortunately the rabbit doesn't go too far and turns around again.  After several more stream crossings and sneaking around the swamp in the valley floor for another half hour .... he comes hopping right out of the brush to me.  Everyone agrees it almost made up for the rabbit we lost earlier.

            We have a short run a few minutes later and Bob collects his third rabbit of the day.  We all agree to head for the trucks and Bob takes off back up the ridge.  His truck is parked on another road and he'll also pick up the three rabbits we hung on the fence earlier this morning.

            Tony Rinaldi and Bob Clarke compare rabbits after some sensational runs. The bunnies were large and fat, even though it was late in the season.
           Tony and I find a place to ford the creek, then coax the dogs to our side.  My truck is still several hundred yards down the valley.  We're just strolling along, but I can't help kicking a few likely looking places.  At the second one a big cottontail comes flying out and runs into open woods.   I'm thinking I don't want any long chases now, so I throw the gun on him. 

            My finger is taking the play out of the trigger when Tony yells,    "Naaaa, don't shoot ... let the dogs run him!"
          Well, I know this is a bad idea, but my concentration is broken and I lower the gun.  I'm still thinking I should just leash the dogs ..... naaaaa!

            "Here he goes!  Here he goes!  Here he goes, Bowser!"

            The dogs go streaking away and about 15 minutes later jump the creek and start back up the mountain .... I can't stand it anymore and I climb the shorter ridge to the truck.  I'm sitting there eating a sandwich and drinking a Mountain Dew when Bob pulls up.

            "Yeah, I figured you guys must have jumped another one when I didn't see anyone at the truck.  How long have they been running??"

            "A good half hour now.  You know I could have shot that rabbit when he went up.  Do you hear where they're at!?  They're clear back on the top of the ridge where you shot that one rabbit earlier!  I think Tony is over there somewhere!"  I reply.

            Bob and I sit there for quite awhile just listening to the dogs.  It's incredible!  My chest tightens and I get short of breath just hearing them ....  it's that feeling again.  From our position on the east face we can hear everything.  Every little squeal, Bowser's big mouth brawl, and even Sammy's short, quick chop.  It's like being at the symphony seated in some big outdoor amphitheater ... it's the essence of why we go rabbit hunting.

            "I don't know, it looks like we're going to be here a while," I finally say.   "Unless Tony gets lucky and shoots that rabbit.  But that's a big ridge for one guy.  We're supposed to eat dinner at 6:30 and it's already 4:30.  Do you want to go ahead to my house and start cleaning rabbits?  I'll go over there or try to call the dogs off pretty soon.  They have to be worn out!"

            Bob agrees, and drives off.  I lie on the tailgate still absorbing the great chase on the ridge beyond.  They've  moved more north now so I start the truck and back up a few hundred yards.  When I stop I still can't tell where they are .... must be in the valley because I can't hear them as well.

            I finally see Tony at the creek, but he doesn't seem to be close enough to the chase to kill the rabbit.  I'm not sure where the dogs are, but they have to be farther north.  I get in the truck again, and back up another quarter mile.                     I step out, and walk to the back of the pickup.  All of a sudden the dogs are deafening!  They're close!  They're on the bank that leads right to the road I'm on.  I can see the pack coming now .... mostly tails beating the brush excitedly.  The berm of the road had been cleared and cut back, and in some places black plastic sheeting had been erected about 18 inches high to curb erosion.

            The dogs get to this cleared edge about the time I'm jamming two shells in the gun.  The hounds stop for a second, then Sammy turns around and runs down the edge behind the plastic sheeting.  The other dogs are following, barely barking, and I'm thinking the rabbit never went that way.

            But he's there.   Suddenly he breaks out from a hole in the black wall and sprints by me at full blast.  He's about to dive back into the brush when I let fly my first shot .... it's all I'll need and another "world class" run comes to an end.

            The dogs need very little encouragement to come to the truck and I'm lifting the last one up as Tony breaks out of the brush.

            "Man!  You believe those runs!"  Tony says excitedly.   "I went all the way back there where Bob shot that rabbit.   I never saw that thing the whole time!   Man, those are some big runs!"

            "Yeah, we had some good ones today.  'World Class' as Al would say.  I should have shot that rabbit when he first went out .... but now I'm glad I didn't.  It wouldn't have been a very good story!"

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