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The Opening: Conformation Of A Rabbit Hunting Beagle

by Bill Bennett

          October in the Delta is the month Mother Nature dresses herself in her finest fashions and paints herself with a variety of make-up. She flashes her dazzling colors of gold, red, yellow, orange, pink, auburn and a host of browns. There is a splash of green showing, seemingly for dramatic effect.

          The crisp autumn air is a much-welcomed relief from the hot, humid, sweltering heat of the long summer days. It is a time for the hunter and Beagle dog owner to venture into the splendid outdoors.

          Your field notes reflect you have exceeded your goal of once per week field trips. Bell is now in top physical condition and Sam has begun to follow her into the thick stuff. He has overcome his fear of heights and shows no fear of gun shot noise. On each trip you have routinely provided him with the additional time of one on one training opportunities. He has learned to 'Check' areas by following your voice commands and hand directions. He responds to 'Hear he is!' each time you flush a rabbit for him. He has made steady progress on following scent lines, although there have been those irritating 'black lines'…following the scent in the opposite direction of the rabbits travel.

          You are pleased with his enthusiasm for the hunt. He responds to scent with furious tail wagging, jaws working to keep his mouth and tongue moist and keeps his nose on the ground inhaling the scent like a miniature vacuum cleaner. You have followed along behind him, keeping out of the way and quiet so not to break his concentration. In addition, he occasionally shows himself while hunting for scent lines.

          Saturday afternoon you arrive at the Morgan Bridge area, twelve miles east of town and two miles south of a state highway. The large ditch that runs east and west is one of hundreds constructed by the Federal government in the early eighteen hundreds. These large channels drained water from the swampy Delta terrain in order to escalate the development of agriculture through out the region. At completion, they were deeded to the state with the agreement that the state would establish a network of local drainage districts. These districts were, and continue to be, responsible for the levying of taxes to pay for the cost of maintenance and clearing the channels as needed. These enormous waterways criss-cross the entire Delta region, draining fields of excess water into a variety of rivers that serve as tributaries of the 'Mighty Mississippi.' For the hunter they are important because they provide habitat for numerous species of waterfowl and wildlife. Their banks are covered with vegetation so thick a man can penetrate the cover only with great difficulty. More importantly, they are a haven for both the cottontail and "cane-cutter" swamp rabbit.

          The early afternoon sky is clear blue and crisp as you cross the Morgan Ditch Bridge and turn onto the farm road leading east. As you look eastward, you can see the ten-acre woodlot one-quarter mile away. The high south side of the bank looms fifteen feet above the edge of the farm road like a silent, sleeping giant. To the south of the road is a one hundred acre, once picked over, cotton field.

          The dilapidated fencerow, which traverses the spine of the high bank, is invisible to the naked eye. One hundred yards west of the wood lot is a massive honeysuckle patch, interspersed with briars, panic grass, sumac, crabgrass, and dock weed. Willow, water locust, pin oak, and sweet gum trees guard the bottom of the ditch, near the water line. A beaver dam slows the west end of the water flow to a mere one-foot depth. Behind the dam, a large pool is surrounded by swamp grass and cane breaks.

          You step out of the truck and test the chilled autumn air. A slight north breeze ripples the burnt brown colored leaves on a nearby pin oak tree while you quietly change into your boots. You slip into your heavy coveralls, gloves and blaze orange vest. Slinging your 'possibles bag' over your shoulder, you store your shoes and waterproof bag into the cab. You reach for your shotgun behind the seat, uncase it, and open the action.

          The dogs whine with excitement as you remove the three cut two by four pieces of lumber from around the edges of the bottom of the carrier, used to hold the canvas tarp in place. You can open the door to carrier and lower the tailgate as both dogs bounce out onto the ground. You talk to them, encouraging them to stay close as you make your way to the monstrous ditch.

          Bell dives down the steep embankment and begins working the low-lying area. She is barely visible in the high swamp grass. Sam, having overcome his fear of heights, follows at her heels. Both dogs are excited and thrash through the high grass as you walk slowly in the direction of the high bank.

          As you approach the looming high bank, Bell shatters the stillness of the afternoon with her chopped mouth bark. You can tell by her tone, its' a fresh line. You try to guess where the rabbit will break cover. It will probably dart into the safety of the cotton field on your right. The farm road offers a twenty five foot open space by experience has taught you the rabbit will offer a difficult target if you choose to shoot. It will be like shooting at a blurring, brown rocket as the rabbit breaks cover.

          The race heads to the top of the rising bank. A movement catches your eye as you see quick movements in the frost-deadened crab grass. The rabbit is making his way down the bank toward the edge of the farm road. In a flash, he covers the open space in four fast leaps. Your hurry to mount the shotgun, but decide not to shoot. You watch the white tail bobbing up and down as he disappears down a furrow among the cotton stalks.

          Seconds later, Bell races down the bank, tonguing at the top of her lungs. Sam bounces along behind trying to work scent and keep pace with the larger dog. 'More ambition than ability.' you mumble to yourself as you watch the race.

          Bell looses the line momentarily in the open road. You watch her cast to the left, which is her nature. She strikes the line where the rabbit entered the safety of the cotton field. Sam runs to catch up with her, as the race through the one hundred acre field becomes a major challenge for Bell. The rabbit jumps across the furrowed rows and runs a zigzagged, looping course, in an attempt to loose the howling around.

          The rabbit darts across the farm road and disappears into a briar patch, half way up the high bank. The briar patch is interlaced with honeysuckle and crabgrass.

          As Bell turns up the volume fifty yards behind, you relax and listen. You could have possibly shot the rabbit but that would have ended the race. Listening to Bell work the scent line, knowing she is in no danger, is the hunt! You feel a thrill, a shiver stabbing at your heartstrings, as you listen and watch her work the hot scent line.

          Bell breaks from the cotton stalks and follows the line up the high bank into the thick stuff. Sam continues to follow at her heels, desperately trying to keep up. As both dogs reach the top of the bank, you can hear them cross the unseen fencerow. They head down the steep bank on the opposite side. You cannot see or hear Sam, but you surmise he has handled the fence without difficulty.

          The race heads due east at the bottom of the huge ditch. The rabbit tries to throw Bell off the line by dashing and darting up and down the steep sides of the bank. But being true to her personality and breed, she stubbornly stays with the line.

          You unload your gun and quietly make your way up to the top of the fifteen-foot embankment by following a faint game trail. You stop and take a post next to the remnants of the old fence line.

          Without warning, there is an eerie silence as Bell looses the line. The only sound to be heard is the raucous calling of a half dozen crows on the opposite side of the ditch bank. Their black feathers shine like weird, dark diamonds as the sun reflects off of them. Minutes seem like hours as long as the check drags on like a steel weight. A red-tail hawk screeches overhead, circling lazily on invisible thermo winds. A puff of north wind sets the high stemmed Johnson grass waving like miniature hula dancers, swaying in a slow rhythm to the breeze.

          You strain your ears to hear Bell open. Anxiously, you can feel your heart pounding. No doubt, in her excitement of the chase, she has over run the scent line and the rabbit has slipped into what he thinks is a safe hiding place. But you have confidence in Bells' abilities. She will find the line in due time and send the rabbit in your direction.

          Bells loud bark breaks the stillness of the crisp, afternoon air. Your heart pounds and your hands sweat as the race heads in your direction. From the sounds of the race, the rabbit must be weaving in and out of the fencerow in an attempt to escape. You wait and watch.

          As the clamor of Bells' tonguing grows louder and the race draws closer, you summon the mental strength to stand motionless. Minutes later you hear a rustling sound in the dry white oak leaves along the edge of the fencerow. The rabbit suddenly scurries off to your right and down the bank in the direction of the farm road. Bell threads her way along the scent line, criss-crossing the fencerow with nimble expertise. As she approaches your position, you decide to intercept her and work Sam on his own.

          Bell is totally displeased with being taken off the scent line. She vigorously strains at the leash. You squat and pet her. Talking to her in a quiet tone of voice soon calms her down. Sam appears from out of the thick undergrowth. You leash him and head back to the truck with both dogs on leashes.

          You place Bell in the carrier box, securing it with a chain and padlock. You cover the box with the canvas tarp. Bell whines her disappointment but does not bark as you lead Sam back to the top of the high bank.

          Carefully threading your way through a briar patch, interlaced with thorn bushes and blue grass, you talk to Sam in a smooth tone of voice, encouraging him to check along the nearly invisible fencerow. As you move down the right side toward the farm road, a rabbit explodes from under a cluster of honeysuckle.

          "Here he is!" you tell Sam with a bit of controlled excitement in your voice. Sam trots over to the fresh scent line. The rabbits' line of travel appeared to be straight ahead, following the old fencerow but you can never be certain. You watch Sam's reaction to the scent line. His nose is on the ground, jaws working vigorously. His tail points straight up with a slight quiver. He inhales the scent and takes a few steps along the line, seemingly more sure of himself. He reverses himself for a minute and retraces his steps along the back line. As though he realizes his mistake, he quickly turns around and follows the line several yards.

          You hear a weak whimper, then absolute silence. You walk behind him a few steps. Suddenly, the rabbit flushes again, speeding down the embankment to the right. Instead of crossing the open field road, he heads due east on the edge of the ditch.

          Sam stubbornly stays with the scent line. His tail action is so fast, it resembles a white blur against the high brown grass and weeds. You watch him pick up his pace, when suddenly a loud baritone bawl breaks the cool, quiet, afternoon air. As he takes a few more steps along the scent line, filling his nose with the fresh scent, he bawls at the top of his lungs as centuries old instinct takes over his personality.

          Standing fifteen yards behind, you feel the hair on the back of your neck bristle. A deep lump in your throat makes swallowing difficult. Your breath shortens; your hands sweat and your heart pounds like crazy as you watch Sam finally reaching the goal for which you have both worked so hard. It is his destiny. This is it! All the yard training, exploratory trips, time and effort of kicking rabbits out for him, teaching him field commands and routines, patience and frustrations have now paid huge dividends as he continues to give 'full cry' on the scent line. You smile to yourself with a feeling of accomplishment, knowing you played a part in developing him into a hunter; an inefficient hunter to be sure, but a hunter nevertheless. He will improve with practice.

          You watch and listen as Sam bellows loudly on the fresh scent line. It's a marvelous sound… pure music to the heart of a Beagle owner. Desperately, you gain control of your emotions and pull yourself back to the reality of the business at hand.

          Sam is now working the scent along the edge of the embankment. Suddenly, the rabbit bolts from the cover of a clump of sage grass. He streaks eastward in the direction of the massive honeysuckle patch. Sam sees the rabbit and immediately gives chase. His loud bawl now sounds like rolling thunder in the crisp autumn air.

          You watch the rabbit dart up the embankment into the safety of the overgrown honeysuckle patch. Sam slows his pace, ten feet from the spot where the rabbit turned up the bank to make his first loop. Sam stops, casts to the right and circles back to the line. Confused, he begins back lining, going silent mouth. You resist the temptation to find the line for him, knowing he must learn to sort out the check on his own.

          Seeming to sense the problem, he returns to the area where the rabbit disappeared but still he cannot locate the line. You wait another long five minutes.

          You walk over to him, squat and pour on the praise. As you pet him he can sense your excitement. He shows his excitement with a wet lick across your face. Both of you are elated as you walk to the spot where the rabbit disappeared.

          You command Sam to "Check," while pointing to the area of the oversized honeysuckle patch. Sam immediately bounces into the mass of vines, roots, and briars. You wait patiently for five minutes, watching him tunnel through the thick green leaves.

          You are about to wade into the entanglement when Sam opens with uncontrolled excitement. You spot rapid movement of the honeysuckle leaf tops, as the rabbit charges up to the spine of the bank. Sam is invisible in the undergrowth as he tunnels along the scent line. As the scent grows stronger, he bawls louder. He tops the bank squarely on the line. Moments later you hear him tonguing on the opposite side of the bank, his deep bawl echoing off the water and willow trees beside the beaver pond.

          The race heads in the direction of the wood lot, fifty yards to the east. You catch a fleeting glimpse of the rabbit as it tops the bank and darts fro the cover of an old weed covered piece of roofing tin near the edge of the woods. As Sam approaches the rabbits hiding place, you intercept him and place a leash around his neck. Again, you lavish him with petting and praise.

          Leading him back to the truck, you can barely control your excitement. Sam senses your emotional state. The swagger in his steps and his overall disposition leaves no doubt that he is pleased with his performance.

          The sun is hovering just above the western horizon as you load Sam into the carrier box with Bell. You check and store your gun and equipment before heading toward home.

          During the drive home, you replay the events of the field run in your mind. You are tired from the physical and emotional excursion but a feeling of total relaxation floods over your body and soul.

          Dusk engulfs the final rays of daylight as you pull into the driveway. You place the dogs in the pen and give them a thorough inspection. Finding everything in order, you feed and water them. You pat them affectionately and leave the pen. You properly store all the equipment and take one last look at the dogs before entering the house. Both are eating heartily. They seem to say that all is well with the world. As you watch them eat, you are filled with amazement of a Beagles instinct to open on an invisible scent line of a rabbit. It may not rank as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but to a rabbit hunter it is an awesome event. It is the confirmation that your Beagle was born to hunt. It is an event that is clothed in wonder and mystery; a mystery you do not fully understand. Nor is it important to fully understand it. It is only important to know that this significant part of the sport fuels the passion for your Beagles and keeps you looking forward to the next field adventure.

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).