A sound I will never forget is the sound of beagles baying upon their discovery of a rabbit’s scent. Slow distant snips to exclaim a vague vapor, and a hurried long deep loud voice to express the scent’s freshness. The term “one tracked mind” may have been coined by an Ivy League gentleman, but I on the other hand believe the quote came from an ole’ rabbit hunter from long ago. I mean it explains the methodical way these dogs work a track. This method stands in comparison to the systematic approach of a forensic scientist. Beagles laboriously comb over small pieces of earth until they detect the sweet smell of rabbit stench, then, they continue to follow the scent until the rabbit is flushed from its cover.
To this day I never really understood the phenomenon unfolding before my very eyes. You would think that as the dog chases the rabbit it would continue in a straight line until either the rabbit or the dog tired of the chase. But, that’s not the case, I mean one hundred percent of the time the rabbit would run in a circular pattern somehow thinking it could shake the dog from his trail. Matter of fact, this could be where many moonshiner tactics came from. We have all heard stories of moonshiner’s leading revenuers in circles, in order to frustrate, and confuse them. Well, the revenuers may have been frustrated and confused, but the beagle holds steadfast on the scent trail all the while thinking of only one thing – yep, the rabbit.
Now, with a picture of the chase planted in our mind we must ease into the strategy of interception. Shortly after deer season would end our family weekends would be spent assuming our passion of hunting northern Michigan’s famed “Snowshoe Hare.” Our snowshoe hunting adventures consisted of: Mom, Dad, Brother Bill, and I. We would load up into my Dad’s old Chevrolet pickup complete with camper, hunting gear, two or more rabbit dogs (beagles), and then we would travel to a piece of state wilderness property. This piece of property was approx eighty acres, and made up of Poplar slashings (small white trees that grow in thick clumps). These slashing were often dotted with several jack pine and blue spruce clumps, as well.
Upon arrival at this property we would get dressed in our blood red hunting suits. We needed these warm suits, because the weather was usually a balmy 25-30 degrees. Typically during these times we would also have to contend with a foot or two of fresh fluffy snow. Next, we would pull our shotguns from the cases, wipe them off, and hold them breach open over the right or left arm; always safety first. The last event before crossing the line of departure was unleashing or de-caging the dogs. On this particular occasion I believe we had “Daisy, and Stubby.”
Now at this time, Daisy was a young inexperienced dog, that often times overran the scent. In her youth she spent a good amount of time re-tracking. On the other hand Stubby was an old timer; smart, and cagey. Dad often said, “He has two speeds; slow, and stop.” But, one thing about Stubby, he was sure to have a rabbit in front of him each time he came around past you. The pairing of these two dogs was by no means an accident. These two dogs were paired because of their differences. Daisy, usually jumped the rabbit and kept it moving, while Stubby, kept consistently on the track so that when Daisy would overrun she always had a reference point to return too. Another sideline benefit, was, they would often jump another rabbit in the course of chasing the first. And Daisy, new without a doubt she could leave Stubby to the first while she was in hot pursuit of the second.
Ok now, the dogs are out, the guns are loaded, and we are making our way to our individual points of interception. These points are actually strategically placed positions along an imaginary circle; at least imaginary to us but quite apparent to the dogs. This is why it is very important to stay put, because the dog will bring the rabbit to where it last observed you, if you move the dog will bring the rabbit to where you were, not to where you are now. Remember, in this game patience is definitely a virtue – tough for a young hunter; but, highly rewarding.
On this particular occasion I was the young hunter, so, I went with my Dad to a particular point. The position we took up had a vantage point, known as “a fire break” a fire break was a small but long opening between the thicket of trees, and usually a pine plantation. This break was usually caused by the forest service performing a controlled burn. A controlled burn is burning off of underbrush to stimulate the growth of emerging vegetation; normally choked out by the thick underbrush. So, here we stood gun loaded (my Dad’s old single shot H&R 16 Gauge) awaiting the famed snowshoe hare.
All of a sudden a high pitched cry and a deep guttural belch rang out in the dampened silence. This is what we were all waiting for, Dad said, “The dogs are on a fresh one.” As, I sit here and write this my mind drifts to the thoughts of a musician listening to the particular pitch of a musical note telling him his instrument is in tune. You know how music has the ability to imprint on your mind, in such a way, that allows the tune to be recalled and recognized at a later time. Well that is just how the song of the beagle sounds. This sound will be with a rabbit hunter until the day he passes. And even if he loses his hearing the sound is still there.
Well, by now the dogs are half way into the imaginary circle with the ole’ wiled snowshoe in the lead. Halfway into the circle is very important, as this is usually the time to go on full alert; especially when hunting the ever so fast snowshoe hare. Cottontails, another species of rabbit, are quite a bit smaller and slower. And a three quarter circle is par for the course when sounding the alert.
Here I am a young man on high alert watching for something that is covered fully in snow white hair, and probably moving at an extremely fast rate of speed. About the only reference point you get is some brown or blackening around the ears, and the big black button of an eye. I am now scanning feverishly; left then right, then back again. Unknown to me, Dad has seen the rabbit; he hands me the shotgun and tells me to get ready and focus on the leading edge of the firebreak. He says, “When the rabbits nose hits the fire break – you squeeze; not pull, squeeze the trigger.” I reply “Ok, Dad” and go back to scanning. My heart is beating faster, and faster, as I know, I am going to be tested. All of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I catch movement then ears; ears are all I see – huge ears. This thing looks like a small white donkey, and man is he moving! I pull back the hammer on the shotgun, settle down on one knee, place the sight of the gun on the forward leading edge of the fire break, and just as the rabbit’s nose hits the break I squeeze observing the rabbit role to a immediate halt. Wow, the adrenaline is still coursing through my veins even now as I am writing, but, not quite as intense as that day.
I cracked the breach on the shotgun expelling the spent cartridge and handed the shotgun back to my Dad; as if to say “there I did it exactly like you told me.” I could see the spark in his eye, and feel the well of pride in my chest as he said, “way to go boy; you rolled that snowshoe up like the Sunday paper.” In my pride I started to take off towards the downed rabbit, and Dad said, “Whoa; wait, the dogs aren’t done. You killed it, but they worked for it – let em’ have the satisfaction of getting to it first.” Wow, that really tested my patience as the dogs still had about 15 minutes left chasing before they would come upon it and Stubby probably had 20 minutes.
Finally, they came out, smelt the rabbit, and ended the chase on this one. Then immediately continued, always sniffing, and always tracking, their way to the next rabbit.
Heck, these dogs had rabbit fever so bad they even tracked rabbits in their sleep. I remember on many occasions ole’ Daisy would lay by the fireplace, asleep on her side, feet moving a mile a minute as tiny yips escaped from her mouth. Not sure if she ever caught him; but that particular day I got mine for the very first time.
It was never about the kill, it was about spending time with family, and listening to a couple of four legged champions, do, what God built them to do. And the fact is I came out of the slashings a little taller than when I went in. Thanks, Daisy and Stubby – I will never forget you. And to my Dad, Mother, and Brother – them were the days – weren’t they?