Jim Casada

Memories of beagles and the cottontail trail

These two small female beagles are hot on the scent of a recently passed rabbit at the end of the first day of Beagle field trials.
These two small female beagles are hot on the scent of a recently passed rabbit at the end of the first day of Beagle field trials. MCT

On calm, chilly mornings at this time of the year, with the sun’s first rays setting a million times a million frost diamonds a-sparkle, I hear voices from long ago.

These voices come not from departed friends and family but from canine companions—beagles with simple one- or two-syllable names such as Lead, Lady, Buck, Drum, Chip, Dale, Bugle, Tiny, and Queen.

I don’t just hear voices; I enjoy a hallelujah chorus echoing through the corridors of my mind as those dogs take to the cottontail trail and set hills and hollows ringing with their music.

Those boyhood days and rabbit hunting ways are one of my life’s enduring delights. It was a time when cottontails were plentiful, when obtaining permission to hunt almost always involved nothing more than a polite request, and when a meal of fried rabbit and all the fixin’s offered everything a body could want.

All it takes to recall rabbit hunts from yesteryear are certain kinds of mornings – times of heavy frost or perhaps a gray day with scudding, low-hanging clouds carrying a hint of coming rain or snow.

In such conditions the scent left by rabbits going about their nocturnal business lingers well after night gives way to light.I can almost hear the first deep-throated rumble as a beagle strikes an hour’s old trail. Soon enough the occasional “cold-trailing” bark gives way to a frenzied mingling of voices, the canine equivalent of the tower of Babel, as the packrousts a rabbit from its daytime bed.

Rabbit hunting today no longer enjoys anything approaching its one-time popularity. The resurgence of whitetail and wild turkey populations, welcome conservation success stories, have turned the attention of sportsmen away from small game.

The halcyon days when you could knock on a farmer’s door, talk a bit, and get a friendly “Sure, go ahead and hunt rabbits, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t shoot my birds” response belongs to a world we have lost. Because of changing habitat and cottontails aren’t nearly as plentiful as they once were.

Where there’s suitable habitat– good cover, adequate food, and some protection from predators such as coyotes – rabbit populations don’t merely survive, they thrive.

This month and next is the ideal time to hunt them. Another deer season has come and gone, so there’s no problem with disturbing whitetail hunters. A day spent braving briar thickets, stomping brush piles, and marching through overgrown fields can furnish joy aplenty.

The frenzied activity after a rabbit has been jumped, either with humans calling the dogs or the excited yelping of one beagle letting his pack companions know that there’s serious business demanding their immediate attention, offers simple hunting excitement at its satisfying best.

Hunters spread out in positions where they are likely to get a shot.

Chases have a degree of predictability. Unless the quarry “trees” – a misnomer since rabbits tend to use ground hog holes or similar subterranean escape option – or the beagles lose the trail, soon enough the cottontail will circle back toits daytime “hide.”

Cries of “there he goes,” “he’s headed your way,” or “watch out along the power line” are likely to be heard. If youngsters are along on the hunt – and they should be, because the sport provides the kind of action, movement, and outlets for a super-abundant energy – they likely will be beside themselves inanticipation. It’s almost miraculous how a two-pound bundle of fur with long ears and rangy legs loping within gun range can get a boy’s adrenalin pumping.

It’s been several decades since I owned a beagle, and at least ten years since I was part of a rabbit hunting party. Maybe, just maybe, there will still be another opportunity or two to listen to that incomparable music and know first-hand the delicious exhaustion that comes after a day filled with brier scratches, fights with tangles of saw briers, and scrambles to find a suitable stand every time that siren’s song sung by a bevy of beagles rings through the winter air.

If not, there’s sweet solace in knowing that those were the days, those were the voices, and that I was once privileged to be a part of such scenes.