By: Tom Lounsbury.
When it comes to weather, March can be quite a fickle month. One day you will think spring is coming early, and the next day winter is back, and with a vengeance. That is what was on my mind when the date of March 12 was set for a rabbit hunt on my farm, entailing youth hunters. Just like the month of March, cottontail rabbits can be real fickle, too, according to the weather. One day they are out and about, and suddenly they have literally gone to ground, and can remain there from just before and during a wintery storm, even for a day or two. Having a set date, especially in March, can be a boom or a bust, but then, that is hunting. You go with what you got, and due to various schedules (including my being in Florida during February), March 12 was literally written in stone.
Bill Fischer, of Frankenmuth, is the Outreach Coordinator for Pheasants Forever (PF) in Michigan, and as an example, is in charge of developing hunting and shooting activities and programs for youths and women, a necessary factor in regards to the future. Having pheasant hunted on my farm, Fischer knew that I had portions of the ground devoted to what I call “rabbitat”, and he had observed plenty of cottontails roaming about, and wondered if I would be willing to host a youth rabbit hunt.
Well, folks, that was a no-brainer for me, because I fully support introducing the youth to various outdoor pastimes, and hosting a “youth only” rabbit hunt was certainly my cup of tea. In Michigan these days, small game hunting takes a backseat to deer hunting, and introducing kids to deer hunting has therefore become the main priority, which in my mind, is a sad state of affairs. Small game hunting offers an entirely different atmosphere which can include a whole lot more action, than sitting very still and quiet for lengthy periods in a deer blind. In fact, using beagles for an “old-fashioned” rabbit hunt, can be very action-packed and downright exciting! This was my hope for the upcoming youth-only rabbit hunt on my farm.
A key person I contacted for the hunt, was Paul Broecker of Silverwood, who is a well-noted local houndsman, with a dandy pack of beagles. At 85 years young, he is quite spry and I can personally attest, it is quite a challenge to keep up with him in dense, shin-tangling cover. The only thing Broecker carries in the field, is his dependable cedar walking-stick, which he requires for maintaining balance and allowing definite stability while boring through the brush (a handy walking stick in this environment works for me, too). He hasn’t carried a gun while hunting with his beagles for years, and he is out there only to listen to the “music” of his happy hounds singing on a hot track. He is out and about with his beagles at every opportunity, and it is his hope that when he passes away, that it will be with his boots on while “listening to the music”!
Prior to the youth rabbit hunt, I invited Broecker to my farm in order for him to review all and know what to expect, and to discuss our battle plan, so to speak. He showed up with a pair of his oldest beagles, and we went about touring my rabbitat, and the only thing we both carried was our dependable walking sticks. This was a matter of simply listening to the music, while getting a feeling for how and where to start matters on the day of the hunt.
Needless to say, Broecker was quite impressed with my “rabbitat”, which was laced with rabbit tracks, and even numerous, carved (heavy traffic) rabbit-trails in the snow. His pair of beagles started singing a beautiful duet right away, and kept on singing, with rabbits frequently running by us, soon followed by boisterous beagles. Yep, folks, there is a whole lot to just listening to beagle music on a brisk wintery day! We actually had to round the beagles up, which kept finding rabbits to chase, and had no intent in quitting. Broecker and I also knew how to go about matters for the hunt, no matter the weather. Hopefully, it would be ideal weather.
I was notified that 5 youth hunters would be coming, and on the morning of the hunt, I had placed orange flags at 5 key positons for the shooters to stand at, and hold that position during the entire hunt. The positions were selected due to being funneling “pinch-points” in the rabbitat, and offered a safe zone of fire. My rules were simple; only the kids were the “shooters”, and had to be accompanied by an adult (in this case it was the fathers). Only shotguns could be used because .22 rifles aren’t easy to hit with on moving targets, as well as .22 bullets are notorious for ricocheting when striking a hard surface which could prove hazardous to others, as well as the dogs, and some low spots featured ice under the snow.
I had been informed all of the kids had hunter safety and were in a school trap and skeet shooting league sponsored by the Frankenmuth Sportsman’s Club. Although all knew how to safely handle guns, none had ever hunted rabbits before. Ammunition and any necessary shooting accessories (such as ear and eye protection) was provided by the Saginaw County Chapter of Pheasants Forever.
The weather that day was sunny, featured a fresh 2 inches of snowfall, and the temperature was in the low teens, which all represented ideal rabbit hunting weather, except for one thing, the wind, which was a subzero 40 + mph out of the northwest. However, all 5 stations were in heavy cover and offered some definite protection from the literally brutal wind. Everybody was also properly dressed for the weather, and also with plenty of “hunter orange”.
Paul Broecker could have brought his entire pack of beagles, but instead, brought just the 2 seasoned older dogs to keep matters on a steady roll. Station one was located in the outer corner of an “elbow” in the cover, and within seconds of Broecker releasing his pair of beagles at the end of the rabbitat, there was a sudden shotgun blast, and the first rabbit of the day was down for the count. Then station number two lit up, followed by stations three and four. Because of the cottontail nature of circling around with howling beagles in tow, station five at the end of the line, took a while to light up, but eventually got into the fast-action and ongoing game!
I had informed the kids prior to the hunt, to remain alert and ready after the chase scene passed by them, because matters would most likely be coming back. There would also be other rabbits not involved in the chase, heading for other parts, and yep, this would all happen in a pretty steady sequence. It turned out to be a pretty productive rabbit hunting day, with all five kids bagging at least one rabbit, and with a total of 7 rabbits being taken. There were also some misses, a not uncommon factor when trying to hit a fast moving target in heavy cover. Been there and done that myself, many times!
It made both Paul Broecker and myself very happy to see how all five youthful and new rabbit hunters had a distinctly fun and satisfying day spent in my “rabbitat”. Something tells me it won’t be their last time at such. I do believe I’ll have to make this an annual event!