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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Beagles Get the Jump on Rabbits Despite Cold, Dry Air

ITHACA, Wisconsin – Jonathan Braun of Marshall caught on quickly to the hazards of hunting with an outdoor writer.

In only our second time hunting together, Braun said he would never again let me choose which day to hunt rabbits with his beagles.

When we first joined forces in February 2019 we spent much of the day peering through fog and sloshing across slushy hillsides, which proved taxing to eyes and legs alike. The fog was so thick we sometimes struggled to see beyond shotgun range, which is fine for shooting rabbits but hazardous if you forsake what’s beyond.

Conditions differed greatly when we got together Jan. 22. The air was dry and cold — single digits, to be exact — forcing me to keep a heavy chopper mitten on the hand toting my shotgun. I kept a lightweight glove on my shooting hand, which clasped an air-activated warmer inside my hunting vest’s pocket.

Upon hearing Braun criticize my choice in hunting days, Doug Duren of Cazenovia piled on. Duren noted that if we had hunted the previous day, as he had preferred, we could have dressed lightly. He knew that because he and his wife, Patricia, had leisurely walked their woodlands, basking in the day’s calm mid-30s air.

I didn’t recall Jan. 21 being one of Braun’s options, but I didn’t defend myself. With Duren, any hint of an excuse only invites further friendly jabs. As with any good friend or spouse, Duren defends visitors and friendly strangers more readily than he does kin or camp regulars.

And so I smiled and shrugged for the others in our group — Mike Foy, Brad Holtz and Remington Braun. Trouble was, we were all masked up to thwart COVID-19 and the cold air, so they couldn’t tell if I was amused or confused.

Either way, I said nothing more on the topic. Much like an itchy eye or a poison-ivy rash, rubbing or scratching a vulnerability only make it worse.

Besides, we had enjoyed a great hunt on my cousin Peg’s farm in northeastern Richland County, and the four beagles that made it possible were resting appreciatively inside their kennels in Braun’s pickup. Other than emerging for a curtain call and our group photo, the handsome hounds — Loretta, 6; Abel, 4; Pride, 3; and Lexi, 1 — were done working for the day. They had put up nearly 20 cottontails that morning, and we responded by bringing back seven to divvy up while retelling the hunt and its planning.

Foy and I used to hunt rabbits more often than deer as high-schoolers nearly 50 years ago in Madison, but we fell away from it as adults. I knew, though, that Foy wouldn’t spurn an invitation to chase bunnies if I arranged the beagles.

After our crew gathered and then spread out to hunt a brushy creek bottom across the road, Holtz made a prediction: The beagles would hunt more quietly than usual. Rabbits leave little scent when fleeing across hard-crusted snow, as if vanishing into the dry, cold air. The less scent bunnies leave behind, the less beagles howl.

“A lot of the action will probably come from bouncing on brush piles and chasing them out,” Holtz predicted. “It’s that kind of day.”

Before Foy, Braun, Duren and I could spread out across the bottoms and uphill into the woods, we heard Remington Braun, 13, fire the hunt’s first shot. Braun had sent his son ahead to a cornfield’s corner, not far away, and then turned loose the beagles. A rabbit quickly fled within range of Remington’s .410 shotgun.

Meanwhile, we did our best to evenly space ourselves as we worked downhill through the brushy bottoms, sometimes hopping across the creek, but more often stumbling and even tumbling on its patchy ice. The only casualty — however temporary — was my 35mm camera strapped loosely across my chest. When I slipped on the ice and sprawled forward onto my knees, the camera’s lens dipped into the creek’s one small opening. The water didn’t damage the lens, but it froze instantly, blurring the lens’ protective UV filter while locking its zoom and focus functions.

The rabbits, meanwhile, kept fleeing unwisely. Foy, Duren and I didn’t fire a shot during that creek-bottom foray, although I twice raised my shotgun before conceding I had no shot. We left all the shooting to Holtz and the Brauns, who rolled five rabbits before we reached Peg’s property line. The beagles ended the sortie by chasing a rabbit ahead of us and then turning it back our way. It thwarted Braun by squirting into a burrow before he could shoot.

We next targeted the woody draw just south of Peg’s house, starting with a large brush pile she labeled a can’t-miss for holding rabbits. We proved Peg wrong. Although we chased a rabbit from the monstrous tangle of trimmed brush and fallen branches, it ran uphill toward Duren. Its flight path ensured none of us could shoot. Duren feared hitting us and we feared hitting Duren.

The beagles chased after the rabbit, occasionally howling at scant scent in its wake. If memory serves, someone got a fleeting look and follow-up shot, but no rabbit died in the effort.

After I reached the top of the draw and found Duren, we converged on a small brush pile that my cousin Mike amassed recently. Neither of us fired when two rabbits bounced out, vanishing quickly in opposite directions into tall grass. After Duren walked north 50 yards to bounce atop another brush pile, the next cottontail wasn’t so lucky. A three-shot volley from Duren and Braun rolled it.

We then started downhill toward the barn, fanning out uphill of an old pine/fir plantation before descending into the brush, tall grass and dogwoods at its fringe. Duren popped our final bunny just uphill of the barn, but the old buck gathered itself and ran my way, dying just as I prepared to shoot. That lone shot and commotion attracted one of the beagles, which stood on its hind legs to sniff the bunny in Duren’s hand.

We thanked it for its help before walking the final 100 yards to our trucks.

— Patrick Durkin photos:

Doug Duren bounces atop a brush pile in hopes of flushing a rabbit.

Rabbit hunters had good luck Jan. 22, even though cold, dry air made scent-tracking difficult for beagles.

Doug Duren lets a beagle sniff a rabbit he shot as it skirted a pine plantation.

Remington Braun, 13, got the first of his group’s seven rabbits during a hunt Jan. 22 in Richland County.

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