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Pennsylvania Rabbit Hunting with Steve Hower


Rabbit hunting is one of Pennsylvania's oldest hunting pursuits and provides countless hours of good old-fashioned recreation and camaraderie for those who take to the fields and brushy edges to watch beagles work and catch cottontails trying to sneak in the backdoor. But isn't easy to get started without some help, and that's where Steve Hower, a Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer in Perry County and avid rabbit hunter, comes in. He has taken the time to develop this guide to help you get going. Steve presents his information in an easy-to-follow, enjoyable manner that will help you understand what it takes to become successful hunting rabbits with beagles. To continue reading, select one of the topics below. They are listed in chronological order.

Rabbit Hunting Introduction

I wanted action, like most young boys learning to hunt. Sitting stock-still on a log next to Dad during deer season was rather unexciting, and usually very cold. Only when the rustle of leaves or the snap of a twig from approaching deer was heard was the waiting time forgotten and later thought to be well worth it. I wanted that feeling of excitement, that adrenaline rush more often and so I turned more and more to hunting small game. Each trip afield was filled with action and many times I even brought game home for Mom to cook. Small game hunting became my favorite pursuit.

The late 1960s and early "70s was a great time to be a small game hunter. Small game was plentiful and both pheasants and quail were abundant where I lived. In this area, farmers had not yet begun to plant their fields in soybeans, so fields of grasses were common. Fencerows were quite brushy and cornstalks were seldom reduced to ground level after harvesting as is the case today so the habitat remained intact during the winter months and was capable of sustaining good populations of these species.

Hunting after school was simply a matter of getting a few friends together and lining up to tramp through a grass field until game was flushed. Rabbits were abundant and a shout of "There he goes!" was the signal that a bunny had just flushed from its hiding place and a warning to get ready in case an opportunity for a shot presented itself. My father always had the uncanny ability to see rabbits sitting in their "squat" before they flushed and would often call for either my brother Don or me to shoot it with a .22 rifle while it sat motionless a few feet in front of us. Many times I couldn‟t see the rabbit hidden in the grass until Dad would remind me to, "Look for its eye." Finding the eye of the rabbit was always easier than seeing the per-fectly camouflaged animal hiding in cover.

Rabbit hunting became even more thrilling when my uncle, Jerome Kerchner, introduced me to hunting with beagles. Uncle Jerome always had two dogs and they loved to chase rabbits. When the pursued bunny would break from cover and run in my direction I would more often than not shoot at and miss it which always caused the rabbit to shift into a higher gear and quickly disappear. Man, that was exciting!

As the years passed, the landscape gradually changed causing a change in habits of many wildlife spe-cies. Farming is a tough way to make a living as the costs of land, supplies, and livestock feed and farm-ing machinery are almost unaffordable. Profits have to be maximized in order for families to survive, so no one can fault farmers for producing their crops more efficiently. But the fact remains that today‟s cleaner farming practices result in less habitat for small game populations. The lack of winter cover is especially detrimental to their survival because it results in few hiding places over long periods, as well as less thermal cover. Obviously prey species become more susceptible to predation when they are ex-posed. Today, suitable nesting cover isn‟t available until later in the summer and then is, more often than not, destroyed, along with the nests of ground-nesting birds, when mowing takes place earlier than it once did. Species able to adapt to change are those that are most successful in surviving and those unable to adapt soon disappear. Our pheasant and bobwhite quail populations crashed during this period of change as did other native grassland bird species such as meadow larks and bobolinks, while rabbits adapted by seeking out brushier, thicker areas where they can stay hidden.

I stopped hunting rabbits for many years since it seemed futile to tramp through fields expecting to find them. After all, as I have already pointed out, these fields were no longer supporting game. So, what was the use?

My negative attitude turned positive, though, after my friend Bob Schmitt invited me to hunt rabbits with him, his sons Mike and Chris, and their three beagles. Recalling the excitement from my younger days, I quickly accepted his invitation and soon found the experience to be a life-changing event. After spending a day with the Schmitts and their dogs, I once again felt the elation I had experienced years earlier. Lis-tening to Old Duke, Sandy, and young Shadow as they chased rabbits that cool fall day brought it all back. It was a fabulous day afield and rabbit hunting was fun again!

Since then I have acquired my own beagles and have spent many days afield hunting bunnies with my dogs. I‟ve learned a lot about training them to be good hunters and about the sport of hunting itself. Most of all, though, together with my dogs and hunting buddies, I‟ve learned to really enjoy hunting so much more!

Throughout this writing, I‟ll try to share what I have learned about rabbits and beagles over the years and, yes, I will encourage you to get out there, too, because unless you do, you‟ll never know what you‟re missing. As I‟ve said already, hunting rabbits with beagles is exciting, but like most endeavors, there can be problems, too. I‟m hoping that I can help you avoid these potential pitfalls by sharing what I‟ve learned through my own experiences. Let‟s start with the basics.

About Rabbits

Most predators have razor sharp eyesight and watch for the slightest movement as they search for a meal. Avian predators combine sight with keen hearing to help detect prey, while mammalian predators have the additional ability to smell their quarry and rely on this capability to know when prey is in close proximity. Once the odor is discovered, the senses of sight and hearing are peaked and when the prey loses its nerve and bolts from the hunting predator, it either escapes or is caught.

Rabbits are a prey species, plain and simple. They multiply quickly during the warmer months and pro-vide food for most predators. That's their job. Of course, rabbits are not willing participants in this rela-tionship and, like all other prey species, spend their lives trying to avoid being eaten. They do this by simply hiding in thick cover and remaining motionless, thus avoiding that movement that a predator could detect. If the remaining motionless thing doesn't work, rabbits flee danger by using their large rear legs to propel themselves to safety. Every rabbit knows that it can outrun most other creatures, so if it believes it's being chased, it will usually continue to run at jogging speed ahead of its pursuer. When running away isn't working, they will sometimes as a last resort "hole up," or dive down a groundhog hole to escape their pursuer. I've heard stories of rabbits jumping up and running along logs to throw off dogs. Now, I'm not sure how much intelligence rabbits have. But I once personally watched a rabbit that was being trailed by my dogs run down an embankment and jump into a pond, swim to the other side, climb out and continue on. The chase ended abruptly at the water's edge. Now, that rabbit could've easily avoided the water by running around the small pond, but chose to jump in and swim. I just stood there in complete amazement watching as it safely vanished from sight.

Each rabbit is quite familiar with its home area since it has lived its whole life in just several acres and it is this fact that makes hunting with beagles successful. You see, when a rabbit is flushed from its hiding place and dogs start to trail it, it will run ahead of the dogs until it reaches the end of its home range. At this point it will have to make a quick decision, continue into unfamiliar territory or head back to known safe places. It will almost always turn and head back into the heart of its home range. Many people mistakenly believe that the dogs somehow bring the rabbit back to the hunter, but rest assured it's the rabbit's decision to return. The hunter should be positioned in a spot near where the rabbit was first jumped since it will normally return to this location. Remain still because as the rabbit moves ahead of the dogs it is constantly scanning ahead watching for movement. Sometimes the "chase" will continue for more than an hour as the rabbit continues to circle back into its home area over and over. As it grows tired of being chased it will often end the game by running down a hole where it finds safety.

About Beagles

Beagles are hounds and like all hounds they have extremely acute senses of smell. So acute, they are able to detect where an animal not only is, but also where it had once been and even which direction it went. Add to this detection ability a bred-in instinct to chase and pursue and you have a beagle.

When a trained beagle encounters the scent of a rabbit it immediately gets excited. Its tail will begin wagging quickly from side to side as it sucks in and processes the invisible scent particles. The dog's ex-citement will increase until simply wagging the tail won't be enough and it will start to bark. It may take a few minutes for the dog to determine the direction the rabbit went and until it does, it will continue go-ing in small circles sniffing the ground. Once the trail is discovered, the "chase" begins and the beagle will "tongue" (bark) as it travels through the area all the while staying on the rabbit's track. Of course, the rabbit can hear the dog behind it so it will stay just far enough ahead while it goes from place to place seeking safety, all the while making a steady trail of scent for the dog to follow. The dog's tongu-ing also allows the hunters to keep tabs on the direction the rabbit is moving. What motivates a beagle to trail rabbits is unclear, but their reasoning for wanting to chase isn't important since the fact is they absolutely love to chase rabbits. It's in their DNA. If I even so much as park my pickup truck near the kennels and drop the tailgate, they become wildly excited with the anticipation of going out to chase rab-bits.

Getting Started with Beagles

There are several types of beagles available today and a little research is needed before you run out and buy a pup. Some dogs are fast chasers and "push" the rabbit ahead at a faster pace. Some are so slow they are nicknamed "walkie-talkies" because while trailing, they merely walk along tonguing all the while. And, of course, there are the dogs that chase rabbits at a medium pace. You will need to decide which type of dog with which you want to hunt before buying one. The best way to do this is to actually go hunting with someone who already has beagles and get a feel for how the dogs work. If that's not possi-ble, my recommendation is to stay away from the faster dogs and the walkie-talkies and go medium speed, which is what the vast majority of hunting dogs are anyway.

Ok, so let's say you've decided to get a rabbit dog. If you buy a pup and train it to hunt, it will no doubt bring you many hours of enjoyment afield. But if you think that you may want to someday join with other hunters and their dogs, you might have a problem if one dog is all you have. This is because as your dog chases rabbits, it learns to focus on the rabbit trail alone. If another dog is added to the hunt, your dog will not know how to work with the other dog and you will most likely have different chases go-ing on at the same time. I experienced this with my first beagle, Jenny. Jenny was an excellent rabbit dog, but I like to hunt with friends and when they brought their dogs along to a hunt, I found that Jenny would be doing her own thing as the other dogs cooperated in chasing a single rabbit. It became very frustrating. Jenny had never learned to hunt with others as she should have and as a result she was a loner. For this reason, I recommend you buy two pups and train them together so they learn to hunt with other dogs. You'll quickly see that they will readily work together and when one finds fresh rabbit scent and becomes excited, the enthusiasm will spread and the other will join in to help. Then later, if other dogs are added, both beagles will know what to do. Let me tell you, there are few things as excit-ing as listening to a group of beagles coming toward you while chasing the rabbit back in your direction!

If you would ask what time of the year is best to buy a pup I would have to say the spring, since if you get one from a spring litter, you will have all summer to train. As we all know, rabbit populations peak during the summer months and putting your pup on the scent of one of those bunnies that are always sitting at the edge of the yard in the summer evenings is a great way to get them started.

Here's one final tip about getting a beagle. If someone offers to give you an adult beagle, don't take it. No one gives a good beagle away, but there are quite a few problem dogs out there looking for homes. I prefer to always train my own pup so that I know of what it's made.

Training your new pup to chase rabbits is not as difficult as you may think and can begin when your pup is only a few months old. If you obtained your dog from good hunting stock it should already have what it needs packaged inside and all you will need to do is to show it what it was born to do. I've found the easiest way to do this is to construct a "chase pen," an enclosed area with chicken wire and wooden stakes. I make it rectangular in shape about 25 feet in length and maybe 12 feet wide. Put some brush and maybe a log or two inside the enclosure. You want enough brush that you create dense cover ade-quate enough to allow a rabbit to easily hide from your pup.

Once you construct your chase pen you'll need a domestic rabbit. I prefer brown-color rabbits since they look more natural and they are able to hide more easily. Most livestock auctions have them available at their weekly auctions and they're cheap so you can get one for only a few dollars or perhaps you know someone who will let you borrow one. Remember, though, if you buy one, you'll have to find a home for it once the training is complete.

Place the rabbit inside the chase pen and keep it there for a week or so, just long enough that it familiar-izes itself with the tangle of brush that's inside the enclosure. Another benefit of leaving it there for this length of time is that it will become wilder as time passes. Of course, you will need rabbit food pellets and some drinking water for your bunny during this time. Once bunny feels at home, it's time to bring in a pup.

Your pup may begin sniffing the ground immediately, or it may just run around looking for a way out of the enclosure. You want it to be oblivious to the presence of the rabbit when you place the pup inside the enclosure. Now, it's time to introduce the two. You will need to scare the rabbit so that it runs past pup, making sure the pup sees it as it passes by. Many times, one such encounter will be all that's needed to turn the pup on and to ignite its instinct to chase. Once the dog sees the rabbit and chases it, the rabbit will dive into cover to escape. That's crucial since you don't want your pup to "sight chase" the bunny, but rather to begin using its nose.

I had a pup once that had seen the rabbit a few too many times and as a result all she wanted to do was romp around the pen with her head held high searching for the rabbit. I finally had to remove the rabbit and place her inside where she at first continued to look for it, but eventually began using her nose. It is very important to not overdo the training in the chase pen. Two or three trips to the pen should be suffi-cient for your pup to get the idea. Remember, the only purpose of this exercise is to get your pups all fired up about rabbits. Another tip, if you have more than one pup, trips to the pen should be taken indi-vidually or they'll become too easily distracted by each other and won't focus on the rabbit scent.

It's now time to start taking your pups afield. Pennsylvania does have a few restrictions on training dogs, so make sure you are aware of them before going out. These regulations can be found in the Hunting and Trapping Digest that is pro-vided to you when you purchase a hunting license. Taking your dogs out the first few times simply involves flushing a wild rabbit and placing your pups where the rabbit was so they can find the fresh scent. You must have patience dur-ing this period because not all pups catch on to this whole rabbit hunting thing at the same rate. Some will show promise right away, while others will take longer. I once had two pups from the same litter that caught on months apart. Toby started chasing fairly early, but it was several months before Sadie got the idea. She finally did, though, and has been a good hunter ever since. It bears repeating, have patience.

Field training should be done often. The more you take your dogs afield, the more experienced they be-come and the better they get. You can run your dogs year-round but I would stay away from training in the hot summer months because dogs overheat and tire quickly then. The early mornings of late sum-mer are good times to go out, since the air is cooler and the dew is often heavy on the ground. I'm not sure why, but the rabbit scent seems to hold better when the ground is moist, so going out when there is dew or after an overnight drizzle is good.

Non-Rabbits and Lost Dogs

Yes it's true; many beagles also will chase a deer or a fox if the opportunity presents itself. With many dogs, this usually happens when hunting an area where rabbits are scarce. The dogs hunt and hunt, but can't find rabbit scent and then stumble across some really hot deer or fox scent. Or even worse, a deer jumps from its bed and crashes away within the dog's sight. The stimulus is overwhelming and so the pup goes after the non-rabbit, despite the owner's attempt to call him back. If your dogs are trailing ei-ther a deer or a fox, you will be able to tell pretty quickly since the chase will be at a faster pace and in a much straighter line than the usual rabbit chase. It's always a bad sign, for example, if your dogs start chasing and quickly go so far out ahead that you no longer hear them. If that happens, it's time to unload the gun and go looking for dogs, an unpleasant experience that may last all day or even longer. I once had a dog lost in the Pocono Mountains for seven days! He eventually turned up several miles from where I had been hunting hares, both hungry and exhausted. It was only because I had placed a brass tag on his collar with my phone number that I was able to recover him.

I think you would agree that losing your dog is a bad thing and should be avoided if possible so, here are a few tips that just may help you prevent dog hunting for your hunting dogs.

  • Don't hunt large tracts of forest. Although rabbits may be there, so are the non-rabbits. Try to stick to smaller brushier tracts. You may have to run ahead and catch your dogs if they emerge from the brush and are straight-lining it across a connecting field.
  • If, while hunting, you jump a deer or fox and the dogs didn't see it, it's a good idea to catch your dogs and keep them leashed until you can lead them from the area.
  • Some beagles are more apt to chase deer or fox than are others, while many won't chase anything but rabbits. If you are hunting with a friend who brings his or her dogs, make certain that they don't have a reputation for chasing deer. Even if you are convinced that your dogs can't stand the smell of deer scent, when your buddy's dogs start a deer chase yours will more than likely have to join in. I think it's the whole "pack mentality" thing. So be careful whose dogs are allowed to hunt with yours.
  • As stated earlier, I place a brass tag on each dog's collar with the words, "If found please call…" and then my cell phone number. I always put my cell number on the tag because I'm likely to be out looking for the dog when someone finds it. It will do little good if someone is calling my home number. Placing both phone numbers on might be a good idea, though.

If, while training your young dog, you do have a deer chase, it's not time to throw in the proverbial towel. Don't over react. This bad behavior can usu-ally be corrected if you act right away. Don't let it go on because it's more difficult to stop if the dog has gotten away with it several times. To stop it, you'll need a training or "shock" collar. I know, you probably think this is cruel, but I can assure you that using a training collar is completely humane when used as intended. I bought a training collar many years ago and I consider it essential when running my dogs. There are several types of these collars avail-able, not all of which are designed for hunting beagles. Make certain that you get the appropriate type.

Once you purchase the training collar, charge the col-lar's batteries and fit it tightly around your dog's neck. Drive around until you see a deer grazing in a field and then without letting your dog see the deer, scare the deer away. If the dog sees the deer it will want to sight chase and remember, you are trying to break it from scent trailing. Walk your dog on its leash to the area where the deer had been standing and when its tail starts wagging excitedly release the dog. If the dog begins trailing and tonguing let it go for a while. Don't yell at the dog, just let it trail for maybe 100 yards or so and then administer a strong shock, again without saying anything. The dog will think the deer was responsible for the jolt and will return to your side. It will be in no hurry to start chasing another anytime soon. If you are yelling at the dog while it's chasing, it will suspect that you caused the shock and may not give up on the hope of someday chasing deer. It might just try to get away with it when it thinks you're not watching.

One reminder; most, if not all training collars must be switched "on" to function. I have a friend who once took his dogs out, put them on a deer and when he tried to shock them found that he had forgotten to turn the collars on. He just stood there helplessly watching his two beagles head for the mountain tonguing all the way. He spent his whole day trying to get his dogs back and finally succeeded albeit miles away from where the chase had begun. I don't know whom he was more upset with, the dogs or himself.

Which Gun to Use

Selecting a type of firearm to hunt rabbits is obviously based upon personal preference. Some people like to use a shotgun, while some hunters might prefer to take a .22-caliber rifle and shoot the rabbit as it appears sneaking and stopping occasionally while being trailed. My friend Bob always hunts with a muzzle-loading shotgun. The first time I heard his gun discharge, I asked if he had gotten the rabbit. He yelled back, "I don't know yet," and as I looked in his direction I could see a cloud of smoke from the black powder drifting over the field. My firearm of preference is a 410-gauge double-barreled shotgun. It's light to carry and does little damage to the rabbit, which is a benefit since I eat the rabbits I kill.

Other Issues

Hunting with rabbit dogs can present other issues that you may not have thought of, but you need to be aware of.

  • If you take your dogs to hunt a public hunting area, such as a state game lands or a state park, you may find other hunters there with their dogs. At first you might think that there's plenty of room for you both to hunt, but you'll quickly find that this can turn into a real mess. When the other hunter's dogs start a rabbit, your dogs will want to run to them and join the chase or if yours start, his will want to join yours. The best thing might be to not release your dogs there at all, if you notice a vehicle in the park-ing area with an empty dog box on it.
  • By and large, the single biggest threat to a good hunting dog is the automobile. Many fine dogs have been killed by vehicles, so remember when selecting a hunting location to avoid those areas with nearby roads.
  • It is unlawful to hunt within an area closer than 150 yards of an occupied building. This "safety zone" might be properly avoided by the hunters, but trust me, rabbits and dogs won't understand. Have your leashes ready in case you need to pull your beagles off a chase that enters a safety zone.
  • I once took a young hunter with me and when the rabbit appeared in front of us he immediately threw his shotgun to his shoulder and fired, killing the rabbit. It all happened so quickly that I wasn't sure if the dogs were hit or not. Always remember, it's only a rabbit. Safety is paramount! Don't rush a shot and keep your muzzle pointed in a safe direction, away from other hunters and away from the dogs at all times.
  • If your hunt is successful, you will have game to clean. You need to get used to that idea. If you don't want to clean the game and prepare it for the table, then don't shoot it. If you know you don't want the rabbits, you should make arrangements with someone ahead of time to take them. I have a few ac-quaintances who have asked for rabbits and I always skin and clean the rabbits before giving them away. No one wants a dead rabbit just dropped off at their house. One of the people I give rabbits to is an eld-erly lady who lives alone. She allows me to hunt on her property and is always very grateful when I ap-pear with a couple of cleaned rabbits for her.
  • Always ask permission before hunting on private property. I know this sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many complaints are called in each year by people who see strangers hunting on their property.
  • Along with all their other needed shots, get your dogs inoculated for Lyme disease. Deer ticks are abundant now throughout the state and many transmit Lyme. I learned this the hard way, when several years ago, my best dog contracted Lyme and as a result was out of service for quite awhile. My vet fi-nally brought him back around, but he missed most of the hunting season that year. Of course, you also Other Issues can get Lyme disease, so always check for ticks after each hunt.
  • You may eventually want to hunt the varying or snowshoe hare. Believe me, they are a challenge! In Pennsylvania, hares only live in a few areas and the season and bag limits are very limited. Again, check the digest for the latest regulations. One of the biggest differences between hunting hares and rabbits is that the hare will tend to run much farther before returning and it will not "hole up" like a rabbit will. Dogs should be in top shape (and so should you) before going on a hare hunt.

My Recipes for Rabbit

Finally, I'll let you in on how I prepare my rabbits for the table. Mom always rolled the meat in flour and then fried the rabbits in a cast iron skillet with sliced onions. While they were good, I do it a little differ-ently today. After cutting the rabbit into pieces, I marinate the meat for about an hour and then cook it on an outside grill. There are several marinating mixes available in the grocery stores, but I always choose the mesquite flavor marinate mix for my rabbits. I like to slice a white onion and place it with the meat for the hour and then cook the onion slices on the grill by placing them on top of the rabbit meat. If you don't have a grill, or if the weather is too bad outside to use your grill, after marinating the rabbit put the meat, onion, and the marinate in a skillet and cook it all at a medium heat.

In the same section of the grocery store where the packets of marinate mix is found you will find a mix for beef stew. I use this as well by adding the mix, precooked and deboned rabbit pieces, and a variety of fresh vegetables to a crock pot and allowing it to cook all day at a low or medium heat setting. This goes great with a loaf of homemade bread. Freeze whatever is not eaten so that you can enjoy another meal of rabbit stew later.

In closing, I would simply like to share a comment made by a friend that I think says it all. I had given John a pup once and after spending the first hunting season with "Harry" John told me, "You know, that little dog has changed my life." Yes John, they will do that.

No portlets in this column.
Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797