Rabbits usually will run in a large circle from where they were bedded to roughly that same spot if not pursued too fast by an eager pack of hounds. The hunter that understands this can find an opening in that general area and stand a better-than-average chance of getting a shot at the rabbit when it returns.
The rabbit had been jumped not too far from where the trucks were parked, and it had run through a stand of young pines. It had been a long race that went down by the pond and back again. The dogs had temporally lost the track and were milling around trying to pick up the scent again when Hubert Brice's female beagle, Sweetie, rousted the rabbit from its hiding place.
The pack instantly joined her excited bark as it picked up the hot trail and clamored in behind her. The bawling and yips of the beagles were at a feverous pitch when a blur of brown darted through an opening in the pines. A well-placed shot from Brice's old A-5 Browning rolled the rabbit. Almost instantly, the pack was on the scene. Brice held the rabbit up and circled it above the beagles' heads to let them know that the race was over - a scene that is repeated many times each year in South Carolina and across the Southeast as hunters take to the woods and fields.
The actual shot that kills the rabbit is a bit of anti-climax to the race that a pack of well-trained beagles offer the hunters. The race is "music to the ears." The pack is a combination of beagles from several of the men on the hunt. They know the sound of their hounds' voices as surely as they know the voices of their wife and children.
As the race progressed, Donald Smith, a retired postal worker from Fairfield County, said, "That's old Jimbo leading the pack with that deep bawling voice of his."
Another hunter said, "I can hear Sue with that high-pitched yelp of hers prodding the rabbit on. It won't be long before one of us gets a shot!"
Congratulations are in order when a rabbit is killed, and good-natured ribbing is in order when a shot is missed.
Just where can you find rabbits? Look in honeysuckle thickets and briars. Of course, they're found other places, but when honeysuckle and briars are around, they draw rabbits like a magnet. Ditch banks, young planted pines, brushpiles and weed fields are all good rabbit habitat. Check the edges of field roads for "rabbit pills" - droppings. Where there is sand or mud, check for tracks.
Rabbit beds are small, oblong depressions in weeds or pine needles. Sometimes, a rabbit will bed in a small hole beneath trash or weeds. If lespedeza is present, rabbits will quite often chew off the woody stems at a 45-degree angle. They like to find a place where they can find plenty to eat and be safe from predators such as hawks, owls, coyotes and foxes.
Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) have literally thousands of acres available across South Carolina for rabbit hunters. Hunt clubs are another good source; quite often, a club devoted to deer hunting won't mind allowing hunters to run rabbits once deer season ends on Jan. 1, which gives the beagle owners two months of action before the March 1 close of rabbit season.
Brice lives in Winnsboro, and during rabbit season, he and his cronies hunt almost every Saturday, at different places within an hour's drive from his home. Several members of the hunting party have their own beagles, and they bring them along for the hunt. The dogs are loaded into travel crates in the back of pickup trucks, and on hot days, hunters carry water from the dogs when local water is scarce or not available.
After arriving at their destination, the dogs are released, and the hunt begins. The hunters spread out in a line to help the dogs roust a rabbit, and if one is jumped, the hunter immediately begins to call "Here! Here! Here!" as loud as he can to put the dogs on the rabbit's trail while it is still hot. It is then that the fun begins as the beagles pick up the trail and voice excited yelps, and the hunters spread out to try to intercept the rabbit on its escape route. Some in the hunting party station themselves close to the jump spot, and others follow the hounds.
Field roads and openings in the woods are good places to stand and wait. If a shot presents itself and is missed, the hunter yells "Here! Here! Here!" again to let the others know the rabbit is still alive and to direct the hounds on the fresh track. If the rabbit is killed, the hunter proceeds to the spot and yells to let other hunters know of the rabbit's fate. When the pack arrives, the hunter waves the rabbit over the heads of the dogs to let them know that that particular race is over and to start a new hunt.
Different dogs have varied talents. Some beagles are especially adapted to jump a rabbit, and some are talented in picking up a trail. Others are experts in straightening out a track when the trail is lost. A combination of these talents makes for a good pack of beagles that are a joy to hunt behind.
Rabbit population densities seem to run in cycles. A field that has numerous rabbits one year might seem void the next. Hunting pressure, weather and predators have an effect on the population, and available food is a factor. Rabbits have a history of rapid reproduction, and when things are in their favor, it doesn't take long to bring population densities back up.
A rabbit hunt is a good way to introduce a youngster to the sport of hunting. It is a group endeavor where gun safety can be taught along with hunting manners and good sportsmanship. The weapon involved for a youngster might just be an air rifle to start with, but he or she can still enjoy listening to the thrill of the race when the hounds are in full chase.
The weapon of choice is a shotgun. Any gauge will work, with the 12-gauge being the most popular. Shot size is a matter of preference, with most hunters favoring No. 4 to No. 8. Rabbits are not that hard to kill, and small shot will give the hunter a larger number of pellets and a better pattern. The range of most shot opportunities is fairly short, so the hunter doesn't need a tight-choked shotgun. An improved cylinder is about right for most cases.