Rabbit hunters are passionate; some would say obsessed
Rabbit hunters tiptoe the line of being passionate about something and being obsessed with it. Erik Stout of Blythewood, S.C., would say that he is passionate about rabbit hunting. Observers who witness his dedication to the sport and love of his rabbit dogs might say he leans more towards being obsessed. Stout admits when he is not rabbit hunting or tending to his beagles, he is thinking about rabbit hunting.
Stout is so enthralled with the sport of chasing rabbits with hounds that he hordes his sick leave, annual vacation time and any other time he can take off from his job at Linrick Golf Course in Richland County. And he uses those days to hunt rabbits during the season. From Thanksgiving through March 1, Stout tries to work two days a week. That gives him four or five days to rabbit hunt just in South Carolina. He also travels to other states to rabbit hunt when their seasons are open.
In his rabbit-hunting crusade, he and his “Knockout Stout” beagles have chased rabbits across at least a half-dozen other states. They’ve traveled as far as Iowa to hunt cottontails, and Mississippi to hunt swamp rabbits. But most of the time, he spends his off-days hunting rabbits in South Carolina’s Midlands. Mainly with a group of hunters ranging from older, retired men who can hunt any day of the week. But also with some eager, younger guys who are helping revive the sport but can hunt only on their days off.
Rabbit hunting is a social sport
A breakfast eatery is the perfect gathering place for a rabbit hunt. A good, hot breakfast of eggs, grits and sausage or bacon goes a long way on a cold morning of following a pack of eager beagles. At the Huddle House in Saluda, hunters drift in one and two at a time. They down steaming cups of coffee and engage in good-natured banter. Then they line up the pickup trucks in a convoy to head for the hunt site.
Once there, Stout and his friend, Kenny Baker of Blythewood, take the beagles out of the box from the back of the pickup and put on their tracking collars.
“I don’t leave home without my Garmin tracking collars,” Stout said. “I like to know where my dogs are at all times. They might fall into an old well or get out in the road.”
Once all the beagles are outfitted, the hunters don hunting jackets or vests and load their shotguns. Then Stout works the pack of beagles into the thick woods behind the pull-off where the trucks are parked. A few “whoops and hollers” of encouragement get them in hunting mode. Soon, they are hot on the trail of a rousted cottontail. As it slips through the woody cover near the logging road back into the woods, Baker spies it and shoulders his shotgun. BAM! The first bunny of the day is headed for the frying pan.
Getting beagles turned rabbit hunting into a passion for Stout
Stout’s love of rabbit hunting began when he was about seven or eight years old. Two family friends who had beagles would pick him up and take him hunting on Saturdays. The first rabbit he shot was on one of those hunts off SC 215 in upper Richland County, not far from where he grew up. When he was eight, his father, local taxidermist Jim Stout, gave him a 20-gauge Franchi shotgun. It’s the same gun he still carries to hunt rabbits.
His first venture into rabbit hunting did not stick, he said. His dad’s taxidermy shop was filled with the heads of trophy deer and strutting gobblers. He turned to hunting those with enthusiasm. After finishing school, he went to work and met a co-worker who had beagles and hunted rabbits. After hunting with his co-worker a few times, Stout had the urge to have his own rabbit dogs.
“I got my first beagles 14 years ago, and that’s when it really became a passion for me,” he said. “It grew into something I love. I love it more than turkey hunting. I just love to hear the beagles running. Sometimes I even run them at night just to listen.
Good rabbit dogs come from all over
“There came a point in life when, as much as I love deer hunting, that I would rather go hear those beagles sing than go deer hunting. That’s when I knew I loved it and was passionate about rabbit hunting.”
Stout’s early hunting pack was comprised of unregistered “grade” dogs, but he kept wanting to improve his pack. So he studied hunting beagles. About 10 years ago, he bought four dogs in Florida that were registered with the American Kennel Club. He raised his first litter of AKC beagle puppies a year later, and kept working to improve his pack.
“I just love the color of bluetick dogs, and I found this lady at Oak Hill Kennel in Kentucky who had blueticks,” Stout said. “I asked around about her and her dogs, and I watched the videos of her dogs. Everybody had good things to say about her. So I called her one day and asked about getting a puppy. She said I would have a year to a year-and-a-half wait, but she would put me on the waiting list.”
A year later when she called, Stout told her he would love to get another puppy if someone had backed out of the waiting list.
The right rabbit dog has certain qualities
“She had a female, a beautiful little puppy. I drove eight hours to get them and I loved them,” he said. “I named them Smokey and Remi, for Remington. They started really easy, so I went down to South Georgia to get another one out of the same bloodlines. And from that point on, I started breeding on my own.”
Still working to improve the performance of his pack, he began infusing some hare-hound bloodlines into his breeding program. Breeding to the hard-running Branko line out of Canada has produced the cross that he has been working for.
Stout said he breeds his beagles with the aim to produce the nearest thing to a complete rabbit hunting dog. He said he wants a dog in his pack that has good hunt (desire), good drive (speed), good nose (scenting ability and an honest mouth (tonguing only on the scent of a rabbit).
“I like a fast dog, but not one that will run over, then line at the end,” he said. “I like speed with control, and I don’t like a bunch of extra mouth. If one is running over the track and keeps on barking, it just drives me crazy. I try to breed dogs with gears, with speed to run it as fast as the scent allows, but with the nose and ability to slow it down and walk it out when the scenting is bad.”
Good rabbit hunting found on public land
Erik Stout has a network of hunting buddies, some with beagles some without. But they all have one thing vital to rabbit hunting, or any other type of hunting for that matter — access to good places to hunt.
“I am blessed with a good group of guys to hunt with. We have the OGs — older guys who are retired and up to going hunting anytime — and the younger guys who are still working, so they usually go on the weekends,” Stout said. “But everybody has places to hunt or they find places for us to hunt.”
Not everybody who wants to hunt rabbits has private land to hunt. But in South Carolina, that does not have to be a major stopping block. That’s according to Michael Hook, the small-game project leader for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
WMAs are gold mines
“There is good rabbit hunting available on public lands on both the named and unnamed Wildlife Management Areas across the state,” Hook said. “Most anywhere we are doing quail work on the big, named WMAs will have good rabbit hunting, too.”
A number of unnamed S.C. WMAs are under timber management that also provide good rabbit hunting opportunities, he said.
“Anywhere there is active timber management and they leave a lot of stuff on the ground, for a couple of years that will provide good rabbit hunting,” Hook said. “For two to three years after the timber is cut, it provides good cover for rabbits for seven or eight years before the trees growing back begin to shade out the ground cover. Look for brushy, weedy thick areas with a lot of briars.
“You can find some good rabbit hunting on these smaller areas. And the good thing is you usually have the place to yourself.”
Can social media drive rabbit hunting revival?
Can Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media be key to a resurgence in rabbit hunting?
For years, the interest in rabbit hunting has been on a decline. But that may be changing, according to Hook.
“I think there has been a small resurgence recently, both with rabbit hunters and quail hunters,” he said. “It seems like with social media, the younger generation is getting more interested in hunting with dogs. They are excited about beagles and bird dogs.”
Hook said it is almost like enthusiasm for rabbit hunting and quail hunting skipped a generation.
“With the older generations, that is what they did. The deer and turkey were not here. And then deer and turkey came in vogue,” he said. “Now people are saying rabbit hunting is fun. I remember Granddaddy talking about it.”
Harvest reports are inconclusive
It is hard to judge the effect of social media on the sport or even to get a good grip on who and how many people are participating in rabbit hunting. That’s because of low hunter-participation in SCDNR’s annual rabbit hunter survey.
“The most-recent rabbit hunter survey data I have is from the 2014 Responsive Management SC Hunter Harvest Report.,” Hook said. “In 2014 we had an estimated 11,995 hunters hunting rabbits. They spent an estimated 90,526 days hunting rabbits to harvest and estimated 101,277 rabbits. The majority of those rabbits were harvested on private lands. Only an estimated 7,172 rabbits were harvested on WMAs.”
Hook said SCDNR has made a major push to get more rabbit hunters to complete the annual survey in hopes of getting more meaningful measures of hunter effort and harvest. Potential cooperators should contact the SCDNR Small Game Project at 803-734-3609 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.