Government rabbits

Ramey Leviner, Warren Purcell, Cecil Paul and Tyler Jacobs with cottontails bagged at Sandhills Game Land.

These public lands will put you on the bunny

After meeting for breakfast at a fast-food restaurant in Hamlet, N.C., four hunters headed for the hinterlands of Hoke, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties. Their destination was 61,225-acre WRC Sandhills Game Land.

Turning off the pavement onto a sandy road, their pickups made several more turns. The roads eventually narrowed to a trail unsuitable for vehicles.

Hopping out, Warren Purcell pointed to a cramped opening barely big enough for vehicles to turn around in when leaving after the hunt. Whining beagles in truck-bed kennels gave away the intended quarry. Purcell and his hunting partner, Cecil Paul, had arrived at a favorite rabbit hunting spot. Purcell, a retired N.C. State Employee, lives in Rowland. Paul has a residential rental business and lives in Gibson. Their guests were Ramey Leviner, a Seqirus CADD technician from Rockingham and Tyler Jacobs, a student at Robeson Community College from Lumberton.

Longleaf pine ridges kept open by prescribed burning provide great rabbit hunting.

“Few hunters could find this spot, even if you showed them a map,” Purcell said. “We have hunted here several years. Rabbits have plenty of cover. But it has big openings. That allows good shooting.”

They were near Gum Swamp and Crawford lakes, but have many other productive places in Sandhills GL. Nevertheless, they scout new spots every season.

“You have to find cover,” Purcell said. “WRC Wildlife technicians burn a portion, then next year burn another portion. We look for areas the second and third year after a burn. The technicians tell us where the burns are and if they see rabbits. Then we look for droppings and cuttings.”

Another public land they hunt is Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge near Wadesboro. The ranger staff tell them about good hunting areas there, too. However, the season is more restrictive at Sandhills GL.

Match ‘em up

“Over the past 7 years, we have killed more rabbits on government lands than private property,” Purcell said. “During deer season, we don’t have access to much private property because deer hunters believe hunting rabbits with beagles disturbs deer.”

Cecil Paul shows a Sandhills Game Land rabbit to the beagles.

In 1984, Purcell hunted one morning with William McCallum. That afternoon, they went to a field trial at Robeson County Beagle Club. Intrigued, Purcell began going to trials in afternoons and on Saturdays. His dog, Bubba “did decent” in trials.

“At first, they let me help by ‘fun’ judging,” Purcell said. “Eventually I judged field trials in N.C., S.C. Ga. N.J. and Va. Judging helped me put together a good hunting pack. I learned that one dog that is a great dog by itself may not work in your pack. A pack has to run a tight line, stay on the rabbit and keep it moving.”

When he was between 12 and 30 years old, Paul maintained beagle packs.

He stopped rabbit hunting at age 40 when he worked at Mount Air Farms as a poultry technician. When he became a rental property manager, he had time for hunting again.

“I met Warren and he got me into field trial judging in 2013,” Paul said. “He has judged the AKC Gun Dog Brace Field Trial and I have judged the UKC National Gun Dog Brace Field Trial. Judging helps us select the right dogs for our packs. We try different dogs during a hunt to see how they work together. We like to be able to run on any given day. When the scent is good, even a yard dog can run a rabbit. When it isn’t, and we know the capabilities of our individual dogs, we can match them to the conditions and still have a good hunt.”

Teamwork among dogs

The best days to hunt have lows in the 40s and highs no greater than the 60s. The humidity must not be too dry.

“A truly big-nosed dog can smell a rabbit on a bad day,” he said. “We hold our dogs accountable. If we jump 150 rabbits in a season, we want to bag 140. If a dog doesn’t make it, we find someone else who wants it. Field trials give us contacts with other hunters looking for dogs. With two of us making a combined pack, we expect to bag 10 rabbits per day. That takes dogs that run smoothly. If a dog’s nose will handle a turn when he’s going fast, that’s good. But, if he’s running fast on a low-scent day and loses the scent trail, that’s bad.”

The author bagged this rabbit during a hunt with Warren Purcell and Cecil Paul.

While a competitive dog might seem to be best, it is not the case. Teamwork is more important.

“I may have a dog that is a bit competitive and Cecil may have one that is also competitive. That doesn’t work when scenting is not good. If they are running with a lot of stop-and-go, that’s due to competitiveness. They will run past the check (the place where the rabbit stopped and switched directions). A dog may circle and pick up the scent. But it’s better to have a dog that stays right on the scent, working it out until he figures out the way the rabbit went. That takes a dog with a big nose. You’ve got to have anchor dogs that have big noses for poor conditions. You also need check dogs to figure out how to pick up the scent again from the point of loss.”

Tally Ho!

After the hunters released their beagles, it wasn’t long before they were trailing a rabbit. They packed together, turning so tightly, shoulder-to-shoulder they resembled a flock of birds in flight.

Running through a low drainage pocket with standing water, the rabbit befuddled the beagles. They ran it a while, lost the scent, then picked it up again. They coursed the rabbit through plum thickets and dense stands of multiflora rose. Eventually, they forced the rabbit to run across a wiregrass ridge with longleaf pines and turkey oaks. A shot downed the first rabbit.

The hunters moved through different types of cover with the beagles, urging them on vocally. Suddenly Purcell shouted, “Tally Ho!” As is the case during a mounted fox hunt, the cry signaled a rabbit had been jumped and another race was on.

Hearing his beagles in the thicket, Cecil Paul prepares to see a rabbit chased into the open area.

The hunters broke for lunch with four rabbits bagged. Then they switched several dogs in the pack for the afternoon hunt. A hunter jumped a rabbit and took a shot that missed. Purcell and Paul do not shoot at rabbits on the jump, preferring to let their dogs sort out the trail. The dogs ran hot and cold, appearing at one point to have lost the scent for good. An hour later, whether or not they had returned after a half-mile circle running the same rabbit might have been debated by others. However, Paul was certain it was the same one when he bagged it. The day’s take was seven cottontails.

“We kill 85 percent cottontails,” Paul said. “Sometimes, if it’s a marsh rabbit that won’t come out of a bottom, we go into the thick cover. Any shot will be at close range. If there’s enough water for a marsh rabbit to swim, it can be very difficult. Our dogs lose more marsh rabbits than cottontails because of high water.”

Weather app shows scenting conditions

As the sun climbed, the dogs began having trouble holding the line. Most hunters know that hounds stay on scent better in the early morning and late afternoon. Purcell said that effect was usually due to humidity.

During the hunt, he constantly checked his cell phone. It showed that, by 10 a.m., the humidity had dropped substantially. It was a “bluebird” day, with bright sunlight burning off the dew. The temperature continued to increase from the low 40s into the upper 50s.

“I can use the AccuWeather app to check humidity and other atmospheric conditions anywhere I am hunting,” he said. “The humidity has fallen to 27 percent. Humidity below 40 percent means tough scenting conditions. A sudden barometric pressure or temperature change can also create poor scenting conditions. If it’s a cold day that suddenly warms, it could take a day or two before good scenting conditions return. Wind, rain and ice are other conditions that make it difficult for dogs to stay on the scent.”

At 4 p.m., as the sun dropped slowly lower, the dogs began holding the line better, resulting in faster races for the dogs and more shots at rabbits for the hunters. The AccuWeather app showed the humidity had increased to 46 percent.

About Mike Marsh 356 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.

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