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There’s Still Time to Jump Some Rabbits

February 11, 2016
By COL(Ret.) Grey D. Berrier II , Ohio Valley Outdoor Times

"If you build it, they will come" is a phrase familiarized by the 1989 film: Field of Dreams. It is also a fundamental concept of wildlife management. Biologists, landowners, and hunters have learned habitat improvement projects modifying vegetation and land use can have long term benefits for an intended species, in addition to aiding other big game, small game, non-game species, and song birds. Deliberate efforts to enhance food sources, bedding/nesting areas, and cover can potentially increase local populations of some species.

During my first month of military retirement three years ago, I made a concerted effort to manage the woods on our property for wildlife. With chainsaw in hand, I downed a major portion of the locust and elms (both early successional species) that had colonized our property as it reverted from farm field to woodlands over the past 65 years. The locust were sawn into fence posts and the larger elm boles were cut for firewood, however the extensive toppings were left in a thick labyrinth with the primary intent of benefitting white-tailed deer. The subsequent opening of the forest canopy and corresponding increase in sunlight reaching the forest floor has permitted the remaining oaks, hickories, maples, and black cherries to flourish and in sections the dense understory is nearly impenetrable. My small woodlands now serve as a magnet for whitetails and wild turkeys, while providing ideal habitat for a flourishing rabbit population.

This past early archery season, our local deer population seemed to be down. So I made a decision to not hunt behind our house in Lawrence County during the Pennsylvania A 2105 Firearms Season for the first time in over a decade. Instead, I planned on pursuing opening day whitetails up in Venango County where I always seem to see respectable bucks while bear hunting.

Article Photos

Focused rabbit hunters Ryan Lombardo and Matt Miller pose with Ryan’s beagles after a recent successful hunt with the author. Cottontails are in season in OH, PA, and WV until February 29. Photo courtesy of Grey D. Berrier II

Knowing that I wouldn't be deer hunting on my own property in firearms season, I followed up on an earlier invitation with a friend from church, Ryan Lombardo, who has two beagles and is passionate about pursuing cottontails. We arranged to run his dogs on my property for the first time the Saturday after Thanksgiving. November 28, 2015 arrived with a cool, damp drizzle; so Ryan and I exchanged text messages to confirm that our hunt was still on regardless of the weather. Ryan arrived promptly at 7:45 a.m. with his friend, Matt Miller, and his two four-legged hunting machines, Arnie and Phantom.

Both beagles started hunting as soon as they reached the wood line behind the house. Ryan, Matt, and I eagerly loaded our shotguns to officially begin hunting ourselves. Only 10 minutes into the hunt, I started working my way into a formidable tangle of head-high asters, multi-flora rose, and assorted saplings. While the beagles were working in front of their "Dad", 30 yards to my left, I kicked a bunny out from some toppings almost directly under my foot. I called the dogs over and almost immediately the air was filled with the sound of baying beagles as the pursuit was on. That initial bunny was smart, staying within really thick cover and eventually giving the dogs the slip by heading down an abandoned groundhog hole.

Less than 15 minutes later, I could have earned "the Golden Toe Award" by harvesting a rabbit I kicked out of another brush pile. But I was more interested in observing Arnie and Phantom work and listening to their accompanying canine chorus, so I didn't shoot and called the dogs over to put them on the fresh trail. This second rabbit went on a long jaunt off through the adjacent PA State Game Lands. Ryan had to call both dogs back after almost 10 minutes since the rabbit never circled back to where our chase had commenced. Over the course of the next two hours, we walked several miles on the PA State Game Lands with the dogs only bawling on one rabbit's fresh trail for a brief period.

With the rain and breeze picking up around 11:15 a.m., we decided to head back to my property and work through some prime thickets we bypassed earlier. We had just started on this second effort when things suddenly got very interesting. First, Matt missed a shot at a rabbit that seemed to materialize out of nowhere when the dogs got on its trail. Then the beagles jumped three rabbits hidden together in one brush pile. Ryan reacted as one darted south, another bolted southwest , and the third hit the afterburners heading north. Ryan got off one shot at the northbound bunny, shaving off a few tufts of white cottontail, but it didn't seem to slow down his escaping quarry.

In the midst of multiple rabbits going in divergent directions, Arnie and Phantom got back on the trail of the initial rabbit Matt had missed and followed it off to the west on the PA State Game Lands. From the bank top, looking down across an abandoned rail bed, we watched the dogs diligently working through thick red brush. Matt began play-by-play calls, accurately describing what the rabbit was doing in front of the beagles. After a few minutes, I heard Matt holler from only 30 yards away that the rabbit was coming back up the bank and heading my way. Before I knew it the rabbit was behind me. Two quick shots from my vintage Winchester Model 59 semi-automatic revealed that I was just as proficient at missing an erratically hopping rabbit as Matt and Ryan.

We decided one last push was in order through the final acre and a half patch we hadn't covered up to that point. We were within 20 yards of finishing up for the day when the dogs bawled "bunny" over in front of Matt. Within seconds I saw the rabbit sneaking my way through the thigh-high raspberry tangle. When he paused only 15 yards away to look back, I took the shot. While Arnie and Phantom continued to work their way through the thicket deciphering the rabbit's escape route, I had the rabbit in hand. Their snorting breaths of fresh cottontail essence and periodic guttural howls persisted until they reached me and saw their dispatched quarry first-hand. Ryan, Matt, and I were pleased we were able to able to finish up with one rabbit after an exciting morning's hunt, filled with beagle crooning over eight different rabbit runs of various durations.

While many hunters have already put away their firearms, clothing, and gear for the season, rabbits remain legal quarry in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia through the end of February. With 2016 being a leap year, cottontail enthusiasts have until February 29th to head afield. (2016 marks the first year the PA late season for rabbits will remain open throughout the entire month of February.) February marks a time of year when few hunters are willing to head outdoors, so you'll often find you'll have the fields and woods to yourself. It may also be the only time of the year when you're willing to venture into your "limited access" deer coverts for bunnies, since whitetails and cottontails frequent the same impenetrable cover.

When it comes to late season rabbits, there are many potential hunting tactics. Running bunnies with beagles remains a preferred option, and I hope to get out with Ryan Lombardo and his "boys": Arnie and Phantom an additional time or two in February. However, it is not the only successful method since hunters can also push thickets, brush piles, and heavy cover to kick cottontails out without a dog. Another favorite technique is to still-hunt rabbits with a .22 rifle just after a snow fall in anticipation of catching them sitting motionless in concealed locations.

Regardless of how you plan on hunting late season rabbits, it can be an exciting pursuit for hunters of all ages. Rabbits have been a cornerstone of our hunting heritage for generations and they continue to be prized as a hard-earned quarry and excellent table fare by all who chase them. One last excursion for hopping cottontails can be a great way to spend a February day in leap year!



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