MY BEAGLES, MINNIE and Tiger, had already run this hedgerow twice this season, with exactly the same results. Immediately upon entering the thick tangle of brush, Minnie's high-pitched chop and Tiger's low, mournful bawl let me know they were hot on the trail of a cottontail rabbit. On both occasions the dogs had run the full length of the row before losing the scent under a large deadfall.
Obviously, the rabbit had a hole under there somewhere. When chased by beagles, cottontails usually run in a circle, eventually returning to the general area where they started. Clearly, this bunny had not read the playbook, so if I was to have a snowball's chance of getting a crack at him, I would need to think outside the box.
So, the next time I released the dogs at the hedgerow, I sprinted for a small break in the cover. To avoid alerting my quarry, I took a circuitous route through a field of corn stubble and arrived just in time to see the rabbit emerging from under a nearby solid wall of wild rose bushes. By now he knew the routine, so he was in no hurry. Whatever was chasing him would never catch up, so why waste the energy?
With no cover between us, he caught the movement as I raised my recurve and in a heartbeat went from hopping "hare" to blazing bunny. I swung ahead of the running rabbit and sent my shaft on a path to intercept him. Weeks of practice on moving targets paid off when the arrow passed through both shoulders and bowled that bunny over just inches shy of another clean getaway.
MANY SEASONED BOWHUNTERS consider small game to be small time, strictly incidental animals taken only if the opportunity presents itself during the pursuit of nobler species. As a dedicated bowhunter for 30 years, I once felt that way myself.
All that changed in 2000 when I added a pair of beagles to the mix. Bowhunting rabbits with hounds is not the same as trying to stalk bunnies hiding in impenetrable bushes. Cottontails pursued by hounds are on high alert and will employ a variety of tactics to evade their pursuers. Once they have been shot at and missed (which happens more often than not in bowhunting), they also learn to keep close tabs on their escape routes.
On one hunt, the dogs had been running a particular cottontail for about 20 minutes when the sounds of the chase turned my way. Taking a stand beside the only bush in a field of ankle-high grass, I nocked an arrow and spotted the rabbit as he topped a low rise.
With the dogs still far behind, he had plenty of time to figure out his next move. Some 30 yards from me, he stood on his hind legs and surveyed his surroundings as I did my best to become one with the bush.
Satisfied the coast was clear, he continued down the slope in my direction. At eight yards he stopped for a second look, and this time I drew my bow. Once again, with no cover to conceal my movement, he saw me draw and took off. My lead was perfect, but the arrow missed a good six inches high. To my surprise, that rabbit stopped at the bottom of the slope and looked back. Quickly I reloaded, and this time I connected with a 25-yard shot on the stationary target.
THE MOST INCREDIBLE evasive maneuver I have ever witnessed took place on a hunt with my buddy Matt Traynor. With the dogs in hot pursuit, a rabbit came barreling out of the bushes and crossed about 12 yards in front of us. Matt drew his longbow and sent a tapered cedar shaft on a collision course with the speeding rabbit. The shot looked perfect but ended up passing just over the bunny's back.
To us it appeared Matt had simply shot high. However, I had been videotaping over Matt's shoulder, and upon reviewing the tape in slow motion, we realized what had actually happened. Without missing a step, the rabbit had ducked and slid under the arrow! Later that season Matt scored on a running rabbit, and I caught that on video as well.
I consider my first running rabbit, taken with the aid of my hounds, to be one of my greatest bowhunting achievements. Maybe that trophy doesn't warrant a place of distinction in my den, but it means more to me than the largest animal hanging in my trophy room. Legendary bowhunter Saxton Pope expressed this sentiment more eloquently than I ever will when he wrote, "The true hunter counts his achievements in proportion to the effort involved and the fairness of the sport." With that he pretty well described the rewards of hunting bunnies with bows and beagles.
The author is a hardcore traditionalist from East Brunswick, New Jersey.