The snow falls as does the temperature. After a stretch of several months with a revolving door of human activity, the fields and forests now more closely resemble a ghost town. There’s no reason to go out there anymore. This is the perception of those that do not seek out the cottontail rabbit. They sit huddled in their warm homes, left to reflect on their exploits in October and November. Their guns and bows have been put away in storage, and their attention has shifted to football, shoveling snow, and maybe the occasional trip to ice fish or snowmobile.
For me and others like me that follow beagle dogs in snow after the ubiquitous cottontail rabbit, this is the season that we live for. There was a time when small game like rabbits were the object of all hunters young and old alike, but the proliferation of the white-tailed deer has changed the focus of the American hunter. I hunt deer too, but secretly I relish having the winter to myself, or seemingly so, to run my beagles after cottontails. After months of sitting quietly in a tree or in a blind waiting for luck to chance my way, I’m ready to get out into the stillness of a frozen world and listen to a chorus of excited hounds in full chase, ready bust the brush to make something happen, ready to holler and laugh with a companion at a shot made or missed on a returning rabbit. The season is mine.
Perhaps it is the seeming loneliness of the cold winter landscape that adds to the bond felt between my hunting companions, mostly close family members, and myself. We are out there, the only humans within sight partaking in a unified goal. An effort we take very seriously and attempt with great intensity, yet at the same time one we address with the light-heartedness and total enjoyment that makes undertaking such a task in relatively harsh conditions fully enjoyable. Our faces get beaten red from the chaffing winds and the bright sun bouncing off the snow-covered ground. If the snow gets too deep, the legs throb from lifting and setting back down of tall heavy boots. We work up a sweat that soon chills the body in an attempt to roust our quarry from their hiding places. But the broad smiles we share cannot be hidden, even as our lips crack and bleed in doing so. Like minded hunters make for a fun hunt even when the rabbits are not running. The season is ours.
And then there are the beagles, the true stars of the show. For those that have never hunted behind beagles, ones that come from hunting lines that have been raised to hunt, you simply cannot realize the drive of these little hounds. Pound for pound, I’d put a beagle against any other hunter, man or beast, for pure drive after game. I see what these dogs run through time and time again, never ceasing, never giving up, and I am filled with love and admiration at a fellow living thing that not only feels the passion for the chase as I do, but one that exceeds it. The effort I put into hunting rabbits pales in comparison to that put forth by the beagles. Similarly, the great pleasure that I derive from hunting rabbits also pales in comparison to that which my beagles get. I don’t know if dogs can technically smile, but one look into my beagles’ eyes after running a rabbit tells me that they’ve achieved a happiness that the human spirit, burdened with our responsibilities and troubles, can never hope to reach. To hear a brace of beagles running a rabbit in a frozen swamp, the music of their voices piercing the crisp air and knowing that they will circle that wily critter back to you, is to know heaven. One cannot feel cold when he knows that as that distant howling gets louder and closer, the object of the chase is coming your way and you need to start scanning for the little brown jet through the brush. The moment of truth approaches and the heart begins pounding as the realization of the coming shot approaches. The season is theirs.
And I would be remiss in failing to mention the cottontail rabbit, a creature which is prey for so many hunters, man and beast. Such a simple creature that lives a simple life, eating and breeding as much as it can in a short amount of time, as if knowing more than any other creature that its time on this earth is short. No game animal so closely matches the tenacity and drive of its pursuers as the cottontail rabbit does to the beagle. So closely matched are the two that the existence of one without the other seems like it would put the universe out of balance. And while the cottontail seemingly has the world against it, Nature takes care of her own. Don’t pity the rabbit, for it will quickly make a fool out of you if you think twice about pulling the trigger on one. I’ve emptied a 12 gauge autoloader at racing rabbits only to see them waving that cotton-ball tail at me as if giving me the middle finger as they ran off laughing. You bet I feel respect and admiration for those rabbits we chase, and it’s probably not a stretch to say I feel a love for them too. This season is all of ours.