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The Last Cottontail

Rabbit Hunter, March 2012THE RABBIT HUNTER – It’s been close to 50 years now but I distinctly recall the first time I purposely let a rabbit get away at the end of the season. Nothing more than a farm boy wearing jeans, rubber boots and a tattered hooded sweatshirt, I spent my spare time cruising hedgerows, farm ponds and brushy fence lines with a Crosman pump-action pellet rifle. Game was plentiful in those days and competition was minimal. My fiercest competitors were house cats, hawks and owls, and now and then I’d cross paths with a hungry red fox. The entire farm was mine and I covered it like a blanket every chance I got. I didn’t kill all the rabbits I flushed but I sure tried my hardest!

The hunting seasons were long and generous in those days, but even the dullest country boy could figure out that it was a sport of diminishing returns. By season’s end cottontails were few and far between.  I thought it was my exceptional prowess with a pellet rifle that had caused the precipitous decline in Saturday morning targets, but it was more likely the remnant critters’ penchant for survival that kept them safely tucked away in their warrens and dens.

It was the last day of the small game hunting season and all I wanted was to end the year on a high note. If I could find just one more rabbit I’d be happy. I scoured the irrigation ditches, pond edges, swamps and fence rows across two farms without jumping a single cottontail.

I bulled my way through the clinging briars under a nearby power line and found nothing.  In the dwindling daylight I made my way down a brushy tractor path that ended in a great pile of logs, rocks, brush and farm debris. I tossed a few rocks into the heap in the unlikely hope of moving a rabbit. To my surprise, a cottontail popped out from a tangle of old fencing and headed for a swampy, L-shaped gully.

Having hunted this farm for years, I knew that the rabbit was going to run down the gully, make the turn and head back to the junk pile, so I ran straight to the bend in the “L” and waited for him to arrive.

Sure enough, a few seconds later comes the cottontail, dodging saplings and fallen trees, heading straight for me. He ran with confidence and purpose, sure that he had fooled me, and I felt equally confident as I raised my rifle and pointed it at the trail where I knew the rabbit would exit.

Soon he was there, 20 feet from me, pausing momentarily before he made his final dash to the debris pile, and I had him dead to rights.

With my sights on the middle of his head and my finger on the trigger, it was game over . . . but I did not shoot.  For some reason I felt the need to let this one go. I lowered my rifle and the rabbit skipped away to the safety of his brush-covered junk pile.

That first act of sporting chivalry started a tradition that has lasted nearly half a century. Ever since then I have made it a point to end each season on a positive note, taking peculiar pleasure in watching that last cottontail make good his escape, to leave some “seed” for next year and to give me an incentive to return next fall.

Some of these blessed last-day bunnies definitely challenge my magnanimous nature. One particularly vengeful cottontail was typically difficult to find and start on the wintry last afternoon of the season, and he certainly had no romantic notions about a last-day amnesty. In fact, he did his best to kill my dogs – several times – over the course of the chase.

Overall, Beagles are relatively simple hounds. They jump a rabbit; follow the scent and, well, that’s about it. They don’t care where the rabbit goes, how difficult the conditions are or how treacherous the terrain. They follow the scent, with vigor, until the scent trail disappears.

Cottontails, on the other hand, are definitely the thinkers in the contest. After the first routine circle, it often appears that the rabbit is considering his options and trying every trick in the book, thoughtfully doing whatever it takes to lose the dogs.

This rabbit, I knew, had been around the briar patch a time or two.  He started out with the usual out-and-back tactic, and when that didn’t work, he tried zigzagging, side-stepping and long-hopping, which usually confounds young or inexperienced hounds.

Nothing worked, and it was obvious that our quarry was getting bored with the routine. He’d come by me several times and I hadn’t shot, which apparently didn’t impress him. My don’t-shoot tradition was meaningless to him. He wanted to be rid of the dogs and get back to the business of winter survival, so he took things to a higher, more dangerous level.

A Beagle’s determination can be the death of him, especially when a cottontail decides to leave his home thicket and head for parts unknown. This invariably means road crossings, and these days there are few paved roads that don’t have more traffic on them than they were designed for. Half the briar patches I hunted 25 years ago are subdivisions now, which means more people, and that means more cars. That speeding cottontails can put that equation together while they run is beyond me, but when this particular bunny headed for the highway I knew exactly what he was planning.

I ran for the road as the rabbit made his break across a pasture. I knew he was going to cross the tarmac at a sharp bend in the road where oncoming vehicles would be unable to stop in time to save a hapless hound nosing around on the cold pavement.

I saw the rabbit run down the roadside embankment, hop to the middle of the road and then zigzag for about 50 feet on the center line before dashing into the brush on the other side of the road.

Meanwhile, the dogs came on, headed straight for the bend in the road. I got there just in time to snap a leash on them just as two vehicles came speeding toward the bend.  I let the cars pass, and then released the dogs where the rabbit went in on the other side of the road. Round and round they went, but then the rabbit became bored again and made a dash across the road for his home turf. Again, I had to cut the dogs off, leash them and bring them safely across the road. It was getting dark now but the dogs weren’t interested in quitting, so I put them back on the track to let them run their season out.

Damned if that rabbit didn’t head right back for the road! I was closer this time and got there first. I stood at the edge of the pasture and waited for him to come out of the briars, and when he did he was well ahead of the Beagles. He ran into the pasture, stopped and, looking right at me, paused to scratch his ears as if to say, “This is too easy!”

My finger was twitching on the trigger and I thought about rolling him, but it seemed almost fitting that we end our hunt by giving one smart cottontail a chance to make more bunnies for next season. I ran to pick up the dogs as the cottontail bounced slowly across the road, safe for another year.

Sometimes my plans to end the season with a wave of my gun barrel go awry, often due to bad weather, injured dogs or unexpected changes in plans. I actually start feeling guilty if I’ve killed a rabbit close to season’s end and then see that I may not get a chance to get out there one more time for a “hail and farewell” hunt.

The closest I’ve come to failure was a few years ago when I shot two rabbits on a sunny Wednesday, just a few days before the season closed. A storm came in the next day and pounded the region with a fine mix of wind, rain and snow. I waited as long as I could for the storm to pass but by lunchtime Saturday things weren’t looking any better. The dogs showed little interest in spending the day running in the cold rain and I can’t say that I blamed them, but I had to give it a try.

Fortunately, the clouds began to thin out in mid-afternoon and the rain let up for a while, but of course the brush and grass were dripping wet. I was soaked within the first 50 yards and the dogs shivered as cold water fell across their backs, but I felt better about being in the briars than I did sitting by the wood stove watching the season slowly come to an end.

We were halfway through a favorite thicket with no results when a cottontail suddenly burst out from between my feet. I howled at the dogs, which came in eagerly sniffing the wet, matted grass. As wet as it was I didn’t expect them to pick up a scent, but somehow they found  enough to keep them going and the race was on.

I stayed put as the dogs took off, cringing as they bumped into soaked saplings that showered them with ice water as they passed. In the world of hounds, a hot scent supercedes all else, and I was pleased to see that the Beagles kept working the scent trail in spite of the heavy, wet conditions. You could have offered me $5,000 per dog that day and I wouldn’t have sold them!

The rabbit had a good head start and the dogs struggled with the spotty scent trail, but they were moving the rabbit as best they could.  Normally fast on the track, my dogs were down to a slow, methodical push, but a circle began to develop and, after quite some time, the rabbit was headed back to me.

We were all soaked through, miserable in the wind and cold, and when I saw the rabbit I noticed that he didn’t look very happy, either.

Hunching along with his ears back, tip-toeing through puddles and leaves like a kid playing hopscotch, this cottontail ran well but came by me several times, just out of range, pausing as if to say, “Just shoot me!”

On the fourth turn I thought, “This is crazy!” I vowed that the next time the rabbit came by I would call it good enough and pack it up for the season. Ominous dark clouds were forming on the horizon and the “partial clearing” promised by the weather service failed to develop.

Only a true nut would be outdoors in that kind of weather – no doubt about it!

The rabbit finally turned and headed straight for the logging road we’d driven in on and so I headed that way, too. As I burst out of the brush into the road, chill water running down the back of my neck, I head the dogs coming and turned to see where the rabbit might cross.

As if on cue, the cottontail hopped out, stopped in front of me for a moment and then made a bee-line for the briars beside the truck. I could have had him well before he made his dash to safety, which to me was a good and valid time to call it a season. I unloaded my shotgun, kenneled the shivering dogs and headed for home, vowing to start next season exactly where we left off – hopefully with much better weather!

Rabbit hunters over the age of 50 know what I mean when I say I hate to see another season come to an end. The younger bucks will understand in time. There is no guarantee that we will be around next fall, and as we age the odds become increasingly thin. This is why we go out in the wind, rain and cold, those dreary days when folks with more sense stay indoors and read or watch TV. We want to be there for every last run, every miss and every shot that connects. Wishing we had gone doesn’t compare to the satisfaction of having participated, with or without success. There have been few days in my life that I elected not to hunt, and I regret them all. Most often an early-season opportunity is shelved in favor of more responsible duties, but come the end of the hunting year I don’t allow work, wives or worry to keep me and my dogs out of the briars.

When that last cottontail on the last day of the season makes good his escape, I want to be on hand to see him go. It’s a great feeling to know that there’s at least one more rabbit out there for me to think about during the long off-season, and I like to imagine that he’ll be waiting for us when the season reopens next fall.

I know I’m not alone in my ritual for perpetuation of the sport I care so much about. The variations of “bunny love” are many: Some hunters won’t shoot the first or last rabbit of the season, others won’t shoot more than one rabbit per trip and many don’t shoot any rabbits, ever, citing a preference for a vigorous walk and a chance to listen to the dogs work.

It all ties into the same basic idea: We love rabbit hunting and we want to continue to be a part of it for as long as possible. There are plenty of rabbits and briar patches out there but there seems to be fewer every year; some lost to development, some closed by new landowners, some that have grown into saplings and climax forest where few rabbits may be found. Where our grandchildren will hunt 30 years from now is a great topic for debate. Surely some of our best areas will provide great hunting for generations to come, but there are losses every year, losses that are never recovered. Back in 1975 a 40- acre warehouse was erected over my favorite rabbit patch and no one has seen a cottontail there since. The building stands empty and abandoned now, already past its usefulness, but there are no plans to demolish it and restore the farm that thrived there for 200 years. Sad to say, it’s the very place I started my “one rabbit for the future” crusade!

Few of us have the means or opportunity to save or create new rabbit habitat, but we can do our part. I do know that there is at least one cottontail out there for us to hunt. I saw him on the last day on the season and I let him go!

By Stephen D. Carpenteri, 989 South Waterboro Road, Lyman, ME 04002, 207-247-6098