By Otha Barham / outdoors editor
The Meridian Star
Little hounds with big voices screaming on a hot trail; gray-brown prey streaking through frost-killed grass; shouts from companion hunters; shots ringing out from first one hunter and then another; sawbriars tearing at hunter-orange vests. These are the sights and sounds of rabbit hunting as it is traditionally practiced in the South.
Beagling, it should be called. For the diminutive hounds developed long ago in England from fox hound stock are the mainstay of the sport. Their mettle, tenacity and instincts are packaged in small bodies that also sport big and friendly hearts.
Cottontail rabbits have long been an important food source for carnivorous wild animals and in earlier times for man. The prolific bunnies are choice table fare for many to this day and without them it is doubtful our fox, bobcat, coyote, owl and hawk populations would thrive.
Until it became illegal in the last century, and for some time afterward, rabbits were taken in the South by night hunters with the aid of lights, primarily carbide-fueled headlights borrowed from the world of Appalachian miners. The Depression years were made easier for many a Southern family by a steady supply of rabbits taken with headlights. If the man of the family had a day job, he could supplement meager provisions with fresh, tasty rabbit meat for the table by hunting at night.
Energetic hunters have long stomped brush piles and bagged emerging cottontails for the challenge of trying to hit the little speedsters in thick cover and of course for their delicious meat. The family “farm dog” was often a helpful companion, trailing jumped rabbits by either sight or scent and bringing them around within range of the shooter. My new bride and I ate a lot of rabbits in the 1960s.
Then and now the most popular method of hunting southern bunnies is with beagles. These miniature hounds have good noses, friendly dispositions and an inborn passion for chasing rabbits.
Considering these desired traits, one might rightly surmise that the ideal pack of rabbit beagles has a certain personality, (beagleality?) And this fact calls our attention to one of the primary motivators that compels men and women to feed a yard full of yapping dogs all summer that will take them away from bowl games and playoffs in the winter and instead into briar patches and muddy swamplands. We have the time honored thrill of the chase, so thoroughly embraced by the hounds and their handlers, set in the context of tradition, with a measure of perfection in each dog in the pack that we trust to result in "packing" (no stragglers.)
The owner's pride enters the picture here. I once showed several hunters a photo I took of their beagles in pursuit. Each man identified his dogs. Someone asked another where his dogs were in the picture; a friendly ribbing. The fellow answered cleverly, "My dogs had already passed through."
Discerning each dog’s bawl in its varying patterns (hound music to practitioners) communicates the dog’s performance to its master. Thus the combined bawling paints an informative and satisfying picture in the mind of the hunter. That is why for most beagle owners, a rabbit hunt is more “enjoying the race,” than bagging the rabbit. Many won’t even take an easy shot at a rabbit jumped from underfoot. Instead, the dogs are called to the spot of the jump and the rabbit is spared until a chase has taken place.
February is the desired month for running beagle packs after rabbits. Frost has cleared out the underbrush so visibility is at its best of the year. Find some open spots that surround briar patches and you are in business. Rabbits love briars and beagles are small enough to tear through them.
Rabbit season in Mississippi extends through February 28. Deer hunters are gone from the woods and you don't have to get up at four in the morning. Bring out the beagles or get yourself invited to a hunt; the more the merrier. Relax, have fun and enjoy real Southern hunting.