A Christmas Bargain: Rabbit Hunting with My Boys Every Day of Winter Break
When you mix two sons, a beagle and Ohio rabbits, it's fun—if not exactly a holiday
This story originally ran in the December 1963 issue of Outdoor Life under the title “Christmas Hasenpfeffer.”
Some mornings are made for hound-dog music and this one in late December was as perfect for it as any I can remember. Snow covered the central Ohio countryside so that it resembled a wintry scene straight out of Currier & Ives. And it was cold enough to make a man appreciate his insulated boots and fur-lined mittens. But the scene, the cold, and the snow were forgotten when our dog Homer suddenly found a red-hot rabbit track and started excitedly to chase the bunny in our direction.
“Pick out a stand,” I shouted to my sons, Park and Bobby, but the advice wasn’t necessary. I saw Park shift to his right to take a stand beside a thick multiflora rose field border. At the same time, Bobby climbed onto the trunk of a fallen elm tree which afforded him a good view of the black berry thicket all around him.
Homer was pouring on the fuel. The rabbit decided to run rather than dodge into heavy cover, and it sounded as if the little beagle was breathing right down its neck. Finally the rabbit had to break out within range of one of our guns, and the next thing I heard was Bobby’s 20 gauge crack once … twice … and that was it.
“Did you get him?” I called.
But before Bobby could answer, Homer opened up again and I knew that the bunny managed to squirt past Bobby and now was heading toward the next county. What followed, though, was the kind of chase to make a beagle owner proud. The rabbit changed it stactics. Instead of running at high speed, it turned into a dense plantation of Scotch pines and dodged about until the dog was completely confused. Then it zipped out into the open again.
Homer had a tough time of it for a few minutes. Besides the rabbit he was following, the ground beneath the pines was a maze of tracks made by other rabbits earlier in the morning. But somehow the little beagle sifted out the fresh tracks and soon was in full cry again. In the language of hound-dog men, Homer is a blabbermouth. That means he has a sort of hysterical, high-pitched yodel on the trail that you can hear from far away. This morning, you could hear Homer all the way to the end of the thicket, at which point the rabbit turned north and the dog followed like a shadow at long range.
At first it seemed the rabbit would have to pass near me because I saw it coming while still far out of range. But suddenly it swung to the left, switched into high gear, and ran right toward Parker. I saw the boy raise his Browning over-and-under, hesitate, and then fire the 12 gauge. A minute later he was holding up the bunny while Homer, excited as a puppy, jumped up and tried to reach it.
“Here’s your hasenpfeffer,” Park called to me.
That same happy scene was reenacted several times before the day was over. We found enough rabbits and we had enough shooting to make it an occasion we wouldn’t forget for a long time. It was also the beginning of a wonderful week of hunting which I’d promised the boys on Christmas, 1961, when Bobby was 12 and Park was 15. Bobby had received a three-monthsold beagle pup as his Christmas gift. He named the dog Homer-Hungry Homer is his official name in the registers of the American Kennel Club—and announced that he personally would train the beagle.
“By next Christmas,” he promised, “Homer will be the best rabbit dog in town.”
“If he’ll just run rabbits at all,” I answered, “we’ll hunt every day of the Christmas holidays next year.”
I’d made the promise for two reasons. For one thing, with open seasons as short as they are, a father doesn’t get to hunt with his sons often so long as they’re still in school. For another, I like rabbit hunting. I’ve been lucky enough to hunt around the world, from Texas to Tanganyika and back, but winter cottontail hunting still gives me a big thrill. Maybe my love for cottontail hunting is part nostalgia because I can remember my own first hunting trips. At that time, we could find rabbits at the ends of the electric streetcar lines in Cincinnati. After the hunt was over, my mother, who was German, would plunk the bunnies into a rich spicy liquor and later cook hasenpfeffer-spiced rabbit and dumplings. I never could get enough of it. Even though we have to travel a bit farther to find game nowadays (the rabbits around my suburban Columbus, Ohio, home are protected by a city ordinance), I promised the boys that the hasenpfeffer would be the same.
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All summer and into early fall, Bobby worked with his puppy. First, he tied a duck wing to a practice casting plug, then he would cast the whole thing across our lawn and encourage Homer to chase it as he retrieved it. I’m convinced that this greatly stimulated the pup’s desire to hunt at a tender age.
Next, Bobby would run a barefoot path through the neighborhood and encourage the dog to track him. It was a strange sight to see a beagle running and howlingafter a boy, but it worked. The first time he jumped a live rabbit one day in early fall, he ran it like a veteran beagle. Many evenings after school, Bobby and I would also take the dog to a nearby thicket where we would enjoy a chase or two before dinner. This was the best experience of all.
But the most carefully laid plans can go awry. On November 8, a week before the opening of our Ohio rabbit season, Bobby and I drove to a woodlot north of Columbus for a practice run. But a couple of hunters were jumping the gun-hunting before season and one of them mistook Homer for a rabbit and shot him and then deserted the scene. When we found Homer, he was a sad, bloody mess.
Bobby was crushed, and there’s no describing how I felt as we carried the whimpering dog to a veterinarian. But it was a tremendous relief when we learned that the wounds were only superficial. By shaving Homer’s rear end, much against his wishes, the vet found that one pellet had passed through his leg and six others were embedded in his rump.
“He’ll probably be O.K. in a week or two,” the vet said. “But I doubt if he’ll do much hunting. I figure he’ll be gun-shy.”
A Beagle’s First Season
Both of us were happy enough just to have Homer alive. And when we dressed in the familiar boots and canvas hunting pants on opening day, we got a great surprise. The dog was wild to go along. When we left him behind, he whined pitifully and tried to claw his way through the door. Finally I relented.
“Let’s take him along,” I told Bobby, “and see what happens.”
What happened was a heart-warming experience. The dog’s performance was limping and slow, but he hadn’t lost a bit of his enthusiasm for chasing cottontails. And I doubt if he even heard the considerable shooting we did over his head that day. Except for being very tired and sore, he was as good as ever. Christmas morning, 1962, produced another surprise for Bobby. He received his first gun, a Stevens 20-gauge double-barreled shotgun, and I got the impression he couldn’t have been more pleased with $1,000,000.
“Santa Claus must’ve been reading my mind,” he said.
The day after Christmas, as I said before, was made to order for beagles and rabbit hunters with rabbit-hunting sons. We had a great time of it. But whereas I was tired after a whole day of tramping across Franklin County’s snow-covered real estate, the boys weren’t really warmed up.
“Where are we going tomorrow?” Bobby asked on the way home.
“Let’s try that spot in Morrow County,” Park suggested, “where we found all the rabbits last year.”
“This week is on me,” I answered wearily. “You just say where.”
Morrow County is a prosperous agricultural country with neat, cozy farmhouses, and it’s out of that portion of Ohio which is so intensively developed. Fertile croplands are interspersed with farm woodlots, and here and there some of the old buttonbush swamps are undrained. I’ve hunted several locations in the county, but one of my favorites is Hobe Sanderson’s farm. That’s where Park and I had discovered a good concentration of cottontails in a 100-acre sugar maple and blackberry thicket. It isn’t easy to hunt-the briers clutch at your clothing and trip you up—but I’ve found that some of the toughest rabbit habitat is also the best.
It was even colder than the morning after Christmas when we parked my station wagon beside an old cattle gate, filled the pockets of our hunting coats with shells, and started out on foot. I was using a Remington Model 870 12-gauge pump. The car radio announced it was 10°F , and it felt like it. But Park, Bobby, and the dog didn’t seem to notice it at all.
“Today is going to be my day,” Bobby said.
What he meant was that he planned to bag his first rabbit with his new double. The day before, Park and I had split our final bag of four. Bobby hadn’t quite connected on the several shots he had. We pushed off into a waist-high patch of briers with Homer sniffing back and forth in front of us, his nose poking into the snow like a vacuum cleaner.
“If he keeps that up all day,” I said to myself, “his nose will be badly chapped or frostbitten.”
Bobby hadn’t traveled 20 yards before he practically stepped on a rabbit that seemed to explode from the snow under his feet. But he was too surprised to even raise his gun. Instead he shouted to me that a rabbit was coming my way. I saw a blur of gray as it bounced away ahead of me, but I didn’t have time for a shot. It didn’t make any difference, however, because Homer also spotted the bunny and went in full cry after it. Following even a fresh trail on such a cold morning is murder for a hound dog. Even the best and most experienced beagles have trouble following a track under such conditions. Evidently the scent doesn’t hold on the frigid surface of the snow, or perhaps the footpad of the rabbit doesn’t leave enough scent to detect. But Homer held onto the track for 150 yards or so before it seemed to evaporate. After making several circles to try to pick up the scent, Homer trotted back to us with a something’s-wrong-look on his face.
“We’re going to have to work harder for our game today,” I told the boys.
I was right. Though tracks were abundant, most of the rabbits which made them seemed to be underground, probably in woodchuck dens or old drainage tiles. Wherever it’s possible, rabbits retreat into such places when the weather turns extremely cold or damp. We hunted hard for another hour before I flushed a second rabbit from beneath a rusty roll of fence wire which was grown over with poison ivy and other brush. I was startled when the bunny flushed, but recovered in time to make a good shot.
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“This,” I bragged, holding up the fat cottontail, “is how to do it.”
With the ice broken, we began to have more action. Homer poked his cold nose into a brushpile and a cottontail catapulted out of the other end. Both Bobby and I saw the rabbit flush, but we didn’t shoot because it was too close to the dog.
“That’s good, quick thinking,” I commended Bobby. “It doesn’t pay to take a chance in a spot like that.”
Homer had a good chase going for several minutes and I thought maybe he would be able to push this rabbit in a complete circle back to us. But something went wrong again, and this time we found where the rabbit had taken refuge deep in a hollow, fallen log.
“How will we get him out?” Bobby asked.
“We won’t,” I answered. “He made good his escape and we’ll go find another.”
Around noon we built a blazing fire, brewed a pot of cocoa, and broiled several venison chops I’d saved from a Minnesota deer hunt a month earlier. It was a pleasant interlude, but the boys didn’t want to linger.
“Let’s get going,” Park said. “There’s a rabbit around here with my name on it.”
We doused the fire and slipped the leash from around Homer’s neck.
“Now go find me a bunny,” Bobby pleaded.
By now the bright sun had had some effect and it was getting warmer, though the temperature still hovered around freezing. The change was helpful to Homer, and he suddenly sounded off when he nosed a rabbit out of a brier patch. Bobby had a snapshot at it, missed, and the target shifted into high gear. Homer wasn’t far behind. Though this was his best chase of the day so far, Homer couldn’t quite turn the animal and bring it back to us. Once or twice he lost the track and recovered it, but after the third loss, he never found it again. Maybe the rabbit ducked underground; maybe its tracks dissolved in the snow. We couldn’t tell.
Before the afternoon was finished, we bagged two more bunnies and Homer did run a successful chase. He jumped the cottontail himself and, except for the fact that Bobby didn’t score, wound up a happy day in the field for a tired father. At home later that evening, we had a call from Joe Fodor who farms a picturesque bit of countryside in Medina County. That’s north of Columbus and not too far from Cleveland. I usually spend a day or so every fall hunting with Joe. His farm work was pretty well caught up and he had time to make our usual excursion.
“Come on up tomorrow,” he said, “and bring the boys. We’ve got a few rabbits around the place.”
I can’t remember ever seeing so many rabbit tracks engraved in the snow as I did in the hollow and brushy woodlot behind Joe’s house. There was hardly a square foot of snow without a rabbit track on it. But finding rabbits above ground was another matter. We had to kick deep into brushpiles and grapevine thickets where they’d taken refuge. And even after we flushed them, Homer had a hard time following. Still we had our share of action, and that goes double for Park who bagged four, which is our state’s legal limit. After the last one, on which he made a fine shot at a quartering target, he was the happiest 16-year-old in the whole Midwest.
We didn’t hunt all day every day during the rest of the holidays because I still have to work to earn a living. But I took the boys out for at least a couple of hours every day, and I’d like to tell about one of those occasions.
The Greatest Christmas Ever
The place we went to is almost within walking distance of our home, but we drove to save time. It’s abandoned, heavily overgrown farmland which, sadly, will soon be developed into a residential area. It’s full of rabbits, and I felt that maybe this would be our last chance to hunt them. In any case, we had a perfect day for the snow was melting slightly and the sun felt almost warm.
Homer had a rabbit going almost immediately, and he never stopped chasing it until it circled back toward me. I bagged it on the first shot. A minute later, Park kicked a second cottontail from it’s squat in a clump of high bluegrass and rolled it before it was out of range. Then Homer jumped a third rabbit and began a wild pursuit which was pure joy to hear and watch.
He’d flushed the rabbit from the fairly open face of one hillside, and we could see it travel down to the frozen creek at the bottom, cross the creek in one jump, and then dart up the steep slope on the other side. Homer followed the track as if he were glued to it. It isn’t often you can watch the maneuvering of a rabbit the way we did this one. It changed directions often and even crossed back over its own trail, but Homer carefully unraveled the complicated course. He pushed so closely that the rabbit had to give up its fancy tactics and head pell-mell for the opposite hillside where it had first flushed and where we were waiting.
At first I thought the rabbit would take the deep gully between Park and me and that one of us would get a good shot. But halfway up the hill, it shifted sharply to the left and headed straight for Bobby. I held my breath, hoping he would see it in time and get a good shot at it.
I shouldn’t have worried. Bobby was watching the rabbit all the way and had his doμble ready. When the rabbit approached an opening right in front of him, he flipped off the safety. Then he calmly clobbered his first bunny with his Christmas gun.
The boy held his rabbit high for Homer to see, and Homer climbed all over him to sink his teeth into the critter. It was quite a picture. On the way home, Bobby summed up the holiday hunting in one short and appropriate sentence. “This has been the greatest Christmas ever,” he said. I knew what he meant. I also knew there would be fragrant, robust hasenpfeffer awaiting the three of us on our return home.
Mother Bauer’s Christmas Hasenpfeffer Recipe
Carefully dress and wash rabbit. Cut it into six pieces: two saddle pieces, two hams, and two forelegs. Place the pieces in a marinade of half white vinegar (do not use cider vinegar or wine) and half water, a chopped onion, salt, and pepper, and a teaspoon of mixed pickling spices. Marinate rabbit for 48 hours, turning the meat occasionally. Next, dry the rabbit and brown it in a skillet of hot butter. When meat is brown, drain it and wipe the skillet clean. Now put the rabbit back in the pan with almost enough marinade to cover it. Simmer the meat slowly until its tender (usually 30 to 45 minutes) and during the last five minutes add five or six crushed ginger snaps and one cup of heavy sour cream. Now bring it to a hard boil and turn off the flame. The hasenpfeffer is now ready to eat. I like hasenpfeffer best with fried red cabbage, potato pancakes, and a cold bottle of good ale.