The first cottontail of the morning crosses a bare patch of earth 20 yards away, cuts left and nearly runs over my boots. Like a bird hunter who refuses to shoot a quail that wasn’t pointed by one of his dogs, I hold my fire, unsure if I’m supposed to shoot a rabbit that wasn’t pushed by my host’s beagles. Woo Daves, a professional bass angler who loves rabbit hunting as much as he loves fishing, grins. He assures me that the purpose of our hunt is to shoot at them, and yes, any running rabbit is indeed running from the dogs.
When deer season ends in Virginia, Daves trades his deer hounds for a pack of stubby-legged beagles, yapping machines that live for the smell of cottontail. For my host and his friends, late-season rabbit hunting is as sacred as deer season, even church itself. They gather in Daves’ garage Saturday mornings, caravan to a nearby clear-cut and turn the dogs loose. The hunters all carry .410s or 28s-a mix of single-shots, pumps and over/unders-to give the bunnies an honest chance. Still, these guys have plenty of experience. Few rabbits get past them.
We stand on stumps and mounds of dirt, anything to get a better view over the thick brush in the clear-cut as the beagles shuffle through the cover. What was once a mature oak forest is now the remains of harvested trees and new growth so thick a truck couldn’t drive through it. The dogs, however, have little trouble following the scent through the mess. Despite the efficiency of the beagles, we still have to plunge into the stuff to retrieve our rabbits. Catbriers claw at wrists and pierce canvas pants. Daves’ face is decorated by a bloody scratch, a badge of honor.
Rabbits run, beagles bark and shotguns pop all around me. Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of cottontail slinking through the cover, but I don’t wait for the nod from Daves. I just shoot.