As big game seasons wind down for another year, many bowhunters begin hanging up their equipment. For some, the cold winter months’ short days and snow covered earth dampen the archery enthusiasm that burned so brightly with the autumn colors. But for diehards, winter is the time to have fun, get some exercise, shoot a few arrows and even take the kids along on one of bowhunting’s greatest adventures—beagles and bows. Most people just call it rabbit hunting, but what is rabbit hunting without beagles?
Generally, rabbit hunters enjoy long seasons, generous bag limits and, in the north country, the magic of tracking snow. On a good winter day of rabbit hunting you may experience more action than during the entire fall while big game hunting. This is a great situation to start a beginner bowhunting. There is no need to sit still, keep quiet, or have great patience while waiting for the action to begin. A young rabbit hunter has the opportunity to walk, talk, study tracks in the snow and even shoot practice arrows as he or she learns to hunt.
One winter afternoon, I invited a young man with a keen interest in traditional archery over to my house to do some practice shooting. Jeremy seemed a natural at instinctive shooting and when he left that evening he borrowed an old Black Widow recurve and a few old arrows to try his hand at rabbit hunting. He already had a good beagle and had been hunting cottontails with a .22 rifle. The very next evening I got a phone call from Jeremy. “Guess what!” he reported excitedly. “I got a rabbit this afternoon with the recurve!”
“Already?” I asked in astonishment.
“Yeah! It took me three shots, but I finally connected. On the run too!” he added.
That was the first of several bunnies for Jeremy that season. In fact, he was so excited about traditional bowhunting that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get my bow back. However, Jeremy now has his own recurve. He has already collected two whitetails with it and is anxiously awaiting another rabbit season.
For archery gear, a fast-handling, easy-carrying recurve or longbow works well in tough conditions due to deep snow and thick brush. A day of rabbit hunting can be an excellent field test of your equipment. Heavy bows aren’t really needed, but I like the practice I get with my regular big game bows. I use wooden arrow shafts because they are traditional, inexpensive and biodegradable should I lose one in deep snow. Empty .38 caliber pistol casings make excellent, inexpensive blunt tips for rabbit arrows. Judo tips also work as bunny stoppers and I’ve used broadheads as well. No matter what the arrow tip, I’ve seldom had wounded rabbits escape, because the beagles will catch them.
When hunting with beagles, the object is to use trained hounds to jump cottontail rabbits or snowshoe hares and pursue them by scent-trailing until they circle around and return to their home area. The hunter listens to the musical baying of the beagles as they circle on the track and tries to establish position in front of the approaching bunny. Each beagle has a different bark or bawl and an experienced houndsman can tell just what the dogs are doing by the tone of their voices. Although I take my best shot at every rabbit that comes by, I don’t need to harvest a lot of game to enjoy myself. The rewards of this type of hunting are mostly provided by the dogs. Good hounds start the chase, join in the music together and work out the track to bring the bunny around and provide the hunter with a chance for a shot. Should you miss, stay put and enjoy the chase; the beagles may just bring the rabbit around again. In fact, a good chase can be reward enough. For many, success is measured by how well the beagles work and how well the rabbit runs, not by how many rabbits are harvested.
There is nothing quite as cute as a beagle puppy. My wife says, “It’s too bad they all have to grow up to be beagles.” She won’t admit it, but they can make good family pets as well as hunting dogs.
Training beagle pups is usually pretty easy; just take them out hunting. I like to wait for fresh snowfall so I can help them out with their first rabbit tracks. One way to start a pup is the “walk ‘em up” method. Just keep showing the pup fresh rabbit tracks. After some practice, the dog will get the hang of it. Another way to start a pup is to run the dog with an older hound who already knows the job. The young pup will follow along until he gets the idea. You’ll get a thrill the first time your own pup opens up on a track and does what comes naturally. From then on it just takes practice, which means more hunting for both you and the pup…not a bad situation. I admire the drive and determination of a good beagle. As hunters, we could certainly learn from their focused effort and singleness of purpose. They simply live to hunt.
Snowshoe hares, locally called jackrabbits, are the big game of beagling. I have fond memories of heading for northern Michigan on many winter Saturdays with a companion and a dog box full of beagles to run showshoes. A big, strong, hard-hunting hound like my Augie Dog works well on the long chases and large circles of a snowshoe hare. This is big swamp hunting, an all day affair. There is nothing quite like stalking through the silence of a balsam and cedar swamp in winter. Snow hangs heavy on the boughs above as you search the shadows under the trees for the mysterious white-on-white movement of a snowshoe hare. The muffled crunch of snow underfoot is the only sound until your beagle surprises you with a loud locating bawl before sprinting away on a fresh trail. Midday, we tie our dogs to trees and take a break, toasting sandwiches, and fingers, over a fire while counting how many arrows we have left and wondering just how far we are from the truck.
My friend John Shephard and I once spent a great day running his pair of experienced beagles and two of my young dogs on snowshoes. The weather was perfect, with several inches of new snow covering the frozen swamps. Rabbit tracks were plentiful that day. We would run two dogs for a couple of chases, and when we passed the truck, we’d load them up and let out a couple more. The young dogs got some good hunting experience that day. John and I? Well, we ran out of arrows.
Most brushy woodlots in good hunting areas harbor cottontail rabbits. I love to hunt them after a fresh snowfall. An easy-handling, intelligent hound like my Little Sissy does a good job on the shorter circles and tricky, backtracking trail of a cottontail rabbit. This type of hunting can usually be found close to home and provides good opportunities to take the kids along.
One winter, when my son was about twelve years old, we had a memorable day together. We positioned ourselves in a strip of brush connecting two open woodlots and listened to Sissy as she circled cottontails around us all morning. Each time a rabbit came past, we both shot at it. Once a bunny stopped and sat up right in front of Adam. I thought he’d nail that one for sure, but his arrow mysteriously ended up stuck in a large oak tree. Adam recalls that as the rabbit passed near me on the run, I heart-shot a small maple sapling. That was a day of fun and laughter we will never forget. Every father should share a memorable day like that with his son. A boy would surely be missing a great deal if he grew up without knowing the special feeling of raising a pup and training it to hunt, then watching it mature into an honest, hard working dog and sharing the hunting experience and companionship of a real true friend: his very own beagle.
After many years of beagling, I have raised and trained my share of hounds and my search for a better beagle has filled my life with treasured memories of dogs, hunts and companions.A simple glance at an old photo in the album is all it takes to bring back a flood of memories. Of course the names don’t mean anything to you, but just the mention of Shorty, Suzie, Muttly, Sissy or Augie starts my memories circling. So many pleasant days were spent in the company of those beagles. They’ve mostly been gone for years now, but magically, your hunting dogs never grow old in your memories. I can close my eyes even now and hear big Augie’s clear, bell-like bawl coming to me faintly through the clear, crisp winter air as he completes a circle out of hearing, coming back, driving a hare toward me through the cedars. And I’ll always remember the way Little Sissy would cock her head and look at me as she went by on a cottontail’s track after I missed the shot…and I knew that she knew. Those were the days: lasting memories of great times afield and the anticipation and high hopes for young bowhunters and young beagles realized. I’m sure looking forward to this winter’s first snowfall when it will again be time for beagles and bows.