Rabbits On A Shoestring by James L. Bruner
I can recall back to the days when I was only allowed the opportunity to legally hunt small game while deep inside I was yearning for the day when I could join the “big boys club” and venture out into the thicket for the elusive whitetail deer. The stories and images of deer camp captivated my young mind, even though it came to the surface, or more like realization, that many of the stories were just that in later years. For the moment I felt somewhat stuck with hunting partridge, ducks, woodcock, and rabbits. It didn’t take but a single hunting trip to soon understand that small game hunting could easily quench the fire inside that pointed me in the direction of deer hunting and, during the sport of hunting rabbits, I found myself in the same woods that I would later pursue the whitetail deer. In it’s own right of passage it also became a good guideline that would serve me well later in life during many big game hunting trips.
When I was very young my father took me rabbit hunting with a group of guys who used beagles to chase the rabbits and run them in a circle practically back to the hunter. I was there merely as a spectator standing behind the line of hunters as each scene unfolded. On many occasions the action was fast and furious as the dogs worked the bunnies in loud procession through the cold and previously quiet forest. The sound of the shotguns blasting would temporarily drown out the sound of the barking beagles and a voice would echo through the trees that a member of the hunting party had shot a rabbit. Even back thirty-something years I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck as the dogs broke the silence with their bawling hot on the trail of a snowshoe as it broke from cover. That was exciting to me as a young boy and the only reference of distinction I had towards rabbit hunting. It was years later that my dad, myself, and my uncle, ventured out into the forest to hunt rabbits without the help of a canine. This time I was a member of the hunting party and I carried my single shot 410 shotgun with pride. With images still fresh in my memory of previous hunts I wondered how we could effectively hunt this nearly invisible game animal without the use of the beagles. It didn’t take long before I figured out my role wasn’t just that of the hunter on this day. I guess you could say, at times, I was also the beagle. Minus the bark.
Now for those of you who might be thinking this article is leading into a comedy piece, don’t hold your breath. That’s definitely my area and, although uncle Jon did make some feeble attempts to sound like a dog, they were all in jest. I think.
The three of us huddled in a small group like a miniature football team for some last minute instructions before actually putting boots to the ground inside the hunting area. It was specifically geared towards me that when a rabbit makes a mad dash for safety, or is bumped from his cover, that they could be pretty unpredictable. With that in mind just know where everyone is before taking a shot. Never climb atop a brush pile with your gun in hand. We’ll take turns trying to chase rabbits from the freshly cut brush piles so everyone will get a fair shake equally. It all sounded pretty basic to me as I shuffled my feet in anticipation but I understood the importance and underlying message of safety. I did know one thing for sure that didn’t need explaining. Standing on a logging road with the wind barreling down on you in the middle of winter in Michigan could bring tears to your eyes real quick. Although I didn’t let on, I was freezing my tail off and really just wanted to get moving to generate some heat or at minimum get inside the treeline to break the wind.
We followed a deer trail into the woods directly from the logging road where we parked. I don’t think we were 20 yards into the hunt when dad’s shotgun rang out and the first rabbit was in the gamebag. Nothing like the smell of fresh gunpowder floating in the cold thin air. I couldn’t help thinking wow, the dumb thing just sat there? Sure enough. It’s white coat of fur against the snowy background was of little use against dad’s trained eye. A little further up the trail a rabbit made a break off to our left and I froze. Uncle Jon made an attempt at the shot but choked. In a sense that made me feel somewhat better even though I stood there with a dumbfounded look on my face. Dad instructed me that next time I should “Go ahead and shoot” I believe were his exact words. Shortly afterwards the trail we had been walking opened up into a clearing that was dotted with big piles of brush that were covered with snow. The area was littered with rabbit tracks, trails, and droppings, not to mention lot’s of deer sign.
We stood there side by side looking over the area before dad broke the silence saying that we would “jump the brush piles” to chase the rabbits out. Hmmm. The three of us walked up to the closest pile and checked for fresh rabbit tracks. Sure enough there’s track going into a small hole in the snow leading into the pile but doesn’t appear to be any tracks coming back out. There’s a rabbit in there alright. What I liked about this is that we weren’t confined to whispering during the hunt and we didn’t have to stand as still as stone. In fact we talked aloud as we hunted and obviously moved about at our own pace. Dad gave the brush pile a good kick and, just like that, a rabbit bolted from the opposite side. Holy crap that really worked was all I thought. And in slow motion! Well, slow motion in my eyes I suppose.
Even at a young age looked at things differently than most people. My vision picked up a rabbit that appeared to be launched from the pile of brush and seemingly rose three feet in the air before diving deep into an ocean of fresh snow only to return to the surface like a porpoise popping in and out of wintry tundra. Snow filled the air and sparkled in a brilliant display as the sun picked up each facet of the little white diamonds. Shotgun blasts echoed through the clearing as the rabbit made his great escape in a blur of white powder. I stood there amazed like a 12 year old child watching the latest installment of Marlin Perkins wrestling an alligator on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I never fired a shot at that bunny but the moment was forever stamped into the very core of my permanent memory. Back to reality, I faintly heard someone ask why I didn’t shoot. Mouth agape my eyes wandered back and forth between dad and uncle Jon as if searching for the source. My simple answer was, huh?
Throughout the day we continue to hunt the brush piles and found several stubborn rabbits that were reluctant to vacate their safety. That typically required that one of us set their gun aside and climb atop the brush pile and jump up and down. Maybe not the safest act but it was effective. More times than not that bunny would launch into a series of maneuvers from that pile which sometime included diving into the snow and disappearing. Often you could walk around the area where he disappeared and get him moving again. All in all dad and uncle Jon scored quite a few rabbits from the brush piles and I shot many shells without any luck. It definitely was a blast – pun intended.
As we left the area heading back for the vehicle uncle Jon and I walked side by side on a wide trail and dad walked further off to the left hoping to get a rabbit moving towards our direction. It worked. I watched as a snowshoe made it’s way across a small opening heading straight for the trail where we stood. I raised the 410 aiming for the center of the trail and squeezed the trigger at the moment he began to cross. In that single instance I watched as the rabbit folded into a heap just on the other side of the trail. My very first. I didn’t have a gamebag back then so I made use of an old leather shoestring from a worn out pair of boots. One end tied to my belt loop and the other to the rabbits hind feet I made my way back to the vehicle somewhat dragging the bunny behind in the snow.
An old 410 guage shotgun, a lot of walking, and a couple mentors was all we needed on this day to take a bounty of snowshoe rabbits for little more than the cost of shells and gasoline. It just goes to show that you can hunt rabbits on a shoestring in more ways than one.