Rabbit Hunting: ‘I just took a pot shot at him’

February 2, 1999 — Three shots from Jason Brown’s 12-guage shotgun barked through the morning haze.

The blasts, from somewhere in the thick briers surrounding me, were startling — and for a moment halted the caterwauling of the hunting beagles tracking the targeted rabbit’s scent.

“Do you think he got him?” I asked Stanley Brown, 50, of Gainesville, an avid rabbit hunter and the leader of our group, which also included 53-year-old Gainesville resident Royce Winters.

The answer to my question was no — barely.

Rabbitless, Jason walked toward us.

“If I didn’t get him, I came pretty darn close,” said Jason, 26, of Gillsville, opening his hand to reveal a clump of rabbit hair, which he let drift innocently to the ground.

The Hall County trio of Stanley, Jason (no relation) and Royce has a combined 89 years of rabbit-hunting experience. Throw me into the mix and you have a foursome with … well, 89 years of rabbit-hunting experience.

With no hunting license — nor any hunting experience to speak of — I was the only one not bearing arms on this unusually warm late-January morning in a brier-infested paper company plot along the western edge of Jackson County, between Gillsville and Maysville.

The fact that I was gunless was of great relief to the area’s rabbit population, I’m sure.

No, Jason didn’t bag the cottontail, but the dogs — Sidewinder, Fungus, Goldie, Code Yellow and Tinker — were back on its trail, based on the cacophony of yelps that erupted from the pack.

And when Stanley’s pups begin their chorus, you can rest assured a rabbit is nearby. One thing Stanley will not tolerate is a rabbit dog that chases “trash” — deer, fox or any other animal that is not a rabbit.

“You can’t hunt rabbit if your dogs follow trash,” said Stanley, who breeds and raises beagles that are naturally “trash proof.” “If a dog runs off-game then somebody else is going to be feeding it.”

Good hunting beagles are a hot commodity. Stanley knows a hunter that recently sold a trash-proof dog for $3,800.

The group split up, surrounding the squealing hounds, hoping the dogs would chase the rabbit their way.

I followed Stanley, fighting my way through the dense, tall clusters of sharp brier limbs. He was looking for an area with some open space, an area where he could get a clear shot at the rabbit. Such areas are hard to find.

Rabbits are not dumb. A popular meal for a variety of carnivores — bobcats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, house cats and, yes, humans — rabbits choose to live under thick, thorny cover, a place most predators prefer to avoid.

A few thorns, however, won’t stop the avid rabbit hunter — or the avid sports writer, presumably. That’s why they make brier britches, right? Rabbit hunters go through those things like brier thorns go through unprotected skin.

Stanley’s “brier proof” bib overalls, a Christmas present, were so frayed and worn they looked like they were brought by Santa circa 1978, not 1998. A retired Gainesville fire fighter, Stanley goes through more than a dozen pairs of gloves a year to support his four-time-a-week rabbit hunting habit.

The beagles’ din grew louder. The dogs were approaching us.

Stanley tensed up. His eyes darted back and forth. He now only spoke in hushed tones.

“OK, he’s coming straight toward us,” he breathed.

He removed a pair of pruning shears from his pocket.

“This is a little trick I do,” Stanley whispered as he cut the branches off a pine tree that blocked his valuable view. “Doesn’t hurt the pines at all.”

Suddenly, the dogs became quiet.

“This rabbit is doing some tricks,” said Stanley, saying the rabbit must have hopped in a hole or under some brush.

At that moment, I saw something move out of the corner of my untrained eye. Was it our rabbit? My heart started to beat faster.

Sure enough, the dogs started up again, and minutes later headed right for the area where I made my sighting. They were back on the scent.

“That’s the luck of the game,” smiled Stanley. “When I was busy cutting bushes, he came back around behind …”

Boom! The bark of Royce’s 28-guage interrupted all.

We approached Royce, who was standing with his left arm outstretched, the bunny’s limp, lifeless body dangling below. The dogs gathered around Royce, jumping up and nipping at their catch. It was as much their kill as it was Royce’s.

“He saw me and turned and started going out this way,” explained Royce. “I just took a pot shot at him. He was doing some ducking and turning, I’ll tell you that.”

Holding the rabbit by its head, Royce proceeded to shake the rabbit’s insides down to it’s bottom. Then, holding the dead rabbit with his left hand, he squeezed the rabbit’s guts out of its rear end.

“Anybody’ll tell you when they pull the trigger, the fun is over,” said Royce, wiping his hands. “That’s when the work starts. I don’t shoot anything for the sake of shooting it, the thrill of the kill. I don’t shoot more than I’d want to eat. Rabbits, actually, are good eating, if they’re prepared right.”

It wasn’t long before the chorus of dogs started up again, signaling the start of another chase.

“I enjoy that,” said Stanley. “That’s music to me.”

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