Rob Ruth and son Robbie, who is holding Trixie. The other dogs from left to right are Boomer, Tex and Escow.
From birds to beagles
It's why I took up rabbit hunting.
Story by Rob Ruth and photos by Josie Ruth
I am not old enough to have seen the great pheasant populations in Wisconsin during the 1940s and 1950s. Growing up in Rock County, however, I do recall in the late 1970s and early 1980s flushing as many as 20 pheasants in an hour in an 80-acre field near my house.
Since then, pheasant habitat in southern Wisconsin has declined. Most of my former pheasant hotspots have either been developed (like the 80-acre field near where I grew up, converted to agricultural use, or are overrun with poor cover like canary grass.
I kept pheasant hunting even as the pheasant habitat and population declined. I enjoyed it so much, particularly working with a good bird dog, that I was willing to search more for fewer pheasants. Everything changed a few years ago, however, when my bird dog died.
At that time I had almost no experience with beagles, but the lack of pheasants made me think that perhaps I should try something new. I started with a 1-year-old male beagle. A few weeks later I picked up an older, more experienced female beagle. It did not take long before I was hooked. By the end of my second season I had five beagles. And rabbits were my main pursuit.
The most obvious advantage to rabbit hunting is that, compared to pheasants, rabbits are bountiful in southern Wisconsin. It seems like just about every thicket or overgrown woodlot holds a few cottontails. Wisconsin’s rabbit hunting season is also longer than the pheasant season and extends into a time of year when there is not much else to hunt. Rabbit season opens in mid-October in southern Wisconsin (mid-September in northern Wisconsin) and goes until February 28.
The greatest part about hunting rabbits with beagles is the thrill of the chase. Much of the hunting that we do in Wisconsin is based more on searching, waiting or calling than chasing. Wisconsin deer hunting is mostly waiting and driving. Turkey, duck and goose hunting is mostly calling and waiting. Upland bird hunting is more searching than chasing. With beagles, the chase is everything. And for me, after 35 years of hunting in Wisconsin, I never really understood the thrill of the chase until I pursued rabbits with a pack of beagles.
A rabbit hunt starts more or less the same as a pheasant hunt.The dogs hustle around until they find a rabbit. In pheasant hunting, as the dogs close in on a bird that is trying to sneak or run away, one gets a little taste of the anticipation and excitement of the chase. Once the pheasant is jumped, there is a moment of exhilaration associated with the shot, but if the shot hits the mark, the rush is over. With beagles, locating and jumping the rabbit is only the beginning. After the rabbit is jumped, the beagles pursue it by scent, all the while sounding off with a bawl, or chop, or whatever other baying sound that particular beagle makes when pursuing game.
There is nothing like the sound of a pack of beagles — the more the merrier — in pursuit of a rabbit. When the dogs lock on to a hot track, the hunter partakes in the same canine versus prey drama that has unfolded countless other times in the last 10,000 years. The hounds, wild with excitement, simultaneously work together and in competition with each other in pursuit of their quarry. As the chase heats up, the dogs bay with greater intensity. If they lose the trail, they quiet down until they find it again and when they do find it, they fire right back up and forward progress resumes. A run on a cottontail might last 45 minutes or more, with many ups and downs along the way, all of which are communicated to the hunter by the dogs. A good rabbit chase is so exciting that most of the time I prefer to keep the chase going, rather than shoot the rabbit and end it.
Much of the thrill of pursuing rabbits with beagles flows from the fact that the rabbit is such a formidable adversary. Rabbits juke and cut, backtrack, sprint, walk, hide, circle — just about any move that you can imagine to outwit the dogs. The rabbit also has one big advantage over the hounds — it gets to decide which way to go. The dogs rarely see the rabbit and even when they do, it does not usually last long. Depending on the speed of the dogs and the conditions, the dogs might be anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes behind the rabbit. They have to figure out the rabbit’s moves based only on scent.
Rabbits tend to run a circular route, passing over the same general area as long as the dogs keep pressure on them. Thus, the hunter does not chase the dogs or the rabbit. Instead, the hunter tries to find the place where he or she expects the rabbit to return. It often takes a few laps by the rabbit to actually get a bead on it.
Beagles are bred for different hunting styles. Some beagles walk or slowly run the track, others run it at blazing speed, and there is just about everything in between. The slower dogs get just as excited as the fast dogs, but they do not put as much pressure on the rabbit and tend to have fewer losses. I prefer an upper-medium-speed dog that pours on the speed when conditions permit, but still manages to keep the situation under control when the rabbit makes a sharp turn. I find it more exciting when the dogs really get the rabbit moving.
The relationship between the hunter and beagle is different than between the hunter and bird dog. The desire to please the master is more refined in bird dogs than in beagles. A good bird dog must obey commands in the field even in the face of great temptation. Beagles are intelligent and capable of learning commands, but they are not known for being tuned in to the desires of the master in the field. When they get on a hot track they have tunnel vision. At that point, most of the communication with beagles is from the dog to the master rather than the other way around.
I miss pheasant hunting. But, having discovered the thrill of hounds and the opportunities for rabbit hunting in southern Wisconsin, I no longer really think about it. I am too busy listening to beagle music.
Rob Ruth a Madison attorney and long-time outdoor enthusiast, lives in southern Wisconsin with his wife and seven children.