Cottontail Hunting….The Tradition Continues!

Most hunting stories in Canada and the USA today are written about the hunt for North America’s big game namely, moose, deer, elk, and bear and for good reasons… they are exciting to hunt and all of them are considered trophies in the hunting world! The same can be said for TV shows with the addition of a few migratory bird, turkey hunting and predator hunting shows which also get their fair share of air time.

In my opinion however, the main reason for the popularity of these types of shows is that big game hunting sells. It is a multi-billion dollar a year business made up of weapon sales, clothing sales, equipment sales, guided trip sales, magazine sales and license sales. Add to this, the fact that these animals or birds are a natural resource that the ministry with the help of us sportsman can effectively manage and you have the perfect recipe for popularity among the hunting community. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to be critical here, the HuntBlog team participate in the hunting of just about all these species and we plan to continue too as long as our aging bodies will let us. My personal passion for these hunts is as strong as anyone; it’s driven by my love of adventure to the faraway and remote places these hunts take me, my love for the chase and the thrill of the hunts, my desire to hone my hunting skills to be the best I can be and most importantly the camaraderie of my fellow hunters. Last but not least is the opportunity to take a trophy which I have been fortunate to do on several hunts.

But this story isn’t about a hunt for any of these big game trophy species, in fact, it’s a story about hunting small game, specifically “cottontail rabbits” and the tradition it carries in certain pockets of the province of Ontario. For small game hunters, cottontails present the ultimate challenge and they love nothing better than to sit around the wood stove and tell about their rabbit hunts. Unfortunately it is a very select few that get to participate in this great sporting activity. That is why we created the HuntBlog website, so that hunters everywhere could share their stories to help preserve the traditions of the hunt with generations to come whether the quarry is big or small the passion is the same.

The challenge with writing a good story about hunting cottontails is that it is virtually impossible to capture all the excitement of the hunt on paper. The reasons for this are very simple; the excitement of the hunt comes from actually being there. It’s not about the harvesting of a small furry animal; it’s about what you see and what you hear during the hunt. I will attempt to describe it here in my story, but it will be impossible to do it justice because you just can’t capture in text the hair raising thrill of a pair of well seasoned and well trained “baying beagles” as they pick up the hot track of their quarry.

Lastly, rabbit hunt success is not measured in the size of the kill, the score of the rack, the quantity of the kill or the great skill it took for the hunter to sneak up on an animal. In fact in rabbit hunting, the opposite is true where, the more noise you can make generally the better the results will be and this goes against the grain of just about every other type of hunting strategy employed for other game animals. The fact is, a successful rabbit hunt is measured by how tired the hunters are at the end of the day, how exhausted the dogs are and by the number of hilarious stories that will be told around the stove afterwards about the poor shooting skills of the one or two unsuccessful hunters in the group. In fact, bagging a few of these speedy and tasty little guys on a snowy and cold winters day can be one of the most exasperating but rewarding hunts that a hunter will ever experience. All that being said, I will try my best to share our great February rabbit hunting story with you here.

On this trip I was joined by my son and co-founder of the HuntBlog James. It takes place in a small southwestern town, Tilbury, Ontario. James and I were the guests for a long weekend hunt with three very experienced hunters, Gary Selwood, Lawrence Lanoue and Gilles Lanoue. Gary is my brother in-law and James uncle and if it wasn’t for his interest in hunting and his early teachings in the field when I was a little boy of 4 years old, this story and many of the others on our website would probably never get told. Gary taught me everything I know about hunting which I have over the years proudly passed down to my son James. Although we live far away from Gary, we still get together several times a year for fishing and hunting trips and those are truly the best of times. This trip was no exception but we had the added pleasure of being joined by the sharp shooting father and son dual of Lawrence and Gilles and their two energetic beagles “Goldie and Chip”.

Passing along some tactical advice.
Passing along some tactical advice.

The Lanoue’s have been family friends and hunting companions of ours for years and own some of the most beautiful farming/hunting properties located in Kent and Essex counties. These guys along with Gary have shot every large and small game animal there is to shoot in Ontario but when it comes to cottontails well let’s just say… James and my skills pale in comparison.

This hunt like most hunts actually starts the night before going through family photo books filled with pictures of great hunts from the past and present. The pictures are many, the success rate spectacular and the stories we share are even better. Before we went to bed we discussed the first morning’s hunt which was to take place at Gilles farm. The farm consists of about 100 acres of property with a nice 5 acre bush and a few overgrown fence rows. We met the guys at Lawrence’s farm around 9:00 am and discussed the plan in “The Hunt Shed” by a nice warm stove. James was as excited about this rabbit hunt as he is any deer hunt because this was to be the first time he would be participating on one in over 20 years and never while holding a shotgun. He is an accomplished deer hunter but this type of hunting is nothing like that so we tried to give him some pointers. The challenging thing about rabbit hunting is that rabbits are unpredictable and usually come at you at lightning speed so you really can’t prepare for what will happen. This hunt, with only a light covering of snow, was going to be no exception so the best advice we could give James was “you’ll get the hang of it just be careful of the dogs”. The only additional caution offered up by Lawrence was that the first thing we had to do was drop the young guys off first, that would be James and Gilles, and have them push any deer that were in the bush out because if the dogs got on them, like they tend to do, it will be a very short hunt … more on that subject later!

When we arrived at the bush we dropped of the boys and sure enough we had a couple sets of fresh deer tracks going into the bush and from the look of the two fresh beds the boys found in the snow, it appeared like they probably pushed out a couple on the way in which was good. The next thing was for the boys to set up at the top end of one of the overgrown fence rows with Gary. On this hunt Gary was only a spectator due to a shoulder injury which was too bad because we could have used the extra gun in the field, but he decided it would be best to mentor James and be the photo guy. The guys quickly got into position and radioed Lawrence and I to come through with the dogs which by now, were uncontrollably baying away in the back of the truck.

Chip and Goldie; Stars of the show
Chip and Goldie; Stars of the show

Let me just say before I get into the actual hunt story that these two beagles, Goldie and Chip, can tire you out just watching them. As soon as we started into the fence row the dogs were on a rabbit filling the silent crisp morning air with a deafening chorus of exciting yelps, yips and full out howls. It didn’t take long and the first rabbit was up and running. It passed by James so fast he didn’t even get time to shoulder the gun. This was quickly followed by a second with the same result. On the third rabbit James improved as he actually got the gun up in time but made a good decision not to shoot because the dogs were too close to the quarry. James said they both stopped and looked at him with a thank you in their eye… Gary on the other hand said it looked more like a “what the hell are you waiting for look” to him. The dogs continued on and managed to bring one of the rabbits back around which was a fatal mistake. It once again cleared by James no problem, but ran out in front of Lawrence and his pump shotgun made no mistake.

After the trail went cold for the dogs we decided to move into the main bush. The plan was to post a sentry at the north end, and then the rest of us would fan out long the bush at the south end and push very slowly north through the bush. On these hunts the dogs control the pace which is generally very slow because they leave no bush, brush pile or clump of grass unturned. It is amazing to watch them work and to the unseasoned rabbit hunter they may appear out of control but nothing could be farther from the truth. Within minutes they were on their first rabbit and shortly thereafter, they had it on the run. Lawrence being the true sport let James have first crack at it but again he was a little slow. Shortly thereafter Lawrence’s gun rang out and another nice bunny was taken. I was on the far side of the bush but the laughter that filled the air was unmistakably being directed at James. Another 50 yds into the bush and the dogs were on another one but this time they brought it right to the north end where Gilles was patiently waiting. The gun sounded once and another nice plump bunny was taken. The dogs then worked their way back to us and things were slow for a bit but soon they were howling again. This rabbit decided to take them on a run and the track meet was on. The chase covered most of the bush but they eventually turned it back and here it came directly towards James. This time was different though, James had time to set up, take aim and fire … but nothing! I thought, I bet he forgot to take off the safety and again laughter filled the air with radio confirmation that confirmed exactly that. The dogs once again came up to James, scowled at him and continued on their way eventually bringing the bunny back across Lawrence’s deadly path and another one shot kill was administered.

James taking credit for someone else's handy work
James taking credit for someone else’s handy work

By now I was starting to wonder what I was doing wrong as I hadn’t even so much as seen a rabbit. As I approached Gilles vantage point the beagles again began to announce the presence of another bunny nearby. This one had gotten up quite a distance ahead of them and although I saw it, it was only a split second glimpse at best, offering no shot. We continued on and were getting close to having covered the whole bush when the dogs circled back. They continued through the bush when we heard Lawrence announce over the radio that we had “deer in the bush!” At this point rabbit hunting was the last thing on our minds as we all scrambled to get the dogs. Goldie was exhausted and she was caught easily but Chip is much younger and of course has the energy to go with it. Luckily for us we had young blood on our side as well and James was able to run Chip down before he spotted the deer and get a leash on him.

At first we couldn’t figure out how we had passed by these deer but Lawrence said they had entered the bush behind us and ran right up to him passing by at 15 yds. One was a mature Doe and the other a handsome wide 8 pt Buck. The Doe didn’t see Lawrence at first and passed right by him but the Buck sure did and stopped directly in front of him at 15 yds. What a sight! With a loud snort wheeze they blew out the west side of the bush followed by 4 more mature deer, two of which were impressive Bucks sporting tall tines.

We were certainly thankful to have got to the dogs first as the guys told James and I of a similar situation last year that resulted in Chip being lost for three days and found 15 miles away. On this note we decided to call it a day and head back to the “hunt Shed” for a few laughs and celebratory beverages. Poor James of course was the butt of most of our laughs but all of us agreed that it’s even worse when you shoot and miss. James soon learned what that meant but being the good sport he is, enjoyed taking up the knife and cleaned all the bunnies which was no big deal for a graduating Med School student.

rabbit 6

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The next morning’s hunt started the same way with a meeting at the hunt shed. This day was blustery and light snow was falling. Not the best combination for hunting cottontails because they have a tendency to stay in their holes in this type of weather but we were willing to give it a try and so were the dogs. We drove back to Lawrence’s bush which was a huge surprise to Gary because according to him, Lawrence always makes him walk back. Again we posted a sentry at one end of the bush and began pushing through with the dogs. The dogs quickly got on a couple of rabbits but they have great noses so they probably were cold tracking because we didn’t see any bunnies or fresh tracks.

After hunting the bush we headed over to the marsh area which was known to hold most of the rabbits on this property. This time James was given the prime posting spot on a high mound next to some willow trees. The guys told us this area was the best spot and that they had already taken over 30 rabbits from the bush and the marsh this year. They said there was still plenty more rabbits in here but this would definitely be the last hunt of the year at this spot. On that note the rest of us moved into position and it wasn’t long when the beagles where howling away. Slowly and expertly they worked the long marsh grass surrounding a frozen pond and after a lengthy and exhausting tracking job they put up a rabbit on the far side. It bolted up the bank in full flight away from Gilles and I watched from a distance as he shouldered his gun. Amazingly he got off two of the fastest pump shotgun rounds I and anyone else on the trip have ever seen and the second shot nailed the rabbit at 40 yds. We all walked over to see the rabbit and commented on the speed of the two shots he had just made. Even Gilles dad Lawrence was impressed with the quick shooting even though I am sure he had seen and heard it many times before, but I could tell by the excitement in his voice that he was a proud father!

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We then moved into another area of the marsh that had a mix of brush, trees and long grass and positioned ourselves around the perimeter. This is where having good beagles is a must because the cover is so thick, there is no way a hunter can walk through it. It was now that Goldie and Chip put on a real show for us working the long grass and stubble. Suddenly I heard a shot ring out and I was sure it came from the direction of James post. I could hear the unmistakable laugh from Gary and new right away that we had a miss. I continued to watch and listen as the dogs brought the rabbit in my direction. Within seconds I spotted a flash of brown and white running towards me. Patiently I waited for an open shot and the bunny gave me one. It’s been a while since I shot at a rabbit with a shotgun but my aim was good and I nailed him. I got a thumbs up from Lawrence but we didn’t have long to celebrate as the dogs were quickly on another one. Again a shot rang out from James direction and from what I understand later he actually spun that little fella around! The dogs continued hot on its trail and eventually brought it out to Lawrence who took a quick shot at the fleeing rabbit. At first he thought he had missed it but after a short search Goldie came up on the bank and presented the rabbit at his feet.

The last area we moved to was again very, very thick with cover and therefore seldom hunted by the guys but the dogs were bound determined that there was a cottontail in there. I came up on one side of a small overgrown ditch and Lawrence was on the other. We watched as the dogs crawled on their bellies through the twisted mangle of cattails sometimes disappearing completely from view. I could tell by the intensity of Chip’s yelping he was hot on the trail of one so I motioned to Lawrence to get ready. Sure enough I spotted the bunny crawling slowly along the bottom of the ditch through the cover ahead of the dogs. The cover was thick and I lost a visual on him several times until he poked out about 15 yds from me. I had just enough time to squeeze off a shot and proudly pronounced “I got him”. The guys gathered around and as I climbed down the bank to retrieve him Lawrence turned to Gary and said “I don’t know how Greg even saw that rabbit”. With some difficulty I got to the spot where I last saw the rabbit but the dogs had beaten me to it. To my amazement no rabbit was to be found. The guys started to laugh and pronounce a miss but I was sure I hit him. Not wanting to be on cleaning duty I started to frantically search for the rabbit, tearing cattails out by the handful. By now the guys were in stitches, thankfully James climbed in to give me a hand searching. I eventually found some blood and I said I told you guys I hit that little bugger as they continued with their taunting laughter. After several minutes and a few choice words I found the bunny under a heap of cattails. I think I was actually standing on him!

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So the hunt concluded on a happy note with 4 more fat bunnies in the game bag. We took some great field pictures and headed back with two totally exhausted beagles to the hunt shed. Again we got to watch James clean the rabbits and enjoyed the banter that accompanied the tales of the hunt. We were successful and that added to the fun but we all agreed it was the chance to get together and share some great times outdoors, some great stories and some good laughs that really made it the special two days that it was.

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Like I said at the start of the story, cottontail hunting is not the popular sport that big game hunting is but its every bit as fun if not more, especially when you add in the baying of the beagles and the non-stop excitement they bring to the hunt.

This is a story certainly worthy of sharing with our kids and grandkids and the HuntBlog community!

By Pro Staffer…..Greg Mather

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