When these merry little hounds take off after cottontails, it's mayhem on the range.
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
Late-summer rains triggered an explosion of greens in this eastern Montana prairie, creating heavy growth of sage on the flats and thick luxurious undergrowth along the creek bottoms. But now, with the first frost well behind us, the familiar smell of autumn is in the air. Though still green in a few places, patches of yellow and brown now dominate the landscape.
I am here ostensibly hunting cottontail rabbits with my beagles, but I quickly lose focus as the musty fragrance of frosted vegetation teases my mind into recollections of autumns past. Memories of carefree mornings, excited dogs, and hunting coats heavy with game cause a tingle of excitement to shoot up my spine. A mound of dew-covered prickly pear bristling in the morning light catches my eye, and I ponder how oddly out of place a cactus seems to me on a cottontail hunt.
Suddenly my musings are cut short, as Tazzy (short for Tasmanian Bunny Bouncer, her official A.K.C. moniker) cries out for the world to hear: "I have found a rabbit!" Nearly three years of age, this finely featured, tri-colored female is the best of my bunch, and she knows it. Tazzy loves leading the pack on a chase. More often than not she is the first to jump a rabbit from its bed and the first to regain the lost trail at a "check" (a break in the chase). And at the end of the day, Tazzy fully expects to ride home in the cab of the pickup seated on my lap.
Soon Angel and Gus join in the chase. Angel is the senior member of the pack. A serious hunter, Angel's only weakness is food, and that is apparent upon first glance at her chubby physique. Gus is the pup. His long droopy ears and brown solemn hound eyes energize instantly at a mere whiff of fresh rabbit scent.
A few minutes into the race, it becomes apparent by the short runs and small circles the rabbit takes through the heavy brush that we are on the trail of a doe (female) cottontail (males, called bucks, make much larger loops). This contest will take place in an arena less than one acre in size. The acre is bisected by Chippewa Creek, a small stream that only flows during spring run-off. However, there is plenty of standing water here, contained by dozens of old beaver dams. The beavers are long gone, but their work's ongoing value to the ecosystem is revealed in the diversity of vegetation, insects, and wildlife that now thrive here. Flanked on both sides by tall, open sage and greasewood flats, the riparian area contains aging box elder trees and patches of prairie rose and snowberry bushes.
Mixing up baby loops, side jumps, and short double-backs, the rabbit is only 10 yards ahead of the dogs, working slowly through the thick brush down toward the water. Entering a particularly thick jumble of tree limbs and old boards washed ashore by a rushing spring torrent, the cottontail lays down an intricate puzzle of tracks and then sneaks out the back door. This momentarily confuses the pack, creating a break in the action.
Angel finally teases out the lost scent and howls her discovery as she follows her nose, teetering out on a fallen box elder log angled across the creek. Midway over she encounters a snag and promptly topples into the water trying to slip her fat belly around it. Tazzy, hot in pursuit, sees her mentor's predicament and slows at the snag, only to be butted in from behind by Gus, my bull in the china shop. Now all three are dog paddling, sniffing along the log, and barking silly as any Three Stooges slapstick routine.
Attracted by the ruckus, a small herd of black angus storms in to see what the disturbance is about. Plowing through to the front of the herd, a monstrous black bull bemoans his displeasure over the noisy interruption to his usually serene prairie domain. Fearlessly, the cottontail dashes through the cattle before cutting back into the heavy vegetation along the creek. Oblivious to their danger, the dogs follow the scent trail directly into the herd. Fortunately, the cattle are more curious than aggressive, and they simply stand their ground eyeballing the howling short-legged critters scrambling through the sage at their feet.
Beagles back home
Some of my fondest memories of adolescence are those of roaming the countryside with my dad and a beagle or two in pursuit of rabbits. This traditional style of hunting was a treasured autumn ritual in the rural Pennsylvania community where I grew up. After relocating to Montana in 1986, I spent years enjoying the pursuit of "exotic" big game animals such as elk, antelope, and mule deer. Those hunts were thrilling, but I could tell something was missing. It finally came to me as my middle daughter approached hunting age: We needed a beagle. Angel, a plump, long-eared hound pup, soon joined our family.
I patiently endured the derision of my hunting partners while I brought my young beagle on bird hunts, allowing time and experience to develop her hunting instincts into skills. Soon, however, their skepticism turned to respect as Angel wiggled into the thickest cover with ease, finding (and retrieving) downed sharptails, and flushing tight- sitting pheasants on par with their labs and at half the food bill.
And oh those bunnies! Angel's trailing ability improved weekly. Soon she was racing after cottontail rabbits like a pro, working out complicated tangles of backtracking, zigzags, and side jumps in the thickest of briar patches.
Cottontail rabbits are not widely appreciated as game animals in Montana. Blessed with a long shopping list of huntable critters, it seems that hunters here have ranked bunnies near the bottom. Yet cottontails have a wide distribution and make delectable table fare.
Forsaken by human hunters for more glamorous game, Big Sky bunnies spend their nights fleeing foxes, weasels, coyotes, bobcats, and owls, and their days dodging hawks and eagles. At the foot of the food chain, these prolific breeders provide a vital food source for many Montana predators. Schooled in the art of escape, a cottontail is adept at running and hiding. If it survives its first year of life, a rabbit becomes a master of trickery when concealing its scent trail.
Enter the beagle
A pack animal, beagles are merry little dogs that make wonderful pets and enthusiastic hunting partners. These smallest of scent hounds weigh 15 to 35 pounds and come in an array of colors. Despite their hodgepodge of markings and hues, however, conventional wisdom dictates there is no bad color for a good beagle.
Relatively calm dogs, beagles are affectionate to children and always ready to keep you company. They are extremely intelligent, but their trainability is complicated by a strong desire to hunt and an occasional stubborn streak (which we beagle folk say "gives character"). Because of their acute sense of smell and good nature around people, they are often used as drug dogs to aid in detecting illegal contraband at airports and customs stations. For countless generations these small hounds have been bred for sensitive noses to pursue game animals. Rabbits and hares travel in a circuitous route when pursued (called "circling"), rarely leaving their home range. This territory may be as small as an acre patch of thick brush for a doe rabbit, or more than 10 acres in the breeding territory of an ambitious buck. Early human hunters learned that by waiting quietly while their canine partners gave chase, there was a good chance the rabbit would circle back, often returning within a few feet of the initial jump site. This would give the hunter an opportunity to club, spear, arrow, net, or otherwise harvest the animal as it passed by.
In the 4th century b.c., the Greek author Xenophon wrote of small beagle-like hounds used to hunt hares on foot. It is believed that, later, Romans conquering Britain brought with them hounds that interbred with the indigenous hounds there. From here springs the lineage of beagles as we know them today. These small canine hunters crossed the Atlantic with the early American settlers and were used extensively to pursue small game, including rabbits, that were an important part of the settler's table fare.
Back to the chase
Gus's deep bawl-mouth howls mingle with Tazzy's high-pitched chop-chop-chop and Angel's baying in the brush on the opposite side of the creek sweet music that must be experienced to be appreciated. After 15 minutes of hounds howling and crashing through the thick cover, the cottontail calmly hops out of the tangle of brush to the stream's edge, jumps in, and swims back to my side, beaching less than 10 feet away. Enthralled by these antics, I elect not to shoot and continue enjoying the race. A vigorous shake by the bunny sends a burst of water droplets into the air, backlit by the morning sun. Then off she goes, each bound sending smaller sprays of water into the air.
Tazzy knows this trick. Upon reaching the stream's edge she promptly jumps into the water and paddles across the narrow pool in hot pursuit. Angel quickly follows, but young Gus, reluctant to get back into the cold water, hangs up on the bank for a moment and whines. Finally, unable to resist the excited barks and howls of the other dogs, he plows into the water and paddles across to join the chase.
Feeling pressured by the relentless pursuit, or perhaps just tiring of the game, the cottontail heads down an old badger dig just 30 yards (yet a full 30 minutes) from the original jump site. This maneuver always infuriates Angel. I really believe she thinks it is cheating. She relentlessly does her best to pursue the rabbit wherever it may go. This often leads to some clownish predicaments. There have been times I have had to reach my arm deep into a hole, where I was able to grab just the tip of her tail to pull her out. Also, I have had to extract her from dry beaver lodges, hollow trees, and abandoned farm equipment, and from under old buildings. Although reckless, this antic of Angel's is not always futile. Occasionally she brings the rabbit out with her.
Today she does her best to continue the chase down the underground, but fortunately her tubby butt is too big to fit very far into the hole. She backs out, front end covered in brown gumbo, giving me a disappointed frown. She knows the chase is over.
Later, on the way back to the pickup, a buck antelope snorts from a small rise two football fields away, letting us know we are trespassing. I marvel at the differences between beagling here in this western prairie paradise and the cornfields, hemlock swamps, and hardwood forests of the native eastern hunting grounds of my youth. Those haunts seem far, far away from this newfound land where I've chosen to work, live, and play. And yet, connected to my past by the baying of my hounds, I feel right at home.
Bil Holmes is a physician and freelance writer in Lewistown.
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