By Frank Jezioro
West Virginia hunters like their “hunting dogs.” We chase rabbits, bear, and squirrels and pursue grouse, woodcock and quail with our dogs. Hunting with dogs in West Virginia is a long and deep standing tradition.
Today was a day for the little hound and rabbits. The recent extreme weather conditions had subsided and we were seeing the temperatures return to more normal levels for January. Most of the snow was gone, the temperature was hovering around 40 degrees, the rain had stopped and the wet ground should provide good scenting conditions to run a rabbit. Several of our wildlife management areas provide chances for rabbits. Today we were going to sample the rabbit hunting conditions at Dents Run WMA in Marion County.
Like at some of the other WMAs, rabbit habitat is isolated to islands of brush, briers and grasses surrounded by stands of mature timber. Grouse hunting the area last year didn’t turn up many birds but it did show several rabbit tracks. Rabbits, like birds, aren’t hard to kill but can be tricky as they dart through the cover in front of a trailing hound. For rabbits, I like a 20 gauge with a standard load of number six shot. Actually, any shotgun is adequate for rabbits and I have seen them successfully taken with everything from the little .410 to the standard 12 gauge. In the larger gauges, the low brass shells in 6s or 7 ½s seem to work fine.
Hunting with a Buddy
DNR Commissioner Dave Truban pulled in with his little hound Buddy. I threw my gun and coat in his truck and we were off. In a few minutes we were following the little hound around the hill heading into one of the deep hollows that dissect this WMA. Deer sign was plentiful but rabbit sign was scarce. But it was a great day to be out and the exercise Dave and I were getting was welcomed. Actually even Buddy could use a little exercise also to get rid of some of the holiday excess he had packed on.
We made the complete trip up high without sign of a rabbit. We decided to drip down to the bottom and hunt back toward the truck low along the creek and road. We had just moved out of the first hollow when Dave yelled out that he had just seen a rabbit go out ahead of us and disappear into the tall grass. Buddy went about 10 yards on the track until he was sure this is where the rabbit went and then he let out a cry and the chase was on. Dave and I took a few steps to get a little better position and better view of an opening where we hoped the rabbit would come back through.
Buddy was driving the rabbit now with constant chops and bawls echoing across the hollows. They went into the next hollow and then everything got quiet. Our first thought was that the rabbit had holed up. We stood still and in a couple of minutes the dog opened up again. The sounds were getting closer and it was obvious the rabbit had turned and for a moment the dog lost the track.
He had it straightened out now and was coming back. I was trying to look in all directions at the same time. The ground cover is rather thick with high grass and clumps of autumn olive and briers. I was concentrating on the scattered small clearings and hoping the rabbit chose to cross one.
Anticipation was rising as the dog got closer. Then a flash of brown and the rabbit shot through a clump of tall grass and disappeared back up over the brow of the hill. The dog came up the same path, lost the rabbit for a minute where it had turned abruptly to head back up the hill, but found the track quickly and was off again heading for the far hollow where it had just come from.
One hour later…
The rabbit was running just fast enough to stay a safe distance in front of Buddy. It appeared the rabbit would stop and wait at times to make sure the dog was still coming, then shoot ahead to wait again. In all, Dave and I made two moves to try to cut the rabbit off. Both times it evaded us and now had been on the track for a little over an hour.
Again the chase was turning and heading back where it started. Again Dave and I moved back to where we started and got in position. The dog was coming hard now and I was watching everywhere there was an opening.
All of a sudden, a blur of brown shot by me about 20 yards to my left. The little 20 gauge Ithaca came up automatically and the barrels caught up to the rabbit just as it entered the tall grass. The gun cracked just as it went out of sight. In these cases we often find ourselves shooting where we think it is or not shooting at all.
“Did you finally kill it?” came a call from Dave. “I am not sure but am going up to see.”
I took a few steps and there the rabbit lay. I waited a couple of minutes for Buddy to come up the track and find the rabbit he had been chasing for more than an hour. He got there, nuzzled the rabbit a couple of times and sat beside me as I admired the bunny.
Late season small game hunting opportunities
January is the time for hunters with dogs to get out and enjoy some great times outdoors. The leaves are off and the little squirrel dogs can be very effective in putting a few bushy tails in the game bag. With the deer and bear seasons closed, it is often the best time for us grouse hunters to hit the thickets. And if you don’t have a dog, it is still a great time to be out and enjoying the last two months of the small game season.
And don’t forget, coyote season is open year round and, with the cover mashed down from the recent snows, taking one or two of them can provide great hunting opportunities.
Note: Hunting seasons for cottontail rabbit, snowshoe or varying hare, raccoon, red fox, gray fox, bobcat and ruffed grouse run through Feb. 28, 2014, in West Virginia.
Squirrel hunting season runs through Jan. 31, 2014.
Coyote hunting is a continuous open season. Hunters may hunt coyote at night with artificial light Jan. 1 through July 31.
West Virginia hunting licenses are good for the calendar year, so you must purchase a 2014 license to hunt small game beginning Jan. 1, 2014.