By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Seconds after Robert Collins opened the doors of the dog boxes on the back of his truck, the beagles had their collective noses to the ground.
Within a minute or so, the first beagle barked and sniffed for more evidence that a rabbit was nearby. Although the trail never got hot, Collins said, “He may not be here right now, but he’s been here this morning. See, here’s his tracks. And they’re fresh.”
Collins called his dogs to the other side of the road on the property in Macon County, and it didn’t take long for the dogs to strike. Collins’ favorite dog, Sandy, led the way, and the group of hunters spread out to cover any escape route the rabbit might have in store.
“Sandy is my best dog,” Collins bragged. “She gets in there with ‘em.”
The crescendo of beagle barks reached a new fervor, which prompted the hunters to declare, almost in domino effect, “He’s up. He’s up,” meaning the dogs had forced the rabbit to abandon his hiding spot and search hastily for an exit.
James Tyner was the first to spot the rabbit.“I saw him. I had a shot, but I wanted to get some more action out of him.”
The rabbit then ran in front of Collins, who did the same thing and let the rabbit go.
“He’s coming straight at you, David,” Collins yelled at me.
Armed with only my camera, I turned just in time to catch a glimpse of the rabbit. There was a sandy hump that I expected the rabbit to climb, and I had the camera on that hump. As is most often the case, the rabbit gave me the slip and turned before it got to the hump.
As I searched the viewfinder for the rabbit, a shot rang out. The rabbit got by me, but he didn’t get by Earnest Dozier, who used his well-worn humpback Browning to take the first rabbit of the day, a cottontail.
“We kill hill slips and bucks out here,” Collins said, explaining that a hill slip is a cottontail and the much larger swamp rabbit is a buck. “I don’t know why we call them that. We always have.”
Born in Tuskegee and reared around Notasulga, Collins said rabbit hunting is just what piqued his interest when he was a teenager.
“I’ve been rabbit hunting since I was about 14 years old,” Collins said. “We didn’t have any dogs when we first started. We were just walking them up. We were young boys and we were following behind the old guys back then. They showed us how to walk slow and look real close for the rabbit.”
Looking real close also meant looking for a likely tangle of vines or brambles and tapping it with the barrel of his shotgun. Collins admits he doesn’t look as close as one of the old-timers who taught him how to hunt rabbits.
“He used to bed them and hit them in the head with an ax handle,” he said. “Now that’s paying real close attention.”
After those lessons of his youth, Collins enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1978 and made a career of it. He went through basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., and stayed in the Army for 28 years. He was a drill sergeant for five years during his career and retired in 2006 with the rank of sergeant major, the highest rank for an enlisted man.
“That’s as far as I could go,” he said. “I was a drill sergeant, then first sergeant. Then I went to the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss (Texas). I did two years in Iraq before I retired. I saw too much destruction.”
During his Army career, he was once stationed in Korea. When he re-upped for another two-year stint, he got a 30-day leave. Collins didn’t take off for an exotic location. He came home.
“I came home and went rabbit hunting with these same guys,” he said of the group called the Sportsmen Hunting Club.
Collins said when the weather is good the group tries to hunt rabbits every other day in February.
“It’s kinda tough to do that during deer season,” he said. “You’ve got to know somebody that will let you come in and hunt their land. There’s not many places to do that during deer season.
“We know some guys who have land leased that will call us and invite us down to hunt. Some people will and some won’t. James (Tyner) is talking to somebody now about some land.”
Tyner said finding land for rabbit hunting is getting harder by the day.
“It’s just hard to find places to hunt,” Tyner said. “I’ve got a line on some land over near Selma that we might rent for the month of February, but that’s a long way to go. We’re looking for land to hunt all the time.”
The property we hunted recently was a former sand and gravel operation that had left numerous excavation pits that were filled with water. Around the edges of the pits were thickets of briars and vines, perfect for rabbits. There was also a power line crossing the property that had ideal rabbit habitat with briars and brush.
We were perched on a hill overlooking a hollow on the power line when the dogs struck. More often than not, the rabbit will make a loop and return very close to where it was jumped.
As the pack of dogs was making that loop, I told James Ellington to be on alert.
“That rabbit is going to tiptoe back into the power line, James,” I said.
Sure enough, seconds later the rabbit hopped into the opening.
“There he is,” I said. “You’d better shoot him.”
James didn’t spot the rabbit as quickly as I, and the rabbit had started to make another run as the dogs started to close the gap.
“Boom.” The rabbit kept trucking. “Boom.”
“I think I got him with that second shot,” Ellington said. The dogs then congregated in one spot, and one of the hunting party yelled, “James, you’d better go get that rabbit before the dogs tear him apart.”
Ellington took off and got there just in time to grab the rabbit, which was largely unharmed by the dogs.
Several other chases ensued that morning, and only one rabbit was able to elude the beagles.
“That was a buck rabbit, a cane cutter,” Tyner said. “He’ll run through that water. He doesn’t care. And that’s where the dogs lose them.”
By the time the morning was over, five rabbits had been reduced to bag. The next thought was cooking rabbits.
“When somebody kills a rabbit, the first thing you hear is ‘gravy and onions,’” said Eddie Wilson, who bagged the last rabbit of the morning. “We pot boil the rabbit to make it tender. Then we fry him down a little bit. Then we make gravy in the frying pan and add onions. Then we smother him and simmer him down until he’s good and tender. I like the buck rabbits. They’ve got plenty of meat. Give me a hind hip and a piece of the back and I’m satisfied.”