For most of two hours, the little beagle had struck trail after trail, and hotly pursued a half dozen cottontails in circles that wound around broom sedge, cedar thickets and patches of briar and sumac.
I found a brush pile with a log in the top of it and carefully situated myself atop the mass of branches, many of which sported long, sharp locust thorns. I faced west and the little beagle pushed the cottontail toward me from the north. But the rabbit veered left and I caught a glimpse of him coming down a trail to the east of my brush pile, about to pass behind me.
There was no way to turn, I could do little more than swing my 20 gauge with my right arm, lead him a little and squeeze off an awkward one-hand shot. To my surprise, the cottontail tumbled, intercepted by a wide pattern at 25 yards. There wasn’t much recoil but I nearly lost my balance and pitched into the locust thorns. My friend, who was watching, was laughing at my gyrations atop the brush pile, but he couldn’t believe it when I retrieved the cottontail.
It seems almost certain that when God was creating the animals of the earth, he made beagles right after he made cottontails. Without the cottontail, what would a beagle have to live for?
Actually beagles developed for hunting purposes a few hundred years. The ancestors of the modern beagle were brought to America between 1860 and 1870 but they were larger dogs, probably used more to trail deer than rabbits. In fact, even today there are two sizes of beagles recognized, the 13-inch dog, and the 15-inch dog. Taller beagles are still used in much of the south and southeast to trail deer. The shorter ones are popular in the Midwest where running deer with dogs is illegal but chasing rabbits is not.
The shorter and slower the beagle, the better the results as a rabbit hound. The reason for that is … a cottontail prefers not to leave his home area and he runs in a circle when pursued. Eventually, he’ll come back around to the thicket or briar patch where he was originally scented and put to flight. If he is hotly pursued, he runs harder and the circle is much larger and wider. If he feels pushed, in danger of being caught, he’ll look for hollow logs or holes in the ground.
Trailed slowly and methodically, the rabbit will hop along at a medium gait, and travel a much smaller circle. The advantages of hunting with a good beagle are obvious; you’ll see more rabbits and you’ll have a second chance at many, because the beagle continues the chase and the cottontail will meander and circle again over a new trail which will likely bring him near the waiting hunter again.
If you hunt rabbits without a beagle, you will jump some ahead of you and never see them, simply because they hear you coming. With snow on the ground you can track cottontails but even then you’ll see far fewer than you’ll find with a beagle. The little hound can track them with or without snow. Hunters, who jump-shoot cottontails get hasty, close shots at rapidly fleeing rabbits and the back legs too often catch too much shot, ruining the hindquarters as far as table value. Rabbits taken by waiting hunters as they are trailed by beagles can be head shot. Some hunters take them with a .22 rifle when they hunt with dogs.
But if you ask any beagle enthusiast, he’ll tell you that finding more rabbits and getting better shots is not the main reason he hunts with a beagle. It’s the music of the chase, and until you’ve heard a brace of beagles baying on the trail of cottontail, you haven’t really heard music. It is a song of elation… of pure, free excitement, from a little hound that never stops to think that he is engaged in a chase of futility. He’ll never catch a cottontail but he is rewarded by the hot scent of his quarry and enthralled with the job of untangling a twisting trail before it becomes cold.
The best thing about a beagle is…he doesn’t need much training. He either has the nose and the ambition to trail or he doesn’t. It seems that most of them figure out their purpose in life when they see their first rabbit. He’s the perfect hunting companion for someone who doesn’t have the time or temperament to train a dog. And his own temperament is perfect for a family environment.
The beagle is gentle and calm at home, great with children. But in the field he is in search of a trail to follow and that singleness of purpose makes him something to behold. Still and all, to know a beagle you have to hear him and feel the excitement in his voice. You have to stand on a stump in a briar and broom sedge field and listen and watch and wait as the chase goes on.
If it’s too cold, with daytime temperatures under 20 degrees, rabbits will often hole up and move little. If the temperature gets above 30, but stays below 40, that’s when hunting is best. And it’s good to have a little snow because cottontails are easier to see, moving through the cover against a white background. But a beagle doesn’t have to see the rabbit. His reward is inhaling the hot scent on the trail, and as he finds it, he sings that song of elation that men who hunt cottontails love to hear. When there are two or three beagles together, it is a fascinating chorus, you want to hear again and again.