Times change…and then sometimes they don’t. I grew up in the Fifties in rural Southern Illinois. Like most of the country, we had our traditions of the Holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years were THE big events of the years for families. Easter was another one but it was more oriented towards faith and many families observed Easter at church and at home.
The big three holidays usually involved traveling for many. My sister and brother-in-law visited us at the Farm most of the time. My brother-in-law was an outdoorsman, a term not often heard anymore.
In the summer, he liked to fish. He and my sister built a home on the shore of a twenty-acre lake. In the winter, he liked to hunt. Ducks and geese had their season. Squirrels and rabbits had theirs. In the fifties, there was no deer season. They were rare after being almost hunted out during the Twenties before hunting became regulated.
I’ve written about our Thanksgiving hunting tradition in another post. However, there were other hunting traditions, too, during the Fall. The most common was rabbit hunting.
While November and December were Duck and Goose seasons; August and September was Squirrel season, October was reserved for Rabbit Season and was my favorite. When I was growing up I hunted, and trapped, rabbits in a variety of ways. A neighbor kid and I once hunted them with baseball bats in an overgrown gully after a fresh snow. We had also hunted with bows and arrows. But we hunted most often with firearms.
I killed more rabbits with a .22 rifle, catching them sitting along a fence line. But hunting with dogs was the best.
Dad raised a variety of hunting dogs. His favorites were Beagles. In October, my brother-in-law Dick Harriss would arrive early on Saturday and Dad and I would load up a half dozen dogs into his pick-up and we’d head off to the fields.
On this occasion, we went to an area called Beaver Dam, a section of the Big Muddy River that ran through Franklin County, IL. It was a small river than ran through the farm of one of my mother’s cousins, Roy Miller. Roy wasn’t much of a hunter but he did like to eat rabbits. We could use his land for hunting as long as we gave Roy a ‘tithe’ of any rabbits we killed.
Unlike hunting for Quail or Pheasant with dogs, hunting for rabbits with dogs was different. In the former case, dogs were used to find and flush birds. You could only kill game birds while in flight. Rabbits, on the other hand, didn’t fly. Dogs would range ahead of us searching for sitting rabbits. When one was found, it ran with the dogs not far behind.
That day, we had been walking along a fence line towards the river. Dad was on one side of the fence. Dick and I was on the other side. We were silent. The only sound was the crunch of ice ribbons forced out of the ground by the sub-freezing overnight temperatures as we walked with a whisper of wind through the saplings growing along the fence.
Roy Miller hadn’t cleared his fence line in some time. It was overgrown with saplings and briar patches. We were half-way to the river when the dogs flushed a rabbit that took off down the fence line with the dogs running right behind it. The race was on.
Rabbits don’t have much endurance. They are sprinters. They will run a bit and then hunker down hoping whatever is chasing them will pass them by. Beagles hunt by scent and by sight. When beagles lose sight of their prey, they start sniffing. Hunting rabbits with dogs is a series of sprints and pauses.
If the rabbit runs away, how can a hunter shoot one you may ask. It’s simple. Rabbits don’t run in straight lines or directly away. They run in circles. All a hunter needs to do is to listen to the dogs. When the rabbit circles, the sound of the dogs will let you know to keep and eye for a streak of brown running through the brush or a field. The trick is to shoot the rabbit, not the dog who is following close behind. Some hunters never learn that little skill.
On some occasions, the rabbit will circle, return and never be seen. In fact that is what happens in most of the cases. On that morning, I was on the outside, away from the fence line. Dick was on the inside close to the fence, Dad was on the other side of the fence.
We heard the dogs turn on the circle. I was carrying a Stevens, break-open, single shot, 12ga shotgun. I usually carried it open, empty until I heard the dogs approach. Dad carried his Remington Model 11 and Dick carried his 16ga bolt-action shotgun. When the dogs began to circle, I slipped a #4 shotshell into the chamber and closed the action.
At first it seemed the rabbit would come on Dad’s side of the fence. But when the dogs got closer, they switched to our side. Because I was on the outside from the fence, my shooting section was to my right. Dick, closer to the fence, could only shoot if the rabbit appeared to our front. Most often a rabbit would follow cover, in this case the fence. I expected Dick would get the shot.
We continued walking down the fence line with a slightly slower pace. The dogs came closer and I cocked my shotgun. We took a couple more steps and I spotted a streak of brown through the high grass to my right. I brought my shotgun to my shoulder, swung on the target, gave it a bit of lead and fired.
I thought I had missed. The dogs stopped and began to mill about as if they had lost the scent.
I walked over to where I had last seen the rabbit. The field was a pasture with dead, brown grass rising about eighteen inches over the ground. It was threaded with small game trails and tunnels under the cover of fallen grass stems throughout the field. I walked about fifty yards through the grass when I found the rabbit. There were a couple of blood specks on its fur but it appeared to be otherwise undamaged. I raised my hand indicating that I’d found the rabbit and then slipped it into the pouch on the rear of my hunting jacket.
It felt good swinging in the pouch as I walked back towards the fence. In a few moments the dogs found another rabbit and another hunt was on.
We finished the day with a half dozen rabbits. I got another one late in the day. Dad and Dick split the rest. We gave one rabbit to Roy for his ‘tithe.’ We were all pleased with the results of the hunt.
I remember this day for another reason. It was the day I broke the stock of my shotgun. We were loading up to go home. Dad and Dick slipped their guns into gun cases. I didn’t have one. We were loading the dogs into Dad’s pickup when my shotgun fell to the concrete of Roy Miller’s driveway. It landed vertically on the butt of the stock and the stock cracked at the grip behind the trigger. Its weakest point.
It was an old shotgun, older than me or Dick. It was probably made around the time of WW1 and the woodwork had a bit of hidden rot. It was a cumbersome gun to use. I had to cock it to fire and the hammer spring was so strong that I had to brace the stock on my thigh and use both thumbs to cock the hammer. One time my thumbs slipped and it went off, braced on my thigh and for a moment I thought I’d broken my leg. I hadn’t but I did get a bruise that took a couple of weeks to heal.
Rather than take my shotgun to a gunsmith for repairs, Dad traded it for a 12ga, single-shot Winchester. The Winchester was of a different design and it had a safety and cocked when the action was closed. It didn’t have an exposed hammer like the Steven had.
It was the last shotgun I owned until a few years ago when I found a Remington Model 11 shotgun just like Dad’s at a gun show. It had been re-blued and the stock and forearm had only a few dings and scratches. All of Dad’s (and my Winchester shotgun) firearms were stolen while I was away at college. I always envied Dad’s Remington. Now I have one just like his.
We continued to hunt rabbits every weekend in October for several years until I left for college. I’ve not hunted rabbits since. Today, people in Kansas and Missouri prefer to hunt deer and turkeys. My hunting choice was and still is rabbits.