“This one’s really moving,” said Jason Olinger, as we stood alongside a railroad track in central Ohio, on a cold February morning. Jason’s beagles had kicked a rabbit out of thick brush 20 yards from where we stood, and the pack followed as the rabbit made a wide arc through a narrow strip of timber. Now the sounds of the pack were growing louder, a sure indication that the rabbit had doubled back and was heading our direction. Jason and I turned to face in opposite directions, and as the roar of the dogs came closer, I heard him fire once.
It’s All About the Dogs
Hunting rabbits with beagles is a centuries-old tradition in Europe, and since the 1800s, “beagling” has been a popular pastime in many areas of the United States. I grew up hunting rabbits with beagles, and it’s still one of my favorite ways to spend an autumn day in the woods. It’s a low-cost, low-impact sport perfect for everyone in the family.
The beagle remains one of the most popular breeds in America, in terms of number of dogs registered with the AKC annually, and these spirited, friendly hounds are perfectly suited to move through briar thickets in search of cottontails. They do so with tenacity; when the dogs “strike” and announce to the world through they’re baying they’ve found the scent of a rabbit, they’ll remain on the trail until they lose the track.
Contrary to popular belief, beagles don’t chase rabbits in a circle. Rather, the dogs stay on the scent and rabbits, because they have relatively small home ranges, tend to run in a circular pattern. It’s the hunter’s job to intercept the running rabbit and make a good shot.
Most hunters buy a “finished,” or fully trained, beagle to start, and that dog will serve as a trainer for additional beagle pups down the line as your pack grows. You don’t need a bunch of dogs to successfully hunt rabbits; a single hound can work just fine. But any hunters enjoy the sound of a pack at full cry on the trail and eventually own two, three, four or even more rabbit dogs.
They’re Not Sitting in the Open
Rabbits prefer thick brush with cleared edges where they can safely feed and rest. Many state hunting areas have plenty of this edge habitat and are a good place to find cottontails. Concentrate on those brushy edges, allowing the dogs to search for scent. Once the rabbit is up and running, it’s time to get in position, making sure you pay attention to the location of the dogs and other hunters in the area before firing a shot. Patience is critical to success, and remaining perfectly still will prevent the rabbit from veering off course before you can shoot.
A Gear-Easy Hunt
You can hunt rabbits with a variety of rimfire rifles and shotguns, but most hunters prefer a light .410-bore or 28-gauge gun, first because they are easy to carry when handling dogs, and second because shots tend to be close and the smaller gauges don’t have so many pellets to tear up the meat.
As for dressing for the occasion, it’s important to be sure to wear durable pants (many hunters prefer briar-proof chaps, just like upland bird hunters wear) and a lightweight upland vest is also a good investment.
That’s kind of it. A gun, some dogs and pants and a vest that can take some abuse. Compared to other hunting, there’s very little specialized equipment required for hunting rabbits with beagles. Best of all rabbit meat is delicious when properly prepared, so a successful hunt means a wonderful dinner on the table.
Brad Fitzpatrick is a full-time outdoor writer based in southern Ohio. He is the author of more than 400 articles which have appeared in dozens of regional, national and international publications, and he is currently the author of five books on hunting, shooting, history and biology. Brad’s writings and photographs have won multiple awards including the Great Lakes Outdoor Writers Best-of-Best Award as well as the Professional Outdoor Media Association’s Pinnacle Award for Conservation. He and his wife Bethany have two children, Caleb and Audrey.