This is a tough time of year for many outdoorsmen.


Late winter marks the end of hunting for nearly all game species in this part of the country, and things will remain dead for those who enjoy spending days in the woods with their guns or bows until mid-April when wild turkeys become legal game.


As a sort of “bon voyage” to the regular season, I joined some friends for a late-season rabbit hunt recently. It was like a step back in time for me. After meeting at a local eatery for breakfast, we reconvened at a tract where we had permission to hunt. When the dog boxes were opened, a dozen or so beagles piled out and hit the ground running – literally. I didn’t move very quickly in the cold, morning air but most important, the dogs did.


The little hounds busied their way through a brushy field that was punctuated with patches of the previous night’s snowfall. As they ran, wiggled and squirmed through the broken cover, the hunters who accompanied them spread out and slowly followed the dogs, pausing at intervals to kick at tangles where a cottontail might be hiding. Occasionally, one of the humans would give forth with a loud, “look ‘em, look ‘em, alright” or some other emanation both to encourage the hounds and to let the other hunters know their location.


After a short trek, the group exited the first field and entered another that contained more catbriars. It was a tougher going for the humans but, apparently, agreeable to the rabbits because in just a few moments one of the dogs cut loose with a loud and definitive “arghhhh, arghhh, arghhh.” Others joined in almost immediately and the race was on.


The hunters spread out even more along paths that bordered the cover and in the hick stuff itself and followed the dogs’ progress as they trailed a cottontail through


the thick brush, along a grown-up ditch and back toward where they had jumped it initially. The pack’s baying, barking and squealing was like symphony music to the hunters. It took me back a long way to when I used to spend nearly every weekend and school holiday during the fall and winter with the same tunes dancing in my ears.


When I was a teenager, Johnston County and the surrounding region was a Mecca for sportsmen and their beagle dogs that lived to pursue cottontails and, occasionally, “swamp rabbits.” Our family kept three or four hounds and hunted with one of my dad’s friends who kept four or five times that many.


When we got to a place we were going to start on a morning hunt, five or six of us would get along the rear of the pick-up truck where the beagles rode in a large, one-compartment dog box. At a given word, the box’s doors were opened and dogs would come piling out. We had been instructed that any we could grab, we were to shove back into the truck and let the others go. That way we would end up with a dozen or so who were raring to hunt.


After several hours, we would load the dogs that had hunted back into the truck and take a lunch break. Afterward, we would repeat the unloading process. The theory was that those dogs who had hunted hard in the morning were probably less quick to jump out and may have needed an extended rest time. The fresher, quicker ones that hadn’t run before were ready to take their place. It was inexact science but it seemed to work.


The beagles were the real stars of the show back then, and still are today. Some, usually the older, more experienced dogs were the best at “jumping” a rabbit from its hiding spot and getting the pack on the trail when it got cold or took a confusing turn. Some were better than others at “driving” – using their speed and endurance to make a rabbit keep moving and not let it find a hole to escape to. And, there were always a few young dogs who were just earning their stripes. They were often the most fun to watch, making up in vim and vigor what they lacked in experience.


A good pack of beagles is what has always made rabbit hunting special. And, there are usually one or two dogs that stand out for some reason. In my younger years, one of those was a female named Mary. My dad got her in a trade with a farmer and brought her home, announcing that she was my dog. I couldn’t have been any prouder if he had presented me with the keys to a new hot rod. In fact, a car wouldn’t have meant as much because, at the time, I wasn’t old enough to drive.


When Mary arrived at our house, she was nothing but skin and bones, a condition that my mother accepted as a challenge. She began feeding the emaciated hound all manners of table scraps, as well as good quality dog chow and, whenever the opportunity arose, various snacks. In no time, Mary went from looking like a refugee camp resident to someone who had the keys to the kingdom – or at least the refrigerator.


Even a full-figured hound had to earn her keep, though. And Mary did that in spades. She was blessed with a “full choke” nose that could follow a rabbit’s scent trail like it was illuminated with a black light. She wasn’t the fastest hound in the woods but she was the most skilled at staying on a track when the others had lost it.


When Mary’s baritone baying cut loose, the other dogs knew it meant business and they reacted accordingly. Time and again she got a pack back on the trail and in hot pursuit of their quarry.


Mary’s only fault, if you could call it that, was that it was nearly impossible to get her off a rabbit’s trail unless the bunny had been put in the game bag.


Many times, as the sun dipped behind the trees I would hike out of the woods carrying that obese hound in my scrawny, adolescent arms. I knew if I put her down she’d be off to the races again. I wouldn’t have sold that dog for her substantial weight in gold, though. And I would give an equal amount right now just to be able to hunt with her one more time.


Ed Wall can be reached at edwall@embarqmail.com or 252-671-3207. His website is www.edwalloutdoors.com