I recently attended The Outdoor Writers Association of America’s annual gathering. This year we met in Billings, Montana. I consulted my research department (a friend with high speed internet and a Google browser) and discovered that there is no hunting season for rabbits in Montana. I mean, rabbits are not considered game. So, in other words, there is no closed season. My mind quickly began to scheme a way to try an add a new species to my list of bunnies that I have hunted. My first concern was driving all the way to Montana. I considered the possibility of flying, but I have had my luggage lost on flights way too often.
“I am not sure where your luggage is, but if you give us the address of your hotel, we will get it to you as soon as it is located,” a robotic-like receptionist at the airport has told me on multiple occasions. That frustrated me beyond belief, so I can’t even imagine what I would feel or say if I were told, “Beagle? You had a beagle? Hmmm. Not sure. Where are you staying?” No, if I took dogs I was definitely driving. Furthermore, I could not imagine taking a pack of dogs to stay in a hotel room for a week at a conference. I would be a tangled snarl of leashes around one tree as my pack watered and fertilized the only tree in a hotel courtyard. Other guests would look out their window and wonder what was wrong with me. My beagles are accustomed to chasing rabbits semi-regularly, so I have no idea how they would do in a hotel room for the days when I would be engaged in conference obligations. Plus, there was a hotel fee of $25/dog. I would take one dog, the one that behaves best around people, will listen and not try to steal food (if I am watching him), knows better than to run away as fast as possible if he gets off a leash, and could remain in the hotel room alone for several hours at a time and not bark. In other words, I would take the dog that acts the least like a beagle. Duke would go.
That being said, Duke does act like a beagle in the field. He is quite capable of running a rabbit, and has managed to place in a few licensed AKC trials, even winning a couple, albeit on days with less entries. Only taking one pooch with me meant that I could remove the large dog box from the bed of the truck, making more room for luggage. I would put a small plastic crate in the back seat of my Toyota Tacoma for Duke. My wife, Renee, likes to go to this annual conference with me, and she has enjoyed shopping at each city where we have met. My next task was going to be more difficult: Convince Renee to drive all the way to Montana over a few days rather than fly in a few hours.
“Say Hon,” I said last Spring over coffee, “If we drive to conference we could save money over two tickets to fly and also do some side trips since we would have our own wheels. Maybe go to Yellowstone or Glacier National Park. The money we save could be used for shopping.”
Did you notice how I appealed to her love of sightseeing, her propensity towards shopping, and her fiscal sensibility in terms of cheaper travel? We could camp along the way, take a cooler full of food, and enjoy the drive and the scenery. She loved the idea. Until we packed and she saw the Orvis long gun case with two shotguns and the small dog crate.
“What is going on here?” Renee asked as she slowly saw her vacation descending into a hunting trip in the hot western summer.
“Oh,” I said, “There are a couple of species of rabbits out there I have never hunted.”
“What?” she put her hands on her hips and appeared to be blinking Morse code her eyes.
“Yep. White-tailed jackrabbits, mountain cottontails, and desert cottontails. They don’t exist here,” I held my hands wide out to my side to show the grandeur of what we were about to do.
“Oh no we will n-” she started.
“But only as we stop for the night, and you can just camp as we planned.”
“This sounds bad.”
“Maybe you can shop while I hunt?”
“Where is this dog crate going?”
Two days later we were in North Dakota, and the wind was howling. I could not even hear the low-tone Canadian bell on Duke’s collar. I can hear it well over 200 yards most of the time. I was glad to have the GPS collar as a backup. Typically, I would not hunt 40 mph winds, but I gave it a shot. Jackrabbits should have been abundant there, but Duke never located one, and I never saw bunny-sign either. No chewed bark from winter, no droppings. The next day we would learn that the population was low there and none had been seen for some time. We journeyed to the conference center the next day.
Have you ever heard new parents give lengthy soliloquies about their child’s bowel movements? Or parents of younger children ask their kids incessantly, “Did you poop today?” The same thing happens with a dog in a hotel. My wife and I took turns walking Duke, and we would keep each other informed about his ability to fertilize the tree. He always watered it. At home we have a dog door to the yard and the hounds can go in and out at their leisure. It is my job to go out in the evening to make deposits into the doggie septic tank. Being confined to the hotel, Duke had to go during one of those several walks outside. Our anxiety spiraled as we kept waiting for him to take care of this matter. Renee and I asked the question with less patience each time.
“Did he do number one and number two?” was the morning question. If the answer was in the negative, then the early afternoon walk solicited, “Did he poop yet?” If that was also a failure to drop, then the evening walker was greeted with, “Please tell me he crapped!” On a couple of nights, the last call walk at 9 p.m. resulted in, “Did that blankity blanker sh@t yet?” My wife is cranky when she hasn’t shopped and gets a little vulgar.
At any rate, I did manage to do a little hunting in Montana. I never encountered the desert cottontail. I think Duke chased a jackrabbit, but the long jumps and poor scenting resulted in his going out over a mile and then returning to me at a loss. Every step on that ground sounded like I was walking on dead cornstalks in the summer. Then a couple guys drove by me in a Pontiac Grand Am. I was in the Yellowstone Wildlife Area.
“What are you looking for?” the passenger asked. Beagles and rabbit hunting are not as popular in the west as here.
“Jack rabbits!” I yelled.
“None here,” the driver answered, “But if you go over by the little bit of muddy water a couple miles back the road, there are cottontails.”
“Really,” I perked up, “Are they mountain cottontails or desert?”
“I dunno. Cottontails. They taste good.” I thanked him, he drove away, and I relocated. Duke’s rolling bawl voice never sounded better. The first few chases ended at prairie dog holes. Lots of them. Then one got up and ran in a circle like rabbits are known to do. He passed too far for me to see him on the first circuit, but on the second loop he hopped right at me, picking his path to avoid the prickly pear and other cactus. The scenting conditions were abysmal. Duke was walking the rabbit, not running fast at all, but at least he was moving it on that 80 degree evening on parched ground. The rabbit paused to look backwards at the loud and slow pursuer, and one shot from the right barrel of the A.H. Fox 12 gauge ended the run. I don’t usually rabbit hunt with a 12 gauge, unless I anticipate pheasant. I rarely miss rabbits with a 12 gauge, however, and I was trophy hunting. To ensure success I was using the Spreader loads, in #6, made by Polywad. The mountain cottontail, with the distinguishing tan spot on the nape of the neck, was a real trophy to me, so much so that I overnight mailed it to a taxidermist on dry ice. I made small game a big deal in the Big Sky state of Montana.