By Jarrod Spilger
The Grand Island Independent
As a rule, most bird dog people — myself included — discourage their canine cohorts from chasing rabbits. However, I like to occasionally indulge in a rabbit-specific hunt or two each season.
That’s exactly what Phantom and I did last January. We’d seen numerous bunnies on previous quail and pheasant outings, and although I tried to dissuade her, Phantom wasn’t above chasing them down shelterbelts or flushing them from beneath brush piles.
Conditions were perfect. The temperature had warmed to a comfortable level, but there was still enough snow on the ground to make cottontails visible. We’d been waiting for such a day, so out came the little .410 side-by-side for some serious rabbit pursuit.
Walking through the trees, the rascal notorious for drawing Phantom’s attention away from quail on previous forays made its usual appearance, enticing her to give chase. Instead of chastising her, this time I let her run.
How she avoided killing herself as she sped through the shelterbelt is beyond me. Even so, despite her valiant efforts, no shot presented itself. We continued on across an open field and into another woodlot.
Phantom started finding rabbits almost immediately. Unfortunately, the dog was often too close to them to afford a safe shot.
Finally, she flushed one that cut right and was far enough away from her for me to safely shoot. My first shot missed, but my second connected with the rapidly departing bunny – no small feat when shooting a side-by-side with double triggers while wearing gloves.
Despite some interfering grass, the rabbit rolled and was dead by the time Phantom reached it. I’m always amazed at how I can hit rabbits with a .410’s puny shot charge, yet sometimes miss them cleanly with larger 20 and 12 gauges.
Regarding .410 rabbit loads, I prefer one-and-a-half ounce charges of number fours in a two-and-a-half inch shell.
That small charge of large shot doesn’t shoot up rabbits too badly. A .22 rifle may be more efficient, but not when hunting with a dog, due to ricochet and other safety concerns. Plus, if a surprise quail rises, you’re in business with the small-bore scattergun.
We had numerous other points that day. Phantom trailed one rabbit into tall grass, and although I caught a fleeting glimpse of it, I couldn’t snap off a shot. Another bunny flushed right at my feet, then scampered over a log before bounding off. There was no time for a shot at that one either.
The most memorable moment of the afternoon came when Phantom pointed an innocent enough looking little brush pile. I called her off, but she remained staunch. I walked over and peered into the twigs and grass, but couldn’t see anything. Still, she stood firm.
Finally, I kicked at the tangle, and out hopped a rabbit at point blank range. I was so shocked that I never even raised my gun. The rabbit was way too close initially, and then streaked off like a flash, Phantom hot on its heels and thoroughly disgusted with me. I’d neglected the No. 1 tenet of hunting — always trust thy dog.
We finished the day with one bunny in the bag, which was all I really wanted to clean anyhow, and then slowly trudged back to the car through the snow.
A week later, while hunting pheasants at another area, Phantom flushed a rabbit from sparse cover. I never had a chance to shoot, though, as the rabbit was always too close to the determined dog, who was in hot pursuit and quickly gaining.
Phantom ran the rabbit down in the deep snow and caught it, then gently delivered it to my hand. After all my squandered opportunities on our previous outing, I guess she showed me how it’s done.
Rabbit season ends Feb. 28. Provided we have some snow on the ground, we’ll likely load up the little .410 one more time and go on a final rabbit hunt before the month is over.