Photo: Beagles pour out of the dog box as John Shanklin, left, opens the doors, while Antoine Cheatham and Prentiss Thomas, right, get their hunting equipment ready for the first hunt of the day. After the first strike, Shanklin managed to bag the cottontail that took the beagles on a lengthy race.
The drizzle of rain didn’t bother Antoine Cheatham at all after the beagles that were released from the dog box hit the ground running.
Cheatham and his buddies, Prentiss Thomas and John Shanklin, are the diehard rabbit hunters Stuart Goldsby of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division recruited for the 5th annual Hunter Education Volunteers and Youth Rabbit Hunt, held on property near Lake Guntersville.
While the hunters may have preferred a sunny day for the outdoors outing, Cheatham was a happy hunter.
“This is a perfect day for rabbit hunting,” Cheatham said. “This little bit of rain and cool weather keeps the scent close to ground. The dogs can pick up the trail a lot better. You couldn’t ask for a better day.”
The property Goldsby has hunted for the past 30 years is a diverse area with open agriculture fields, piney woods and swampy bottoms that drain into Yellow Creek.
About 5 minutes after the dogs were released, a shrill yip was followed by a baritone bark and the race was on.
“That’s a beautiful sound,” Cheatham said. “That’s really what we’re out here for. If we kill rabbits, fine, as long we get to hear our dogs chase one.”
Traditional rabbit hunting wisdom tells you the jumped rabbit will make a circle and end up back where he started, usually in short period of time.
Tradition appears to be out of the equation these days. That jumped rabbit took the dogs on a long journey around the north end of the property.
“I tell you, rabbit hunting has changed,” said Cheatham, who has been chasing rabbits for the past 35 years.
“Used to, that rabbit would just make a short circle. Now they run a lot longer before they circle back. I don’t know for sure but I think the number of coyotes and bobcats has something to do with it. They have to work a lot harder to get away. They don’t run that far when it’s just dogs behind them. Nowadays, these rabbits take off like deer.”
“It’s probably a swamp rabbit,” Shanklin surmised as the dog barks grew a little dimmer. “Those rabbits will swim to try to get the dogs off their trail. It may take a while for the dogs to get back on him.”
Finally, about 15 minutes later, the dog pack turned back to where Shanklin was stationed on a bush-hogged lane next to a thicket.
Shanklin spotted movement in the thicket as the rabbit bolted past him. He fired once and quickly followed up with a second shot. “Got him,” he said.
Much to our surprise the rabbit was a cottontail, or hillbilly to seasoned rabbit hunters, instead of the swamp rabbit we had expected.
“Another thing is they’ve messed up a lot of the habitat for rabbits,” Cheatham said. “A lot of the places are set up for deer hunters with the food plots and thinning the thickets. The rabbits have got to have the cover they need. I just don’t see the cover like I used to.”
When Cheatham and his buddies hunt, they leave most of the hunt’s direction up to the dogs.
“About the only time I call the dogs is when I jump a rabbit and try to get them on his trail,” he said. “About the only other time I call them is when it’s time to go. We try to hunt them in a certain direction. When they strike, I just try to find a shooting lane.”
After retiring from the Army in 2007, Cheatham went to work at Redstone Arsenal outside Huntsville. Thomas retired from the Army and worked at Redstone until his retirement several years ago. Because of their service, they get to hunt Redstone.
Unfortunately, the rabbit hunting at Redstone has declined as well.
“We used to go to the arsenal, and killing 15 to 20 rabbits was just an average day,” Cheatham said. “Now we go and we may not kill but two or three rabbits, and that’s for the whole party not the individuals.
“I don’t know if this year’s drought had anything to do with it,” he said. “It was really dry. We’re just not seeing the rabbits.”
“We’re not even seeing any rabbit sign,” added Thomas, who played high school football with the Payton brothers, Eddie and NFL Hall of Famer Walter, and is mentioned in Never Die Easy: The Autobiography of Walter Payton. “You don’t see any rabbit pills on stumps and logs.”
Thomas, who still loves to hunt rabbits with his two replacement hips, said it’s really not about killing rabbits anymore.
“I love to see these kids out here,” Thomas said. “I don’t care if I shoot a rabbit. I want these kids to have a good time.”
Cheatham knows that diehard rabbit hunters are hard to find these days. He knows of only one other dedicated group of rabbit hunters that hunts the arsenal.
“The thing is that you get to hunt for five months, but you’ve got to maintain the dogs for 12 months,” he said.
“You’ve got the upkeep of the dogs with the vet bills, shock collars, dog food and on and on. When you’re only killing one or two rabbits, that can get pretty expensive.”
For Goldsby, Northern Regional hunter education coordinator, the hunt is a chance to get more youth into the outdoors and to offer gratitude for the many volunteers who help WFF teach and practice hunter safety in Alabama. The hunt is a partnership between the Alabama Hunter Education Association and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
“We’ve been doing the hunt for five years,” Goldsby said. “We’ve been using the same group of hunters out of Huntsville with rabbit dogs. They’re a good group of guys who are dedicated rabbits hunters. They hunt Redstone and the Wildlife Management Areas like Swan Creek and Mallard Fox. When they have an opportunity to hunt new ground, they’re ready.
“The intermittent rain really didn’t deter the hunters and we had a couple of good races in the morning. I told the youth and instructors that we were on a hunting trip. If they wanted to shoot a squirrel, I told them to go ahead. I told them if they saw a bobcat or coyote to please shoot them. We used to have wild turkeys on our place, but the predators have run them off.
“We went to the river side of the property in the afternoon, and we jumped a bobcat and coyote and managed to get both of them.”
The hunt also proved the hunting community has many interlaced connections. Several years ago, I wrote a story for Outdoor Alabama Magazine about a group of dedicated rabbit hunters from Tuskegee that was headed up by Robert Collins.
Cheatham happened to see that story.
“You’re not going to believe this, but Robert Collins was my First Sergeant,” he said. “It really is a small world.”
—From the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
—All Photos Courtesy Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources