Big Time with Small Game
Back row: Tillman, the camp cook, Ronnie Huey, camp President and Dewaine Malone.
Kneeling: Dwight Davis, Eddie Wright and Larry Parnel
Saturday, January 30, Crockett's Bluff, Arkansas - I now know why Elmer never caught ol' Bugs; he had the wrong approach. You are not quiet when you hunt rabbits, you are woud - weally, weally woud. I came here hoping to get a story on raccoon ('coon) hunting, which you do at night, and where you let your dogs chase the little buggers up a tree and you shine your flashlight on them and "BLAM!" they fall to the ground like large pieces of fruit. But we're going rabbit hunting, which is more exciting.
Ronnie Huey and his son, Lance, are my hosts at the Fisher Camp for my first experience rabbit hunting. Eddie Wright, Dwight Davis and Larry Parnel, other guests of the camp today are hunting with us along with Dewaine Malone, a camp member. Wright brought along five of his eight hunting dogs, and we are following them through the woods as they sniff out our dinner.
First, let me clear up a few things. We are not hunting the type of rabbits you buy at a store and keep in a cage - those are cottontails. We are hunting "swamp rabbits" which aren't quiet as cute, but they taste just as good. (How would I know? The only rabbit I've ever tasted was made of chocolate.) I am shooting rabbits with my camera, not because I have anything against shooting little rabbits, nor am I anti-hunting in any way. I don't have a gun, because the men around me are all afraid, plain and simple. Chicken, they are, and the thought of letting this roving reporter tote a deadly shotgun in his hands as we parade through this forest has them quaking in their waders.
You can call this a sport, if you want - and, to some hunters, it is. But when you realize that thousands of people hunt rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, turkey, and even bobcat and coyote because it is a reliable way to put food on their family's table, you cross the line between sport and livelihood. They once called rabbits "Hoover Hogs" because they were the reality of the promises the President made, and small game hunting has been a way of life here for hundreds of years. Around here, you can tell where a man keeps his money by the bank name on his camoflauge hunting cap.
Small game can be pretty healthy meat, if you consider what goes into it. A rabbit only eats greens, and a squirrel only eats nuts, according to Huey. "The nastiest animal in the world is a hog or a chicken," he says.
Eddie Wright is my idea of a traditional hunter. He shows up, quiet and polite, with a small Sears shotgun his grandfather bought him for Christmas fourteen years ago. "I like that gun," he says. "It'll reach way out there, and it don't mess the rabbit up." Wright has been hunting since he was a boy and he remembers when his father used to "throw me on his back when he went rabbit hunting."
Wright keeps to himself and his dogs, doesn't brag much, then goes out in the woods and shoots the lucky foot off of nearly every rabbit he sees. We were out for a few hours today and Wright nailed three rabbits, using only four shots of lead. The only shot he missed was when I got in the way.
"I saw you," he tells me afterward. "I waited for him to get past you." Heck, of course Wright saw me, in my orange cap and vest, and he probably heard me, too, because when I saw that target run between me and the heavily armed hunters, I hollered; "Hello! I'm here! Whoa! Don't shoot!" Chicken, I am.
In rabbit hunting, a dog is truly a man's best friend - and the rabbit's worst enemy. Men will pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for a good dog, and will treasure the animals like they were children. The eyes of big, burly, Arkansans tear-up at the mere thought of losing their hunting dogs, and one man, overcome with respect and grief at his dog's passing, had orange hunting caps made with the likeness of "Little Lady" embroidered on them.
Wright, a college student, hunts every weekend in the winter and has bagged 97 rabbits so far this season - the most he's ever shot in one day was 16. This gives him plenty of rabbit to eat year-round and enough to give away to neighbors and friends. "I like them fried or with gravy," he says. "It don't matter, I like it any kind of way."
Hunting camps are popular in this part of the country. Some are public, where you pay several thousand dollars per year and receive a dozen or so hunting or fishing trips. With these you stay in a comfortable bunkhouse, eat catered meals, have your hunting or fishing transportation, gear and supplies provided for you, and are guided throughout your stay. These are popular with corporations, which give the trips to their employees and customers, like a seat in a skybox.
Then there are the private hunting camps, for the working class. The Fisher Camp is filled with farmers and policemen and a few judges. At these, a group of men (I'm not being sexist, here) will get together and hunt on a certain piece of land, which they lease specifically for hunting. Every man is pretty much on his own, with no guides, but they work together to keep the camp up.
When you build a hunting camp, you need two things; a cook house and cabins. Sometimes hunters will just bring in RVs during the season, rather than building cabins, but the cook house, a larger structure with a kitchen and seating for a few dozen people, is usually a more permanent structure.
We are deep in the woods, split up, with Wright's dogs sniffing out the prey. His oldest dog, George, is the leader of this pack. "George can straighten out a rabbit," Wright says. "I've had him nine seasons and he still has all his teeth." Cookie and Susie are sisters, and then there is Minnie and Joe Broomfield. Don't ask me to name them in the above photo, though I'm sure Wright keeps photos of them in his wallet and would be glad to show them to you, if you were polite enough to ask.
So, how do your dogs help you hunt? First, they scare up the prey. You could run around in the woods all day and not see a rabbit, but the dogs can smell them, and they pry into the crevases in which rabbits hide. "Get 'em up - Geoooorge!" Larry shouts over and over, encouraging his favorite dog to roust a rabbit from its hole.
Once they find a rabbit and scare it to the surface, the dogs start yelping, and chasing the prey through the woods. This sound can snap any good hunter right out of the deepest coma. "I love to hear the dogs run," says Dewaine Malone, a state trooper from Lake City, who has been with Fisher Camp for six years. Rabbits don't flee their territory, and they usually run in a large circle, so when you hunt rabbits, you stay in that circle and, if you miss the critter the first time, just wait, and he'll come around again.
To train a hunting dog, you simply put them with a veteran dog, like George, and let them run. "If that dog was meant to hunt, she gonna follow him," Wright says. "If she follows you, she's not gonna hunt - that's when you get rid of them."
The hunt is over, and we bagged five rabbits. Tillman cleans them and fries them up for dinner. They're kind of like turkey, with a tougher consistency, but they taste great. The meal is complete with corn on the cob, collard greeens and rice, with Wilma Huey's peach cobbler for dessert. Yes, a meal just is more fulfilling if you have ventured out in the forest and hunted and tracked and killed your food by yourself. There's something about the satisfaction of providing for yourself, and as I eat the rabbit, I scan through my photographs and it all tastes so much better.
the world's best, man's best friend.
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