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GRAND ISLAND THICKETS PROVE A 'RABBIT PARADISE'

WE'D JUST bagged one rabbit and it was time to move on, so Richard Kuzminski whistled his dogs into a new thicket.

"Gitinthere," he shouted, "hup-hup-hup! C'mon, Scruffy! C'mon Champ! Rabbitrabbitrabbit!"

"You've got to get them fired up," he explained as the two hounds hit a set of fresh tracks and began working the scent in that busy, bouncing way of beagles.

Kuzminski, 41, and his father-in-law, Casey Skowronski, 69, were showing a newcomer the tricks and tactics of their favorite sport.

Which are simple, it turns out.

"If you have a good dog," said Skowronski, "you find decent cover, set him down and let him work. When he picks up the scent, he'll run the trail and chase the rabbit and all you do is listen and try to get out in front so you have an open space, a lane you can cover when the rabbit breaks out. Then you shoot.

"If the dog is working right, he should be about 30 yards behind the rabbit," Kuzminski added.

Grand Island has "super rabbits" according to Kuzminski, who says his dogs have sometimes run a rabbit in mile-long loops, the cottontails are so well fed and so strong.

"And even though I take a lot of rabbits here, it's really the chase, hearing the dogs work, that's the real pleasure."

Kuzminski has two dogs, a 7-year-old half-Labrador/half-beagle who knows this business and an 8-month-old purebred hound still learning.

As Casey stood waiting for the dogs to break into song, he said he never dreamed Scruffy would turn out half-way decent at all.

"Usually the best breeding comes out," he said. "I just got rid of a $200 dog from Tennessee. A pretty good dog -- he'd take a line, had a good nose and even had a real good mouth on him.

"But he was too slow on the checks -- you know where the rabbit will make a hook turn?"

Casey traced a diagram in the snow with the toe of his boot.

"Well, a dog gets there, he should be able to find where the rabbit turned in less than 10 seconds. This one dog was too slow. I like a really fast-working beagle, myself. But he was obedient, and a pretty dog, too, and the guy who bought him is pleased as can be."

Now the hounds hit scent and gave cry.

Kuzminski, somewhere ahead of us in the thick stuff, yelled to get ready.

"That's Champ," Casey said, at the deep, bell-like "yowps" ringing off to our right.

"That short 'yip' there is Scruff. He's on the rabbit and headed here. Now, get over by those trees and watch the open lane, I'll move off this way," he said.

We could follow the sounds of the chase as the dogs veered east, then north, then began working back towards us.

I stood in a broad, snow-covered lane with a safe field of fire facing an abandoned orchard, overgrown with thick tag-alder between the stubby, neglected apple trees.

It was a good day for scenting, my experts said -- damp and lightly snowing, not too much of a breeze.

There was enough snow on the ground to make the dun-colored bunnies stand out, but not enough to make hard work for the dogs. Rabbits are almost invisible in the wintry grays and tans of bare fields.

Richard shouted, and I saw a rabbit come blasting out of cover and turn as he saw me, his body a compact ball of fur as he sped back to the thicket.

My two shots only succeeded in obliterating his tracks.

Champ and Scruff tore past in full cry and, a moment later, I heard Casey's 16-gauge bark once, twice, and again, and another rabbit was "reduced to possession," as the game laws put it.

According to my mentors, rabbit hunting is the greatest sport going. Action, interest, a season stretching from October through February and availability throughout New York help keep rabbiting among the most popular hunting pursuits.

And many landowners who post against deer hunters don't seem to mind a couple of guys with a couple of dogs in pursuit of this quarry.

"Right now, Grand Island is a paradise for rabbits -- and rabbit hunters," said Kuzminski, who has been hunting here seven years. "We had what? Seven starts in a couple of hours? That's really poor hunting. Some days we have one chase after another for eight hours straight. That really keeps you in shape.

"But I doubt my son, Tim, will be able to hunt here when he's old enough," Kuzminski added. "It's incredible the building going on now. And once these roads are built up, that'll be the end."

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