Small-game hunting news pales when compared with whitetail deer and wild turkey hunting reports, but a band of rabbit hunters keep a close eye on the area’s bounty.
Cottontail rabbits may have suffered more mortality than wild turkeys as a result of last winter’s prolonged cold and deep snow cover. Latest turkey-tally numbers from Albany may have upped the loss of harvests from a 50-55 percent decline in birds taken. But the rabbit loss, not officially monitored, may be even higher.
Rick Giermata at Smokes Creek Kennels in Lackawanna works his beagles every day the law allows hunting dogs afield. He noted that while covering fields and wood lots last spring, he found many rabbit carcasses next to trees and brush clumps where they were trapped in snow with no food source after debarking those growths.
This and other rabbit-hunting insights Giermata shared on Wednesday during a hunt on Grand Island with his partner Frank Giacobbe of Amherst and me. Rick and Frank have hunted together with their beagle dogs since 1998.
Below-freezing nights offer some promise to ice anglers and skiers, but a rabbit hunt starts out slowly at sunrise after a night freeze. So we met at 8:30 a.m. and were afield by 9 a.m. that morning on a tract we had hunted together two years ago. Last year’s heavy snows canceled this and many other outings during the 2014-2015 rabbit season.
Giermata had done fairly well earlier this season in areas with good bunny populations, but he had some concern about rabbit survival rates on the island that saw deep snows for long durations last season.
While walking our first hundred yards up a cut lane those fears were lessened with rabbit tracks seen in all directions; the three dogs began howling as soon as we reached bush and brush. Giacobbe’s dog Striker, age 4, and Giermata’s Prince, 2, and Prop, a 7-year-old field champion, ran steadily for five hours.
A Garmin Astro GPS tracking unit with collars on dogs lets these hunters know where each collared dog is running, how far they ran and how far we humans had walked. In the first 300 yards we came upon so much rabbit reaction from the dogs that we three just posted along a lane awaiting a circling.
That is the beauty of hunting with well-trained dogs. Beagles and other brands of rabbit dogs tend to move slowly and push rabbits that usually run the dogs in a circle back to positions where hunters can get a shot. As proof that the dogs were “hot” on trails and busy working active rabbits, Giermata noted that the first kill came after we humans walked less than 400 yards and the dogs posted a 3.61-mile reading.
Final numbers were down and Giermata never got to shoot his brand new Stevens Goldfeather 20-gauge over-and-under shotgun, but the stats showed rabbit populations held well through last winter’s horrors.
Giacobbe took two rabbits with four shots. We saw about a dozen bunnies, the dogs ran at least six rabbits, we shot at four and harvested three. The dogs ran a total of 16.84 miles averaging 4.72 MPH while we humans walked about four miles.
One possible sign of last winter’s evils, all three carcasses we cleaned had heavy layers of tallow-fat in their belly area. Giermata believes this is nature’s way of preparing for possibly another bad winter.
Rabbit hunting is basic fun, requiring only a small-game hunting license, a basic shotgun and a willingness to walk. Fire power is minimal. An inexpensive 20-gauge or smaller shotgun will do, with the less costly low-brass loads in number 6 or 5 shot as ammo.
One can get into dog handling with the most elaborate of electronics or simply walk open lanes and push the bush for rabbits under brush or snow clumps.
Bunny numbers are down currently, but rabbits are famous for their resounding reproduction, with an abundance restored in a year or two. During our outing, Giermata shared a poignant point about getting into rabbit hunting. He said, “It’s harder to find a place to hunt than it is to find the bunnies.”
Good tracts of rabbit-hunting land remain open in the area, but, as with deer hunting, it may take more preseason scouting and permission-seeking. Many property owners wary of deer hunters are more willing to allow hunters access to getting in on a rabbit hunt.
Banquet and award
The Ninth Annual Frank Privitere Memorial International Rabbit Hunting Derby set for Jan. 30 will be held in a new, larger location this year. Award presentations and dinner, are set for the Thomas E. Tehan American Legion Post No. 1449 in Lackawanna.
During the evening, Giermata, owner/handler of beagle Syris McGee (1998-2004), will accept the dog’s induction into the Better Beagling Magazine’s Hall of Fame. Syris is the only beagle since record keeping began in 1978 to become a field champion in three registries. For details about the derby and banquet, call 602-5017.