A very common occurrence when I am rabbit hunting here in Pennsylvania is for a bunny to run into a groundhog hole, ending the chase then and there. I hunted the mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii) in Montana last summer, giving me my first experience with rabbits escaping the relentless pressure of a dog by diving down a prairie dog hole. But at the end of last month I was introduced to an entirely new type of rabbit escape.
“Wannah go on one of the best rabbit hunts evah?” my friend Jason Wiseman, a Cape Cod native with a thick New England accent, said when I answered his call.
“Where?” I asked.
“Sounds crowded,” I sighed.
“Theyah only 10,000 people theyah now. It’s ovah 60,000 in the summer. It’s empty now, though.” Wiseman’s accent dropped R’s faster than a Pennsylvanian like me drops final Gs.
“It’s a long way from here.”
“Ground with briars and tangles and swamp grass that holds rabbits. Wanna go? It’s a good idear!” Sometimes, when he isn’t dropping Rs, he mysteriously adds one.
“I have good cover here,” I said, thinking about the eight-hour drive to his house that included driving through Connecticut.
“No ground predatahs ovah theyah,” he said with enthusiasm. “No fox. No coyote. No weasel. No fishah. The only predatahs ah hawks and owls.”
“You have my attention.” I sat up straight and held the phone more firmly.
My wife, Renee, loved the idea of going to Cape Cod. She went with me to shop and experience the more tourist-type things on the island. A quick call to the ferry that brings people between the mainland and Nantucket revealed that it was no problem to take a dog onto the ferry so long as it was on a leash. I brought two dogs—Badger and Duke—and my friend Jason brought his female, Cuddles (Hey, he lets his little kid name the dogs!). Renee handled Badger for me as she looked up things to do on her cell phone.
It is very easy to get a shotgun on the ferry. You simply make sure that it is in a case and check it with the staff so that it is stowed in the captain’s quarters for the trip. I used a trigger lock, too, just to be sure. It was no trouble, though.
The greater difficulty was the dogs tugging on the leash because the ferry sells food. Beagles have half of their brain cells devoted to bunnies and the other half to food. Plus, after the long drive they were ready to go!
Getting off the ferry, we were greeted on the cobblestone streets by a guy named Beagle Joe. I still don’t know his last name, but he rents a place on Nantucket for two months each winter and is a friend of Jason. He was our contact for finding good hunting spots, which are in abundance there. We stayed at his apartment, and I was excited about the hunting prospects for the morning.
Nantucket has a Land Bank, which buys land for the sole purpose of protecting it from development. This is where the new escape tactic emerged as we cast the hounds. In addition to having no land predators, there aren’t any groundhogs, either. Almost every rabbit was begun with a sight chase, as the Nantucket lagomorphs are not accustomed to threats on four feet.
The bunnies would not run until the dogs almost touched them. It would be a pounding pursuit with the dogs in full cry as they sprinted through the briars, then the prey would run for safety.
Under a mansion.
Yes, this hunting paradise is acres of public land adjacent to acres of private land that allows hunting. Of course, the private land always contains a relatively small lawn. And a mansion. The man from Nantucket is gone for the winter. Whenever the chases would go towards the houses we would unload our guns and catch the dogs as they tried to get under the house, or shed, or multi-car garage to reach the rabbit. As you can imagine, this was a new experience for me.
We ran 14 rabbits. According to the GPS collars they ran almost 15 miles. We killed five (I shot three, and could have shot more but I did not want to be a game hog). We had eight rabbits escape by going onto private ground and ultimately under a multi-million-dollar home.
A bonus, for me, is that Nantucket is one of the last residual places where you still find New England cottontails (Sylvilagus transitionalis), as the more prolific eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) has replaced them in most of their historic range. Both species are found on Nantucket.
It was a great day in the field, and finding 14 rabbits in one day was amazing. We had hound song all day long. I was grinning from ear to ear as we boarded the ferry for the commute back to Cape Cod. The dogs, after that marathon day of chasing, were much more sedate for the return trip.
You just never know where the next adventure might be. I’ve been in wilderness, and I have been on farms. Last month I was on an island small enough that it would be impossible to get lost and is a tourist trap most of the year. Who would have ever thought?