Rabbit tails and tales

Bill Hilts Jr Rabbit In Pomfret

Movement out of the corner of my eye grabbed my attention and put me on alert. It was a cold and sunny morning the end of February in the Town of Pomfret, Chautauqua County. As we entered some prime bunny brush, the four beagles were already on the scent as the baying filled the air with excitement. It was going to be a fun morning.

I hurried to the outside lane to the right, where I was instructed. A brown and white streak broke from the bramble and headed for the grape vines 30 yards away. He didn’t make it. We had our first rabbit of the day.

It’s been years since I hunted rabbits. When I was growing up in Niagara County, small game was the focus for most junior hunters because of age restrictions. It was one of our gateways into hunting because we could not hunt big game until we were 16 years old (although I tagged along with my grandfather and father starting when I was 8 years of age).

Rabbit hunting was a secondary option in the beginning as I took advantage of the area’s excellent pheasant population. I can remember walking grassy fields in search of colorful ringnecks, occasionally being surprised by a fleet-footed bunny bolting in front of me. I still recall my first cottontail that I connected with, rolling it like a bowling ball down a farmer’s tractor trail after shooting my grandfather’s Remington Model 17 20-gauge pump shotgun (a gun he passed down to me that I have since passed on to my daughter). While it was my first rabbit for the stew pot, it was not the first rabbit I shot at. They can be elusive.

I went with my dad most of the time, along with many of his friends who also enjoyed upland bird hunting. Rabbits were part of the mix. I remember the people I hunted with like the “Sarge,” Hans Treutel; my old hockey coach Joe Ungaro; a serviceman from the local air base Tony Nally, to name but a few early mentors. They all brought a certain level of education to the field each time out and instilled a sense of firearms safety, hunting tips and tactics, as well as the importance of sportsmanship and ethical behavior.

We need more experienced hunters to serve as mentors and engage the next generation of sportsmen for all levels of hunting to help ensure a brighter future, but especially with small game like hares and cottontails. Last fall was the first year that 12- and 13-year-olds could hunt for deer with firearms in most of upstate New York. Of course, it was required to be with a mentor. It was good news that there were no accidents for that age grouping in 2021. Small game hunters could already hunt with firearms at age 12.

Back to our hunt the end of February in Western New York. There was no question that the focus was on the beagles. Three of the dogs belonged to John Jarzynski of Lawtons. One was owned by Peter Delpriore of Perrysburg. John’s son Quentin was also a member of the hunting crew, a recent graduate from University of Buffalo. It was one of the few times that the group had been able to hunt this year because of the inclement weather.

“February is prime time for rabbit hunting here,” says Delpriore, who is clearly passionate about his rabbit hunting. “This year was the worst I can remember. Conditions have been terrible. Rabbit hunting is my number one love in February, but if I can’t go rabbit hunting, I will go ice fishing for perch in Chautauqua Lake.” Delpriore has been doing a lot of ice fishing this year.

As a result, we really haven’t had the opportunities to hit the fields and work the dogs. The elder Jarzynski, author of the book “Tally Ho” (which accurately captures a snapshot of his rabbit hunting exploits and his love of man’s best friend), had promised to take me rabbit hunting. He sent me a message in January saying he didn’t forget about me, but Mother Nature was not cooperating. Then, with the season fast approaching its final day on Feb. 28, he reached out again. We set up an outdoor adventure with just a few days left in the season.

There isn’t anyone more serious about their dogs than Jarzynski, currently a member of the Enchanted Mountain Beagle Club in Olean and Vice President of the Northeast Beagle Gundog Federation. Taking it a step further, John is a judge for American Kennel Club Beagle Field Trials. Quentin was recently licensed for judging those same field trials and his younger brother Henry will be taking the test to become a licensed judge in May. It’s all about the dogs. It’s also all about the family.

“I was lucky enough to have a family that gave me the opportunity to raise beagles and hunt,” reflects Jarzynski. “But how would I have gotten involved otherwise? We need to help offer young people opportunities to be around beagles and watch them do what they were bred to do.”

The dogs were all outfitted with radio collars that are used for tracking and training. John Jarzynski prefers the Garmin Alpha 200i, an amazing piece of equipment that not only allows you to follow the dogs and see where they are, but they also show how fast they are moving and more. At the end of the day, you could see how far they have traveled and what their average speed was when they are on a rabbit.

Delpriore showed us how it was done when the dogs caught the scent of another cottontail. They ran it for about 10 minutes, and when the rabbit scampered across an opening at about 50 yards, Delpriore connected on his target.

“Rabbits will follow pretty much the same circular path,” said Delpriore. “When I think it’s getting close to seeing a rabbit ahead of the dogs, I will put my gun up to my shoulder and get ready because your window of opportunity can be very short. If you miss or you just don’t have a good shot, move into a little better position, and wait for the next time it comes around.”

“Like a lot of clubs and organizations, it is difficult to find young people to get involved,” says Jarzynski. “The NEBGF sponsors the Eastern Junior Beaglers, a group that gets young people involved in the sport. Close to 100 kids are currently involved right now but we always need new blood.” The youth program can be found here.

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