HAZEN -- Hollis Foster is always fashionably late to a rabbit hunt.
He blames it on his beagles, which he says need a little extra time to get ready. Bob Rogers and I have come to expect it, but we arrive on time anyway because if ever we're late, we'll never hear the end of it.
As we have noted before, the man with the dogs runs the hunt. If he says his dogs need extra time, then the dogs get extra time. That's why they make big coffee mugs, Sirius XM radio, and why modern trucks have plush reclining seats.
As usual, we waited in the parking lot of a steakhouse oddly located squarely in the middle of nowhere. Rogers said its food is delicious, with a varied menu. I am a fan of such places and intend to find out if this is true. Rogers, the most blunt individual I've ever known, doesn't offer insincere compliments. Of a different eatery in Pulaski County, for example, he said, "The thing about that restaurant is whatever you want, they ain't got it."
Being a Hazen native, he pronounces it "rest-urnt," of course.
Also in the parking lot was a group of goose hunters socializing after a hunt. A couple of their trucks pulled trailers carrying UTVs. The tailgate of one truck was down with a dozen or so snow geese arrayed in a line. Their yellow Labrador retriever lay on the asphalt gazing plaintively at Rogers and me. His work with his people was clearly done for the day, and he looked as if he hoped we'd take him on another hunt.
About the time the goose hunters were leaving, a truck pulled up beside us. It was Foster and his nephew Tony Booth.
"I see you finally woke up!" Rogers barked. Foster offered a salty retort, prompting a volley of good-natured insults and idle threats.
A few minutes later, we arrived at the home of Matt Gladish, who completed our foursome. The UTVs that we would use were in his shop. One had a windshield. The other did not. He claimed the one with the windshield, and I claimed "shotgun."
"You're gonna wish you had a windshield when you get that cold wind in your face!" Gladish taunted.
This prompted another round of insults and threats from Rogers.
Foster and Booth ignored them and hoisted their portable dog kennel into the back of the UTV. The kennel contained three beagles -- Copper, Little Jojo and Della. Copper is a veteran free agent that Foster picked up on waivers to provide experience and leadership to his talented but green rookies. Little Jojo is the son of Jojo, an exceptional rabbit hound that died unexpectedly last year. Rogers and I had the great fortune to hunt with Jojo in his final season of 2021, and he was something to behold. He was Foster's virtual appendage, a partner. Inexperienced dogs bark a lot at nothing. If Jojo barked, he meant business.
"Copper's the same way," Foster said. "He's here to teach these younger ones. They run too fast, and they'll overrun a trail and keep running. Copper runs slower. He never takes his nose off the trail. If those other ones go the wrong way, he'll bark to get them back on the trail. If they're barking over there and Copper's barking over here, pay attention to over here because that's where the rabbit is."
Foster cast his hounds in a spot that was good to us in the past, but the dogs struck no scent there. It was a good thing, too, because the cover was too thick for just four hunters, one of which acted as a blocker at the far end. Without a sufficient number of flankers, dogs could run a rabbit out the sides almost anywhere unseen, and never to be turned back.
The next place was better, and that's where we saw Copper's leadership in action. Little Jojo and Della ran yelping here and there. We paid them no mind because Copper was silent. We didn't know where he was, but we knew he was working.
Finally, we heard Copper's low, gravelly, croaking yelp.
"Copper's on one," Foster said confidently.
The other dogs changed course immediately and soon their yelps merged. The chase was on.
A rabbit fleeing a predator runs in a circle. Swamp rabbits like those we were hunting run so far that you think they're going to lead the dogs into the next county. Foster taught me not to fret on our first hunt together in 2021. Just when the dogs are so distant that you can barely hear them, the rabbit will reverse course. The helping and barking will gradually get louder as they return on the same path. The rabbit is often a good distance in front of them. Eventually you learn to tell by volume when you need to get ready. When a rabbit crosses your path, you'll have only a second or two to shoulder your gun and shoot.
The best chases occurred in a nasty sweetgum thicket, and also in an adjacent slough thicket. Rabbits would not leave that awful cover, so we had to get in with them. The dogs seemed to know where we were and did a fantastic job of running the rabbits right past us. One practically scamped across my feet. As I swung my shotgun to lead the rabbit, my barrel crashed against a clump of young gum trees, stopping my swing and allowing the rabbit to escape with the hounds hot on his heels.
Shortly after, Booth's over-and-over 12-gauge roared, signaling the end of that chase.
Although the hunt started slow, Foster was happy at the results.
"We had six good chases and killed four rabbits," Foster said with a smile as he petted Copper.
"Yeah, but those other two chases might have been on rabbits that got away but that we got later," Rogers said.
"Might have been, might have been," Foster said with a smile. His team is still raw, but he knows they're going to very tough to beat in coming seasons.