Outdoor Journal: ‘Tracker’ has keen nose for rabbits and cookies
What makes a good rabbit dog?
It’s hard to answer because there are several different breeds of dogs that hunt and chase rabbits, but I believe that the best, by far, is the beagle.
My choice is based on many years of chasing cottontails and snowshoe rabbits, primarily all over New York state with these floppy-eared, sad-eyed and loveable canines. A hunter couldn’t ask for a better hunting companion. But there’s one very special beagle I’ve been hunting with for almost 15 years — Tracker — truly the perfect name for him.
As I said, Tracker and I go way back to when I first met his owner, Tim Guy of Glens Falls, now a retired Warren County deputy sheriff and once their canine officer. I met Tim at Instant Replay Sports in Glens Falls, a hunter’s hangout, and it was there he invited me to join Tracker and him chasing cottontails the next Saturday. It was my first time out with this group in November that I really got serious about hunting rabbits. Actually, from mid-November to late January that season, we hunted rabbits at least two days a week.
I met Tim at his house early that Saturday and when I climbed into the back seat of his car, Tracker was there to join me. I believe we had a group of six or seven hunters that day, headed for Hamilton County to see if we could get a few snowshoe rabbits running.
Tracker decided I was going to be his pillow on the drive to the hunt and flopped into my lap, but he didn’t stay there long because his nose sniffed out the Oreo cookies I had in my pocket. By the time we got to the hunting area, he had eaten all of them. No one knew about it, but he and I, and I actually never told Tim about it. It was the foundation of a “he has food for me” relationship forever. This was my first snowshoe rabbit hunt and little did I know those Oreos were going to pay big dividends for me, that morning and in the future.
A good rabbit dog chases the rabbit and gets it to circle back to the hunters, but with snowshoes, the circles can be a mile or more around. When I heard Tracker leading the other dogs on a hot trail, I moved toward where I thought they were headed and stood there watching as I had been told. After maybe 30 minutes, I heard the dogs several hundred yards away and saw what I thought were black bugs flying around. Fortunately, I realized in time that those black things were the eyes of a snowshoe, and quickly shot my first. Guess who was standing there watching — Tracker — then he headed for the rabbit. It was then I learned if you shoot a rabbit, pick it up as quickly as possible before Tracker gets to it. If he beats you there, he’ll try to eat it. Obviously, Tracker likes the taste of rabbits.
Tracker and his canine brigade had done a great job on this rabbit, but Tracker was not quite done yet. He was off again on his own and it wasn’t too long before he was yipping and barking hot on the trail of another rabbit. I watched him come down the side of a hill and within 40 yards of me he stopped, looked at me, and went off on a trail only about 20 yards from me. I believe that look he gave me was “Why didn’t you shoot.” And when I walked over there I saw the rabbit tracks where it had passed without my seeing it. Twenty minutes later, my new canine buddy brought him right back to me, and I shot my second snowshoe. They turned out to be the only two rabbits shot that day, and I found out on the way home that Tracker also likes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I ended up sharing with him.
That same year, Gary DeCesare of Lake Luzerne came up with an annual rabbit hunt which he called the “Bunny Bowl.” This hunt was special because it takes place New Year’s Day, each year in a different location. The first year, it was in Washington County. It was fun to watch the red eyes of some of those who watched the ball drop in New York on New Year’s Eve and were out with us at 7 the next morning.
Each year, as you would expect, we had a different number of participants. This year will be our 15th Bunny Bowl. There are only two hunters who’ve been at every one: me and my buddy, Tracker. The one year Tim couldn’t make it, we took Tracker with us. That was the year I bought him a McDonald’s hamburger.
I don’t exactly remember what year it was, but we were hunting in Glens Falls near the airport, and the rabbits were everywhere. We had about five dogs with us, running rabbits all day. It was just before lunch that Tracker picked up a scent and put it in front of me just a few minutes later. My shot rolled the rabbit, but it jumped up and was gone. As usual, when I or any of the hunters miss a rabbit that Tracker is pushing, he stops, looks at you with what I swear appears to be a disgusted look, then heads off after the rabbit.
About 10 minutes later, we could hear him but his yipping sounded muffled — he’d gotten stuck in a rabbit hole, obviously the hole of the one he’d wounded. Tim dug Tracker out and had to carry him away or he would have stayed there digging.
Back at the trucks, we all ate a tailgate lunch, and Tim said to me, “Look what your buddy found.” There, standing looking at me with what I still believe was a smile, was Tracker with my rabbit in his mouth. His reward that day on the ride home was a ham sandwich.
As he got older, his taste for rabbits grew. Now when you shoot a rabbit he is chasing, you definitely have to beat him to it. Several years ago, we were hunting along the shoreline of a creek in the Ft. Ann area, and Tim saw a rabbit on the other side of the creek and shot it. Tracker, who was standing beside him, was in the water immediately and headed for the rabbit. I remember thinking, he is amazing, he is going to get the rabbit and swim back with it. That did not happen. He retrieved the rabbit, but he laid down and ate it, all the while that Tim yelled, “NO!” at him. I swear that dog knew no one would cross the creek and interrupt his rabbit lunch. Everyone laughed, including Tracker, who bowed his head in shame when Tim scolded him after he swam back across the creek and joined us.
Beagles are not known to be bird dogs, but Tracker’s a good flusher. Two years ago, Alan DeCesare of Schroon Lake and I borrowed him for opening day of the pheasant season and took the dog with us to the Daketown State Forest pheasant release area in Region 5. It was a pretty busy when we got there, and we actually waited until some of the hunters left before we started. Our game plan was to walk the openings between the evergreen rows with Tracker, looking for rabbits while we hoped to kick up a pheasant or two. Neither the bunnies nor the pheasants were very active that day.
After about an hour, Alan yelled, “Pheasant up” and I heard, but did not see it, until it flew across the opening and landed on the ground. Slowly, I approached the area, and it actually broke cover behind me. I had a shot, but it was a quick one, and even though I thought I hit it by the way it flew off, we couldn’t find it.
Alan told me to go down the outside of the heavy brush and set up at the end, and he would try to push it toward me. As he moved, I saw him looking back and calling to Tracker, but the dog didn’t respond. When Alan reached me, nothing had gone up, so we decided to sit down and wait for Tracker to find us. For 20 minutes, we called to him and finally, I could see the tall grass moving. When he stepped out of the grass, he walked over to me and dropped the still warm pheasant I’d shot. He just never gives up.
For some time, I wondered why he didn’t eat the pheasant. On another outing, we shot several ducks, he retrieved them, but didn’t attempt to eat them. I guess he doesn’t like feathers.
Now he’s a bit slower, can’t hear well and I think his eyesight is going, but pick up a gun, and he’s a pup again and ready to go. He’s no longer always at the front of the pack, but his nose is usually the one that finds the rabbit track, and he still remembers who gave, and still gives him, the Oreos.