Coastal Rabbit Quick-draw with Bows and Arrows
I was skeptical from the start. I believed that hunting and killing a rabbit with a longbow and a wooden arrow was possible, but sure seemed unlikely. However, I could never pass up a chance to spend a bright winter day with two good friends and their 4-legged, Purina-fed family members. Eric-the tall, had a new Howard Hill longbow that he was itching to try out, Steve was shooting the same old 50 lb Bear Super Kodiak recurve (18 years of steady use!), and although I carried a feathery light Monarch longbow, I had a back up. My purist partners were disdainful of me; because I also had a shotgun in the truck. We had practiced our instinctive shooting on rolling targets, hand-thrown milk jugs, and even some flying discs, and we knew that the shots could be made if we had faith. Still, the thought of shooting rabbits was like hitting a thermos bottle darting through the brush and it seemed daunting.
Meat alone was not the issue in this rabbit hunt. Steve had managed to kill a 5-point apple-fed Pennsylvania whitetail earlier in the year. However, Eric and I had hunted hard with our longbows unfruitfully and finally decided they called them longbows because of the long hours required between kills. The end of January in Louisiana meant that rabbit, woodcock, and the late snow goose season were the only seasons available to us. Louisiana is fortunate to have a rabbit season almost five months long and rice field rabbits were plentiful. We had permission to hunt on a farm belonging to Eric’s beautiful Cajun girlfriend Helen. Steve and I, being the old married guys, maintained a real interest in Eric and Helen having a harmonious and stable relationship for reasons of land access and we probably provide him more advice than he wants to hear.
Helen’s farm is several miles from Gueydan, Louisiana which is known as the duck and goose capital of Louisiana. The extensive rice prairie hosts tens of thousands of geese and we were never out of sight of flocks, skeins, vee’s and circling towers of them. Fields were distractingly full of geese. Earlier in the season we had hunted geese several times (shotguns fellas, shotguns!) with some success. It was then that we had stumbled across the great rice field rabbit haven. Because retrieving geese in a dry field is the easiest work a Labrador retriever will ever have, my 12-yr old lab was with us only out of habit. We shot, Scoop marked the fall of the large feathery bird, then he makes a 25 second retrieve. He would get maybe, oh . . . three minutes of work per hunt. As a consolation prize, on the way out of the field after goose hunting, I sent him quartering for rails, quail or whatever might flush. That is where Scoop keyed in on rabbits with an enthusiasm usually reserved for chasing nutria. Somehow it seemed too easy for the shooters though. Little skill was necessary to tumble one rabbit after another. The heavy goose loads, straight-away shots, and scant cover made for a series of skillet shots. But we all love to eat rabbits and they were plentiful.
We came to realize that rice fields with nearby weedy and woody cover make good rabbit habitat; what Steve calls “rabbitat”. Every red-tailed hawk in the state knows that rabbits thrive in the briars and shrubs and feed on the patches of uncut rice and late winter greenery sprouting in the unplowed field margins. After the rice has been harvested and a hard freeze has removed leaves and most grasses, the rabbits are, of necessity, concentrated in the remaining cover. Many a Cajun has “harvested” a rice field with a .410 shotgun in a scabbard on his combine. A modern day buckareaux. In the busy harvesting season nobody looked askance at kids lighting the remaining brush strips on fire and mopping up the last dozen or two rabbits that stuck tight there. Of course, this is considered an abomination to ethical hunting by most of today’s standards, akin only to using gobs of earthworms or a gill net on a trout stream. Their pursuit was more akin to picking blackberries (which benefitted from the fire too) than sport hunting. The rabbits were either going to them or to the coyotes and red-tailed hawks in what is called density dependent mortality.
The artificially concentrated, and mostly doomed-by-nature, rabbits were there, they had been fattened all year on the farmer’s crops, time was short, the meat was desired, and they were harvested. The kids might have used a net if one were available. This is not unlike Indigenous harvesters making meat by spearing fish in a spawning stream or herding bison over a cliff — it is protein acquisition first. That the kids enjoyed it is only an issue with puritanical and high-church folks, often hunters and anti-hunters alike, who cannot properly contextualize killing outside the prescribed ways they were taught. Yet, give them 10 hours of hot, mind-numbing combine work, a ready cajun cook waiting at home to feed a big family, and one hour of shooting time after work before the cover strip gets mowed, and the lit matches would probably seem more reasonable.
Steve and I met years ago while working on advanced degrees in Wildlife Management at Louisiana State University where part of his Master’s degree research was investigating rabbit habitat. He has been a committed hound man and rabbit hunter ever since. We have chased rabbits, and sometimes beagles, all over the piney woods of central Louisiana, the bottomlands of the Atchafalaya Basin, the barrier islands and live oak islands along the coast, woodlots along the Mississippi River, and now the rice fields of the Cajun rice prairie. Some beagles are prone to chase deer and it is an advantage of the rice areas that there are few deer. However, rice country has its own distractions in the form of raccoons, nutria and skunks; what a beagler would call running “trash”. But mostly the rice country is burgeoning with bunnies.
The tactics of rabbit hunting are similar for bow or gun. The hunters and dogs walk through rabbit cover where they may flush rabbits or, more likely, cause them to move a short distance ahead to better cover. Though unseen by hunters, the movement lays down a fresh trail for the beagles. Instinctively driven to trail and bark, the beagles take up the track, sometimes surprisingly far behind the rabbit. Rabbits usually seem almost nonchalant about the slow moving and mouthy dogs. It is not uncommon to see rabbits sitting still and pivoting their ears as they track the dog’s progress, creeping along a trail, or loping between patches of cover. The bow hunter’s tactic is to sit still and quiet near the place where the rabbit was first jumped. In an almost magical way the rabbits almost always circle and pass within feet of their original escape trail. Steve tells me that there is some relationship between the home range size of the rabbit and this circuit it runs ahead of the dogs. Rabbits don’t like to leave their known territories. In rice country the “circle” may actually be a long rectangle up and down each side of a levee or canal. Rabbits do not seem to recognize a motionless human figure as a threat and it is not uncommon to have them pass within inches of the hunter’s feet.
If Steve was the expert, Eric was the faithful and confident that our bows were both adequate and appropriate for rabbits. As luck would have it, in the first five minutes of hunting, the dogs pushed a rabbit in a complete circle and Eric made a shot that knocked four hairs off of a sneaking cottontail. Wiser, slightly bruised, and safe, the rabbit swam a canal and threw the pack off its trail. Confidence replaced incredulity after we had all inspected the arrow, the tuft of hair, and offered some comments about him being under-bowed and lacking prowess. The dogs were really getting tuned up and we started seeing rabbits streak past or sneaking between clumps of grass fairly regularly.
There are two species of rabbits in Louisiana; the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvalagus floridanus) which is the smallish rabbit that is well known from the western plains to the Atlantic Ocean. Overlapping the southern part of this range is the darker and larger swamp rabbit (Sylvalagus aquaticus) or “cane-cutter”, so named because of their abundance in southern canebreaks. Swamp rabbits are the largest cottontail species in the world, and large individuals grow to five pounds. People accustomed to Texas white-tails would think them a large target! The generous bag limit of eight rabbits per day can garner a skilled hunter 25–30 pounds of tender lapin. Cottontail and swamp rabbits occur throughout Louisiana, both are delicious in the pan and almost no hunter whether winged, furred, or in blaze orange makes much of a distinction. Steve’s dogs ran both species of cottontail well, no discrimination there.
Rabbit hunting was quite different from the long motionless and cold hours in a bow stand hunting deer. Dogs were barking, strings twanging, jokes told, disparaging remarks made after each missed shot, and even one futile volley of arrows loosed at a low and foolish snowgoose. But surprise of surprises, every now and then we actually connected and bagged a rabbit! We each killed one rabbit and rough calculations were that we each took 15 or so shots that afternoon. One of the more memorable shots was a clean miss when a smallish rabbit streaked across an open plowed field to skirt around the hunters on the levee. We all attempted the 20 yard shot; no arrow came within 15 feet of catching up with the rabbit we dubbed “Eveready”.
I also made what may be the most memorable shot of my life. In a very thick briar patch we flushed a woodcock that only flew about 40 yards before dropping into a weedy fencerow. Just for fun, Eric and I decided to stalk him. While Eric was at full draw, my arrow neatly severed the bird, pinning it to the ground. I don’t know who was more surprised, me, Eric, or the bird.
Our world has become so highly technological and humans have consistently shown that we can overwhelm the natural defenses of animals they hunt for food, fur, and enjoyment. When combined with a predatory instinct these skill and equipment advantage have allowed unreasoning hunters to cross some vague line of fairness. It is a line each of us, archer and rifleman, gill netter and fly fisherman, must draw within the laws set forth. This line separates “The Hunt” from simple killing, or at its worst, wildlife butchery. However, as the hunt has become easier, the notion of “self-limitation” has emerged as a necessary ingredient to address our sense of fairness. After all, a fisherman’s definition of hell is a three pound trout on every cast.
The loss of uncertainty destroys the joys of any success we may have afield. Where uncertainty is removed there is no anticipation. Without anticipation the acts of hunting are rote and lifeless; there is no sense of engagement with wildlife and little sense of reward. In this sad state of affairs, the animal is reduced to a robotic pawn without the respect it deserves and there is no joy or satisfaction in killing them. Our country’s history contains, unsettling, by today’s standards, stories of bison being shot by the hundreds from trains; passenger pigeons swatted down by the truck load with clubs, dynamite, and scatterguns; and even in my lifetime, waterfowl poachers sometimes killing over 100 ducks in a single night of shooting over bait on a full moon.
Within the limits of the law, today’s responsible sportsmen make a individualistic choice of the level of self-restraint that is necessary to keep the hunt “fair chase”, and challenging. Trout fishermen have opted for fly fishing equipment, barbless hooks, catch and release standards, and ultralight tackle. Hunters have selected restrictive seasons, single-sex harvests, specific antler, horn or coat requirements for the animal that they will take, and even behavioral requirements, i.e. turkey hunters that only shoot a gobbler that (s)he has called into range. It must be very puzzling to a subsistence aboriginal hunter from the arctic pack ice or the New Guinea rainforest that hunters in more developed nations pass up the easy kills, and deliberately give advantages to their quarry. However, if we are to continue our pursuit of game in good conscience, such restraint is appropriate and has the function of stretching out the satisfaction of the hunt while limiting the bag.
Psychologists and sociologists have recognized the strong affiliations that the sporting community has for hunting. Writers like Stephen Kellert at Yale University, and author Ted Kerasote have described eloquently the importance of the hunter’s need for reconnection to historical and instinctual skills. Hunting is a strongly held practical and symbolic act in millions of American’s world.
Steve, Eric and I are among the millions of firearm hunters that began bow hunting as a way to make a tighter connection with the hunt. Since Fred Bear’s marketing campaigns in the 1960’s bow hunter numbers have risen. More recently, large numbers of bow hunters have chosen to limit themselves further by going to more traditional or even primitive archery equipment such as recurves, or longbows and some even build their own weapons from natural materials. The various combinations of hunter skill, weapon of choice, and knowledge is juxtaposed with their prey’s innate stealth, speed, and superior senses of danger detection. This recipe determines the degree of difficulty and the chance of success of the hunt, and for many hunters, the measure of satisfaction. We believe there is a reasonable middle ground between the disaffected non-hunter and butcherer of wild animals. In the act of responsible hunting a spirt of fairness prevails and the “sport” of hunting remains an honorable pursuit. The hunter is engaged, aware of a sense of being very alive and connected to the game, habitat, and the world that is ruled by natural processes of life and death. When the deck is stacked too heavily in our favor, it is time for a new deal — ours is traditional archery.
Back to our hunt. The dogs, hunters and rabbits were giving it our all. We had selected and practiced with our meager stick and string weapons, put in the miles of walking, months of dog training, applied our understanding of rabbit populations, and now we were immersed in the hunt. The rabbits had the home-court advantage; if scores must be kept, the rabbits would have won; they would have won 45 to 3. But this was not about scores or body counts, rather it was one of those straight-up doses of hunting in that we were trying as hard as we could to kill rabbits within the pre-set limitations of our gear and skill; no prey selection necessary, no shots too far, too close, too small, no throw him back. We were working in harmony with a pack of dogs and once we connected, even lightly, the loss of the quarry was a very remote possibility. We were hunting as if the evening meal depended on our success, and what did we end up with? . . .tired legs, some shared humor, lighter quivers, and enough rabbit sauce piquant to feed our families for a single day, if we used lots of rice. That one magical day of rabbit hunting captured the purest essence of why we return to the field with bows and arrows each season.