It says in Robert Elman's Hunter's Field Guide that cottontail rabbits are the most abundant, most widely distributed and most hunted of all American game.
Elman's book is an excellent resource, but few sportsmen in this area would be likely to agree with his last assertion. Until a week ago, for example, I couldn't say I knew a single serious rabbit hunter among the multitudes of hunters in my acquaintance.
Maybe it's different farther west, but East Coast hunters all but ignore the cottontail; they're consumed instead with visions of decoying geese and buck deer and wild turkeys.
A pity, because there are few things finer on the table than a brace of rabbits in a stew, and few things pleasanter than tramping the edges of a farm field on a winter day while a good dog works the thickets for bunnies.
Wayne Brady, a waterman from Rock Hall, Maryland, provided my belated introduction a few weeks ago when he disclosed that his Uncle Muffy, aged 72, was and is "a great rabbit hunter" and would be delighted to take a guest along.
I told Wayne I'd be there Tuesday and he promised to tell Uncle Muffy. Things happen a little slowly around Rock Hall, though, and Uncle Muffy was out fishing his nets for striped bass when I arrived at 10 o'clock. He'll be back shortly and I know he'll be happy to go hunting," Wayne said.
Shortly wasn't until well after noon, which meant that Uncle Muffy had already put in a good eight-hour day on the water. No matter: He was anxious to get going.
"I don't have no dogs myself," he said, "but a feller up the road lets me borrow one."
The borrowed dog -- a part-beagle named Pooch -- turned out to be more Uncle Muffy's than anybody else's. He kept Pooch on a tenant farmer's place and paid the farmer with some whiskey and dog-food money.
"He's a real good dog," said Uncle Muffy, "but lately he's been acting poorly."
Pooch certainly acted poorly in the truck, proving to be a mannerless mutt intent upon fouling the nest with unspeakable odors. In the field at a nearby farm he continued to decline in my esteem. While Muffy and I broke through incredible thickets of greenbrier and brush, Pooch marched jauntily along the road, refusing all entreaties to join the hunt.
"There's one," I shouted as a football started a bunny hopping.
Pooch quit fooling around. A low-slung beast, he dove in under the thickest briars and began sniffing the ground for scent. He disappeared.
"Get out here in the open," said Uncle Muffy. "Keep still and the dog will bring him around."
Pooch caught sight of the rabbit somewhere in the brambles and began a high-pitched howling, the first sound he'd made all day.
We listened to the rustle of the brush as dog chased bunny and the barks and howls as he alternately drew close and lost sight of his prey. Sure enough, in time the rabbit broke from the cover and dashed across the road, where he met his end with one shot.
Pooch took a while to come out. He was still following the scent, but when he emerged he came straight for the rabbit and confirmed the kill.
That whetted his appetite, and from then on he was a rabbit dog of the first order. "If I was a dog and my master told me to go in there," said Uncle Muffy, pointing to a fierce stand of prickers, "I'd tell him to go to hell." But the dog barreled on in.
It was a beautiful farm overlooking the Chesapeake, with Baltimore and the Bay Bridge in view in different directions far across the water. Huge flocks of Canada geese lay rafted off the point and more still were squabbling and honking in the creek.
At other times I'd probably have been transfixed by the geese, but the rabbit hunting kept getting better, the dog kept getting better at his job and before long the sun was going down. "Where's the dog now?" said Uncle Muffy. "I want to go home."
The dog was on a rabbit, and he had no notion of quitting anytime soon. We heard him in the deep cover, heading away. Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. It was growing dark.
"We better go get him," said Uncle Muffy. We waded in and followed the fading sounds of the barks half a mile through the marsh, onto another farm and halfway across it.
Pooch was still working the rabbit when we caught up to him, and it took some serious deceit to trap him. I wound up carrying him halfway back to the truck; we didn't dare put him down.
In the game pouch were four rabbits, which after a night of soaking in salt water and a long, gentle cooking in tomato sauce proved excellent.
Some might suggest that it's cruel to hunt bunnies, which after all do very little harm to anything or anybody. That's probably true. It is also true, however, that rabbits have an incredible reproduction rate -- one pair and its multiplying offspring, should they all survive, are said to be capable of producing 350,000 rabbits in five years.
That reproduction rate is necessary for rabbits because it is only a hair above their mortality rate to natural causes. The huge majority of rabbits -- about 85 per cent -- do not survive their first winter, and hunting has very little to do with it.