A Bunny Pul­pit

Penn­syl­va­nia Pas­tor Robert Ford finds his call­ing amid his flock—and a pack of bea­gles

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - BY TOM KEER

Pas­tor Bob Ford runs dogs, hunts rab­bits ob­ses­sively, and com­poses ser­mons in the woods for his two ru­ral parishes. We tag along for a ride with the bea­gle bard.

As I slide Pas­tor Bob Ford a fresh PBR, I no­tice that his hands look like he’d just wres­tled a meat grinder. The day be­fore, Ford had shred­ded his hands on cac­tus and barb­wire while chas­ing moun­tain cot­ton­tails. “I hope they heal by Sun­day,” Ford says. “My parish­ioners don’t like tak­ing com­mu­nion from bloody hands.” Methodist pas­tor Bob Ford, nick­named the Bea­gle Bard for his fond­ness for writ­ing about the hounds, is from State Col­lege, Penn­syl­va­nia. He’s hard to miss even among the griz­zled jour­nal­ists at the writer’s event where I met him in Mon­tana. With a stature rem­i­nis­cent of his days as a tight-end play­ing col­lege foot­ball and a beard sug­ges­tive of ZZ Top, Ford’s pas­sion is rab­bit hunting. I’d first heard of moun­tain cot­ton­tails only a few days ear­lier. I’d never known that the species even ex­isted. Turns out, it’s a lit­tle lighter in col­oration than the Eastern cot­ton­tail and lives in the In­ter­moun­tain West. Ford was very fa­mil­iar with th­ese rab­bits—and he was de­ter­mined to ship one back home. I had bumped into him in the ho­tel lobby while he was look­ing for a cooler to do just that. “I shot [a moun­tain cot­ton­tail] yes­ter­day af­ter­noon,” Ford told me. “About three hours from here, I saw a good-look­ing ranch and knocked on a rancher’s door to ask to hunt. ‘Lord have mercy,’ the rancher said. ‘An an­swer to my prayers. I’ve lost so many damn cat­tle to bro­ken legs that I don’t care how many you shoot. Kill ’em all, and let God sort ’em out.’ I don’t think he knew just how ironic that state­ment was. “My dog Duke chased four, I killed one, so I’m send­ing it back to State Col­lege via Fedex.” Atop Ford’s bucket list of hunting achieve­ments is what many hun­ters and an­glers might think ec­cen­tric: har­vest­ing one of ev­ery rab­bit and hare species in North Amer­ica. He was miss­ing the moun­tain cot­ton­tail. That’s why he and his wife, Re­nee, had packed the Bea­gle Mo­bile—a 2010 Toy­ota Tacoma with nearly 200,000 miles on the odome­ter—and headed west.

THE OUT­DOOR CALL­ING

Al­though Ford is a rab­bit hunter, a field tri­aler, and a writer, above all, he’s a coun­try pas­tor. If you can’t get in touch with him dur­ing the week, he might be vis­it­ing an ail­ing parish­ioner in the hos­pi­tal or a nurs­ing home. Or he might be de­liv­er­ing food and books to a shut-in. Sum­mer­time is for va­ca­tion Bi­ble school. And in be­tween, his du­ties in­clude bap­tisms, wed­dings, and fu­ner­als. Ford serves two churches, which makes him a busy pas­tor. The spirit moved him when he was 14 years old. As he re­calls, it was a year after he bought his first bea­gle, with money earned from de­liv­er­ing the lo­cal news­pa­per, the Erie Sun­day Times. Amid the soli­tude and the bay­ing of his dog, he some­how knew he’d be a pas­tor. To­day, he con­tin­ues to find in­spi­ra­tion in run­ning dogs and be­ing in the out­doors—that time gives him an op­por­tu­nity to think, and he crafts his ser­mons in the woods. “Be­ing in na­ture and hear­ing the mu­sic of the hounds helps me be a bet­ter preacher,” says Ford. “It’s al­ways been that way. When I’m do­ing that, I get to a thought­ful and tran­quil state of mind. I can focus and think. I feel God’s grace, and I write my ser­mons way more eas­ily than if I sit down at a desk. I think of pas­sages, para­bles, and mes­sages while I’m hunting. The rest comes from there.”

BLESSED BEA­GLES

The Penn­syl­va­nia rab­bit sea­son is a ro­bust six months long, but that only pro­vides ma­te­rial for half a year’s ser­mons. So Ford runs his dogs in bea­gle clubs and field tri­als dur­ing the off-sea­son. It helps him gather ma­te­rial for his ser­mons, but it also keeps his dogs in shape and fo­cused on rab­bits. “Al­though I’ve won rib­bons, my goal isn’t to have a pack of field-trial cham­pi­ons,” he says. “It’s to keep my dogs fo­cused and fit for the hunting sea­son.” And while Ford en­joys a va­ri­ety of hunting and fish­ing pur­suits, bea­gles and rab­bits are his real pas­sion, and it’s how he got started in the out­doors. “My dad was a rab­bit hunter,” he says. “There were a lot of aban­doned farms in the ’50s and ’60s, and young forests held a lot of game. The bea­gle was the all-pur­pose dog, and we used them not just for rab­bits, but also for birds and squir­rels. We al­ways had at least a few dogs.” When Ford’s dad fin­ished a day at the mill, they would hunt rab­bits to­gether, and they hunted just about ev­ery day of the sea­son. Then they would run dogs in tri­als the rest of the year. If suc­cess is mea­sured in bagged rab­bits and not by field-trial rib­bons, then a look into Ford’s freezer pro­vides a glimpse into his hunting know-how—last sea­son he shot 156 rab­bits. “Our freezer is so full of back­straps and legs that it can’t even hold a half gal­lon of ice cream. That’s a prob­lem be­cause my wife likes ice cream as much as I like rab­bit.”

The phone rings and Ford steps away. It’s a friend who has a hot tip about a place he says is filthy with bun­nies. The pas­tor makes a men­tal note, and I can see he’s try­ing to fig­ure out how to get there. The 200,000 miles on his truck means Ford trav­els a lot to hunt. He’s hit rab­bit honey holes all over the coun­try but es­pe­cially in the North­east—up­state New York along the Canada bor­der, Maine and New Hamp­shire after the deer hun­ters have all gone home, Cape Cod in Novem­ber, and Nan­tucket in Jan­uary. He is self-suf­fi­cient and cares more about rab­bits than he does his sleep­ing quar­ters. If there’s a good rab­bit pop­u­la­tion not far from a Methodist church, he might crash on a cot. If not, he’ll pop his Mag­gi­olina truck rooftop tent, with its built-in mat­tress, and climb into a sleep­ing bag. If it’s cold, he’ll pull a few dogs from the boxes to keep him­self warm. He logs around 25,000 miles a year chas­ing his dream.

HOME TURF

I get to see Ford’s moun­tain cot­ton­tail mount a few months later when I catch up with him for a rab­bit hunt in Penn­syl­va­nia. The moun­tain cot­ton­tail is dis­played promi­nently in his study, which is home to so many mounts of hare and cot­ton­tail species that it looks like a rab­bit mu­seum. That night for din­ner, we have rab­bit fa­ji­tas. The next morn­ing, pho­tog­ra­pher Natty Welch and I meet Ford and and his friend Ja­son Wise­man at the Sheetz gas sta­tion across the road from the Shiloh Lutheran church. We had a bit of a drive to hunt a spot gen­er­ously pro­vided by one of Ford’s parish­ioners. One of the ben­e­fits of serv­ing ru­ral churches is that his parish­ioners of­ten of­fer Ford hunting ac­cess. “This spot that we’re go­ing to hunt is owned by one church mem­ber,” Ford says on the drive over. “Heck, I prob­a­bly hunt a dozen spots owned by mem­bers of my churches. It’s fun.” It was cold and gray, typ­i­cal of cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia in Fe­bru­ary. We drive to the end of a dirt road and stop at an old strip mine that dropped down into a val­ley. To our left was an old dairy farm, and the hard­woods were in­ter­spersed with a bumper crop of young mul­ti­flora rose. Cot­ton­tail coun­try. Not sur­pris­ingly for a Methodist preacher, Ford is a tra­di­tion­al­ist, made all the more ap­par­ent when he pulled a clas­sic Amer­i­can side-by-side

from its leather leg o’mut­ton case last win­ter. “I like the bar­rel con­fig­u­ra­tion on side-by-sides the best,” he said. “The dou­ble plane keeps me fo­cused on the run­ning rab­bits. I picked up a Le­fever, a Fox, and an Ithaca for re­ally short money. While I’ll use a 16-gauge in the early-sea­son un­der­story, I drop down to smaller gauges for much of the sea­son. Most of the time I’ll shoot ei­ther a 28 or a .410. I ac­tu­ally pre­fer the .410 be­cause I like iron in my diet, not lead.” Ford and Wise­man col­lared six dogs and cut them loose. Five min­utes hadn’t passed be­fore the bay­ing be­gan. Rab­bits run in cir­cles, and be­fore too long, we saw one dodge out from the pines and broom­straw and pause to listen for the dogs be­fore run­ning again. We were in no hurry—the two packs would do their job, and even­tu­ally we’d get our shots. About an hour later, the cot­ton­tails picked the wrong spot to stop. Wise­man popped one with his 28-gauge and Ford dropped an­other with his .410. Op­por­tu­nity knocks, and blessed are those who wait. Ford’s pack ran up to the dead rab­bit and sniffed it over. Duke started growl­ing, mak­ing it known to the pack that this was his rab­bit on the ground. Then he picked it up and re­trieved it to Ford’s out­stretched hand. “That’s not very com­mon in the bea­gle world,” Ford says as he takes the dead cot­ton­tail from his dog. “Duke’s daugh­ter, Di­a­mond, the bitch from the lit­ter last year, is show­ing signs of re­triev­ing rab­bits to hand too. Badger, on the other hand, won’t pick up a rab­bit, and if he has one for too long, he’ll eat the head. If I don’t keep an eye on him, he’ll eat the en­tire rab­bit.”

PACK LEADER

With his six dogs and decades of ex­pe­ri­ence, Ford’s knowl­edge of beagling is held in high re­gard, so I pep­per him with questions after our hunt is over. “No doubt the ques­tion I’m asked most fre­quently is what to look for in a bea­gle,” he says. “The best way to judge bea­gles is to watch them run­ning rab- bits. When you see what you like, buy from that blood­line. I like a long chase that ends in a dead rab­bit, so I like dogs that have good noses and the genes to cir­cle to the gun. I like dogs that can keep a rab­bit go­ing, and that means turn­ing them so they don’t go in a hole. Cir­cling gives me close, safe shots, which I can make—prefer­ably in the head. I don’t like to waste meat. “Other hun­ters like to jump-shoot their rab­bits, so they want a dif­fer­ent type of dog. They want dogs that cir­cle close so they can get a shot just fol­low­ing the chase. “Look for a dog that ex­hibits the qual­i­ties you like and you’ll be happy.” How the hunter works the cover is also im­por­tant to Ford. “Stat­ues shoot rab­bits,” he says. “When you’re in an area full of bun­nies, re­main sta­tion­ary. Don’t move and don’t talk. Wait un­til the rab­bit comes out of the brush and pauses in an open­ing. You’ll get a clean kill shot. Hun­ters who move or talk spook rab­bits back into the brush. You might not think that rab­bits are smart, but they are. “It’s the op­po­site if you’re jump-shoot­ing rab­bits. Move­ment is im­por­tant to keep up on the dogs and to be in po­si­tion for a shot. Run­ning rab­bits call for tighter chokes and larger gauges.” Like with any good gun­dog hunt, it’s im­por­tant to be able to read the bea­gles. Watch how the pack’s cir­cles tighten or re­lax, Ford says. Those are clues about where you should move to in or­der to get an open shot. Ford’s fi­nal ad­vice? Re­mem­ber to wear your gloves to keep from get­ting your hands shred­ded. “If I’m hunting es­pe­cially thick stuff, I wear gloves to try and keep my hands clean. After all, I’m a pas­tor first and a rab­bit hunter sec­ond. Di­vine Right Or­der, ya know?”

“I like a long chase that ends in a dead rab­bit, so I like dogs that have good noses and the genes to cir­cle to the gun.”

From left: Pas­tor Ford waits for a rab­bit; Duke, Badger, and Hoss; Duke makes a re­trieve.

From top: Pas­tor Ford bap­tizes a new parish­ioner; swamp rab­bit (left) and moun­tain cot­ton­tail mounts.

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