THE SWAMP RUN­NERS

Meet the crew of Alabama hunters who are keep­ing the tra­di­tion of run­ning rab­bits alive.

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By t. ed­ward nick­ens

With his friends and fam­ily—and a pack of blue-blooded bea­gles—Tre­mayne Ben­son is keep­ing the sport­ing tra­di­tion of run­ning rab­bits alive in the South. And with his video cam­era and so­cial me­dia savvy, he’s now shar­ing that tra­di­tion with the rest of the world

IT WAS THE LAST RAB­BIT

on the first day that beat us so bad. We had our ex­cuses. By the time Sugar Ray jumped the bunny, we’d been chas­ing swamp rab­bits through the Alabama wilds for eight long hours. We were worn down by wet thick­ets and cut up by cane briar. We were headed back to the truck with enough rab­bits in the bag to car­pet the tail­gate, but then Tyson chimed in with Sugar Ray, bawl­ing deep in the swamp. Lacy and Molly joined the race, and then ev­ery other dog in the pack cut loose with a song. This swamper wasn’t giv­ing in easy, though. Ten min­utes passed be­fore the pack pushed the rab­bit out of the flooded woods and across a ridge of green fields and open pines. The bunny cov­ered ground in gi­ant 10-foot leaps as it turned for a sec­ond swamp on the far side of the ridge. The bea­gles were still in the woods when the shoot­ing started.

As the rab­bit neared the sec­ond swamp thicket, rac­ing across the open, Mar­quan Brown fired again, on the run, 12gauge to his shoul­der, like a tank gun­ner on the move. Pel­lets kicked up dust be­hind, in front, and all around the rab­bit, then the crit­ter vaulted through a line of pines and van­ished into muck, cy­press trees, and black wa­ter.

Hollers and whoops erupted from the field. Who­ever didn’t shoot let the rest of us have it. No one could be­lieve we all missed that rab­bit. We gath­ered the dogs and turned to the trucks, laugh­ing and mar­veling at the only swamp rab­bit

to beat us all day—one that de­served a lit­tle peace and quiet in the Coosa River bot­toms.

That’s when Tre­mayne Ben­son called out from the farm road. He stood be­hind a video cam­era mounted on a tri­pod. “Y’all hold on a sec­ond,” he said.

His bud­dies pulled up short. Ben­son di­aled in the fo­cus. “Ready?” he asked. Every­body nod­ded. Ben­son pressed the record but­ton and stepped back­ward into the shot. “Hey, every­body, I’m Tre­mayne Ben­son, from Ben­son’s Ken­nels. We had us a time to­day, as you’re gonna see…”

In front of the cam­era, Ben­son wears a shy smile and speaks with a quiet, mea­sured voice. Un­less you re­ally know rab­bit hunt­ing and bea­gle breed­ing, you’d never guess that this So­cial Se­cu­rity ad­min­is­tra­tor and part-time preacher from An­dalu­sia, Alabama, is one of

the sport’s most rec­og­niz­able am­bas­sadors and im­pas­sioned prac­ti­tion­ers—and a bit of a so­cial me­dia sen­sa­tion.

This is rab­bit hunt­ing’s funky new fron­tier. The 36-yearold Ben­son runs a YouTube chan­nel with 5,400 sub­scribers. It’s one of the most vis­ited rab­bit-hunt­ing sites on the in­ter­net. Over the past six years, Ben­son has posted more than 120 rab­bit-hunt­ing and bea­gle-train­ing videos. He hosts a call-in on­line chat pro­gram called “Hound Talk” and fields calls ev­ery week from around the coun­try and over­seas from hunters seek­ing ad­vice on rab­bit dogs, dog train­ing, and dog breed­ing.

So­cial me­dia, it seems, is the new coun­try store for this breed of bea­gle fan. For some­thing as niche as rab­bit hunt­ing—and swamp rab­bits at that—a Ben­son’s Ken­nels post might rack up 1,000 views in a mat­ter of hours; some of its hunt videos have gar­nered 50,000 to 60,000 views. “I get

80-year-old men call­ing me, cry­ing and thank­ing me for help­ing to keep this sport alive,” Ben­son says. But it’s not just vet­eran hunters. He gets more calls from 25- to 40-year-old hunters than from any other age group. He hears from Cana­di­ans, Ger­mans, and Aus­tralians. He fields so many re­quests from Span­ish-speak­ing call­ers that he hired an on-call trans­la­tor to help.

From Ben­son’s per­spec­tive, these are the good old days for rab­bit hunt­ing. “It’s true that a lot of old-timers can’t get out there like they used to, so a lot of what you hear about dogs and rab­bit hunt­ing is about the past,” he ex­plains. “But rab­bit hunt­ing is tak­ing on a new look. With the in­ter­net, we can show off the ex­cite­ment of this sport to so many peo­ple, and that changes the dy­nam­ics of the fu­ture.”

The in­ter­net—and so­cial me­dia, specif­i­cally—has de­moc­ra­tized the bea­gle world, Ben­son fig­ures, and it is now home to what he calls an “un­der­ground econ­omy” of rab­bit dogs.

“Thou­sands and thou­sands of bea­gles are bought and sold on­line, and the re­sult is that ev­ery­one has ac­cess to great blood­lines,” Ben­son says. “Now you can find some of the best bea­gles that ever lived on this Earth, and give one to a 6-year-old kid for a Christ­mas present and not break the bank.”

And it’s not just about the dogs. So­cial me­dia brings rab­bit hunters to­gether, makes it eas­ier to find hunt­ing com­pan­ions, and helps open ac­cess to places to hunt. “Land is the big­gest prob­lem—not the lack of a de­sire to hunt rab­bits,” Ben­son says. “But more and more peo­ple are fig­ur­ing out ways to hunt pub­lic lands and lease rab­bit lands and find ways to meet other hunters thanks to so­cial me­dia. That’s why I be­lieve this is the best time in his­tory to be a rab­bit hunter.”

To see the evo­lu­tion from the in­side, I hooked up with Ben­son for a three-day Alabama road trip, hunt­ing our way from Birm­ing­ham to Mo­bile. Along for the ride were an un­cle, a cousin, and a pas­sel of pals Ben­son be­friended through so­cial me­dia. After meet­ing in Birm­ing­ham, we hit the ground hop­ping.

SO­CIAL STUD­IES

Ben­son and his crew will run any rab­bit, but they spe­cial­ize in hunt­ing Sylvi­la­gus aquatic, the leg­endary swamp rab­bit. Eas­ily twice the size of a cot­ton­tail, swampers on the run have more wits than a coy­ote and more speed than a fox. Pushed by dogs, a swamp rab­bit traces huge el­lipses and fig­ure eights through bri­ary bot­toms, some­times tak­ing an hour to make a sin­gle round. Also called “cane-cut­ters,” they are ex­cel­lent swim­mers and will

power-stroke down­stream, then crawl out of the wa­ter in thick cover to throw the dogs off the track. They’ll dive and hide nose-up un­der root wads and log­jams. And they like their woods tight as a tick.

“You look at a piece of land and say to your­self, ‘That’s too wet, that’s too thick, no way any­body can walk through that,’ and that’s where we want to be,” Ben­son says. “A big swamp buck takes you on a jour­ney, and these places have a hold on my heart like the way peo­ple feel about big elk coun­try. It’s wild and it’s rough, and no­body hardly ever sees it un­less you fol­low the dogs.”

That helped ex­plain all the smiles when we pulled up to the woods on our sec­ond morn­ing on the road. Mar­quan Brown, a fi­nan­cial-se­cu­rity con­sul­tant, had scored per­mis­sion to hunt a client’s 1,000 acres of swamps and pines north of the Coosa River, and 10 min­utes after we dropped the tail­gate, a six-pack of bea­gles struck a rab­bit so deep in the swamp, the dogs blew mal­lards off the wa­ter.

The crew fanned out. Dric Ben­son, Tre­mayne’s cousin, and James Ben­son, his un­cle, posted up on a woods road that edged the swamp, but most of the guys waded in to bat­tle. I pushed through a soup of muck, wa­ter, and bri­ars that took nearly all the free­board in my hip boots. “You can tell when a man don’t run swamp rab­bits,” Un­cle James called out. “It’s the wa­ter. His dogs will tear the pads off their feet try­ing to stop at the edge of a swamp.” That was no is­sue here. I saw tails, flashes of orange, the white re­flec­tions of bea­gles in the black ooze of the swamp wa­ter. Dric sneaked into the woods, quiet and low. “Look at Dric,” Un­cle James said. “He didn’t have orange on, you’d think he was a snake!”

Ben­son yo­deled to his troops: “Hunt for him! Hunt for him! HUUUNT in here!” A pair of wood ducks sailed in to land, spot­ted the com­mo­tion, then flared wildly. It was a beau­ti­ful lit­tle mise-en-scène of man and dog, woods and wa­ter.

In four hours of hunt­ing, the dogs ran a half-dozen rab­bits, ev­ery one of which wound up on the tail­gate. At mid­day, we pulled the trucks into the shade of tall pines, wa­tered the dogs, and fired up a grill. Jamie Thomp­son and An­toine Buchanon pressed out fresh deer burger pat­ties and told me about the 13 bea­gles they kept in the back­yard of the house they had rented while at the Univer­sity of Alabama. “One Fe­bru­ary, we hunted 25 days,” Buchanon said. “The only days we didn’t hunt was be­cause it was rain­ing too hard to go.” Ben­son pulled up a camp chair as rab­bit stew sim­mered on a nearby stove, and I asked him how he trains his dogs to chase rab­bits that would just as soon swim as run.

“A swamp rab­bit will keep a con­sis­tent, com­fort­able dis­tance be­tween him and the dogs,” he said. “Our ob­jec­tive is to push the rab­bit just fast enough so he can’t sit there and cal­cu­late all his funny moves. A good pack will eat into the gap and make the rab­bit ner­vous, and that’s when he makes mis­takes. That’s why our dogs don’t have a real strong nose—a real long nose—be­cause I don’t want them bark­ing on weak scent. I want them on top of that rab­bit, mak­ing him move.”

Ben­son’s pack traces its lin­eage to a four­some of bea­gles run by his long­time men­tor, Robert Clark, of River Falls, Alabama, who passed away a cou­ple of years ago. Clark still has a pow­er­ful hold on Ben­son. Within sec­onds of men­tion­ing his old friend, Ben­son choked up and couldn’t speak. In the lat­ter stages of his fight against can­cer, Clark gave Ben­son the be­drock bea­gles of his pack. “He told me at least

100 times that he’d prayed to God to send him some­one who loved dogs as much as he did,” Ben­son said.

About three years be­fore, as Ben­son was get­ting ever more se­ri­ous about rab­bit dogs, he turned to the in­ter­net for de­tails on dog train­ing. He was amazed at the lack of footage of run­ning hounds.

“There were prac­ti­cally no videos of dogs run­ning,” he said, shak­ing his head. “There are hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands of dogs that peo­ple all over the world know about—the Branko bloodline, the Buck Shot bloodline—but you could hardly find a video clip of a sin­gle one run­ning. I thought that was ironic, so I de­cided to post mine purely for his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion, so 10 years down the road I could see, for ex­am­ple, how my Ebby runs a rab­bit com­pared to my Molly.”

On Jan­uary 5, 2014, Ben­son posted his first video on YouTube: Bea­gles Cross­ing Field. He’s been an on­line fix­ture ever since. “I don’t charge for any­thing,” Ben­son said. “I give it all away, just like Mr. Clark did for me. If I owe him any­thing, I owe him the debt to keep his dream alive. Just drop the tail­gate and keep run­ning.”

Which is how we spent the next five hours. At the end of the day, we spread 15 rab­bits across the tail­gate of Un­cle James’ 1973 Chevy Dually. There were only two “hill­bil­lies”—cot­ton­tails—in the mix. You could hardly see me­tal un­der all those swampers.

pho­to­graphs by gi­a­como for­tu­nato

Re­lease the HoundsFrom left: Tre­mayne Ben­son hoists a pair of Alabama swamp rab­bits; a pack of his bea­gles fol­lows a scent.

“Here he comes, Mar­quan!” Boom! “Get him, Jamie! Get him!” Boom! “Shoot, Ed­die, shoot!” Boom! Boom!

Screen TimeClock­wise from top: Dur­ing hunts, the group will take breaks to record videos for Ben­son’s pop­u­lar YouTube chan­nel; Mar­quan Brown shows off a hefty buck; the bea­gles are ea­ger to start hunt­ing; Ben­son is all smiles after a suc­cess­ful hunt.

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