Rabbits at Rest
Clockwise from top left: The beagles descend on a rabbit; Benson keeps a swamper out of reach; a rabbit is left out to cool before going in a game vest; a break at the truck; the author with the swamp runners; Buchanon follows the hounds; a tailgate doubles as a rabbit cleaning station.
A SWAMP SERMON
The next afternoon found us near Boligee, Alabama, east of the Tombigbee River, on 1,800 acres of deer-club land veined with slow-moving creeks. The creekbottoms were cloistered with palmettos, the trees hung with Spanish moss. It was dark, gloomy, and wet, and it didn’t take long—three minutes, tops—before Buchanon heard the first rabbit trying to tiptoe through the briars. He called the dogs over, and the swamp bottom erupted in a chaos of beagles.
I’ve heard dog men call to their hounds before, but nothing like this. Benson bellowed encouragement to the dogs with a ringing, singsong chantey: “He-yah! Heyah! He-yah! Find HIM! Find HIM! Swamp buck in here, Molly! Find him in here, Susie!” Cattails thrashed all around as the dog pack responded. “Work! Work! WOOOORK!”
I took off running. For a day and a half, I had held back a bit, trying to get a sense of how these guys get in front of the dogs and intercept the rabbits. I didn’t want to muscle in on the show, but my strategy of working the flanks of the hunters had bombed. I hadn’t gotten a single shot. Now I could hear the dogs turn, so I pushed through briars, picking thorns from my arms with my teeth so I don’t take my hands off the gun. When three sparrows flitted out of the brambles, I skidded to a stop and stared hard. Something had to have bumped them from the thicket. Thirty seconds later, a harelike shape materialized deep in a mat of wet briars humped up like concertina wire. I found two tall ears and rolled the bunny with the lower tube of an o/u 20.
As I carried my prize back to the group, Uncle James had the guys in stitches.
He’s a character himself, in knee-high snake boots and a blaze-orange earflap hat straight out of Elmer Fudd’s closet. He was doubled over at Benson’s hound hollering. “Oh Lord, I can just hear you in the pulpit on Sunday, getting all confused,” he joked. “‘Now the Lord say to his people: Come to me! Get in there! He-ay! He-ay! He-ay. Hunt HIM! Hunt HIM!’”
Benson laughed. “I get in those swamps with all those rabbits and dogs, and something just comes over me,” he said. “And believe it or not, I got to hold myself back so I’ll have enough voice to sing from the pulpit on Sunday.”
Benson’s growing fame might be rooted in the online world, but everywhere on the road was a sense of community, of the many ways that rabbit hunting brings people together. At country stores where we’d stop for snacks, strangers wandered over to the trucks packed with dog boxes to talk beagles and bunnies. Hotel clerks saw our camo duds and muddy boots and wanted to talk about hunting with their dads. When we pull off the main road to unlock gates, trucks roll up beside us, windows down, blocking traffic, the drivers prodding the group with queries: How many swampers? Kicking up hillbillies? Them dogs any good?
There’s so much laughing and good-natured hard-time giving between these hunters that it seems a bit odd that my most memorable swamp-rabbit-hunting moment was solitary in nature.
The dogs had been on a track for 15 minutes as we all eased into position. I squirmed through briars and thick palmettos, headed down a small stream, remembering what Uncle James had told me earlier about how a swamp rabbit will run down a creek bed, bounding from side to side to spread its scent. I hit an open slough with a 20-yard view of the creek just as the beagles turned my way, and I was looking around to find a better spot to stand than smack in the middle of the water when I saw the rabbit coming. My first glimpse was as the buck neared the peak of a 6-foot-long leap down the middle of the slough. I froze as the swamper hit the shallow water and vaulted again. For a heartbeat, there were two rabbits—the one in the air and the one mirrored in the water below. He saw me raise the gun, but in midair, there was nothing he could do, his options gone. In that moment when the two rabbits became one, I pulled the trigger and flipped the swamp buck backward in the creek, 11 paces away.
Within a few seconds, beagles and hunters trickled into the scene, and I hoisted the swamper above the dogs as they leapt to snap at its head and feet. I had to tell the story new each time another guy found his way to the slough, each hunter filling in more details of the chase from his own perspective in the swamp. We were high-fiving and laughing and passing the rabbit around when I caught Benson out of the corner of my eye. He had slipped off quietly and was setting up the tripod. He aimed the camera back toward the group and nimbly stepped backward into the frame. He wanted the lens to capture it all, unscripted and in the moment. With his pals still yakking it up in the background, he held the swamp buck up and nodded toward the camera.
What happened next seemed to occur naturally. No one hissed
shhhh or pointed toward the camera, but the entire crew mellowed out and quieted down. Each man shifted position so they all formed a loose semicircle behind Benson, a pulpit of canvas and blaze orange, no one man blocking the other from the camera’s eye. They’d all been here before, many times. Each has bought fully into Benson’s passion for sharing the hunt. They all looked into the lens and nodded as he spoke. “This is what we do,” Benson said softly. “And this is how we do it.” His buddies know what Benson feels in his soul. He’s been given a gift. This moment won’t stay in the woods. Benson smiled at the lens. A new world is watching.