Rab­bits at Rest

Field and Stream - - FIELD & STREAM - FS

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.”

“AC­TION”

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.

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