Mississippi’s deer herd offers an excellent opportunity for a youngster to feel the first fires of big game hunting adventure, but the best chance to get a kid hooked on the outdoors may well be enjoyed in much smaller doses. A walk in the woods, along creeksides and ditch banks, through tall stands of conservation program grass and over harvested fields can turn up small game opportunities galore.
The little critters that scamper around rustling the leaves, climbing limbs, chattering amongst themselves and bringing action to an otherwise tranquil scene can make for an unforgettable outdoors experience – and they’ll remember it when it’s time for them to take their own kids hunting down the road.
Countless youngsters will spend deer hunts in box stands and shooting houses overlooking green fields this season, especially through the next few weeks, and these are hours that will be treasured throughout the lifetimes of teacher and apprentice alike. Don’t overlook the value small game hunts can provide though. The chance for a new hunter to see a pack of beagles run rabbits or watch a mountain cur tree a squirrel can be the line that connects the dots of interest and opens an avenue of excitement and enjoyment that will last a lifetime.
Whether it’s an afternoon in a deer stand or a morning in the squirrel woods, the most important part of getting a new hunter started is making sure the hunt is about them. This way, you’re more likely to create a new hunting buddy for life.
Make sure they have plenty of warm clothes and carry along water. A couple packs of nabs and a candy bar for them will be good additions, but they’ll be thirsty right away, so a canteen or bottle of water is critical.
If you’re going to be walking very far, make sure they have appropriate boots or shoes, and be willing to go at their pace. Don’t worry about trying to hunt all day or fill a limit. If you’ll start them slowly, always ending the day while they’re still wanting more, you’ll be the one struggling to keep up soon enough.
Crunching through the woods on a squirrel hunt is an excellent time to show a new hunter how to be quiet, how to move slowly, how to look and listen and tune in to the world around them. It lacks the intensity of trying to keep them shushed and still just as they’re reaching the end of their rope of patience, right at the last 15 minutes of shooting light in a deer stand over a trail the biggest buck in the woods is using, and that’s a very good thing. The hunt’s intensity needs to be what they want it to be and, like their attention span, that varies from moment to moment.
Walk the talk as you walk
Whether it’s woodsmanship, lore or safety, the words you say to a new hunter are just words until they see you doing what you’ve told them to do. Any walk outside with a firearm should go into their memory banks as an example of how to put safety first, no matter what, without excuse.
When they’ve seen enough examples and had enough instruction to take to the woods by themselves years hence, they’ll continue to run into safety problems they’ll solve by remembering the example you set and doing what they think you would do.
Gone to the dogs
The opportunity to get more enjoyment out of fewer acres makes chasing rabbits with beagles one of the all time great outdoor pursuits, and finding the right set of hounds can be easy and fun as well.
Cottontail rabbits in Mississippi thrive best in the edges of nature, the transitional zones where open fields meet stands of woods, where overgrown ditches and creek banks wind their way through cropland, where cattle pastures give way to the undisturbed and the unmanicured.
With reasonable care and forethought, almost all of these are grounds can be hunted for rabbits, and they're great training and exercise zones for beagles all year round. The fact such areas are typically handy means a dog's first test lies close by. Whether you're starting a new puppy or trading for an adult dog, determining what sort of canine skills you have on your hands is always an exciting proposition.
Make sure there are no heavily-traveled roads or aggressive yard dogs nearby that could endanger a new dog’s safety. Get permission in advance if there's a property line a dog running a rabbit is likely to cross. That’s all you’ll need to be set to go.
Without fail, the first qualification that should determine whether an adult dog is worth your time is its attitude toward working cover. The old adage about being as at home as a rabbit in a briar patch is perfectly accurate - rabbits hang out in the thickest cover they can find, both for food and security, and it should be an adult beagle's passion to dive in and bump them out. A few briars along the way shouldn't stop them if they know what they're after.
That dog will hunt
A rabbit dog should work cover with their nose down and their tail whipping side to side and they should do so aggressively and with enthusiasm, driving into the thickest places rather than walking around them.
Once they've jumped a rabbit, they should trail by scent and move along at a brisk enough pace to keep the rabbit moving, but not so fast that they continually overrun turns and lose the trail.
Within reason, the faster a hound pushes a rabbit without losing the trail, the fewer turns the rabbit will be able to make and the simpler the rabbit will be to intercept. Because of the differences in dogs' abilities and temperments, and the variances in terrain, most hunters come to think of a certain preferred trailing speed not as fast or slow, but as just right, and will reserve both the words "fast" and "slow" as ways to describe their own idea of “bad." One man's opinion of bad, therefore, will not be likely to match that of another, which is why adult hunting beagles can often be bought or traded and improve both the pack they leave and the pack they join.
Starting a new puppy on the rabbit trails requires a more delicate touch. One way to begin is by using a hot dog or other meat snack dragged around a yard as a way to teach new beagles to trail anything before teaching them to trail rabbits. A new puppy’s introduction to rabbits should be orchestrated in an area with few if any briars, so the dogs don't associate the scent of a rabbit with being stuck and stung. Still, just as with the adult dogs, the puppies should exhibit an enthusiasm for the chase and a dedication to the work. In either case, the joys of the outdoors can be found close to home, hot on the heels of a pack of beagles.