As regular readers already know, then 9-year-old Happy moved to my house three years ago, and the two of us have been chasing cottontails ever since. What many of you may not know is that partnering up with me marked her official retirement from an illustrious career spent producing several of North America’s best known field trial champion beagles.
Her former owner, Mark Ackmann, and I were both beginning to wonder if it was ever going to happen, but the first two days of December we finally got together at his Jonesburg, Missouri, home. Our plan was simple: Happy would be joined by one of her daughters and one of her granddaughters the first day and with a son and a grandson the second day, while we hunted a couple of nearby conservation areas.
I had the utmost confidence in the first part of our plan. None of the dogs we’d be using were field trial champions, but they were all exceptional beagles. If there were rabbits to be found, three generations of Happy’s family working together would find them.
It was the second part of Mark’s plan I had my doubts about. The only thing I know for sure about the St. Louis metropolitan area is that a whole lot of people live there. I was very suspicious that a goodly number of them would enjoy spending time outdoors. Would public lands located not much more than an hour’s drive from the Gateway Arch be too crowded and/or too over exploited for my countrified tastes?
The first day Mark took us to the White Memorial Conservation Area, which is located west of U.S. Highway 61 at Whiteside in Lincoln County. Its 810 acres — a square mile is 640 acres — is characterized by timbered wet weather creek drainages and open fields on the flat uplands. There’s also a beautiful lake with a boat ramp.
Although deer hunting is allowed under modified statewide regulations, this CA is managed for small game. A small percentage of the open land had been crop fields in 2015, but most was tall weeds. In many cases, this was the result of deliberate management, but some weed fields were the unavoidable result of last spring’s wet weather preventing the planting of crops.
But be the reason a given field is weedy as it may, rabbits love them. Hunting more than a tiny percentage of the possibilities in a single day was, of course, impossible, but finding rabbits wasn’t a problem wherever we went. Actually seeing a rabbit, on the other hand, was a big problem, so it was fortunate indeed that our main purpose was to enjoy the dogs rather than to fill our game bags.
The following day we visited Whetstone Creek CA, which is located north of I-70’s Williamsburg exit off of state Route D. This CA encompasses 5,147 acres in a single block along the Whetstone Creek watershed. It’s managed for small game. In fact, despite its size, deer hunting is limited to managed hunts with very limited numbers of participants.
Based on what I observed on the small portion of the CA we saw, the primary means of management here could best be described as benign neglect. An overwhelming majority of the open land is covered by tall weeds. That said, weather raised havoc with spring crop planting here, too. I asked a member of the CA’s management team if mowing strips or paths through the weeds had been considered and was told that not only did they not have time for that task but also that mowed strips made were also used by predators.
The one thing we didn’t see at either CA was people. In fact, we were the only hunting party using either White Memorial or Whetstone Creek on the days we spent there. Obviously, that’s not always the case. Opening weekends of major seasons generate heavy pressure on most public land, and these two are no exception to that rule. Conversely, having a CA entirely to yourself during the week later in the season isn’t unusual even on areas located within easy driving distance of major cities.
In closing, here’s a tip you may find helpful if you decide to give rabbit hunting a try on these and similar CAs: While beagles are always the best way to hunt bunnies, they’re not always the most efficient. Except for the detail that waiting for a cottontail to fly is futile, the tried-and-true pheasant hunting technique of having a group of hunters walk abreast through a field with blockers waiting at the far end works very well.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]