By Doug Humphreys
I grew up in neighboring Jefferson County when it didn’t grow housing developments with “Ryan” in the name. It grew corn and soybeans and hay for its cattle. It was a patchwork of plowed fields, fallow fields and wood lots—all separated by a grid of tangled fence rows. It was a habitat custom made for rabbits, quail, and pheasant.
It was a slower time. People wrote letters, and waited for a letter in return. Most of those letters were written in cursive, which was still taught in schools. There were no stop lights on Route 340, and the Sheetz brothers weren’t heard of yet.
People also took time to hunt the rabbits and quail and pheasant that were once abundant in the Shenandoah Valley. They’d put on worn canvas shooting coats with frayed elastic shell holders on the front and blood stained game bags in the back. They’d sport an orange hat and cradle a scattergun in the crook of their arm, and walk shoulder to shoulder with friends to see what they could flush. It was a wonderful time in a beautiful place.
Today the Valley is still pretty wonderful, just not so much if you are a rabbit, a quail, or a pheasant. I can’t remember the last time I heard the call of a bobwhite or the crow of a cock. The last birds I folded in Jefferson County were in 1988. There is just no habitat for them any longer.
But the rabbits . . . the rabbits are still here. Even though the habitat does not suit them like it once did. Despite the explosion of foxes and in spite of the coyotes that have invaded the county, the rabbits persist.
This year I decided I wanted to remember yesteryear. I decided to hunt rabbits. I dug my game vest out of the gun closet, and it greeted me by spitting a 20-year-old partridge feather onto the floor of my office. I apologized for the time that had elapsed since our last outing and suggested that it was rabbits, not quail, that were on the agenda for the day.
The bitter cold reminded me of old times. I walked in crunchy snow along fence rows and in woodlots kicking brush piles and berry patches and stepping on every lump of grass that was bigger than a rabbit.
For a few hours I felt like a kid again. I carried the same H&R single shot that I did the first time I rabbit hunted in Middleway almost 30 years ago. I’d forgotten how fatiguing walking through thickets was, but I enjoyed every exhausting minute—and every scratch I earned across my thighs and forearms and face.
As if on cue, as the sun dipped behind the Blue Ridge Mountains and the landscape glowed gold in the evening’s last light, a rabbit bolted from a tuft of grass that I never expected he could hide in. I leveled the scattergun and shot, a motion that cannot be guided by thought. Though the instinct was still there, and was still pretty fast, it had grown untrained. Snow fluffed on the wrong side of the cottontail.
The rabbit stopped at 20 yards, like they almost always do, and I reached for a shell to load the smoking chamber. I smiled when I realized that the elastic on my old vest had grown so frayed, so loose, that my thin little 20 gauge shells had slid out the bottom as I stomped in search of a bunny.
He wiggled his nose then hopped a few feet into a mess and tangle of Multiflora Rose. I couldn’t even pretend to be disappointed. I’ll always take a good story over a good stew.
If you want to experience the golden age of the Valley, or if you want to reacquaint yourself with the person you used to be in whatever county you may have been that person in, hunt rabbits.
If you ask the farmer nicely, and offer to split the harvest, you won’t have to knock on many farmhouse doors to get permission for an afternoon of rabbit hunting. Even if he tells you “no,” you’ll be able to tell by the look in his eye that he appreciates being asked a question that he hasn’t been asked in a very long time.
No matter where you go you’ll have to look real hard to find a rabbit, kicking every bush and stepping on every clump of grass. And when you do find one you’ll have to make your shots count. Just remember that when rabbit hunting, the journey is the destination. Move slowly, enjoy the hunt, remember who you used to be, and make it last as long as you can.