By DAVID RAINER
A briar patch that would make Br’er Rabbit proud appeared impenetrable. Yet the
howl of John McKelvey’s pack of beagles assured us there was indeed a rabbit
a flash or fur that almost looked like liquid, the rabbit zipped past inside the
thick mat of briars. Round and round that patch went the rabbit and the dogs
until the canecutter made the mistake of leaving his haven and was dispatched by
That scenario was repeated numerous times during a recent hunt in Crenshaw
County, but there were plenty of other chases where the rabbits opted for a race
through a pine thicket or two might be the best way to leave the beagles behind.
It seldom worked in favor of the rabbits. McKelvey’s determined pack stayed on
the trail until the rabbit presented a shot. And there were plenty of shots,
some accurate and some that prolonged the action. If there was anything
plentiful other than sharp briars, it was action on the 880 acres of planted
pines, green fields and briar patches that once was a dairy farm.
“It is an ideal place to hunt rabbits,” said McKelvey, who serves as police
chief in New Site when he’s not hunting rabbits. “There’s plenty of roads and
plenty of cover. A rabbit actually has a sporting chance, especially in the
Bill Nunnery of Tallassee agreed.
you wanted to put together a rabbit-hunting place, I don’t believe you could get
any better,” Nunnery said. “You’ve got strips of green fields, strips of pines,
briar patches, areas that they’ve let grow up. You’ve got to have the right
If you haven’t got the habitat you’ll have a hard time. The coyotes will wear
them out if they haven’t got a place for them to hide.”
For diehard rabbit hunters, it’s all about the chase, not necessarily the end
result, although fried rabbit loins smothered in gravy sure does reward the
There were chases galore, sometimes too many. There were so many rabbits that
the beagles would be on one trail when they would jump another rabbit and the
pack would split.
“Sometimes it hurts you when you’ve got too many rabbits you can get too many
races going,” Nunnery said. “That’s the thing about John’s dogs, though. His
dogs are so well trained, he could catch them up and get the pack back together.
He puts a lot of time in those dogs.”
McKelvey admits that he has a lot invested in his beagles, which are far more
than just hunting companions.
“Most of my dogs are family pets,” McKelvey said. “I kennel them at night, but
in the morning we go out and put them in a big pen. I’ve also got a rabbit
enclosure of about five acres where we take puppies and start training them when
they’re 3½-4 months old. We work hard to keep good dogs. Genetics are a part of
that. I’ve got two dogs that are registered, but that’s all. I just make sure
I’ve got good bloodlines.
“The key is to be hands on, spending them time with them. Cujo is my wife’s
pride and joy. He comes in the house and goes to the front of the refrigerator
and waits for my wife to give him a treat. He eats one there. When she gives him
a second treat, he takes it and heads back outside. After a hunt, when I call my
wife, the first thing she asks is “what dogs have you got?” If Cujo is missing I
don’t come home.”
But rabbit hunting hasn’t always been McKelvey’s main hunting activity. He’s got
several 150-class deer on the wall.
just stumbled into it,” he said. “I was looking for something to do with my son
(Chris) so we could communicate with each other, other than deer hunting. It’s
one of those things where they’ve got action and are able to see stuff. If you
don’t have action, it turns them off, especially when they sit in a stand for
several hours and have to be quiet.
“And rabbit hunting is more of a social event. You can carry on conversations.
You can have a big time. It’s a bonding experience between friends and
especially with my kids. It’s really helped our relationships. Three generations
of McKelveys go hunting together. My dad (Leonard) has a big time with it.”
Nunnery insists it’s a crying shame people in the state don’t take more
advantage of the small-game hunting opportunities in the state.
“So many people in Alabama don’t even know what rabbit hunting is all about,”
Nunnery said. “I grew up hunting rabbits and squirrels. That’s where you learn
to be a hunter. If you take a kid, put them on a green field, shoot a deer and
load it up, the kid doesn’t learn anything about hunting. They need to learn how
to hunt. I’ll take my grandkids and just walk through the woods and I show them
deer rubs and scrapes. I try to teach them how to hunt because they won’t learn
those skills from anybody else.
I’m afraid that after our generation, the ones who are leasing land and planting
green fields, that the next generation won’t go to the trouble it takes to have
a decent place to hunt.”
McKelvey said he involves his kids in all aspects of rabbit hunting, handing out
chores involved with keeping dogs.
“It gives them a responsibility to keep the dogs fed and the kennels cleaned,”
McKelvey said. “When get out and go hunting they can see what they’ve done and
they can see the benefits of taking care of the dogs.”
In April each year, McKelvey also makes sure everyone has a chance to share in
the bounty provided by Alabama’s great outdoors.
“What I do at the end of hunting season is I have a big party at my house and
cook all the wild game I’ve accumulated throughout the year,” he said.
“Everybody in the community who wants to can come by and eat. That usually means
we feed between 400 and 500 people. It’s a big event.”