The last of the rabbit hunters

What used to be a big sport on the Island is running out of room.

Back from left: Steve Amaral, Gus Leaf. Bottom row from left: Zeb Tilton, David Amaral, Cody Pachico - Courtesy Stephen Morris

There was a time, as recently as the 1970s, when a teenage kid, shotgun in hand, would meet up with a pal early in the day, maybe somewhere along Barnes Road, then spend the morning hunting for rabbits in the dense woods around Lagoon Pond before retracing their steps, crossing County Road, and hunting the rest of the day along Sengekontacket Pond all the way to Felix Neck and back.

That is how Dave Billings and Steve Morris of Oak Bluffs remember it, and they would know. The two are among a dwindling number of local sportsmen, and occasionally women, who recall the customs and the pleasures of hunting rabbits on Martha’s Vineyard, and who are still active.

“That whole area from the Lagoon over to Sengekontacket was public land,” explained Dave. “The regulations say you have to be 150 feet from a paved road and 500 feet from a dwelling before you shoot. That was easy to do back then. You rarely had to go uptown.”

Uptown? Sensing his listener’s greenhorn status, Dave clarified: “At the time, anything above Alley’s was considered uptown. Anything below, downtown.”

Steve’s recollections center on his grandfather. “We went out together every Saturday,” he recalls. “The State Forest was a favorite, before the industrial area and bike trails. You could go as far as you wanted; the dogs could run forever. You wouldn’t see a person, a car, or a road.”

Over time, both the world and the Island have changed, and the hunting of rabbits is one of the casualties of those changes. Both men can measure the sport’s decline firsthand.

Dave is the owner of Western Auto Store in Oak Bluffs, whose merchandise includes hunting supplies. “We sell small-gauge shotgun pellets that you need for rabbits,” Dave said. “We used to see lots of dads in here with their sons or daughters to buy the shot. Now there might be one or two fathers per year who come.”

Steve, who still hunts every weekend, cites the absence of younger people in the field. “A lot of younger guys are hunting on the Island, but not rabbits,” he observed. “I’d say there’s only a handful of younger rabbit hunters now.”

The men are more realistic than wistful in recounting the main factor in the decline. As Dave puts it, “Access to the habitat is dwindling.” In other words, development of those prime rabbit-hunting areas of his childhood, as well as many tracts of land “uptown” in West Tisbury and Chilmark, makes it difficult to hunt within the regulations.

“Go into those woods off Barnes and County now, and start making those 150- and 500-foot radius circles, you may end up in someone’s yard,” he points out. “You’re allowed to hunt on private property if it’s big enough, but you need written permission from the owner,” he added.

Those permissions play an important part in the Saturday hunts that Steve routinely organizes. He has a regular group of hunters, including Dave, who participate when they can. “We go to different places each week, often in Chilmark or Aquinnah,” said Steve. “It all depends on the permissions we can get.” As proprietor of Dick’s Bait & Tackle in Oak Bluffs, he has customers who are happy to help out.

As for the sport itself, enthusiasts past and present will tell you there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. For one thing, it’s often a family affair. “On a weekend hunt there would usually be three generations of hunters going out,” Dave said. “It was something you did together, a pastime that people shared.”

The hunt would typically be followed by a family meal, the main course being fresh from the woods. Dave extolled both the taste and versatility of rabbit as dining room fare. “Pound for pound,” he said, “it’s the most usable prey on the Island. Just skin it, remove the innards and cook it any way you’d like. There are plenty of easy recipes.”

Another part of the enjoyment is watching a beagle and rabbit play cat and mouse. Here’s what we learned: A hunting dog chases a scent, not a rabbit. (A dog couldn’t catch a rabbit even if it wanted to.) Hunters watch the dog and follow it. When a rabbit knows a dog is close to its home, it initiates a diversionary tactic, leading the dog away from the nest in hopes it will become distracted. Along the way, according to Dave, “they play a little game of hopscotch.” The rabbit stops along its route, waits for the dog to catch up, then moves ahead. Gradually, the couple circle back to the nest. If the dog is still on its scent, the rabbit leads it on a much bigger circle.

“If that happens, you can lose your dog for a while,” explained Steve. “The trick is to get a good shot at the rabbit during the first loop.”

Again, what makes all of this more difficult today is the limited space. The increase in homes and paved roads means an increase in safety concerns for all parties involved — including the family pet.

“Back in the day, most Island hunters kept several dogs in kennels,” Dave said, “one dog for each type of game: deer, birds, ducks, rabbits. Now, with hunting territory so limited, it’s more practical to have one dog, usually a beagle, which doubles as a domestic animal.”

The future of rabbit hunting on Martha’s Vineyard is not bright. Although off-Island hunters — particularly a strong Portuguese contingent from New Bedford — are still a fixture, extensive development of the animal’s habitat has seriously impacted this almost quaint pastime. But there are other factors contributing to the sport’s demise as well, including teenagers’ busy schedules, grownups working more, and the ever-present personal devices. “I remember taking my two daughters hunting in the ’90s,” Dave said. “They enjoyed it. But as computer games and the new phones came in, they began to lose interest. And if your friends aren’t into hunting, it’s hard to stick with it.”

The emergence of technology coincided with a rise in health threats such as tularemia and Lyme disease. Woods and open meadows suddenly seemed less idyllic.

“My generation may be the last of the serious rabbit hunters on the Island,” Dave said. “It’s an enjoyable and leisurely thing to do. Weather doesn’t really matter. You’re with friends. But times have changed. The fact is, it’s not going to be passed on.”

Which doesn’t mean people like Dave and Steve can’t continue to enjoy an activity that has played such a significant part in their lives. Rabbit hunters are a smaller club than ever on Martha’s Vineyard, but it’s a tight-knit group.

“Steve’s the best shot on the Island,” says Dave. “No question about it.” Steve, on the other hand, considers Dave’s rabbit stew “the finest to be had, hands down.”

And so long as the two of them have an open field or a patch of woods to hunt on and a good dog by their side, you know where they’re going to be.

Ham Luce on Beagles and Rabbits

In 1984, Ham Luce, longtime farmer, hunter, and Oak Bluffs resident, sat with Linsey Lee and talked about rabbit hunting back in the day.*

HL: Some beagles will retrieve, instinctively. I have just one in my lifetime that’d do that. But they will not point. In fact, they’ll work on birds, but they wouldn’t hold, you know, like a trained birddog will. They’ll just keep going ahead.

LL: So how do you use beagles, then, for hunting?

HL: They’re strictly, you might say, a rabbit dog. That’s their game: rabbit or hare. It’s a funny thing; most game will run in circles. Of course deer, you know, make one hell of a big circle. Bigger animal make a bigger circle. But they have a certain territory terms of where they’re living, they really don’t want to leave it, you know. A rabbit will come around, maybe 10 minutes, or so, around the circle. And if he doesn’t lose the dog, he’s around again, of course. Or sometimes they’ll go into a hollow tree. Lose a dog.

LL: Is it best to get rabbits in the woods, or out in the fields?

HL: Well, most of the rabbits we get are in the woods, in scrub oak, stuff like that. But rabbit is good eating. It’s very much like chicken.

LL: How do you prepare it?

HL: My wife usually either fries it, or makes a casserole, or rabbit pie. A stew, you know? It’s very much like chicken.

LL: Do you have to skin them and then hang them for awhile?

HL: Skin them, and wash them out good, and soak them … to get the blood out. And that’s about it; there really isn’t that much. They’re quite tasty. Have you ever seen them hanging up in the market? They’re big; these are only about that big, really, only about a pound, maybe, you know? How do you like six guys, six guns, six beagles, and one little one-pound rabbit we are all after. How do you like that? It doesn’t make much sense, does it? And talk about sporting, huh?

LL: The manly sport!

HL: Yeah. The guy’s standing there with his foot on the dead rabbit, his gun up here, you know? Big game hunter.

* Ham Luce interviewed by Linsey Lee, Feb. 29, 1984, from the collection of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.