Deer hunting has been the most popular type of hunting here in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, and the surrounding area, for the last 50 years or so, but it wasn’t always that way.
Many hunters in this area, up until at least the early 1970’s, were avid small game hunters. Squirrels were hunted for recreation, and as an important food source, as were the critters I want to talk about in this piece… Rabbits!
As a young boy growing up in the small town of Paw Paw, I loved listening to the old men who hung around on the store porches and at the gas station. I was especially interested in hearing them talk about hunting and fishing when they were younger.
Many of the stories they told were about small game hunting. There simply weren’t many deer in this area when they were growing up in the early 1900’s up through the 1940’s.
I remember in particular one wonderful old gentleman, Robert Hare, telling me about my grandfather, Albert Shambaugh, who died long before I was born. Mr. Hare’s eyes lit up and he smiled and said, “Albert was a great rabbit hunter. I remember seeing him all around Magnolia, carrying his double-barreled shotgun. He was known to be an excellent shot. He killed many a rabbit with that gun.”
Even when I was a young hunter, in the 1970’s and early 80’s, rabbit hunting was extremely popular. Lots of people in the area had rabbit beagles, including my oldest brother “Pete” Shambaugh, and our Uncle Curtis. Hunting with beagles added a whole other level of fun. It became a social event. Rabbits would be jumped from their hiding place, either by the hunters, or by the dogs, and the dogs would take off after them. Hunters would post in different positions, waiting for a shot at the rabbit, if the chase came their way.
I vividly remember the first time I managed to hit a rabbit that was in full flight from the dogs. The old Western Maryland Railroad track was still in place in Magnolia. I wasn’t old enough to take a stand by myself, so I was standing with my Dad. As the dogs started towards us, my Dad said, “Get ready.” The rabbit came flying out of the tall grass that grew along the tracks. I swung my little 20 gauge single barrel and folded the rabbit as he cleared the first rail. It was the best shot I had ever made. I remember my Dad laughing and telling me, “Good shot!” There may have been some luck involved, but I never considered that at the time.
I recall another memorable hunt at the old Mountaindale Orchard, near Paw Paw. It was late season, and very cold. My Dad and I were hunting with my brother’s dog. The ponds in and around the orchard had briar patches around them, and the water was frozen. The dog would flush rabbits from the briars, and they would streak across the frozen ponds, offering a wide-open shot. Some of the rabbits that day were flushing from the short grass out in the orchard, again, offering nice open shooting. I was about 11 or 12 years old and had recently grown into my little shotgun. I was shooting pretty good. My Dad, who was a fantastic shot with a shotgun, didn’t seem to be shooting much. Even as a kid, it was obvious to me that he was letting me do most of the shooting. Later in the day, I mentioned it to him. He smiled and said he remembered being a kid and how much fun it was when someone let him do the shooting. Up until that time, I had shot a few rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs etc., but this was the first time I was ever consistent on fast moving targets. It was also my first time ever getting a “limit” of five rabbits. My Dad shot three, giving us 8 for the day. It is one of my fondest hunting and one of my fondest childhood memories.
My brothers and I also used to enjoy carrying .22 rifles and looking for tracks in a fresh snow, and trying to stalk up on them, or track them around to each other.
We often even rabbit hunted on Christmas Day. One year, about a week or so before Christmas, I started bugging my old brother Kenny about if we could go. Kenny loved a good joke. He acted like he thought I wouldn’t want to go when the time came. I insisted that I would. So, Kenny made me sign a contract, agreeing to rabbit hunt on Christmas Day. What Kenny knew, that I did not, was that I was getting a dirt bike for Christmas! He let me ride it for a bit, then held me to the contract. I didn’t really mind. I still have the contract.
Rabbits are great table fare. They are very good pan-fried or fixed in a crockpot with sauerkraut. My absolute favorite, and a dish that my Dad loved, was when my Mom would bake the quarters into a pan of dressing (stuffing). It was one of the best things I have ever eaten.
So, if you ever have the opportunity, give rabbit hunting a try. It doesn’t matter if you hunt with shotguns and flush them from their hiding spots, track them in the snow, stalk them with a .22 rifle, or get to go hunt with beagles — it is all great fun, and they are some of the best eating you will ever try.
Wade Shambaugh has lived in Morgan County his whole life and is a lifelong outdoorsman.