By Mark Fike
Photos by Meghan Marchetti
January 20 was one of the few really cold days we have experienced thus far in 2020. With temperatures below freezing and a windchill definitely below freezing, it took a hardy soul and a motivated individual to want to go stand in the weather and wind all day long to hunt. But a number of interested young hunters showed up for the annual Sgt. Frank Spuchesi youth rabbit hunt for members of the King George Outdoor Club.
In fact, we had a waiting list. In the end, the four chosen youth did not give up their spots to anyone on standby, and they arrived at the meeting spot to convoy over to the property where we were to hunt. Upon arriving at the property and disembarking the trucks, we all layered up with clothing, donned blaze orange, and pulled our gear out before gathering around Sgt. Spuchesi. A Conservation Police Officer with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), Sgt. Spuchesi joined forces with me to create the King George Outdoor Club and organize this annual youth hunt.
Sgt. Spuchesi gave a safety brief, discussed the plan of the day, and reviewed regulations regarding rabbit hunting. Everyone understood what we were about to do and excitement rose as our huntmaster went over to his truck and dropped the tailgate.
The beagles had been whining with pent-up energy with the anticipation of the job they were about to do and eagerly went to work with their anxious tails wagging as their noses snorted up the scents off the cold ground. When the gates on the dog boxes opened, the four-legged tracking pros dropped off and instantly began to go to work. They fanned out to some nearby briars and a thicket, which resulted in a rabbit jumped. I glanced at my watch. A mere few minutes had passed since the thud of the tailgate dropping. Sgt. Spuchesi’s dogs are amazing!
As much as I give credit to the dogs and their master’s training, I have to also point toward the fact that Sgt. Spuchesi also takes care to save this piece of property he leases just for the youth to have a great hunt. He does not hunt the parcel until the kids get a chance at it first. Then he still is very careful to limit rabbit harvests so that future youth hunts will be spectacular.
This particular hunt was just that. Layla, Grace, Grant, and Sam were spaced apart and the dogs were quick to run a rabbit to the two girls. The rabbits were fast and the first few shots were missed, but the dogs kept working the rabbits and bringing them back around to the youth. As experience grew, the youth understood what was about to happen. The next time a rabbit darted past Grace, she bagged it. In fact, Grace bagged several rabbits. The dogs would chase a rabbit through the thick cover, Grace would check to see if it was a safe shot and if not, the dogs moved the rabbit up the hill, through some cover and back down in a few minutes. Layla would also shoot a time or two, and then she connected and learned how the hunt was done.
This pattern continued for a few hours as the youth began learning how rabbit hunting worked. Sgt. Spuchesi and his friend, Roger Summers, worked the cover and kept the dogs moving. The dogs were determined and kept driving rabbits through the briars despite the cold and wind.
The wind chill definitely bit us and we frequently had to put our trigger fingers in our pockets. I am proud to say I never heard the young people complain at all. They kept alert like hawks watching for movement, checking for safe shooting corridors, and taking shots when they saw an opportunity.
Every youth on the hunt got at least one rabbit thanks to their adult mentors, their dogged determination, the hard work of Sgt. Spuchesi and Roger Summers, and obviously the noses and baying of the best rabbit dogs I have ever seen.
When the hunt was over, Sgt. Spuchesi and I showed the kids how to dress out a rabbit and we let the youth try cleaning their own rabbits too. No one was squeamish at all. The parents looked on as this played out.
Over the next few days I heard from the youth how good the rabbit was for supper. In fact, Grace brought a container of the rabbit stew she made with her mom and gave it to me for lunch. She said the stew was so good she had to share. I was honored to share in her first rabbit hunt meal.
We are very proud of the youth and thankful that our local Conservation Police Officer and his friend were willing to use their day off to unselfishly share a great rabbit hunting spot with the youth of our region. This is an incredible opportunity for the youth and they were very appreciative also. A total of eight rabbits were bagged in a few hours of hunting.
DGIF CPOs put a lot of hours in interacting with the public. Efforts like this youth hunt that Sgt. Spuchesi hosts is a great example of positive publicity and one that the kids will never forget. How many kids can say they got to go hunt with a CPO?
This program is supported by the 2019 Virginia Wildlife Grant Program through a partnership between the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Foundation of Virginia.
This article first appeared in the February issue of the Northern Neck Sentinel.