Hunting Jack’s Rabbits

Big game is in the eye of the beholder.

[by Johnathan O’Dell]

OLD FORD MOTOR COMPANY MAINTENANCE MANUALS CALL IT A.R.D., short for Arizona Road Dust. It’s the finest dirt particle on the planet, and will choke the best air filters ever devised. The half-mile trail of it in the wake of my truck would go unnoticed out here in the desert night if it didn’t glow so brightly in the taillights. In stark contrast to the cherry red haze in the rearview mirror, the green digital display above it reads 91°F 5:42 A.M. Warm for October in Arizona, but not unusual. At the farthest reaches of the headlights, a reflective blue orb rises from the ground and transforms into the eye of a small brown calf, awakened from her bed in the roadway. I gingerly slow the truck as the young heifer jumps to her feet, bucking and dancing in the spotlight, undecided which direction to run. This is borderlands cattle country. And this is also Jack’s country.

JACK O’CONNOR DIED NINE MONTHS AFTER I WAS BORN. Men of my father’s generation spoke reverently of him, and often repeated his words to me. They’d read him as gospel while growing up and were heavily influenced, and so, by extension, was I. I shot my first deer with a favorite of Jack’s, a Winchester Model 70 chambered in .270. But that was long before he and I became acquainted.

It came after a failed first attempt at college, a hitch in the army that ended in a bum knee, with marriage and fatherhood thrown into the mix. I ended up at Jack’s first alma mater, Arizona State University, studying wildlife management, and I often found myself whittling away time in the Hayden Library stacks.

Before I can turn the safety off, the hare flashes its white flanks with a leap and vanishes into the chaparral. My heart sinks at the missed opportunity, but I smile a little, too. I’m beginning to understand why Jack loved this challenge so much.”

A midterm research paper had me grasping at straws to fill the required number of citations for a passing grade. I might have missed Jack altogether, if not for a bout of dyslexia with the Dewey decimal system. Instead of finding a research journal, I found a bound set of Outdoor Life magazines. As I read, and came to know Jack the way my father did, my relationship with the library forever changed, and from that day until graduation I spent every free moment devouring volumes of yellowing, musty hunting lore.

Everything I heard or had been told about Jack O’Connor was true: the game, the guns, the safaris, the adventures; they were all there. But the Jack I liked best was in his earlier work, when he wrote of a love affair quite apart from his love for the grandeur of exotic landscape, horn, and antler. It was his love for a unique Arizona species, an animal for practical hunters of practical means: the antelope jackrabbit.

Jack once wrote that antelope jackrabbits are “the rarest, and the most beautiful—if any jackrabbits can be called beautiful—of all the different species of jacks found within the borders of the United States.” In one story, he wrote of jackrabbits supplementing his family’s diet during meat rationing in the Great War. Later in life, he credited his ability to make shots on running game to time spent hunting the long-eared Southwestern hare.

I didn’t question why O’Connor was so enamored with a large, lanky bunny. I just took it on faith that hunting a hare named for a beast of burden was worth it.

GUIDED BY THE FAINT MEMORY OF ROAD MAPS IN THE DIM MORNING LIGHT, I turn the truck toward a decrepit windmill with an equally neglected watering trough at its base, wincing atthe screech of overgrown paloverde branches scraping new pinstripes across the quarter panels.

I park the rig and thrust open the door a little too soon, and am engulfed in the thick cloud of dust that has followed me for the past 20 miles. The gritty spoonful that settles on my tongue has a bitter, salty taste that turns to mud before I can spit it out, and to clear it I need a quick rinse with the remaining coffee left in the cup I poured at the journey’s start.

Heat waves shimmer in the distance as dawn crests the rugged mountains, and I tuck the brim of my camouflage cap a little lower to shade my face from the glare. As I cross a deeply scoured arroyo, my eyes linger on the tracks along its sandy bottom that tell me the long ears have been here. The higher ground is littered with pellet droppings ranging in age from fresh to ancient, and for a couple of minutes I slowly survey the desert landscape before making my next move.

Walking east at daybreak, I’ll be able to spot the orange glow of sunlight through their headgear like beacons in a sea of greens and browns. But while their large ears can betray a hidden position, they’ll also hear my approach long before I get close.

I slip along a gently sloping bajada, mindful to watch the sandy washes flanking my sides. My course meanders to and fro on a trail fraught with hazards. Every plant here is covered with flesh tearing needles, thorns, claws, or barbs that no brush pants can guard against. The earth underfoot is parched and cracked from a lack of rain, yet it remains soft enough to retain the impression of my treaded boots.

Occasional halts in areas of heavy brush bring the hope of a possible quick running shot. At one stop, I briefly spot a mottled light-gray form of medium size, creeping away through a distant mesquite thicket. It’s traveling in the same cardinal direction as I. Not sure exactly what it is, I continue my stalk in hopes of seeing it again.

As the bajada gives way to low-lying desert scrub on the valley floor, a set of ears near a cholla cactus draws my stare. I freeze at the sight of a Boone & Crockett–worthy jackrabbit standing just over two feet tall at the top of the ears and probably weighing close to 10 pounds. A frenzy of emotions pours into my consciousness at the sight; I never imagined a jackrabbit could grow so large. His body language signals that he knows I’m here, and that my sudden stillness has made him nervous.

I bring the rifle to bear and center my eye on the crosshairs. Before I can turn the safety off, the hare flashes its white flanks with a leap and vanishes into the chaparral. My heart sinks at the missed opportunity, but I smile a little, too. I’m beginning to understand why Jack loved this challenge so much.

The methodical climb to the top of the next small rise ends atop a sandstone boulder, where I view the broader countryside. I pull out my water bottle, wet with condensation from the building heat, and after a long, slow sip I see my quarry lying in the shade of a decaying mesquite tree, seemingly unaware of my presence. It’s some 200 yards distant, with a patchwork of broken country between us. I mentally mark its position and choose the path of least resistance.

Navigating the tangled maze of desert flora and weatherworn landscape, I emerge into a clearing closer to my target. As I cautiously tiptoe over dozens of wooden cactus skeletons, my attention is rattled when I misstep and break my silent approach, causing the jackrabbit to burst forth from his bed. Its awkward gait launches it forward for a few yards until it stops broadside, unsure what has disturbed its rest.

For a moment, its head has a rigid and angular shape, unlike the softer features of other hares I’ve seen. The ears are stiff and erect. Its large amber eyes are dilated to a comical proportion, and it holds its body in a tense posture like a coiled spring straining to release. On high alert, the animal has an almost prehistoric appearance.

I shoulder my rifle and center the crosshairs on his rib cage. The gun bucks into my collarbone and interrupts my focus, and when I regain my bearings the jackrabbit is now on its side, its powerful legs giving the last futile kicks in the dirt as life ebbs away.

I kneel beside it, watching the gentle harelike attributes return to its form. Then, with a noticeable effort, I lift the animal and haul it back to my truck.

Its fur is less coarse to the touch than I expected. Before unsheathing my knife to commence fi eld dressing, I pause, noticing its honey-colored eye covered with a thin layer of dust. As if giving a brief eulogy, I say thanks to both Jacks.

Johnathan O’Dell lives in Arizona and hunts small game with a single-minded fervor seldom seen in the modern hunting era.