Fond memories of hunting during the holidays

December 21, 2013

A combination of bad weather and the holiday season have kept catch reports very low. On Saturday, rockfish were caught from the ocean between Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island on trolled Stretch plugs and Mojos. It was far from a hot bite, with a few boats reporting a little success while others had nothing.

With the rockfish run on the decline, tog became the target for bottom fishermen working the ocean reef sites. The Katydid had a very good catch on Saturday at Reef Site 10, but has been unable to get out since then. The full moon was on Tuesday, so perhaps the current will drop off enough by the weekend to allow for good tog action.

The only report we had from the Delaware Bay was some short rockfish caught on plugs pulled through the rips. The occasional keeper was taken, with most of them just above the 28-inch minimum size limit.

Holiday hunting

Back in the dark ages when I was in high school, hunting over the Christmas holidays was something I looked forward to almost as much as gifts on Christmas morning. In those days, my hunting was restricted to rabbits and squirrels, with the squirrel hunting done in early fall. Once rabbit season opened, I concentrated my efforts to the fields behind my house in Claymont. Having a week or more of vacation gave me ample time to enjoy the sport.

I had a beagle, or as my grandfather called them, “rabbit dogs,” kept in a house and pen behind the garage. Pop said there were house dogs and hunting dogs, and you would ruin a hunting dog by bringing it in the house. I have since discovered that like many things Pop said, this is not true.

We lived on Wister Street with nothing between the house and the Delaware River except open fields and the Pennsylvania Railroad. This was long before I-495 was built, so I could open the dog pen, turn Jake loose, and we would be hunting as soon as we cleared the back yard. I hunted alone or with Doug Elliott, and most of the time we were the only people in the fields. In those days, the sound of gunfire behind the house was just a sign that someone was rabbit hunting. Today in Claymont, the sound of gunfire still rings out, but it’s not rabbits they are shooting.

Jake was a purebred beagle with a very deep voice, and when he was on a rabbit there was no mistake. If he started yelping and whining, it meant he had kicked up a pheasant. He knew he had something, but was unsure exactly what it was. This was the signal for me to race ahead of my dog, because for all his miraculous qualities, he was no pointer. By the time I flushed the bird, I was so out of breath, I usually missed the shot. How’s that for a good excuse for poor shooting?

Pheasants were rare in Claymont, but we always had one or two around, and they made the day even more exciting. The story of how they came to the area is they were part of the released stock in Pennsylvania and migrated down to Delaware. I did encounter more of them closer to the state line, so perhaps the story is true.

We hunted on both sides of the railroad tracks, and quite often Jake would pick up a scent along the road bed. Then it was back into the field trying to figure out where the rabbit would show itself. Most of the time, they ran in a big circle, and I could hear Jake moving away, then back toward my position. It was not unusual for the rabbit to be well ahead of the dog, and I would see it sneaking through a briar patch or thick weeds. These were easy shots that I seldom missed.

Then there were times when the rabbit would come busting out of thick cover at full speed with the dog hot on its tail. I occasionally missed those shots.

On one such occasion, I got lucky and dropped the bunny in its tracks. Unfortunately, Jake hit his brakes a little late, resulting in rabbit and dog tumbling across the ground. Jake got to his feet and started looking all around for the rabbit, finally discovered it, then stood guard as if daring his quarry to start running again.

After a final Claymont hunting season in 1960, I joined the Navy in January 1961. Pop took Jake to Ebe Layton’s farm near Laurel, where he knew the dog would be well cared for. I came home on leave that fall only to find someone had stolen Jake the day before rabbit season opened. We would never hunt together again.

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at

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