– Here amid an endless sea of frozen farmland barren of crops, John Dzik and Scott Herzog regularly engage in their winter sport, rabbit hunting. On a recent day, Dzik’s grandson Evan Woytcke, age 11, was along, a skater whose hands are equally comfortable cradling a .410 or a hockey stick.

By some measures, rabbits are the most commonly hunted game animals in the nation. The Department of Natural Resources estimates that something north of 60,000 eastern cottontails are felled each year by Minnesota hunters, though of late perhaps that figure could be a stretch due among other reasons to the general softening of the populace.

Evan is not soft. Chambering a round in his single-shot scattergun, he listened intently as his grandfather instructed him how the first grove of the day would be hunted. This particular farmstead was abandoned, and Dzik and Herzog, who have chased rabbits together since 1982, have long had landowner permission to beat its bushes in hopes of putting a cottontail to scurrying.

“You stand here,” Dzik, 65, said to Evan, noting that another grandson, Luke Brandenburg, 10, will join his hunting crew soon. “Watch for rabbits that cross this cut-through while we walk the woods.”

I have a dog with me, a black Labrador, Jet. By rights, we’d have along as well one of the many rabbit-hunting beagles Dzik has owned in his lifetime. But after his last two beagles, Captain and Maggie, died, the arc of his canine-ownership days descended, and now when he, Evan, Herzog, Herzog’s sons and assorted hangers-on scour the countryside for rabbits, they do so dogless.

“I grew up in St. Paul and got my first beagle, Chips, as a teenager,” Dzik said. “I saw an ad in the paper and paid $35 for him. My mom said if we ever got a dog, she was leaving. But she still lives in the same house.”

A natural born pheasant hunter, Herzog, 58, was unsure what he was getting into some 36 years ago when Dzik first invited him rabbit hunting. This would be, Dzik advised, a 20 gauge undertaking, so leave the big bore stuff at home. Also, a rabbit hunter’s clothing should be 100 percent briar-proof, so dress accordingly. Finally, regarding table fare, rabbit satisfies most palates, and indeed in many of the world’s fine brasseries is a dish frequently requested. So plan to eat what you shoot.

“When I first heard that John hunted rabbits, it sounded to me like a corny little sport,” Herzog said. “I thought, ‘He’s no manly pheasant or duck or deer hunter. He’s a rabbit hunter.’ But I love it, and over the years we’ve taught my four sons to hunt rabbits, and they love it, too, in part because they usually get to shoot a lot.”

Years ago, Dzik and Herzog routinely frequented farmsteads and groves within an hour’s drive of the Twin Cities. Now they might travel twice that distance before stomping brush piles and other thick cover, hoping to roust a rabbit.

“When I had my beagles, we didn’t walk as much as we do today,” Dzik said. “We generally would stay in one place while the beagles hunted a woodlot until they picked up rabbit scent. Then they’d run the scent, barking, until the rabbit eventually circled back to us.”

Using for the most part shotguns outfitted with modified chokes and firing low-brass loads, rabbit hunters spray relatively wide shot patterns when targeting their fast-scurrying prey.

Capable, ultimately, of disappearing down holes, rabbits spend a lifetime evading coyotes, foxes, minks and raccoons. So when pushed by human predators, they’re well practiced, as Mick Jagger once sang, at the art of deception.

They’re also proficient breeders. Surviving on various greenery, perhaps especially summertime garden plants, female cottontails often are bred within hours of giving birth to litters of four to six young. Gestation is ever so brief, and a mere three weeks later, the birthing process can be repeated.

In about five hours the other day, we hunted a handful of farmsteads. Moving perhaps 15 cottontails in the process, we encountered an unusually small number of rabbits, Dzik and Herzog said.

A trouper throughout, Evan held nothing back, farmstead to farmstead, even though he had a hockey game to play that night.

Of the two rabbits we killed, he rolled one.

“I got Evan the .410 last Christmas, and he took his firearms safety training in the spring,” Dzik said.

“He’s been eager to go. He’s my little buddy.”


Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com