three hunters walking through swamp
Giacomo Fortunato

The Swamp Runners: Rabbit Hunting in Alabama Swamps

This group of close-knit hunters are keeping the sporting tradition of running rabbits alive in the South. And with their social media savvy, they're now sharing that tradition with the rest of the world

I

t was the last rabbit on the first day that beat us so bad. We had our excuses. By the time Sugar Ray jumped the bunny, we’d been chasing swamp rabbits through the Alabama wilds for eight long hours. We were worn down by wet thickets and cut up by cane briar. We were headed back to the truck with enough rabbits in the bag to carpet the tailgate, but then Tyson chimed in with Sugar Ray, bawling deep in the swamp. Lacy and Molly joined the race, and then every other dog in the pack cut loose with a song. This swamper wasn’t ­giving in easy, though. Ten minutes passed before the pack pushed the rabbit out of the flooded woods and across a ridge of green fields and open pines. The bunny covered ground in giant 10‑foot leaps as it turned for a second swamp on the far side of the ridge. The beagles were still in the woods when the shooting started.

treymane benson hunting swamp rabbits
Tremayne Benson hoists a pair of Alabama swamp rabbitsGiacomo Fortunato

“Here he comes, Marquan!”

Boom!

“Get him, Jamie! Get him!”

Boom!

“Shoot, Eddie, shoot!”

Boom! Boom!

treymane benson youtube recording
Screen Time: During hunts, the group will take breaks to record videos for Benson’s popular YouTube channel.Giacomo Fortunato

As the rabbit neared the second swamp thicket, racing across the open, Marquan Brown fired again, on the run, 12-​gauge to his shoulder, like a tank gunner on the move. Pellets kicked up dust behind, in front, and all around the rabbit, then the critter vaulted through a line of pines and vanished into muck, cypress trees, and black water.

Hollers and whoops erupted from the field. Whoever didn’t shoot let the rest of us have it. No one could believe we all missed that rabbit. We gathered the dogs and turned to the trucks, laughing and marveling at the only swamp rabbit to beat us all day—one that deserved a little peace and quiet in the Coosa River bottoms.

That’s when Tremayne Benson called out from the farm road. He stood behind a video camera mounted on a tripod. “Y’all hold on a second,” he said.

His buddies pulled up short. Benson dialed in the focus.

“Ready?” he asked. Everybody nodded. Benson pressed the record button and stepped backward into the shot. “Hey, everybody, I’m Tremayne Benson, from Benson’s Kennels. We had us a time today, as you’re gonna see…”

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The beagles are eager to start hunting.Giacomo Fortunato

In front of the camera, Benson wears a shy smile and speaks with a quiet, measured voice. Unless you really know rabbit hunting and beagle breeding, you’d never guess that this Social Security administrator and part-time preacher from Andalusia, Alabama, is one of the sport’s most recognizable ambassadors and impassioned practitioners—and a bit of a social media sensation.

This is rabbit hunting’s funky new frontier. The 36-year-old Benson runs a YouTube channel with 5,400 subscribers. It’s one of the most visited rabbit-hunting sites on the internet. Over the past six years, Benson has posted more than 120 rabbit-hunting and beagle-training videos. He hosts a call-in online chat program called “Hound Talk” and fields calls every week from around the country and overseas from hunters seeking advice on rabbit dogs, dog training, and dog breeding.

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Release the Hounds: A pack of his ­beagles follows a scent.Giacomo Fortunato

Social media, it seems, is the new country store for this breed of beagle fan. For something as niche as rabbit hunting—and swamp rabbits at that—a Benson’s Kennels post might rack up 1,000 views in a matter of hours; some of its hunt videos have garnered 50,000 to 60,000 views. “I get 80-year-old men calling me, crying and thanking me for helping to keep this sport alive,” Benson says. But it’s not just veteran hunters. He gets more calls from 25- to 40-year-old ­hunters than from any other age group. He hears from Canadians, Germans, and Australians. He fields so many requests from Spanish-speaking callers that he hired an on-call translator to help.

From Benson's perspective, these are the good old days for rabbit hunting. "It's true that a lot of old-timers can't get out there like they used to, so a lot of what you hear about dogs and rabbit hunting is about the past," he explains. "But rabbit hunting is taking on a new look. With the internet, we can show off the excitement of this sport to so many people, and that changes the dynamics of the future."

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Buchanon follows the hounds.Giacomo Fortunato

The internet—and social media, specifically—has ­democratized the beagle world, Benson figures, and it is now home to what he calls an “underground economy” of rabbit dogs.

“Thousands and thousands of beagles are bought and sold online, and the result is that everyone has access to great bloodlines,” Benson says. “Now you can find some of the best beagles that ever lived on this Earth, and give one to a 6-year-old kid for a Christmas present and not break the bank.”

And it’s not just about the dogs. Social media brings rabbit hunters together, makes it easier to find hunting companions, and helps open access to places to hunt. “Land is the biggest problem—not the lack of a desire to hunt rabbits,” Benson says. “But more and more people are figuring out ways to hunt public lands and lease rabbit lands and find ways to meet other hunters thanks to social media. That’s why I believe this is the best time in history to be a rabbit hunter.”

To see the evolution from the inside, I hooked up with Benson for a three-day Alabama road trip, hunting our way from Birmingham to Mobile. Along for the ride were an uncle, a cousin, and a passel of pals Benson befriended through social media. After meeting in Birmingham, we hit the ground hopping.

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t edward nickens and swamp rabbit hunters
The author with the swamp runners.Giacomo Fortunato

Social Studies

Benson and his crew will run any rabbit, but they specialize in hunting Sylvilagus aquatic, the legendary swamp rabbit. Easily twice the size of a cottontail, swampers on the run have more wits than a coyote and more speed than a fox. Pushed by dogs, a swamp rabbit traces huge ellipses and figure eights through briary bottoms, sometimes taking an hour to make a single round. Also called "cane-cutters," they are excellent swimmers and will power-stroke downstream, then crawl out of the ­water in thick cover to throw the dogs off the track. They'll dive and hide nose-up under root wads and logjams. And they like their woods tight as a tick.

“You look at a piece of land and say to yourself, ‘That’s too wet, that’s too thick, no way anybody can walk through that,’ and that’s where we want to be,” Benson says. “A big swamp buck takes you on a journey, and these places have a hold on my heart like the way people feel about big elk country. It’s wild and it’s rough, and nobody hardly ever sees it unless you follow the dogs.”

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Marquan Brown shows off a hefty buck.Giacomo Fortunato

That helped explain all the smiles when we pulled up to the woods on our second morning on the road. ­Marquan Brown, a financial-security consultant, had scored permission to hunt a client’s 1,000 acres of swamps and pines north of the Coosa River, and 10 minutes after we dropped the tailgate, a six-pack of beagles struck a rabbit so deep in the swamp, the dogs blew mallards off the water.

The crew fanned out. Dric Benson, Tremayne’s cousin, and James Benson, his uncle, posted up on a woods road that edged the swamp, but most of the guys waded in to battle. I pushed through a soup of muck, water, and briars that took nearly all the freeboard in my hip boots. “You can tell when a man don’t run swamp rabbits,” Uncle James called out. “It’s the water. His dogs will tear the pads off their feet trying to stop at the edge of a swamp.” That was no issue here. I saw tails, flashes of orange, the white reflections of beagles in the black ooze of the swamp water. Dric sneaked into the woods, quiet and low. “Look at Dric,” Uncle James said. “He didn’t have orange on, you’d think he was a snake!”

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The beagles descend on a rabbit._Giacomo Fortunato

Benson yodeled to his troops: “Hunt for him! Hunt for him! HUUUNT in here!” A pair of wood ducks sailed in to land, spotted the commotion, then flared wildly. It was a beautiful little mise-en-scène of man and dog, woods and water.

In four hours of hunting, the dogs ran a half-dozen rabbits, every one of which wound up on the tailgate. At midday, we pulled the trucks into the shade of tall pines, watered the dogs, and fired up a grill. Jamie Thompson and Antoine Buchanon pressed out fresh deer burger patties and told me about the 13 beagles they kept in the backyard of the house they had rented while at the University of Alabama. “One February, we hunted 25 days,” Buchanon said. “The only days we didn’t hunt was because it was raining too hard to go.” Benson pulled up a camp chair as rabbit stew simmered on a nearby stove, and I asked him how he trains his dogs to chase rabbits that would just as soon swim as run.

“A swamp rabbit will keep a consistent, comfortable distance between him and the dogs,” he said. “Our objective is to push the rabbit just fast enough so he can’t sit there and calculate all his funny moves. A good pack will eat into the gap and make the rabbit nervous, and that’s when he makes mistakes. That’s why our dogs don’t have a real strong nose—​a real long nose—because I don’t want them barking on weak scent. I want them on top of that rabbit, making him move.”

Benson's pack traces its lineage to a foursome of beagles run by his longtime mentor, Robert Clark, of River Falls, Ala­bama, who passed away a couple of years ago. Clark still has a powerful hold on Benson. Within seconds of mentioning his old friend, Benson choked up and couldn't speak. In the latter stages of his fight against cancer, Clark gave Benson the bedrock beagles of his pack. "He told me at least 100 times that he'd prayed to God to send him someone who loved dogs as much as he did," Benson said.
About three years before, as Benson was getting ever more serious about rabbit dogs, he turned to the internet for details on dog training. He was amazed at the lack of footage of running hounds.

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A break at the truck.Giacomo Fortunato

“There were practically no videos of dogs running,” he said, shaking his head. “There are hundreds, maybe thousands of dogs that people all over the world know about—the Branko bloodline, the Buck Shot bloodline—but you could hardly find a video clip of a single one running. I thought that was ironic, so I decided to post mine purely for historical documentation, so 10 years down the road I could see, for example, how my Ebby runs a rabbit compared to my Molly.”

On January 5, 2014, Benson posted his first video on YouTube: Beagles Crossing Field. He's been an online fixture ever since. "I don't charge for anything," Benson said. "I give it all away, just like Mr. Clark did for me. If I owe him anything, I owe him the debt to keep his dream alive. Just drop the tailgate and keep running."

Which is how we spent the next five hours. At the end of the day, we spread 15 rabbits across the tailgate of Uncle James’ 1973 Chevy Dually. There were only two “hillbillies”—cottontails—in the mix. You could hardly see metal under all those swampers.

rabbits on a truck tailgate
A tailgate doubles as a rabbit-cleaning station.Giacomo Fortunato

A Swamp Sermon

The next afternoon found us near Boligee, Alabama, east of the Tombigbee River, on 1,800 acres of deer-club land veined with slow-moving creeks. The creek­bottoms were cloistered with palmettos, the trees hung with Spanish moss. It was dark, gloomy, and wet, and it didn’t take long—three minutes, tops—before ­Buchanon heard the first rabbit trying to tiptoe through the briars. He called the dogs over, and the swamp bottom erupted in a chaos of beagles.

I’ve heard dog men call to their hounds before, but nothing like this. Benson bellowed encouragement to the dogs with a ringing, singsong chantey: “He-yah! He-yah! He-yah! Find HIM! Find HIM! Swamp buck in here, Molly! Find him in here, Susie!” Cattails thrashed all around as the dog pack responded. “Work! Work! WOOOORK!”

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A rabbit is left out to cool before going in a game vest.Giacomo Fortunato

I took off running. For a day and a half, I had held back a bit, trying to get a sense of how these guys get in front of the dogs and intercept the rabbits. I didn’t want to muscle in on the show, but my strategy of working the flanks of the hunters had bombed. I hadn’t gotten a single shot. Now I could hear the dogs turn, so I pushed through briars, picking thorns from my arms with my teeth so I don’t take my hands off the gun. When three sparrows flitted out of the brambles, I skidded to a stop and stared hard. Something had to have bumped them from the thicket. Thirty seconds later, a harelike shape materialized deep in a mat of wet briars humped up like concertina wire. I found two tall ears and rolled the bunny with the lower tube of an o/u 20.

As I carried my prize back to the group, Uncle James had the guys in stitches. He’s a character himself, in knee-high snake boots and a blaze-orange earflap hat straight out of Elmer Fudd’s closet. He was doubled over at Benson’s hound hollering. “Oh Lord, I can just hear you in the pulpit on Sunday, getting all confused,” he joked. “‘Now the Lord say to his people: Come to me! Get in there! He-ay! He-ay! He-ay. Hunt HIM! Hunt HIM!’”

Benson laughed. “I get in those swamps with all those rabbits and dogs, and something just comes over me,” he said. “And believe it or not, I got to hold myself back so I’ll have enough voice to sing from the pulpit on Sunday.”

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Benson is all smiles after a successful hunt.Giacomo Fortunato

"Action"

Benson's growing fame might be rooted in the online world, but every­where on the road was a sense of community, of the many ways that rabbit hunting brings people together. At country stores where we'd stop for snacks, strangers wandered over to the trucks packed with dog boxes to talk beagles and bunnies. Hotel clerks saw our camo duds and muddy boots and wanted to talk about hunting with their dads. When we pull off the main road to unlock gates, trucks roll up beside us, windows down, blocking traffic, the drivers prodding the group with ­queries: How many swampers? Kicking up hillbillies? Them dogs any good?

There’s so much laughing and good-natured hard-time giving between these hunters that it seems a bit odd that my most memorable swamp-rabbit-hunting moment was solitary in nature.

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Benson keeps a swamper out of reach.Giacomo Fortunato

The dogs had been on a track for 15 minutes as we all eased into position. I squirmed through briars and thick palmettos, headed down a small stream, remembering what Uncle James had told me earlier about how a swamp rabbit will run down a creek bed, bounding from side to side to spread its scent. I hit an open slough with a 20-yard view of the creek just as the beagles turned my way, and I was looking around to find a better spot to stand than smack in the middle of the water when I saw the rabbit coming. My first glimpse was as the buck neared the peak of a 6-foot-long leap down the middle of the slough. I froze as the swamper hit the shallow water and vaulted again. For a heartbeat, there were two rabbits—the one in the air and the one mirrored in the water below. He saw me raise the gun, but in midair, there was nothing he could do, his options gone. In that moment when the two rabbits became one, I pulled the trigger and flipped the swamp buck backward in the creek, 11 paces away.

Within a few seconds, beagles and hunters trickled into the scene, and I hoisted the swamper above the dogs as they leapt to snap at its head and feet. I had to tell the story new each time another guy found his way to the slough, each hunter filling in more details of the chase from his own perspective in the swamp. We were high-fiving and laughing and passing the rabbit around when I caught Benson out of the corner of my eye. He had slipped off quietly and was setting up the tripod. He aimed the camera back toward the group and nimbly stepped backward into the frame. He wanted the lens to capture it all, unscripted and in the moment. With his pals still yakking it up in the background, he held the swamp buck up and nodded toward the camera.

What happened next seemed to occur naturally. No one hissed shhhh or pointed toward the camera, but the entire crew mellowed out and quieted down. Each man shifted position so they all formed a loose semicircle behind Benson, a pulpit of canvas and blaze orange, no one man blocking the other from the camera’s eye. They’d all been here before, many times. Each has bought fully into Benson’s passion for sharing the hunt. They all looked into the lens and nodded as he spoke.

“This is what we do,” Benson said softly. “And this is how we do it.”

His buddies know what Benson feels in his soul. He’s been given a gift. This moment won’t stay in the woods. Benson smiled at the lens. A new world is watching.