Dead leaves, bare trees, brown brush, and a hunter without a gun.
It’s February and Bruce Cullum stalks rabbit along the western edge of Barcelona Neck, in Sag Harbor. He could have a gun — small game season lasts until the end of the month — but he’s just out giving his two beagles, Bell, a blue tick, and Coby, a tri-colored, exercise today.
The dogs are up ahead: working, trying to pick up an invisible line of scent. Three beeps sound from a tracking device attached to Cullum’s hip.
“I like to listen to the dogs,” he says. “I love it.” Cullum has been hunting rabbit for 40 years.
In the distance, a hoarse wail from Coby. Bell has circled back, scuffling through the leaves, nose left to right and then right to left and back again, even as a metronome, searching for scent.
“That’s what they’re supposed to do. They lose the scent and then they come back and check where they started. You want a dog that doesn’t have a wide check.”
Coby gives another howl.
“I know his bark,” says Cullum, unimpressed.
“When it’s hot, he’ll give a real good bark.”
Nonetheless, Bell runs off in Coby’s direction. “It’s called harking in. When one dog barks, the other is supposed to go and check it out. But Coby’s a cold barker. I’ve always just dealt with him. He wasn’t too bad when he was younger. If Bell doesn’t bark, you know it’s old. But sometimes it comes into something good. If he stays with it, a lot of times, it comes good. He’s got a better nose than her.”
Coby is now 13, old for a hunting dog. Cullum says he rarely shoots anymore. He bagged 10 rabbits last season to eat.
Cullum may not be the very last rabbit hunter on the East End, but he’s one of very few that remain. A century ago, rabbit hunting was common. In 1923, 14,919 rabbits were hunted from Suffolk alone. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation estimates 2,480 were harvested from all of Long Island in the 2019 to 2020 season.
Andrew Gaites, the principal environmental analyst in the East Hampton Town Land Acquisition department, has hunted rabbit on the East End for 15 years. In that time, he has met only a few other rabbit hunters. Because small game harvests are no longer reported to the town, it’s hard to know how many guys like Cullum are out kicking around in briar patches. “Most local hunters are pursuing deer and ducks,” says Gaites, in an email.
Terry O’Riordan, a director of the East Hampton Sportsmen’s Alliance, says to his knowledge, only one or two rabbit hunters work our woodlands. It’s “virtually disappeared,” he writes in an email.
“Another guy, Frank, I think his name was,” says Cullum. “Said he wanted to get together, but I don’t know. I never heard from him.”
He works farther north up the neck, ducking under thorny vines toward phragmites. “A lot of people don’t know, but rabbit is not dumb,” he says. “Everything eats a rabbit, and somehow, they’ve survived. Only thing with these rabbits, they’re not very big. They used to be big.”
A hoarse wail, more intense, from Coby, still out of sight, but closer. “The rabbit probably ran through there 20 minutes ago,” says Cullum. “I’ll give them a little bit of time and then I’ll get them. ‘Let’s go find a new one,’ I’ll say. I’ll go kick the brush or something, you’re trying to look for a hot one, you know? You like to find a rabbit.”
Down at the end of the point, a single house, which sold for $10.2 million in 2021 to the fashion designer Helmut Lang, looks toward the Cedar Point lighthouse, which still awaits renovation.
The other side of Barcelona Neck seems less wild. A lifestyle-branded woman gets her steps in, eyes and thoughts stuck on her phone, trapped. Her dog is off in the woods rummaging, picking up a scent of something. It shits.
Bruce’s beagles are braying on the other side, but with each step south toward the golf course, the sound fades.