HUBBARD — A light coating of snow over the field outside the Hubbard Conservation Club was disturbed by dozens of eager beagles and patient handlers Saturday, as they waited in groups to competitively track rabbits in the Trumbull County Area Beagle Club’s first field trial to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The event was part of “Race for the Cure,” sponsored by the American Rabbit Hunting Association. Event coordinator and Trumbull County Area Beagle Club member Don Koches said the Beagle Club had its choice of charities and chose St. Jude’s because it is “more universal” and benefits a variety of people.
The club raised more than $2,500 through a basket raffle, gun raffle and monetary donation. A portion of entrance fees also went to St. Jude.
The daylong competition involved dogs going out in groups, or casts, and attempting to find and run rabbits in field tests. Winners from each cast moved on to a higher class to compete against other winners, until only one dog was left standing.
Approximately 65 people, and 104 dogs competed Saturday.
“It’s kind of like a fever almost, because once you start, if you enjoy it, you’ll do it forever,” said Koches, who has had hundreds of beagles in his 40 years of rabbit hunting.
Now he has 30 dogs, though some are too old for hunting. The dogs usually hit their prime at about a year-and-a-half, and sometimes continue to hunt well until the age of 10 or 11.
Brad Cameron, 53, of Warren, and beagle Sandy, four other handlers and two judges drove from Hubbard to a property in New Bedford, Pa., to run for an hour in search of rabbits.
Winding through wooded thickets and muddy cornfields, Cameron said the appeal of field trials lays in the excitement of the chase and competing against other handlers.
“It’s something that I grew up with and I just stayed with,” Cameron said.
He said he has been rabbit hunting for about 45 years and competing in trials for more than 20 years, meeting new people and making many friends along the way.
“You’ve got to like it,” Cameron said.
Colton Sprowls, 15, and beagle Willie traveled from Wheeling, W.Va., to compete in their first field trial Saturday.
“I run dogs a lot, I just have never run a competition,” Colton said. He said his brother, who was competing in a different cast, wanted to come to the Trumbull County trial.
Others came from Michigan, western Pennsylvania and all over the state of Ohio to compete.
“We do it for the dogs,” Mary Myers said. “This is what they’re bred for.”
Myers came from Martins Ferry and walked with the handlers Saturday despite recently having both knees replaced. Connie Swartz, Trumbull County Beagle Club Secretary, handled Myers’ beagle, Brandy, during the trial so Myers’ son could judge a different cast competing at the same time.
“These guys are like family,” Swartz said.
Beagle Club president Michael Fusco said dogs were judged on their ability to pick up a rabbit’s trail and follow it. Dogs were “minused” points for picking up a false trail. In the trials, the rabbits are chased, but not killed.
Fusco and Ron Wolthers judged the New Bedford group, braving thorns and brambles to follow and observe the dogs while they tracked. Wolthers said judges sometimes end up scraped up from brazenly chasing the dogs pursuing rabbits.
“People say we’re nuts because we chase dogs through the woods for sport,” Wolthers joked.
In the New Bedford group, where no rabbits were found, the winning dog — Cameron’s Sandy — was chosen for how hard she hunted and how well she handled.
Fusco said although other groups jumped rabbits, it’s not that unusual for dogs to not find a trail.
“It happens. Any time you’ve got wild animals you just don’t know what you’ll get,” said Fusco.
The roughly 35-member Trumbull County Beagle Club hosts field trials from the fall through early spring. Saturday’s event included a bench show where dogs were evaluated for how well they conformed to their breed, and a basket raffle featuring more than 45 baskets.
Koches said he hoped Saturday’s charity trial, in addition to raising funds for St. Jude’s, would attract new people to the sport.
The competition continues today at 7 a.m., with finals for several classes expected to wrap up around 10:30 a.m.