IONIA — As we walked through what was once a thriving apple orchard, Sadie, Bill Bird’s older beagle, charged into the first brush pile (made up of old trees) we came to while Pepper, his younger dog, went right to the next one a handful of yards away. Pepper connected first; a cottontail took off running.

The outdoor writer in me took over; I dispatched a 20-gauge load of No. 8s and killed it.

Ordinarily, I would I have let Pepper run the rabbit and waited for her to bring it back around, but I wanted the critter for a photo op and, as the saying goes, a rabbit in hand is worth two in the briar patch. (Or something like that.)

It was a beautiful winter day — blue skies, temperature in the 20s, sun shining, not much wind — and unlike most this winter, perfect for rabbit hunting.

It wasn’t much longer before the dogs scored again, this time both hot on the trail of the bounding rabbit. They ran it around in a wide circle until it came through on opening among the standing trees that Bird was guarding. I watched as Bird leveled his .22, heard it crack and heard the, “got him.” Ten minutes into our afternoon hunt, we had a pair of bunnies for the larder.

“This is fun, isn’t it?” Bird asked, as he hoisted the rabbit for a photo.

He got no argument from me.

This is the game I started hunting — rabbits — before I was old enough to carry a firearm (though my dad allowed me to carry my BB gun). But we didn’t have beagles. I was the dog. It was my job to stomp on brush piles and, hopefully, ferret the rabbit out of its hidey-hole.

I suspect a lot of my peers, at least those who grew up in southern Michigan, started the same way: hunting rabbits. They were relatively easy shooting for beginners — you’re only concerned with two dimensions instead of three, as with birds — and rabbits are relatively ubiquitous. There were tons of them, almost everywhere, and with virtually no predators around in those days (except for feral house cats) it was almost more unusual not to find some rabbits than to.

But rabbit hunting, like a lot of small game hunting, has faded over the years. Nowadays, with deer seemingly as plentiful as, if not more than, rabbits, most youngsters are introduced to hunting in pursuit of deer. And with the old age restrictions on carrying a firearm afield lifted, many newbies have killed deer at an age when guys my age weren’t allowed into the fraternity quite yet.

The data back it up. According to Brian Frawley, the Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who keeps track of these sorts of things, there are somewhere in the vicinity of 55,000 rabbit hunters in Michigan now. Back in the 1950s — and again in the '70s — there were 400,000 rabbit hunters.

I am not entirely convinced we are better off for it.

Bird, who is a couple of years older than I am, started this way, too. And though he is a well-accomplished bow hunter, he still gets a kick out of rabbit hunting.

“We always had beagles,” he said. “I love eating rabbits. Yesterday we had a rabbit pot pie for dinner.”

We stayed in the orchard for about an hour and ran four more rabbits. I passed up shots when the rabbits emerged from the brush piles, letting the dogs run the critters. A couple of them disappeared under a pile of lumber meant for an under-construction pole barn. A couple of others circled until the dogs lost track of them.

We moved to another piece of property, not far away, where the rabbits seemed plentiful in the brushy habitat. I shot another as it circled back for the second time, the third time I saw it. I heard the .22 crack about 75 yards away from me and Bird killed his second as the rabbit circled for the third or fourth time.

As the afternoon lengthened, we were joined by mutual buddy Wally Ingvartsen, who brought his beagle, Lucy, to join us. It was quite a show with three beagles bawling. We enjoyed one race that lasted about 20 minutes, the dogs chasing the rabbit through grass fields and conifer stands until it ran across an opening about 25 yards in front of me and I ended the chase.

I put my shotgun up; three was probably more than I really wanted to deal with anyway, and grabbed the camera, hoping for an action shot that never materialized. It was fun watching the show. All of the dogs were into it, but Sadie seemed the best at getting a race started.

“She’s better at finding them, but once they get going, Pepper’s right in there,” Bird said. “I don’t think she’ll ever be the dog Sadie is, but a lot of that may go back to training. When I got Sadie, she was by herself and I had a lot of one-on-one time with her. When I got Pepper, I always hunted her with Sadie.”

We kept after it, running rabbits, but never shooting again. Bird was happy with two, though he wound up with a third when Sadie caught one in brush pile. Bird and Ingvartsen passed up shots, and let the dogs chase.

In the end, rabbit hunting is a lot like much other small game hunting. It’s about enjoying the dogs.