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Cotton Tails and Tap Sticks
by Andy McNeil

In the 1930s and 1940s my grandfather managed large cotton plantations in the Mississippi Delta for absentee land owners.

A male cousin and I spent much of our school vacation time with my grandparents and not only had the opportunity to observe the farming operation first hand but as an added bonus learned a lot of the basics of hunting and fishing from the tenant farmers who often utilized the most primitive methods of harvesting wild game.

Almost every tenant had tap sticks which were constructed with some element of homespun fineness and were regarded by the owner with the same pride that a fine rifle or shotgun would be today. They were not only weapons but were hunting tools of the finest quality of the period.

A tap stick was a straight hardwood stick about an inch in diameter and one and a half to two feet long. It received the name from the large metal machine nut tightly fitted to one end of the stick to give it weight. It was thrown much like the tomahawk and became deadly when used by someone with experience.

During the winter months rabbits were hunted extensively. While the hunters would sometimes harvest a prized swamp rabbit, the cotton tail was usually the game brought home to the skillet. Before I was mature enough to engage in a hunt I had the opportunity to tag along on a walking tap stick hunt and years later observed a similar hunt from a hay press.

Despite the fact that rabbits could be hunted legally year round, there were times of the year that hunters could not carry firearms into the fields lest they be presumed to be hunting illegally, an offense that carried heavy financial penalties. Here is where the knowledge of the rabbit’s characteristics and tap stick experience was to the tap stick hunter’s advantage.

While rabbits are swift and fleet of foot, the hunters knew that rabbits would not go far from their nest area. Once they are “jumped,” they will run a short distance from the approaching threat then circle back to the area they started from. Rabbits are also curious, and if the hunter uttered a shrill whistle the running rabbit would often stop to listen to the unusual noise. At this instant it became vulnerable to whatever the hunter might be armed with.

A tap stick hunting party usually consisted of four to eight men who would walk abreast across the area to be hunted. One of the hunters would be designated the leader, and it was his job to direct the group and make decisions when the all too frequent disputes arose.

With several sticks sailing through the air at one time it was not uncommon for an argument to arise as to whose stick dealt the death blow to the prey. The hunt leader acted as the umpire, or referee, and even though there might be some grumbling as a result of his decision, it was always swift and final.

Each hunter usually carried two sticks with him while hunting with one in his strong side hand to be ready to throw the instant the rabbit presented itself as a target. The other stick was carried in the weak side hand to provide balance and to be ready to launch as a second throw if the opportunity presented itself.

Several summers later, I was at the “in between” age where I was too old to sit around idle and yet too young to get a regular job. That summer I worked odd jobs on local farms as they required temporary help. One of those jobs was setting blocks on a four-man hay press pulled by a John Deere tractor. Each worker brought his tap sticks to the job and kept them close at hand.

The hay was cut a few days before it was to be baled and, the day immediately preceding the baling, was raked into narrow wind rows to be picked up by the machine. The actual baling operation started on the outside rows; as it progressed the rabbit’s hiding area narrowed toward the center of the field.

When threatened, the rabbit would sprint, and when spotted, the tractor driver set the hand clutch, and he, along with the crew from the baler, would grab tap sticks, bound from their work stations, and the hunt would be on.

In most hunting situations the rabbit escaped, but in other cases the hunters were successful.

All hunting situations were reminiscent of the fable stating that the rabbit could out run the fox because the fox was only running for a meal . . . while the rabbit was running for its life.


Andy McNeil served as Chancery Judge for the Twentieth Arkansas Judicial District and now acts as a Retired Judge on Assignment. He is a Life Member of the Arkansas Judicial Council.

Read more of Andy's stories at USADS:
Arkansas Civil Air Patrol
Halls of Justice (humor)
Korean War History - Andy's Story
There's One

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