Many a year has past since my first hunt. My grandpa, Guy Roux, had taken the time to patiently guide my first rabbit hunt.
He and my father, Glen, had taught me firearm safety, hunting ethics and conservation respect. All of these were given in doses that an 8-year old could digest. My love of dogs on a hot track was spawned in those early days and stick with me solid even now. I sometimes speculate on how many cottontails are mentioned in "First Hunt" stories.
Well, this is not a first hunt story. Instead it is about the target of that first hunt and that first moving shot. Rabbit hunting is steeped with tradition. Dogs, guns and bunnies have forever been a large part of our hunting mindset. No other game is so accessible, so plentiful, so tasty and so much fun to shoot.
Three Types Of Rabbits
There are about three different groups that all North American rabbits fall into; eastern, western and Rocky Mountain. There also are three groups of rabbit look alikes: the swamp rabbit, the brush rabbit and the Idaho pygmy rabbit. Not many hunters can tell one type of rabbit from another. The one distinguishing factor is the white, cotton-like tail.
The habitats of the cottontails and their look alikes are similar, though certainly not exact, and the way they act and live is determined by the terrain they are in and the cover they have available.
How to hunt rabbits is dictated by a number of factors including:
1. The population, which changes regularly;
2. The hunter's preference: are you hunting for meat or sport?;
3. The habitat, which in most cases is mostly brush, grass or some combination of both; and
4. To some degree, the method used in hunting the rabbits that inhabit an area.
What Guns To Use
Most rabbit hunters use either a .22-caliber rifle or a small gauge shotgun with a shotgun being the most popular choice of the two. I mention the use of smaller gauge shotguns because, generally speaking, a 12-gauge for rabbits is overkill. However, if that is all you have, then use it wisely. The use of dogs also plays a major role in choice of gun for rabbits.
When good, slow working beagles are pushing your bunnies in a relaxed, laid-back fashion, a .22-rifle can be great fun and very safe. If you are kickin' out your own rabbits though, a .22 can be a big disadvantage. All-to-often a shooter will try to make-up for the problem of shooting a single projectile at a moving target by firing more and quicker shots. This seldom pays off and is potentially hazardous. A 20-gauge or 28-gauge shotgun is by far your best bet for bunnies.
The best place to hunt cottontails is likely to be on land that has a mixture of briar patches or other heavy cover, low grass and open fields nearby. Not that rabbits do not live on land covered with briars, but it is no walk in the park to hunt in spots like that. Look in and around brushpiles, especially in open country. Hedgerows, patches of weeds, cornfields, small wood lots, orchards, nurseries, old graveyards and old homesteads are great places to look for "Bugs."
Hunt Willow Flats
Another fine place to hunt in the winter is a willow flat in the bottomland along rivers. Once the cold, frosty nights have cut down the weeds and grass that grow profusely in the bottoms, it is easy to walk and jump cottontails. They will be in there to eat the bark of young, tender saplings. Rabbits must eat everyday because they do not store food, like squirrels for example. A conscientious hunter can almost always get permission to hunt rabbits from a nurseryman.
In most parts of the country rabbit populations can vary widely, and it is usually feast or famine. Because of the lack of predator control, rabbits can be pretty tough to find sometimes. Coyotes and foxes, along with owls and hawks, take their toll on bunny populations each year. This is normal in the natural order of things.
The thing that bothers me the worst is the killing of small game animals and birds by domestic cats and dogs that have been dumped in rural areas. A wild house cat that is let loose can kill several rabbits a week, and will. This is a senseless waste. I will not give my opinion about what to do when you see a stray cat in the woods in this column. Just use your imagination.
Rabbits around where I live like deep, brushy ditches. They are hard to hunt without dogs, but not impossible. The trick is to go slow enough not to kick them out too far in front of you. The closer you can sneak-up on a bunny, the longer you will have to get a shot off.
Try An Open Choked Shotgun
Another good tip for non-beagle rabbit hunters is to use an open choked shotgun. Most of your shots will be closer than if you were using dogs, and an Improved Cylinder choke will give you the widest pattern at the closest distances.
Using beagles is something that I believe was bred into me. From the first time I heard Tiny bawl on fresh track and heard Beulah yippin' behind her, I was hooked. Beagles are small dogs that are bred to rabbit hunt, and the smaller breed is the one I prefer. They are friendly and make great pets and they are a lot like me; they would rather hunt than eat! Once a beagle cuts a track with its keen nose, he will hang in there until the bunny holes-up or you put him in your hunting coat.
Beagles are not supposed to catch the rabbit. Their job is to stay on the rabbit's track, cause a commotion with their barking and push the rabbit back to where they jumped it. If they keep slow, steady pressure on the rabbit, its natural instinct is to circle. Your job is to be smart enough to recognize that circle and get on it somewhere. Eventually it should pass within shooting distance of you.
Field Dress Them ASAP
When your luck, your dog and your shooting are all good on the same day, you will get a bunny or two to take home. I suggest you field dress your rabbit as soon as possible. Grandpa Guy taught me that field care can make the difference between a good rabbit meal and a great one. Eviscerating the animal not only relieves it of the blood, but also allows the meat to cool faster. Both of these factors can improve the taste of the meat. You can believe me when I tell you there is nothing much better than a fried rabbit back.
Old Mr. Cottontail is quite a fellow. He is fun, tasty and he is probably in your backyard right now. Do yourself a favor and drop one in your skillet as soon as possible.
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