I drive about 35,000 miles per year in my hunting and fishing travels, and I’m amazed at how often my “cottontail mojo” kicks in when I see a promising patch of rabbit cover from the highway.
My adrenalin really gets going when I see young clear-cuts, endless stands of shoulder-high saplings or extensive hillside briar patches. Great rabbit hunting may be found in every where — but you will have more fun if you know where to start looking.
In general, the common eastern cottontail rabbit is a denizen of the dreaded briar patch of Disney fame. These long-eared speedsters thrive in places you and I would not ordinarily want to go — thick, tangled, waist-high brush and saplings choked with briars, honeysuckle and other forbidding, clinging vegetation. Rabbits spend most of their time in the lower 6 inches of such cover, so it’s no problem for them to get around under all those thorns, canes and vines. They can scoot through places the average hunter can’t even bull his way into, and the most experienced hounds will come away with bloodied faces, ears, paws and tails after a few hours of chasing their favorite quarry.
For beginners, discerning great rabbit cover can be confusing. It’s common for hunters to pick the easiest, most open cover to start with because such habitat is more amenable to the hunter. Forget that! If you can easily see through it, walk in it or stand upright in it, you are not in prime rabbit cover.
Instead, you want to be in the places that look scary from the outside — deep, dark tangles of briars and saplings, overgrown ditches and gullies or vast stands of waist-high brush. The worse it looks to you the better it is for rabbits.
The best way to learn to identify prime rabbit habitat is to walk in with the dogs and help them kick up a cottontail. When the beagles start to howl and the chase begins, rush over to where they started the rabbit and look around — this is what good rabbit cover looks like. With experience, you’ll be able to tell the difference between good rabbit cover and a good place to have a picnic. You can’t have it both ways!
SWAMP RABBIT COVER
The swamp rabbit is a separate species and actually breaks all the rules of rabbit habitat. Perhaps due to their size (easily twice the size of the average cottontail), their pace (much slower) and food preferences, swamp rabbits seem to prefer softer, more open cover that’s easier for dogs and hunters to penetrate.
Swamp rabbits definitely prefer wetlands, which generally means grassy habitat punctuated by dense saplings, but the briar factor is not so important to these big, slow-moving critters. Water is the key.
The swamp rabbits I have found tend to be fond of standing water instead of merely moist ground. In fact, I have seen them sitting in forms on top of hummocks surrounded by ankle-deep water, and have shot many of them as they swam or hopped through flooded ditches, deep puddles and other large areas that are covered with water.
With the hounds working hard in the distance, it’s possible to hear these big swampers come splashing right to you. On dry ground, you can hear their heavy-footed “thump-thump-thump” for 100 yards or more as they work to avoid the dogs.
Knowing swampers are in wet cover is one thing, but hunting them is another. The most courageous hunters wear waders, or plan to get wet, and simply splash out there with the dogs to get their game. However, it’s not necessary to get soaked unless you truly want to. It’s just as productive to let the dogs work the rabbit while the hunters take up positions as close to the action as possible without going in over your knees — or worse! I shot a swamper once while crossing a creek. I suddenly plunged in up to my armpits. The rabbit came by just then and I got him, but it was a long, cold day after that!
With enough hunters and dogs, it shouldn’t take long to get a shot at a swamp rabbit. Be patient, let the dogs work and listen for the “plop, plop, plop” of the rabbit as he does his best to avoid the beagles. Slow, fat and big as the are, swampers can lead the dogs on a merry chase, thanks in great part to their choice of thick, wet cover. Pick a good spot where several rabbit trails come together and just wait it out. The dogs won’t quit running and neither will the rabbit!
While the short explanation of rabbit hunting is simple — put the dogs out, run the rabbit, shoot the rabbit — there is a bit more to it than that. As is the case in all hunting, safety comes first, and this applies to the dogs, too.
There are some great rabbit hotspots that will never be hunted with hounds for two good reasons: they are too small and they are surrounded by heavily traveled roads. The best rabbit cover is not worth the risk of losing a dog, so it’s important to thoroughly look over the area before putting a dog out. Even if a promising briar patch is surrounded on three sides by woods, it’s a sure bet that the rabbit will zig and zag across the nearest paved road, putting the dogs in danger from oblivious drivers speeding by.
Of course, you can take a chance and post a hunter near the road to cut the dogs off if the rabbit does decide to cross over, but it takes a quick and nimble hunter to run down two or three dogs hot on the trail of a rabbit.
There is plenty of good rabbit cover out there, so look for the best spots you can find. On public land, anything in the middle of the area is perfect, especially if the surrounding cover consists of open woods or pine plantations. Rabbits will run through these stands for a few seconds, but only on their way back into another dense thicket.
Hillside clear-cuts make great rabbit-hunting spots, but be sure of what’s over the horizon — roads, rivers, steep ravines and other dangerous obstacles are always a threat.
Conduct a thorough investigation of any area you intend to hunt and, of course, get permission from the landowner if you are targeting private land. On public land, just be sure that the area you want to hunt is open to rabbit hunting on the days you plan to go. Some public lands conduct regulated deer hunts, youth hunts, field trials and other events that may keep you from hunting rabbits on any given day.
Remember, when it comes to rabbit hunting, the thicker the better! The kind of c
over everyone else walks around is where you want to be.