Counting On Kentucky Cottontails

Counting On Kentucky Cottontails

Here are three slightly overlooked public places in our state where you can count on finding your share of wily rabbits. Is one of these picks near you? (January 2006)

Photo by Vic Attardo

There's a lure to the baying of the hounds that every rabbit hunter knows. The sounds of a pack of beagles echoing across a cold, crisp morning stirs the blood of many Kentuckians. Rabbit hunting is a time-honored tradition that is alive and well in the Bluegrass State.

Dedicated rabbit hunters are out there every year regardless of whether it's a good or bad year. The rabbit population goes through cycles and some years are obviously better than others. However, the population has remained fairly steady for the last 25 years.

The harsh winters of 1977 and 1978 were devastating to our state's cottontail population. We've never completely rebounded from those years, according to Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) small-game biologist Brian Grossman. Final analysis of last year's Rabbit Hunter Cooperator Survey wasn't complete, but this year should probably be similar to last.

Grossman said the cooperator survey is very important and he urges all hunters to participate. Hunters need only to keep a simple log during the season, which records key information regarding time spent hunting and subsequent success. At the end of the season, the log is mailed to the KDFWR. The log is printed in the back of the annual Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide or can be printed off the department's Web site at

http://fw.ky.gov/.

The survey also includes information collected from rural mail carriers. All this information is compiled and analyzed to help biologists determine the condition of the rabbit population and to help set management goals.

Some interesting trends show up on the surveys. For instance, cooperator survey results indicate that the rabbits-jumped-per-hour rate has dropped each of the last three seasons. The survey from 2001-2002 showed this number to be at an eight-year high.

Moreover, the survey shows when peak hunter activity takes place. Hunting pressure peaks during opening week, the week after Thanksgiving, and the week between Christmas and New Year's. Effort is fairly steady throughout the remainder of the season, but success rates tend to drop toward the end of the season.

With another good year at hand and optimism high, hunters are looking for the best places to bag a limit of cottontails. Thanks to the management efforts of the KDFWR and others, we have an ample supply of hunting options within the state. Here's a look at three top spots.

FORT CAMPBELL

One of the most underutilized areas in the state for rabbit hunting is the Fort Campbell Military Reservation in Christian and Trigg counties, which is on the Kentucky and Tennessee line. Theresa Lee, manager of hunting and fishing at Fort Campbell, said the base does not see many rabbit hunters, but would like to get more using the area. Last year, she only recorded 72 rabbit hunter trips during the entire season.

Part of the reason is that Fort Campbell is not a "do whatever you want whenever you want" type of facility. With it being an active military base, there are strict regulations on when and where hunting may take place. Additionally, there are some days when the entire base is closed to all hunting. Many people don't want to be subject to the base requirements, but for those who do, there's a lot of opportunity here.

The total area at Fort Campbell is around 85,000 acres. There is a variety of terrain and habitat at the base. A good population of rabbits combined with low hunting pressure makes this a prime spot for chasing cottontails.

Rabbit dogs are allowed at the base. Hunters may also use horses while hunting. However, hunters must dismount before shooting.

Hunters must possess a state hunting license and a Fort Campbell post permit. Post permits are available for small game only, big game only, or as a combination. Additionally, all hunters (regardless of age) must have passed a hunter safety course.

There is no hunting allowed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Areas that will be open for hunting on Thursdays through Mondays are posted on the Internet usually by the previous Wednesday afternoon. Hunters may then call in to an automated system and sign up for a particular area. Upon arrival at the base, hunters will check in at the hunting and fishing office and receive a paper to display in their vehicle window, which shows their area assignment.

More information may be obtained by contacting the Fort Campbell hunting and fishing unit at (270) 798-2175. Access all the regulations and postings on open hunting areas on the Web at

www.fortcampbellmwr.com.

JOHN KLEBER WMA

Rabbit hunters in the north-central portion of the state may want to key in on the Kleber WMA in Owen and Franklin counties. The WMA is composed of 2,605 acres with a variety of habitat conditions. The KDFWR describes the area as having steep hillsides, narrow ridgetops and floodplains with a combination of woods, brush and grasslands.

Area manager Scott Ferrell said there are numerous rolling hills, which are mostly wooded with a few openings along the ridgetops, and small bottoms areas. Ferrell said some of the ridgetop areas are planted in warm-season grasses and there is also some native vegetation in the open ground in the bottoms. These areas are strip-mowed, which is a great boon to rabbit hunters.

Ferrell said the area has not been exceptional for rabbits the past few seasons, but should be fair to good this year. He indicates this season should be similar to last year. The effects of the summer drought will not be fully known until after the season is over and hunter results can be tallied.

Kleber WMA does receive a good deal of hunting pressure, especially from opening day through the early part of the season. Pressure begins to dwindle toward the later weeks of the season. He does recommend using dogs for the best success and stresses their importance even more so as the season nears the end.

The area is closed to all hunting during deer quota hunts. These dates are listed in the Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide. For more information on the area, contact Scott Ferrell Monday through Friday at the WMA office from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at (502) 535-6335.

GREEN RIVER LAKE WMA

The southeastern region of Kentucky has several good public-land areas for rabbit hunting. The Green Riv

er Lake WMA is one such property and it sprawls over some 20,500 acres of gently rolling terrain. Like Kleber, the landscape varies from ridgetops to flat bottoms. There are numerous cleared areas and openings.

Brian Gray is the regional wildlife coordinator for the Southeast Region. Gray said there are around 2,000 acres of open-land habitat scattered throughout the WMA. Add in the edge habitat and that brings the total rabbit hunting area up very nicely.

Many of the ridgetop openings are planted in native warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. Much of the other open-land habitat is composed of agricultural ground, which is planted in row crops, such as soybeans and corn.

Most of these row crop sections have excellent edge habitat around field edges, old fencerows and ditch lines. Many of the native grass areas are disked and strip-mowed to boost the habitat and provide better access for hunters.

Gray said some of the open-land habitat is not obvious to first-time hunters at the WMA. He suggested hunters should call or come by the office and talk with KDFWR personnel, where they can obtain a map of the area and get recommendations on how to access the best areas of the WMA. There are also a few vicinities that are closed to hunting and these can also be located with the map.

Green River Lake WMA offers some great rabbit hunting opportunity, but it does see a fair amount of hunting pressure, according to Gray. However, he said, "it's not overwhelmed." Hunters using the area should expect an average amount of success.

The WMA is closed to other hunting during quota hunts. Hunters should take note that the WMA has three pheasant quota hunts, in addition to a deer quota hunt. These hunts amount to the six days the WMA will be closed to rabbit hunters during the season.

This property is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, so hunters wanting more information on the property should call the KDFWR district office at (270) 465-5039. Regulations and dates for rabbit hunting along with the dates of the quota hunts are listed in the Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide.

The KDFWR has been doing a great job of managing for small game and providing hunter opportunity. We have numerous areas throughout the state that harbor excellent rabbit hunting. From the rugged terrain of the east to flat agricultural lands in the west, there is hunting land to suit most anyone's taste.

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