Hares Without Hounds: Kicking Up Cottontails

You needn't miss out on good cottontail hunting just because you don't have a pack of beagles to chase the rabbits with. There are other ways of getting in on the action. (January 2007)

No pooch? No problem! The author popped this pair of cottontails on a houndless one-man hunt. His favorite rabbit gun is a 16-gauge double-barrel that throws a wide pattern. An orange hat provides an extra margin of safety amid the thickets.
Photo by Gerald Almy.

Follow a pack of woofing beagles through the woods and wait for them to chase a rabbit past you: That's the classic way to pursue cottontails. But if you don't own a kennelful of hounds and don't have friends who do, you can still enjoy superb rabbit hunting. There's another method that I've used for years, and it works like a charm: Kick 'em up!

Of the millions who hunt rabbits every year, a substantial number venture into the woods without canine assistance. Indeed, increasingly urbanized lifestyles leave many hunters no choice in the matter: If you live in an apartment or a housing development, it's hard to keep a pack of beagles. Even at a house in the country, where you can keep just about as many animals as would suit you, it's still sometimes hard to justify maintaining a bunch of dogs. You need to feed them year 'round for a few hunts each fall that must be squeezed in between deer and turkey hunting, fall fishing, waterfowling, and the usual family, chore and work obligations. These days, time is tight for all of us.

But just because you can't manage to keep a passel of beagles on hand doesn't mean that you can't get after the cottontails. Excellent sport is to be had simply by walking up the rabbits -- provided that you use the right tactics and hunt prime locations. I know that from experience, having spent many hours busting through thickets, stomping on blowdowns and pausing in greenbrier patches to flush out the furry beasts either on my own or with a friend or two along to share the fun.

The shooting is definitely more challenging, because you're taken by surprise and don't have yelping beagles to alert you -- and you certainly won't have the cottontail circle past you again if you miss! But even with these greater challenges, rare is the hunt that doesn't see us move quite a few rabbits, and, usually, bag enough for several tasty dinners.

One of my earliest lessons in the productivity of kicking up cottontails came on a quail hunt. Three of us had been searching for birds; finding few, we finally decided to give the dogs a break, and to try jumping up a rabbit. An hour later we had three fat cottontails bulging from our game pouches.

Hunting rabbits successfully without the aid of beagles requires three things: (1.) understanding the feeding, resting and movement patterns that rabbits display, (2.) knowing what types of habitat the rabbits use at different times of day and under different weather conditions, and (3.) learning the best tactics for flushing them in a way that gives you a good shot.

Years ago, rabbits did a lot of their feeding and moving during the daylight hours. As clean farming, the widespread planting of fescue and the removal of brushy edges and weedy fields began to degrade habitat, however, rabbits increasingly became creatures of twilight and night. Studies have also shown that hunting pressure turns rabbits, like deer, more to the nocturnal.

Though rabbits have yet to transform completely into creatures of the night, the hunter who heads out at the crack of dawn to work the cover until midmorning, or who is afield during the last few hours of daylight, will definitely find more cottontails moving about. And the more active the game, the more likely you'll get shots, and the less bush-stomping you'll have to do to roust out the quarry.

One exception to the early-and-late rule will reveal itself on days with heavy cloud cover or even a light drizzle. Rabbits move more all day then because of the low light intensity. Another exception is seen on a warm, sunny day following a period of very cold or inclement weather. Rabbits often hole up during rough conditions, making up for lost feeding time by feeding longer into the day when the weather breaks. At such times, they'll often sun themselves during midday hours on sunny southern exposures.

Weather can also influence rabbits' whereabouts. On warm days early in the season, creek bottoms can be places to probe for quarry, since the bottoms stay cooler, and the rabbits can find water, shade and tender grasses to nibble on there.

Windy, bitter-cold days tend to drive the rabbits to protected gullies and hollows; there, they're shielded from the fiercest breezes. If the air is frigid, but winds are light, the rabbits head for sun-drenched hillsides to fluff up their fur as they soak up the warmth.

When the weather's in a more normal pattern, types of cover to search out include patches of raspberry, blackberry, greenbrier and multiflora rose. Thickets of honeysuckle mixed with sumac, and goldenrod, overgrown hedgerows, uncultivated fields and brushpiles are also likely spots in which to find rabbits. If there's enough cover nearby, rabbits sometimes feed in fields of rye, wheat, clover, corn and soybeans. Clearcuts are potential hotspots after a year or two of regrowth, with lots of tender young plants sprouting up from the cropped landscape.

Weedy hillsides along railroad tracks sometimes hold lots of rabbits. Just stay off the tracks! In almost every case you'll be trespassing, as railbeds -- even abandoned ones -- are private property owned by the railroads.

Abandoned human works of other kinds also are hotspots. Ramshackle homesteads, stacks of old lumber, junkpiles, rusty farm machinery overgrown with weeds, collapsed sheds: All speak of home, sweet home to the cottontail.

Many public lands offer worthwhile rabbit hunting. Private land too is an option to consider seriously, since many property owners who might not permit deer or turkey hunting will allow a courteous shotgunner a crack at their rabbits. When searching for areas to hunt, avoid large, clean farms with few brushy corners or overgrown fields; turn instead to smaller, neglected ones with dilapidated tractors lying around amid weed-choked hedgerows, unkempt corners and fallow fields. It's in areas such as these that you'll find cottontails hunkered down in a briar patch or brushpile.

After you've identified some possible sites to hunt, begin searching for game -- preferably early or late in the day. If you're hunting the location for the first time, you should look not just for the rabbits themselves but for their sign as well.

Keep an eye peeled for rabbit droppings -- round, dark nuggets left in piles of a dozen or more

. The presence of "cottontail runways" -- trails that rabbits clear in their home turf for purposes of a quick escape into a brushpile or an escape hole -- is also a pretty reliable tipoff that you're in a prime area; think of a miniature deer trail and you'll know what to search for. Rabbit beds, in which the animals rest in a patch of weeds against a log or under a bush, are another type of sign to be on the lookout for.

Now that you know a bit about when rabbits like to feed, how they move and what sorts of habitat they prefer, you face the challenge of flushing them to get off a clean shot. To achieve this, you'll be taking on the task normally left to the dogs: plunging into the thickets, briars and weed patches to flush the game out.

Wearing the right clothing for the task is vital. Start with a good pair of leather boots or rubber-bottomed ones if the ground is wet. They should be well broken in, since you'll do lots of walking in a day of dogless rabbit hunting. A heavy canvas jacket protects the upper body well. Wear double-faced brush pants to shield your legs from thorns and stickers. Finally, because of the thick cover and poor visibility, wear blaze orange on your upper body so your partners or other hunters in the area know where you are.

It helps to have one or two buddies when you hit the rabbit cover. If necessary, though, you can push game by yourself. In either case, the best approach involves zigzagging through the cover rather than moving in a straight line. The erratic movement tends to alarm the quarry, which can't get a precise fix on where you're going. Thus confused, it's more likely to give in to panic and to flee, and to present you with a shot. Also: To suppress the noise of your approach, work with the wind when possible.

Inserting a sudden pause or halt into your progress is a great rabbit-flushing move. When you move steadily, many cottontails will let you go right past them, thinking that they're well enough hidden to evade detection; if, on the other hand, you stop, the sudden silence unnerves the quarry, which, fearing it's been spotted, must take flight.

Pausing also lets you get ready to fire on flushing game by raising your shotgun partially and planting your feet firmly, just in case something moves. Shots taken from this ready position are more likely to fly true than those popped off when you're surprised and caught off-balance in mid-stride by a bunny bursting wildly out of cover.

Stopping every few minutes is a sensible idea if you're working through prime habitat. Pause for at least 10 seconds; 20 or 30 will be even better. If the cover's not especially good, walk a bit farther until you come to better habitat and then pause.

When you're working with a friend, try mixing up the pauses. Let one hunter work 30 or 40 feet ahead while the other stands still, alert for flushing game; then, the second person works up past the first and pauses. No, you won't probe as much ground as you would simply walking through nonstop -- but you'll see more rabbits, and get off better shots this way.

It's important to have a plan for positioning yourself for the pause and for deciding when to arrest your progress. If one hunter's working through a patch of brush so thick that shooting would be impossible even if a rabbit were seen, the other person should be standing on the outside or far edge of that patch, ahead of the moving person, so if a rabbit flushes, the stationary shooter is likely to get a shot.

Often the person busting through the thickest cover won't even know that all the thrashing is moving rabbits, but the hunter on the outer edge will see game, and get a crack at it as it breaks from the thicket. If you come upon old overgrown machines or a brushpile, it can even pay to stomp on or kick it. If there's a danger of falling as you do this, place your gun down in a safe area first while your partner waits with his shotgun at the ready.

One thing you'll learn quickly when you're trying to jump rabbits: You can't be lackadaisical if you expect to eat much Haßenpfeffer at day's end. Although they can only run at 18 m.p.h., rabbits have a knack for getting behind cover or out of sight pronto. If you're in prime cover, walk with your gun held in at port arms position; expect to see game at any second. You'll be ready for a snap shot -- which is all you're likely to get when you kick up cottontails: a mere instant, from the time the ball of fur springs from cover to its disappearance behind the next brushpile or clump of weeds, in which to react.

The instant you see a rabbit flush within shotgun range --and not in the line of fire of a companion -- raise your gun, mount and fire in one fluid motion. Point the shotgun at the fleeing rabbit, lower your cheek to the gun, track with the moving blur of fur, and then slap the trigger just as the barrel moves ahead of the quarry. This should put most of your load in the head and neck area, leaving the bulk of the meat undamaged.

Most hunters use too much choke for small-game hunting. Because of the quick, close shooting involved, an open choke or, at most, improved cylinder is optimal for most rabbit hunting. One of my favorite rabbit guns is a 16-gauge Stevens double handed down to me by my father. I've modified it by amputating 3 inches from the barrel and removing all of the choke. This is a light, quick-pointing gun whose open pattern is perfect for most rabbit shots. If a cottontail gets up too far away for the open pattern, I simply let it go. That rarely happens, though: Most rabbits you jump up are 10 to 25 yards away -- prime range for an open-choked gun, or improved cylinder at most.

Don't use shot any larger than No. 5 for rabbits. Sure, 4s will work, but you get a better pattern with more pellets using 5s or 6s. That shot size will kill cottontails cleanly at close range if you aim true.

You can practice your shooting for rabbits by having a friend throw some clay targets for you. Have him throw them at shin-height, and from behind you.

Where the option is legal, a .22 rifle shooting hollow-point ammo is another possibility for cottontail hunting. This calls for a slightly different strategy. Take a stealthier approach as you work through the cover, scanning ahead with your eyes. Try to spot the brown fur or the large glassy eye of the rabbit, or its quivering ears.

Aim carefully for the head when you spot the stationary target; squeeze off smoothly. Don't give up, though, if the rabbit hops off before you shoot. Sometimes the quarry will just run a few yards, and then pause to investigate whatever it was that disturbed it -- at which point you might get a second chance.

Never use .22s around homes or farm buildings; stick to shotguns in those situations.

No, I'll never turn down an invitation to hunt with a pack of rambunctious beagles leading the way. But if no dogs are available, I think you'll find you can still enjoy some pretty good sport on your own by following these tips for jumping up the cottontails.

DANGERS OF TULAREMIA

Tularemia is uncommon in rabbits, but be aware of the possibility tha

t cottontails could be infected with this disease.

The liver and spleen of a rabbit carrying tularemia will be swollen, with the liver covered with hundreds of tiny white spots. A few, larger spots about the size of a pencil eraser are symptomatic not of tularemia but of tapeworm. Rabbits showing symptoms of tularemia should be buried. Those with just a couple of the larger white spots can be eaten safely, but the viscera should be buried or placed in a trashcan so that dogs can't reach them.

The most common route of infection in humans is through a break in the skin, and there's obviously an opportunity for that to occur during the cleaning of tularemia-infected rabbits. To reduce the risk posed by dressing cottontails, wear rubber gloves and wash thoroughly with soap and water after cleaning the game.

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