Late-Season Rabbits: Tactics For Tough Hunts

Rabbits can be difficult to find after hunting pressure and winter weather take their toll. Here's expert advice on how to score in the final weeks of the season. (January 2008)

Kenny Meadors and Raymond Wethington bagged a tailgate's worth of rabbits, thanks to a good pack of dogs and some late-season strategies.
Photo courtesy of Paul Moore.

Rabbit hunters and their dogs always start the season with a lot of energy. The hunters are pumped and the dogs are falling over themselves to get loaded in the truck. In years with good rabbit numbers, hunting success is usually good.

But as the season wears on, there are many changes taking place that greatly affect rabbit hunting. Rabbit numbers drop, habitat conditions change, and the weather turns nasty. These factors, along with pressure from hunting and predators, often force rabbits into the tightest cover they can find. Savvy hunters can still score, but different tactics and patience are required for late-season success.

Sammie Dukes has been rabbit hunting for the better part of his 60 years of life. He took a short hiatus when he got married, but otherwise has been chasing rabbits through every condition imaginable since he was just a boy.

For the late season, Dukes said there are two things that hunters must do. First, they have to take along some good dogs. That is imperative. Next, they must be prepared to hit areas with the thickest cover.

Dukes said most tall grass and other cover will be knocked down by the late season and rabbits will seek out the best hiding areas they can find. Although they might be found close to fields with any leftover food sources remaining, they usually will be in some of the thickest cover around.

Kenny Meadors concurs with Dukes. Although not in the age group with Dukes, Meadors has still logged countless days pursuing rabbits throughout the past 20 years.

"You have to hunt slower and give the dogs time to hunt," Meadors said. "You have to get in the really thick stuff and have to have dogs that are willing to get in there, too. The rabbits will be holding really tight in the late season and the dogs literally have to 'bump' the rabbit to get it to move," he said.

Dukes also believes that good dogs are an absolute "must-have" for late-season success.

"A dog has to be able to run a rabbit first and foremost. But you also must have at least one dog that is actually a jump dog to get in there and get the rabbit moving," he said.

Dukes added that hunters can actually do quite well with only two dogs, but both must be good at their jobs. At least one must be a good jump dog and the other must be a good track dog. Of course, if the dogs can do both well, there's going to be plenty of action for the hunters following them.

Meadors believes he has seen a change in rabbit patterns in the last several years. He believes rabbits are found more in areas outside of traditional rabbit habitat and that they are harder to get moving than in the past. There are several contributing factors, according to Meadors.

"We are finding rabbits more in the woods and thickets than we did years ago," Meadors said. He believes one reason is because of the clean farming practices used today. There simply aren't as many grown-up fencerows, ditch banks and field edges as in the past.

Predators are another major factor affecting rabbit behavior, according to Meadors.

"There are so many predators and so little available cover, it makes it difficult on the rabbits. There are coyotes, bobcats and feral cats, not to mention the predators, such as hawks and owls that come from above. Rabbits use any available cover they can find to get away and hide," he said.

Feral cats have eliminated some of the hunting areas Meadors used to frequent. He said, "We used to be able to go out and hunt near farm houses and other rural homes. Now, it seems like there are so many feral cats around those places, you just don't find the rabbits like in the old days. Feral cats kill a lot of rabbits."

Meadors said there are other evidences that predators have placed great pressure on rabbits today. He said not only do the rabbits sit extremely tight to cover and are reluctant to jump, but also when they do jump, they make tremendously large circles.

This is far different than the rabbits he chased a few years back. He said sometimes his dogs go completely out of hearing distance. "It makes me wonder sometimes exactly what they are running," Meadors said.

One may question these theories because there have always been predators. However, in years past, before clean farming came along, there was much more cover for the rabbits to seek out. Now, with the lack of cover and a marked increase in coyotes across the country, rabbits are definitely more pressured than in the past.

Dukes and Meadors both agree that weather can play a huge factor in success. Dukes prefers going on days that are not extremely cold. He said, "A 35-degree day is about perfect." He said that not only is the cold harder on him at his age, but it is also harder on the dogs, and the rabbits don't work as well either.

Dukes has observed that if it becomes really cold, the rabbits will go in a hole and just "lay low." Meadors seconds that, but finds some advantages to the cold as well.

"If you're hunting a section of the country that gets snow, you can actually find rabbit tracks while hunting and steer the dogs toward them," he noted. Additionally, he said that the rabbits don't seem to run as far if it is extremely cold.

When hunting very cold, blustery days, hunters must be cognizant of the conditions and seek out the areas most likely to hold good numbers of rabbits. Rabbits are like humans and most other animals. They will seek out the most comfortable surroundings, the ones that give the most protection from the elements.

Look for rabbits taking advantage of the extra warmth on the sunny side of hills. Also, during blowing wind, look for them in depressions, along ditches or gullies, or in thick tight cover. They will try to shelter themselves from the wind as much as possible.

Food sources are another consideration when looking for wintertime rabbits. During summer, rabbits have a plethora of food sources and will feed on anything ranging from grasses to vegetables to grain crops. However, by the late season, most of these food items have

vanished.

If a hunter can find farm fields that still have some grain crops remaining, rabbits are sure to be nearby. The best candidates to attract rabbits are soybeans and wheat. However, when these items are vanquished, rabbits will survive the winter by eating the bark from saplings, twigs and various other woody materials.

Meadors actually "scouts" for good rabbit habitat by looking for browse areas. He said finding areas that show signs of rabbits feeding on the bottoms of small saplings are prime areas at which to turn out the dogs.

Hunting gets tougher as it gets later into the season. Rabbits are fewer, food sources are scarce, and the weather is unpredictable. However, the good thing about late-season hunting is that once the rabbits are found, they will usually be concentrated.

As mentioned, there isn't as much cover or as many food sources. Therefore, vicinities that provide these things are magnets for area rabbits. Once a good area is located, there may be a bunch of rabbits holding there.

Meadors said late-season rabbit hunting is "kind of like deer hunting." He said, "You have to find places other hunters haven't been. You have to find the areas that haven't been pressured as much."

This can be really difficult for hunters who must hunt public lands exclusively. By late in the year, most areas open to public hunting have been pressured tremendously. The only hope for late-season rabbit enthusiasts is to go off the beaten path and try to hit areas farthest away from roads and easy access. Most hunters will not venture too far from their vehicles in the late season, so others who are willing to put out some extra effort can often find little hidden gems by "breaking out of the box."

To give a last word of advice, both rabbit hunting experts stressed the need for patience in the late season. Rabbits have literally seen it all by the time January rolls around. Rushing through a hunting area will do absolutely no good at all, according to Dukes and Meadors.

"The rabbits will hold so tight to cover that you can almost walk over the top of them and they won't move," Meadors said. "You have to learn to slow down and take your time. Stay in the area longer than you normally would earlier in the year. Give the dogs time. Hunt through an area and then turn around and come back through again."

The late season can be tough to hunt, but there are still plenty of rabbits out there for hunters willing to tackle the challenge.

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