Finding & Analyzing Good Rabbit Cover
January 27, 2011
Rabbits are hard to find if you look in the wrong places. Here's a guide to the kinds of cover that America's favorite small-game animal loves.
The author commends the beagle pack for their work. Heavy cover at the edge of a field can make for good rabbit habitat.
Photo courtesy of Mark Fike.
Rabbits are said to be America's No. 1 small game animal. As abundant and tasty as they are, it is no wonder that so many hunters enjoy a day afield chasing Mr. Long Ears. The Southeast is composed of a number of habitats and ecosystems. One can find swamps, timber in hardwood and pine lots, pasture, cutovers, agricultural fields, brush country and prairie all in the region we call the Southeast.
The good news is that rabbits, whether they are cottontails, blacktail jackrabbits, marsh or swamp rabbits, can be found in each of the habitats. Sometimes two or more of the species may overlap in the same habitat.
Rabbits are generally known to frequent what biologists call early successional cover. This means that they prefer weedy, grassy or short brushy areas. Rabbits, no matter the species, have two things that occupy almost their entire lives: eating and hiding. (Rabbits also are notorious for occupying themselves with making more rabbits, but that doesn't take much time and right after the new rabbits are born, they have to start hiding and eating, too.) Some of the best areas to find rabbits are areas that offer both cover and food either next to each other or mixed together in the same area.
SWAMPS & MARSHES
The Southeast has a number of areas where swamps and marshes are common. In these areas, the swamp rabbit and marsh rabbit and to a lesser extent, the cottontail, is found. Swamps and marshes are often surrounded by wet soil that is conducive to weedy growth, which in turn provides great cover and food.
Many swamp rabbits are taken incidentally in the course of a rabbit or other game hunt. Hunters who hunt wetland areas know that a good pack of beagles is the way to go when wanting to put rabbit on the dinner menu. The cover is very thick and briars and vines are common. Hunters wearing chaps and using walking sticks to ward off briars, snakes and vines can also stomp and roust rabbits from cover, affording a shot with a shotgun. In open marshlands, the marsh rabbits can be sniped with a .22 rifle by a hunter stalking quietly.
Finding rabbits in hardwood lots and pine lots is tough unless the stands are very young and thick. Early growth of such lots still has plenty of underbrush, offering rabbits food and cover in which to hide. The edge of a pine thicket is an excellent area for rabbits to be found.
However, hunting a hardwood or pine lot can be tough. On one hand, a rabbit dog (usually a beagle) will locate rabbits faster, but sometimes because of the lack of thick cover, the rabbit may run much farther and be well out of range in no time. This is especially true of older hardwood lots.
A few hunters easing along the edges of a hardwood or pine stand armed with either tight-choked scatterguns or .22 rifles will find that hunting can be quite good. If a group of hunters work together and strategically place the rimfire hunter among the shotgun hunters, then the lone rabbit spied at a distance can be taken by a rifle, while moving rabbits jumped by the hunters walking along are more easily taken by a shotgun.
Cutovers are areas that were recently timbered with no growth more than seven or eight years old. Most of the brush in a cutover is less than 6 feet tall. Briars are prevalent and honeysuckle, saplings and vines are common. Rabbits absolutely love cutovers because food and cover are located in one place.
Cutovers are very difficult to hunt solo or without a beagle or other rabbit dogs because the cover is darn near impenetrable. The most common practice is to get a pack of beagles and several hunters together. One or two hunters work the dogs from one end of the cutover and the other hunters spread out in the cutover looking for a location where they have a field of view. Once the dogs begin chasing down a rabbit, hunters wait at their spots for the rabbit to pass by.
The rabbits can be several hundred yards in front of the beagles in the thick cover, so hunters need to be watching closely. Opportunities for shots are short lived. Sometimes being on higher ground is advantageous. Standing on a large stump can offer a better vantage point and be the difference between putting a rabbit in the game vest or not.
PASTURE & PRAIRIE
Pasturelands and prairies are where many people think of rabbits living. Rabbits do frequent pastures, but they rarely live in the pasture itself unless the grassy areas are tall enough to provide cover from hawks and eagles. The edges of the pasture, hedgerows or clumps of thickets in soggy bottoms are key to finding rabbits in the daytime, when they are most likely resting. The pasture itself provides food but not cover.
Prairies are slightly different in that the rabbits may be forced to spend more time on the prairie if there is a lack of nearby fencerows or other cover. Regardless, hunters should focus their efforts on cover more than food. Fencerows, thickets or even a clump of trees in or along the pasture or prairie will hold rabbits. It is in these locations that a lone hunter can stalk or still-hunt with a rimfire rifle and clean up. Hunting at dawn and dusk or on cloudy days is best for the one- or two-man approach.
If rabbit dogs are used, the action will be faster paced. Veteran rabbit houndsmen know that putting the dogs near the cover first will initiate the fastest contact. An interesting point to remember about using rabbit dogs is that rabbits will often circle back to where they were jumped when possible. If the dogs are released near a hedgerow and the rabbit takes off into the prairie or pasture, it is very likely that the bunny will soon come bounding back in your direction. Stay put, wait and be ready because when it comes back by, it will likely be moving fast!
Agricultural fields provide a very similar hunting situation to that of pastures and prairies. The rabbits do not often live in the field itself, but do feed in it. Waste grain and green leafy crops are an attractive food source for rabbits. However, they will enjoy the safety of nearby weedy edges, briars, thickets and overgrown fences. Concentrate efforts along the edges of the fields. Pay special attention to the thicker and more overgrown corners and other areas more than the cleaner edges of well-trimmed fields.
Brushy country, particularly dry country, provides what is probably the easiest to hunt of all the habitats; in many cases, the
hunting can be done without beagles. Smaller species of oak trees are interspersed with other vegetation and sometimes agricultural fields or pastures. The rabbits can be found pretty much anywhere there is some form of cover.
Stalking along with a rimfire rifle or pistol is great fun and an efficient way to hunt. If there is an active agricultural field in the area, focus efforts along the edges and in corners.
While stalking or still-hunting the brush country, wear camo and move slowly, stopping often enough to allow the rabbits to hop out into view. Most of the rabbits in the brush country will be more active in the morning and evening hours, but during the winter, they will move all day. Rabbits will hop from one patch of greenery to another and then feed. Rarely will they stay in the open between two patches of cover very long.
One thing that still-hunters will find is that once a shot is fired, more rabbits are likely to spook and be seen. Hold tight when shooting and keep vigilant for additional shots.
Rabbit hunting in the Southeast is hands down an outstanding way to spend a day. Keep in mind that no matter the habitat type you are hunting, any place where cover and food sources are found together, rabbits will be found, too. Because rabbits are so plentiful, the season is liberal and some states keep it open year 'round. Rabbits are fine eating and provide very memorable hunting memories for both the young and old, so get out that scattergun or your favorite .22 rifle and head to the nearest rabbit cover this month.