Hunting Close-Cover Cottontails

For real rabbit action, forget grassy openings and head for the nasty cover.

"A grouse gun and beagles. You get weirder all the time." So my long-time hunting buddy James Dennie said.

We were joining a mutual friend and his four-dog pack of rabbit hounds to check out a couple of abandoned and overgrown homesites that had been surrounded by large farming operations. For more than a decade, the places had been left to whatever Nature decided to do with them, and it seemed likely that we could stir up a race or two, at least enough to polish up the beagles before making more serious hunts later in the season.

One look at the first "yard" was almost enough to cause us to stay in the truck. We had expected to see the crumbling remains of what had once been a subsistence farmer's home, complete with half-gone roof and a front porch lacking a single plank. What we had not anticipated were the rose bushes that had once decorated the place, a wild, mad tangle of the multiflora type that had spread unchecked all those many years.

"Might as well let them get their tails bloody, I guess," our friend said.

The dogs went through the normal routines that dogs insist upon after riding for half an hour in a box, and then one by one they disappeared into the cover. Beagles are not briar-proof, but the good ones think that they are.

I had just flipped the breech lever on my double barrel to dunk in a couple of light loads of No. 4 shot, my favorite for cottontails, when a chubby tri-colored beagle named Charlotte cut loose with the squealing yelp that is her trademark signal that once again she was first off the mark. The three other pack members were only a couple of heartbeats behind her.

It seemed simple enough to figure out what to do: We had a hot rabbit race in progress and the cover looked like it would dictate that the race would remain in a chunk of terrain that covered less than an acre.

But 20 minutes later, when the dogs had brought the cottontail back around for the third time and it was coming obvious that we weren't going to get a shot by standing on the fringes of the cover, the hunting didn't seem nearly as simple.

Brush chaps are great for a lot of hunting situations, but as I pushed through the vegetable barbed wire (behind the roses there was a blackberry briar thicket that could have stalled a Sherman tank), I was wishing that they came up higher than my waist. My canvas hunting coat sounded like berserk squirrels were chewing on it, but the effort was not wasted. The cottontail offered a tiny, brief target at a distance of 12 steps and the skeet-bored 12-gauge flattened him without destroying supper.

We picked briars from exposed stretches of skin, and some that were not exposed for a week or two, but stories that the hunt generated are still being told. Anytime you take three limits of cottontails in less than two hours, you have had a hunt worth recalling.

During that same season, we hunted another couple of places that had similar cover, complete with rose bushes gone wild combined with briar thickets, but our successes were far less memorable.

The only major visible difference was that on the sparsely populated rabbit covers the animals that were there had been chewing heavily on the rose stems. But why in areas with higher cottontail populations did the roses show almost no sign of such foraging?

We returned to our hotspot and got our answer: oak trees. Big, shaggy red oaks and white oaks like the ones that people loved in their yards for shade back in the days before air conditioning. The mast that those trees dropped might have reached into the hundreds of bushels on a good year, and even on a bad year, they could feed as many rabbits as the thorny habitat could hold.

Obviously, such chunks of habitat are attractive and need not be large to be attractive to members of the rabbit clan. It is sort of like having your kitchen, bedroom, a free bar and a big-screen television in the same room. Why would you want to be anywhere else, especially when all of your buddies are hanging out there, too?

Ideally, most rabbit hunters would like to pursue cottontails in open grass and weed patches, where the hunters can see as well as hear the race. However, for rabbits, the really bad thickets are the closest things to safe havens. Even the most industrious coyote, fox or bobcat would likely go on a field mouse diet rather than tackle such a thorny, no pun intended, situation. Certainly, avian predators like hawks and owls are not prone to going kamikaze into cover that they might not be able to get out of. Rabbits may not be deep thinkers, but they have a sense of self-preservation. They can either live in the thickets, especially those with a built-in food supply, or they can hop around like a Disney character out in the green grass and flowers and be eaten. Not a hard choice, even for a rabbit.

Having called the old homesite covers "small," let me hasten to add that even smaller ones can be equally good if the situation warrants. The absolute hottest rabbit hunting I have enjoyed in half a century of chasing cottontails took place on another overgrown piece of farmland. It consists of a narrow strip with a "straightened" creek that is normally dry in the center. Gullies sprout from the sides like the ribs on a filleted bass, and briar tangles, plum thickets and other unpleasant vegetation have taken over the gullies. Along the creek's original bank the oak trees still stand, most with honeysuckle-festooned wire sticking out from a fence that was nailed there a couple of generations ago when small farms were the rule rather than the exception.

My partner in crime was Jim Melton, a successful country songwriter and musician who is also a beagle fancier and needed a break from his busy life in the Big City. He pointed his dogs into the end of the cover beside where we had parked my truck, and less than half an hour later, we were putting the dogs back into their boxes. The truck had never been out of sight. All that the dogs had to do was drop off in a gully and a rabbit would come out into the creek bottom or out the top where the ground cover was short enough to allow a reasonably good shot.

A quick examination showed that mast that had fallen on the higher ground had long since been consumed by the resident wildlife, but hitting the slopes and especially into the cracks and crevices were still there in sufficient bulk to keep the local cottontails happy and well fed. Without good dogs, we could have walked everywhere that we could penetrate and kicked every brushpile around the fringes and gotten precious little except for some exercise and fresh air for our troubles. The bunnies were back deep in the cover -- and who could blame them?

I have nothing against brushpiles and fencerows. If you are a hunter and can resist sticking your foot in either of them, then you were raised differently from most of us. Once in a while, you will actually boot a rabbit out, but don't count on it unless you are lucky enough to be in an area that is low on predators. Where feral dogs and cats are common, you can just about forget seeing a rabbit, but go ahead and kick the brushpiles: It still feels natural.

There is a saying that goes, "size isn't everything" and never was that more true than when talking about cottontail cover. If it's nasty, full of stickers and dotted with oaks, beech or other mast-bearing trees, then hitch up your brush britches and let the beagles go because the action is about to start.

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