By P.J. Reilly
Steam billowed up into the clear blue sky with each breath I exhaled as I cradled my 12-gauge shotgun in my arms and leaned against the trunk of a sturdy hardwood. I hunched my shoulders to press the warm collar of my jacket against my neck to fend off a chill.
Snow blanketed the forest floor as I stood at the upper rim of a deep, wide, mountain hollow. I had a great vantage point for looking into the tangled thicket below. Other than a few remnant leaves on the sapling branches there was no foliage in the hollow on this crisp January day.
The place looked markedly different than it did the last time I hunted here, two months earlier. The bawling of the brace of beagles sounded different, too. Their cries were clearer and echoed afar in the barren landscape. But the excitement the sound stirred within me was the same.
The beagles were in hot pursuit of a rabbit my hunting buddy spied as it skittered into some thick cover off the trail we had been walking. We quickly went to the spot where he last saw the bunny and the dogs immediately picked up the trail. My buddy stood fast where the chase began, while I walked about 200 yards farther down the trail to lean against my tree and wait.
I could see neither the dogs nor the rabbit, but I could follow the chase by listening to their excited barking. They went down into the hollow, snaked around through the thick covert for a good 20 minutes, and then began to circle back toward the spot where my buddy was waiting. Bang!
I walked toward the sound and reached my buddy just in time to see him dressing the first rabbit of the day. He finished the job and then said, “Let’s go get another one.”
Late-season rabbit hunting sometimes is just that simple, but it also can be a frustrating, seemingly futile endeavor. That’s what makes it such an exciting game – that, and the prospect of setting a fine rabbit stew on the dinner table after a successful outing.
To successfully hunt rabbits in winter, you have to know where to look for them. To do that, you have to understand their winter habits. Rabbits love to eat anything green that’s within their reach. During spring summer and fall, they can find green plants just about anywhere. In winter, however, the tender green sprouts of summer are long gone.
To sustain themselves during the barren winter months, rabbits will adapt to the conditions presented by their environment. They’ll eat twigs and tree bark if that’s the only food available. They will dine on anything they might be able to scrounge in a farm field, however, such as corn, soybeans, oats or other crops, or weeds and seeds left behind by the combine. If your rabbit-hunting area is in farm country, count on finding rabbits near harvested fields.
In deep woods, try to find areas with grape tangles, wild berry bushes and fruit trees or young saplings. These are the rabbit’s winter grocery store. If you can find rabbit food in winter, you’re sure to find rabbits. It’s that simple.
Understand, however, that no matter whether you’re hunting farm country or deep woods, rabbits are not going to be running around in the open during daylight hours, which is when you’ll be hunting them. The landscape is bare at this time of year, which means little cover for rabbits, and predators can scan wide expanses of real estate from a single, well-selected vantage point. Rabbits know they need to hide from predators. To do that, they need security cover. Find thick cover near rabbit food sources and you’re in business.
Rabbits are likely to be most active during the winter on the first warm days following cold spells. We all know the routine. You’ll have several days of sub-freezing temperatures with high winds and possibly some snow or freezing rain, and the system finally passes on one day, giving way to calm, clear skies with lots of sunshine and a marked increase in temperature. That first calm day is the best day to go rabbit hunting. They’ll be out looking for food, making them easier for you or your dogs to find.
Gear needed for a late-season rabbit hunt will depend on the tactics you intend to employ. Let’s look at some different ways to hunt rabbits at this time of year and discuss the gear that is best suited for each type of hunt.
One of the simplest and most enjoyable ways to hunt late-season rabbits is to simply head into the field with a shotgun and try to kick a few up by yourself. Often, rabbits will scoot out from under some brush in front of you as you’re walking through thick tangles of cover.
Rabbits can appear at any second and are certain to be in high gear the instant you see them, so walk with your gun up and ready to shoot. Don’t walk along with your shotgun slung over your shoulder or hanging at your side in one hand. Carry your shotgun in the port arms position with your trigger hand gripping the butt like you hold it when you shoot, and your other hand on the shotgun’s forearm. Walking like this, the shotgun will be close to your chest. When a rabbit appears, all you have to do is mount the gun, take aim and shoot.
As you’re walking, look for likely rabbit hideouts including brushpiles, fallen trees, thick grass, etc. Stomp through, around and on top of these hideouts, making as much noise as possible to get the rabbits to flush.
Also, as you’re walking through the woods, swamps or overgrown fields, don’t walk at a steady pace. Walk and stop. Walk and stop. A rabbit’s first instinct will be to sit tight and hope you keep walking past. Often, however, the rabbit will shoot out of its hiding place if you stop nearby. It probably thinks the reason you stopped is because you’ve spotted it and are in the process of stalking it. In this case, instinct tells the rabbit to run.
For this type of hunting, your best bet is to carry a lightweight shotgun fitted with an open choke, such as skeet or improved cylinder. This is jump-shooting in its truest form. A rabbit will streak across your trail from one pocket of brush headed toward another, and you will have just a second or two to mount your shotgun, find your target, determine the appropriate lead and squeeze off a round.
Speed is the key, and if you’re lugging around a big, auto-loading goose gun with a 32-inch barrel, your movements are sure to be encumbered. I like a nice, short, over-under 12-gauge with skeet chokes in each barrel. This allows me to get off two quick shots – when there’s time for a second shot. Because you’re likely to have only enough time to get off one shot at a rabbit on a solo kick-‘em-up hunt, single-shot shotguns are perfect.
Plan on loading your shotgun with high-velocity 2 3/4-inch shotshells carrying No
. 6 shot. These high-velocity shells are commonly called high-brass shells. Their greater velocity gives your shot a little more punch than a standard, low-brass shell, but doesn’t pack the wallop of a 3-inch shell. It’s a bit tougher to knock a bouncing rabbit off its feet than it is to drop a flying pheasant or grouse, and the last thing you want to do is wound a rabbit and have it find a hole to crawl down.
No. 6 shot is big enough to do the job yet small enough to put a good number of pellets in each shell. The high brass powder load will send the shot flying with enough velocity to knock a running rabbit off its feet, even if you only hit it with one or two pellets.
Employing basic deer-hunting tactics are a good way to pursue winter rabbits on your own. Simply put, you take up a stand in an area where you’re likely to find rabbits and you wait for them to pop into the open. As with deer hunting, the best times of day to hunt rabbits this way are in the morning and in the evening.
Pick a vantage point either between security cover and a food source or in the middle of a patch of security cover that provides you with a good, clear view. You can use your favorite deer-hunting tree stand to get above the surrounding ground cover, but an old stump or fallen tree, or a spot at the rim of a hollow, will also do the trick.
For this type of hunting, you’d do well to carry a .22-caliber rifle or handgun. It’s good to have a firearm that you can shoot out to 50 or 60 yards if you have to. Placing a scope on your rifle or handgun naturally will improve your accuracy at longer ranges, but open sights will do if you’ve done your work on the practice range.
If you want a little added challenge, try a bow and arrow. You’ll probably want to replace your deer-hunting broadheads with points more suited for small game. Simple field points will do, or you can try blunts or judo points. Blunts are large, flat rubber or steel tips designed to break bones and crush internal organs rather than penetrate the hide. Judo points are similar to blunts, but they typically have four metal prongs extending out from the flat head, impeding penetration and increasing the arrow’s impact area.
Undoubtedly, the most storied way to hunt winter rabbits is behind a beagle or two. This is the very game that beagles are born to play. For the most part when hunting with beagles, all you have to do is move through prime rabbit habitat and let the beagles’ noses do the work. If you jump a rabbit that the dogs didn’t detect, bring the dogs to the last spot you saw the rabbit and they should take over from there. Likewise, if you spot a set of rabbit tracks in the snow, lead the dogs right to the tracks and it’s possible they will strike up a trail.
Some rabbit hunters working with dogs like to follow the dogs closely and try for a shot at a rabbit as soon as it bolts from cover. If that’s your preference, you want to be equipped to handle a quick shot in tight quarters – light shotgun, open choke, No. 6 high brass shotshells.
When I hunt with beagles, I enjoy the chase. There’s usually several of us hunting behind a pair of dogs, and when we know the dogs have gotten on the trail of a rabbit, everybody stops right where they’re standing. We might move a few feet in either direction just to get a better view of our surroundings, but for the most part, we stand still and wait.
The dogs are left alone to go about their business, which is to stay on the heels of the rabbit. Naturally, the rabbit is able to move through its habitat much faster than a beagle, so its initial bolt from cover will put a good bit of distance between itself and the trailing dogs. This is where things get interesting, and where a good beagle will earn its keep.
Once its nose is put on a bona fide fresh rabbit trail, a good beagle will stay with that trail until the rabbit either goes down a hole or is shot by the hunters. Most often, a flushed rabbit being trailed by dogs eventually will pass very near the spot from which it was flushed. It might make a quick circle and return to that spot within a minute or two, or it might take the better part of an hour to get there. The hunter’s job is to be there when he does.
Hunters need to sit tight, let the chase run its course and keep scanning the surrounding landscape for any sign of the rabbit. The rabbit is likely to be well ahead of the trailing dogs because they are following the rabbit by sight, they are following its scent, and the rabbit is usually not running full speed after its initial burst from cover. It will hop a few feet, stop and look around to figure out if it’s still being trailed, and then it will dodge left or right, hop a few more feet and stop again.
Most times when we shoot rabbits over our dogs, the rabbits are standing still and checking their back trails. You’d do well with a .22-caliber rifle or handgun or even a bow and arrow under these conditions. If you carry a shotgun, your best bet is to have a little tighter choke than you would on a flush hunt. Put a modified choke in your barrel and load up with No. 4 high-brass shotshells. The tighter choke and larger shot will help you take rabbits up to 40 yards away.
When you’re hunting with dogs and a flushed rabbit gives the hounds the slip or escapes down a hole, you’ll know it. The dogs keep howling and stay interested when they’re on the trail of a rabbit and as long as there’s scent, they’ll continue usually bawling like crazy. If they lose the trail or the trail ends at a hole, the dogs will typically stop barking and either return to you or start wandering around looking for another rabbit. If that happens, gather them up and move on or you risk wasting time on cold trailing (where the dogs start following the remnants of old trails). In the winter rabbit woods, there’s always another spot worth checking out.
If there’s a better way to spend a chilly January day than chasing rabbits, I haven’t found it. Although hunting behind a good beagle or two is what most people think of when they envision a rabbit hunt, you don’t need dogs to be successful. Get out there and hit the brush on your own or with a buddy – any rabbit you get will taste the same!
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