Photo by Ken Archer
When one thinks of rabbit hunting, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a couple of hunters with shotguns following a pack of beagles through waist-deep briars and thickets. Although that is the traditional picture of cottontail hunting, many sportsmen these days are going afield with stick-and-string to fill their game bags. Using a bow to hunt rabbits is a challenge, but one filled with excitement and reward.
Hunting rabbits with archery gear is nothing new. People have done it since the invention of the bow and arrow. However, in today’s world, bowhunting is confined to only those dedicated archers who like to challenge themselves. They don’t mind if the odds of success are slightly less than their gun-hunting friends.
Bowhunting is not all that different from traditional shot gunning in many respects. There are numerous subtle differences, with equipment being the most obvious. Other aspects of bowhunting rabbits involve technique and shot capability. Following is a look at some of the nuances of bowhunting cottontails along with advice from a couple of seasoned bowhunters who have taken their share of rabbits with archery gear.
Some people are strictly compound shooters and will use the same bow for rabbit hunting as for deer hunting. The setup may include both aluminum or carbon arrows and even fixed-position sights. Points will vary according to the shooter’s preference.
While this setup will work, it pretty much limits the archer to shooting at only stationary rabbits. A rare few hunters will use a compound bow and shoot instinctively, but it’s not common.
The more common method of bowhunting for rabbits is with traditional equipment. Recurve bows are most commonly used, but longbows can work if you don’t use one that’s too long. Because of some of the tight brushy areas where most rabbit hunting occurs, a short bow is of great benefit while maneuvering for a clean shot.
Charlie Goatee has been bowhunting for some 35 years and pursuing rabbits with a bow for nearly half that span. He said traditional equipment is the only way to go for rabbit hunting. It affords much more opportunity, allows the archer to shoot faster, and even to have chances at moving targets.
Another long-time bowhunter Kevin Capps seconds that opinion. He has been bowhunting rabbits for around 20 years. Capps has used compound bows for rabbit hunting, but much prefers the versatility of traditional gear.
The poundage of the bow should be whatever the archer can shoot comfortably. Both Capps and Goatee use the same bow they would for deer hunting. Of course, lighter poundage bows will work fine for rabbits.
Arrow choice is fairly much a matter of personal preference. Wooden arrows are most used with traditional gear, but aluminum and even carbon will work fine. Aluminum arrows with inserts allow more versatility by allowing different types of points to be easily interchanged for different hunting conditions.
Fletching choice varies greatly among shooters and even varies with individuals depending on the hunting conditions. Feathers and vanes are both used depending on the arrow. Many people will also use different types of fletching to slow the arrow’s flight, especially if there are concerns about the arrow traveling too far or becoming lost. White or other easily seen colors will help with locating hard-to-spot arrows.
Points used for rabbit hunting are even more varied than fletching. Judo points are a very popular choice with all small-game bowhunters. The head has a blunted center surrounded by small spring arms, which snag in the brush and grass, thereby flipping the arrow up for easy locating. Goatee likes using judo points in open areas, but said they are not good for very thick cover because they catch on the brush and won’t penetrate the thick stuff where rabbits may be sitting.
Many other arrow points are used for rabbits, including blunts and bludgeons. A field point with an adder behind it also functions exceptionally well. Some companies are even manufacturing other special small-game points, which are combinations of the blunt and judo point designs.
Capps sometimes uses a setup similar to the adder point. He uses a standard field point with a flat metal washer placed between the point and the arrow shaft. The point gives penetration while the washer slows pass-through and creates more shock.
Rabbits can be hunted with bows in the same traditional manner as do shotgun hunters. Archers don’t typically have the range and flexibility with shots as with shotguns, so positioning oneself for a circling rabbit is of utmost importance.
Capps prefers another method of using dogs that is somewhat similar to a deer drive. He likes to position either one or two bowhunters to function as standers at the end of a particular section of cover. Another person handling a jump dog will start at the other end of the cover. He’ll slowly work the dog toward the standers. Any rabbits jumped will be pushed toward the waiting hunters.
Safety must be highly stressed with this method. Because the dog and handler are working directly toward the hunters, all shots must be in a safe direction. Missed shots resulting in deflected arrows are possible.
Yet another method of using dogs is similar to traditional hunting, only shots are taken when the rabbit jumps rather than waiting for the rabbit to be circled by the dogs. This method uses only one jump dog, but it has to work slowly. Both Capps and Goatee prefer slow, methodically working dogs. They say there is no such thing as a dog that hunts “too” slow.
The idea is to take one dog and up to as many as three bowhunters. The dog slowly works the cover as the hunters spread out and move through the cover in a line. “When the rabbit is jumped by the dog, it will usually only run a short distance and stop to look around. With two or three hunters there, it will stop briefly to see which direction the pressure is coming from. Usually one of the hunters will have a shot when the rabbit stops,” Capps said.
SANS DOGS TACTICS
Many bowhunters are somewhat reclusive. The thought of dogs and noise is not attractive to many archery hunters. They prefer to move silently and pit their skills against the animal’s natural defense mechanisms.
Most bowhunters will use a combination
of still-hunting and spot-and- stalk to bag their rabbits. This involves many attributes, including patience, a keen eye and good shooting. The key element may be patience.
Capps found out about patience many years ago, but it took a while before it took effect. As a teenager, he began bowhunting rabbits with an older more experienced hunter. The seasoned bowhunter tried to instill patient, methodical still-hunting skills to his young apprentice, but the exuberance of youth was too much.
“He told me to take a step or two and then stop and be still,” Capps said. “He would stop and stand in the same spot for maybe 15 to 20 minutes without moving. He would tell me to not only look for rabbits, but also look for parts of rabbits.
“The rabbits would often be holed up in thick cover and you couldn’t see a complete rabbit. He told me to look for an eye, an ear, or some other part of a rabbit. I tried to hunt the same as him, but I’d always get impatient and want to move. I thought that if I covered more ground, then I’d have more chances at finding rabbits. Of course, at the end of the day, he would always have twice as many rabbits as I did. After a while, I learned to hunt slow and look intently,” Capps said.
Charlie Goatee likes to hunt slow and methodical, too. He likes small blocks of really thick cover. “If you move slow enough through these small areas, you can often see rabbits sitting in the thick cover and can get a shot off at a stationary target.” He said he will walk, stop, look and then move again, but still very slowly and patiently.
Other places Goatee likes to hunt are fencerows and ditch banks. He especially favors the ditches and will typically get down in the ditch and move slowly along looking for sitting rabbits. “The rabbits will usually be sitting on the undersides of the ditch banks. By getting down in the ditch, I can move along and scan both sides,” Goatee said.
Narrow fencerows and other sparse cover, surrounded by open areas, are not preferred by Capps or Goatee. When rabbits are jumped in these areas, they tend to take off into the open and go long distances before stopping. Both hunters like extremely tight, thick cover for stalking.
The more common method of bowhunting for rabbits is with traditional equipment. Recurve bows are most commonly used, but longbows can work if you don’t use one that’s too long.
Still-hunting also lends itself well to multiple hunters. Both Capps and Goatee will still-hunt when hunting with friends, but they vary slightly with the methods they use.
Goatee likes to hunt with only two or three people. He said safety could become an issue with too many hunters close together. Also, too many people will move the rabbits too much.
He likes to position the hunters about 15 to 20 feet apart in a straight line. They will then slowly and deliberately move through the cover using the same methods as one would use while hunting alone. Archers will often get a shot at a sitting rabbit. At other times, one hunter may jump a rabbit, which will run toward another hunter and provide a shot.
Goatee prefers to hunt areas that haven’t been hunted hard with dogs or gun hunters. “If you can find an area that hasn’t been hunted, the rabbits will usually jump and run only a short distance and stop. Then somebody should have a shot. If the area has been hunted hard, the rabbits may jump and take off for a long distance.”
Some areas are not well suited to hunting in a straight line. Mostly, these are smaller areas and do not allow enough space for hunters to spread out and move through. In these areas, Goatee likes to have the hunters encircle the area with only one of them moving through the cover to find or flush rabbits.
Capps uses a line method as well when hunting with other hunters, but prefers to position the hunters a little differently. Instead of the hunters forming a straight line, he prefers a staggered or stair-stepped approach. This varies the amount of penetration by hunters and offers different perceived escape routes for the rabbit.
WHERE TO GO
Rabbits have many predators. Hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes and domestic dogs and cats are only a few of the more common ones. Therefore, rabbits will tend to seek out the thickest areas of cover they can, which gives them the greatest degree of security.
As mentioned before, any areas of thick cover, overgrown ditches, fencerows, overgrown fields, power line right-of-ways, field edges and other such places are great spots to look for rabbits. The edges of old logging roads or railroad tracks are other good options. Abandoned farmsteads, around old barns, and brushy areas around ponds will almost always hold a few cottontails.
Some of the best areas are around rural dwellings, small farms, and similar places with human activity. The human activity will keep some of the predators away, thereby allowing the rabbit population to flourish. Don’t overlook areas because they appear too small. Many of these small sections are perfect for an individual bowhunter to silently stalk.
Don’t think that one must go deep into the countryside to find good hunting. Plenty of rabbits can be found near towns or cities. In fact, one bowhunter found a gold mine for rabbit hunting just barely outside the city limits of his hometown.
The bowhunter worked for a company that was located right at the edge of town. The property the company owed, along with an adjoining lot, only amounted to several acres. However, the small parcel was home to a great many rabbits.
Don’t think that one must go deep into the countryside to find good hunting. Plenty of rabbits can be found near towns or cities.
The company used the property for storage. There were many different things scattered throughout the lot. Old vehicles, storage tanks, scrap metal and wood, concrete blocks and other items were situated in various areas of the property. A big creek skirted the back edge and was very thick with brush and trees along its banks.
The bulk of the property was mowed. However, none of the areas around all of these various stored items were mowed. Weeds, small trees and brush engulfed the stored pieces. The interspersed mowed grassy areas along with the scattered pockets of thick areas and the tree line thicket along the creek combined to make this place a rabbit nirvana.
Rabbit hunting with a bow, although not extremely widespread, is not as rare as one might initially believe. In fact, many archery and bowhunting clubs hold annual rabbit hunts each season. Some are done strictly for camaraderie, while others are held as tournaments with prizes.
Rabbit hunts by clubs often involve an entry fee. Some hunts are conducted for individual hunters and each hunter competes against the remainder of the group. Other hunts may be team competitions with teams consisting of either two or three hunters.
Some winners receive plaques, trophies or certificates. Other prizes may include various hunting gear, such as flashlights, arrows, knives or other merchandise. Some hunts are conducted as money shoots with all or a portion of the entry fees paid back to the individual winners or teams.
The number of rabbits collected usually determines the winners. The length of the longest rabbit determines tiebreakers in some cases. Sometimes, collective or individual weight of the rabbits is accounted for as well.
The contingent of rabbit hunters using archery tackle may be greater than some people imagine. Bowhunting for rabbits offers a level of challenge one can only get by the self-imposed limits of using the bow and arrow. The reward in success is one known only to the bowhunter.
Getting started in bowhunting for rabbits doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of archery or a huge investment in equipment. One doesn’t even have to be a “crack shot” in order to go out and enjoy some great times in the fields. Most any archery shop or fellow bowhunter would be happy to assist a newcomer who wants to get started bowhunting for rabbits.
Regulations vary in some areas for rabbit hunting, allowable methods and legal equipment. One should always check the specific regulations for the area you intend to hunt before going afield.