It was my good fortune to grow up in the North Carolina high country in the 1950s, a place and time in which rabbits were, to use the local parlance, “common as pig tracks.”
My father raised beagles, as did his best hunting buddy, so we always had staunch canine companions to assist us in our cottontail capers. From the traditional season opener on Thanksgiving Day until the end of February, I hunted rabbits with unbridled enthusiasm.
Later, while I was a student in graduate school with a budget that made rabbit on the table mighty welcome, those frequent ventures afield continued. Such has been the case right down to the present, although the meat-hunting part of the equation has been reduced to a certain degree. Mind you, fried rabbit with gravy and biscuits can still bring tears of pure joy to this country boy’s eye — but let’s not get started on that.
That goes a fair bit toward what pointy-headed lawyers refer to as “certifying the witness,” but perhaps a bit more background might be helpful. Over my 50-odd years as a rabbit hunter, I’ve done it a whole bunch of ways, and had the opportunity to observe a bunch of skilled rabbit hunters, both human and canine, in action.
Anyone who’s spent time trudging overgrown fields, walking fence rows, or listening to a hallelujah chorus of beagles hot on a trail understands the basics: Jump ‘em, get the dogs on the trail, wait for ‘em to circle, and shoot ‘em. But there can be a great deal more to the sport than that. What follows is a rapid-fire look at some tactics you might want to consider as ways to broaden your cottontail hunting horizons.
THE WONDERS OF WOODSMANSHIP
We tend to associate skilled woodscraft with turkey hunting or the whitetail quest, but it should be a part of the complete rabbit hunter’s “possibles” bag as well. In particular, the ability to read and interpret sign can save you hours of wasted time in areas where rabbits are scarce as hen’s teeth, while recognizing the telltale indicators of goodly numbers of rabbits can ring a loud bell saying, “Hunt here and hunt hard.” Topping the list of the things you want to look for are droppings (or, as most folks describe them, “rabbit pills”). Be sure you can distinguish them from deer feces, and also note whether the droppings are fresh.
Similarly, look for what are variously called “beds,” “hides” or “sits” — places where rabbits spend the day resting before venturing out at night to feed. Doing so over time will tell you a lot about the kinds of places that rabbits prefer to hunker down in during the day, and it’ll also help you cultivate a keen eye for spotting actual quarry. No doubt about it: There’s an art to finding rabbits in the bed, and one that you want to cultivate.
The key is to look for their bright, shiny eyes glistening like polished chinquapins. You won’t see the rest of the rabbit, for their fur blends into wintertime surroundings better than the finest of camouflage attire.
Nor should you overlook signs that rabbits have been feeding. They nip off slender sprouts, weed stems and the like at a 45-degree angle, cutting them as cleanly as a well-sharpened Barlow blade. They will also nibble the bark off or certain types of trees and bushes (sumac and wild plums being prominent in this regard), and it’s easy to see the resulting white standing out against the sere landscape of late fall and winter. Add to that the observation of their “runs” or regularly used trails, and you have a solid start on reading rabbit sign.
GIVING YOUR PACK OF BEAGLES A HELPING HAND
Although the subject is one that can serve as a fine catalyst for arguments, in my studied opinion beagles don’t make first-rate “jump dogs.” Their finest attributes come into play when a cottontail has actually been jumped and they take to the heady scent of its trail. However, you’ll have more races if you’re willing to give the dogs a big hand. It’s easy enough to tell hunters who do that: At day’s end they bear honorable wounds from the fray — a scratched ear, a nose that has attracted the unwelcome attentions of a briar, a neck that looks like it’s been marked for slicing. Also, you can recognize a good “jump man” by looking at his pants, whether he wears Carharts, bird-britches or something else. Pants whose legs are frayed and tattered at the bottom speak eloquently of such a hunter’s willingness to go where the rabbits like to hide.
As an alternative, include a dog of some breed other than a beagle as a part of your group; some cockers or just plain old “house dogs” of indeterminate lineage can offer first-rate assistance in this regard. Finally, before leaving dogs, one other thought is worth sharing. If you want to bag more bunnies, hunt with beagles that can push a rabbit along at a reasonable pace. Beagles with really short legs are fun to watch and listen to, but some of them are slower than the smoke off of two-week old rabbit pills. A rabbit can almost toy with them, whereas one that’s pushed hard will circle more readily and is much more likely to offer a shot.
THE SOLITARY RABBIT HUNTER
Most rabbit hunting involves a large group, and there’s no denying the pleasures afforded by camaraderie. Nonetheless, the lone hunter can adopt certain tactics that have the potential to give him a weighty game bag come sundown. For starters, move slowly through cover rather than rush along. For some reason, a rabbit will often sit tight when someone walks briskly by, but if he eases along, stopping periodically, the cottontail just can’t stand it — he’s got to run. In steep or hilly country, walk along and periodically roll a big rock down the hillside. Now and then that’ll make a rabbit start.
Make a point of trying to shoot cottontails on the jump when you hunt alone. Never mind that you may have a pack of beagles with you: A single hunter can wait a long time before dogs push a rabbit his way. If you do fail to get a shot on the jump, or if you miss, the single best place to be stationed for a race is right where the cottontail was bedded down. They have a pronounced tendency to circle back. Just find a stand that gives you the best sight plane and stay still and vigilant.
Rabbits react to weather in fairly predictable ways, and it behooves the dedicated hunter to take advantage of these habits. On clear, crisp days, rabbits prefer to bed on south faces, situated so that they get maximum exposure to the sun. Conversely, in inclement weather involving rain, snow or daylong overcast, you’re more likely to find them in brushpiles, beneath dense vegetation, down under bank overhangs, or in places like the underside of old buildings or stacks of lumber.
Finally, keep a mental log (or an actual diary, if you prefer) of places in which you seem to find rabbits with some consistency. Whe
ther you’re hunting cane-cutters, ridge-runners, or field rabbits, the accumulation of such knowledge will gradually turn you into a better hunter. In short, take the road less traveled when you walk the cottontail trail, for offbeat tactics are often highly productive tactics.
(Editor’s Note: Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who contributes regularly to regional and national magazines. He is the author or editor of more than 40 books, including several cookbooks featuring recipes for rabbit. To become a subscriber to his free monthly e-newsletter, or to learn more about his work, visit his Web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.)