February 09, 2021
By M.D. Johnson
November 15 was the most important date on the calendar when I was growing up. Not my birthday. Not Halloween. Not even Christmas. November 15 was the traditional opening day of rabbit season, and that, let me tell you, was huge.
My father, perhaps one of the most dedicated bunny chasers ever to don a pair of brush pants, eventually had a long list of excellent beagles to his credit. But during my formative years we did our rabbit hunting without canine assistance. Just a lot of walking and stomping, or what the Old Man called "briar busting."
And we did just fine. Sure, we had to improvise a bit here and there, but we almost always bagged a few bunnies—and had a great time doing it—because we knew where to find them.
Habitat and Weather
So, what makes good rabbit habitat? Ideal cottontail cover is actually a mix of several types of habitats ranging from open albeit brushy or slightly overgrown fields to timber edges, frozen cattail swamps, pine thickets, weedy fence lines, taller corn stubble and young stands of second-growth trees, especially if the woodlots contain piles of slash from previous selective harvest operations. And then there's the tried-and-true tangles of wild roses or blackberry bushes, old forgotten homesteads, fallen barns and scrap heaps.
Get permission to hunt that auto salvage yard just outside of town, and, while perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing as some coverts, the action can be red-hot—particularly in the evening as the crepuscular critters venture out for a night of feeding and mischief.
Where you find winter rabbits has a lot to do with the weather. When it's cloudy, cold and snowy, bunnies will be close to heavy cover—somewhere they can get out of the elements yet remain on the lookout for predators. Pine thickets are a good bet now. They provide excellent overhead cover, and the relatively barren ground under the boughs means there's no digging through a foot of snow to find food. Iced-over swamps are another spot to investigate once Mother Nature turns nasty. Cattails, buckbrush, reed canary grass and other vegetation that makes a swamp a swamp serve both as food and shelter.
Blue skies and 10 degrees? Bunnies are no different than we are when it comes to sunshine on a bitterly cold winter day. They'll often head to thinner cover—a mixed field of prairie grass and goldenrod—where they can enjoy the warmth. Find just such a field on just such a day, and combine it with heavier escape cover—an old barn or big brushpile—nearby, and it's likely game on.
Walk Them Up
Walking up rabbits, also known as "jumping bunnies" or "brush-busting," is perhaps the most popular method used by dog-less hunters. But before you think this strategy is nothing more than a walk in the winter countryside in hopes of happening upon an agreeable cottontail, there's a bit more to it than a simple meander.
Once you've found a parcel of good cover, approach it quietly. You know a rabbit's large satellite dish-like ears? They work. Typically, bunnies are going to want to run from thin cover to heavy, so plan your route with this in mind. A zigzag pattern works best, as it allows for the most complete coverage of the habitat. And it's a slow walk-stop-slow walk-stop routine. Nervous by nature, cottontails can be persuaded to jump when all goes quiet, believing they've been spotted by the originator of the noise and choosing flight over staying hidden. So walk slowly, stop often and be ready.
Over the past half century, I've used many different types of weaponry in pursuit of cottontails, including modern shotguns of all gauges and caliber, muzzleloading shotguns and rifles, air rifles and archery equipment. When jump shooting, my go-to is a light, quick 20-gauge pump or semi-automatic with No. 6 shot. If the cover is thick and potentially shot absorbent, I opt for a No. 5 load. On occasion, I'll pack an older Ruger 10/22 filled with 40-grain Winchester Wildcat cartridges. Bunnies will, at times, flush and run, only to stop after a dozen hops to look back at what disturbed them. Enter the scoped .22 rimfire, a convenient tree to use as a rest and a smooth trigger squeeze.
Take Up a Track
In the course of an overnight foray, a rabbit can create a ton of tracks, making singling out one specific animal difficult. However, given 10 or so inches of good snow, a solitary set of tracks that head off alone is worth investigating.
Take your time and move slowly. If the tracks end in a softball-sized hole in the snow, you might just be in business. Look closely. Are the edges of the hole icy, as if a critter's body heat had melted the snow and Mother Nature had refrozen it? There's a good chance he's in there, hunkered down, staying warm and conserving energy. Be ready and work the spot thoroughly; he may be just inside the hole or he might have burrowed several feet away under the snow. When it comes, a snow-scattering flush is exhilarating. Here, as with walking them up, a fast-handling shotgun and No. 5 or No. 6 shot gets the nod.
Sit 'n Wait
Cottontails are fond of the twilight hours, and those that have spent the day under cover will often venture forth at last light, providing an opportunity for the patient hunter. Around dusk is the perfect time to sit at the edge of exceptional habitat and wait for the cottontails' nightly excursions to begin. When it comes to sniping bunnies, I'm partial to big, heavy cover—abandoned homesteads, fallen barns, scrapped vehicles or thick natural habitat, like a blackberry thicket that's impenetrable by two-legged predators.
This is the rifleman's world—a tack-driving .22 LR or .17 HMR can be potent medicine for rabbits out to 100 yards or slightly more, depending upon the shooter's ability and the wind or lack thereof.
Rabbits might not have the cachet of whitetails, turkeys and waterfowl in the eyes of modern-day hunters, but that doesn't mean the long-legged speed demons aren't exciting to hunt. And on the table? Those who know would put baked cottontail or rabbit potpie right up there with grilled backstrap or deep-fried turkey nuggets any day of the week.
Dress for Success
Essential rabbit-hunting gear.
Aside from a trusty firearm, ammunition and a sharp knife, rabbit hunting doesn't require much gear, but there are a few items worth investing in.
The first is good, comfortable footwear. The dog-less rabbit hunter does a lot of walking, and comfortable boots can be the difference between a great day afield and sore, blistered feet. A couple words of advice when it comes to boots. First, give them a thorough cleaning and a heel-to-toe coating (preferably two) of a good waterproofing treatment. My favorite is Huberd's Shoe Grease ($14.99; huberds.com). Second, invest in a quality insole—something like Georgia Boots' AMP Insole with advanced memory foam ($22; georgiaboot.com). Your feet will thank you.
The other pieces of essential gear are a tough set of brush pants and a well-fitting but equally sturdy canvas coat. The britches should be double-layered in the front and around the cuff with Cordura or something similar to turn away the prickly creations of which bunnies are so fond. You can't go wrong with Orvis' ToughShell Waterproof Upland Pants ($229; orvis.com) or Filson's oilcloth Double Hunting Pants ($215; filson.com).
For a coat, I like something tough with plenty of pockets and an integral game pouch that loads both from the rear as well as the front left and right sides. It should sport a bit of blaze orange on the shoulders, the sleeves or both. Browning's Pheasants Forever Jacket ($119.99; browning.com) features everything I'm looking for.