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Bunnies In Between: Embracing the Off-Season

Late-winter rabbits provide the perfect link between fall and spring hunting seasons.

Bunnies In Between: Embracing the Off-Season

Whether on your own or behind a brace of beagles, cottontail hunting provides the perfect anecdote to cabin fever.

I’d be hard pressed to survive the Vermont winters if I didn’t hunt rabbits. I don’t ski, ride snowmachines or make maple syrup, so I’m glad I discovered wintertime rabbit hunting to get me by. My introduction was on a bright and balmy mid-February afternoon a few years ago. With nothing else to do, I took an impromptu walk with my 20-gauge over/under and gave it a shot. The air was warm and light, and the sun was melting away the ice and snow beneath the bushes to reveal a bunny buffet of grasses and other greens. Rabbit tracks crisscrossed my path and their droppings were scattered every which way. I felt as if I‘d struck a goldmine of small-game opportunity that day.

If you’ve never ventured into the winter wonderland of cold and snow to chase cottontails, consider it a remedy for your mid-winter blues. Rabbits should be on your radar this time of year for many good reasons. There are solid populations and ample access in many areas, and very little investment is required on your part. All you need is a sturdy pair of boots, your favorite hunting vest, a trusty shotgun or .22 rifle, an open mind and a little time. Besides, now that the mid-winter thaw is here, you need a break from shoveling snow and feeding the fireplace anyway.

Bust The Brush

If you’re interested in hunting cottontails without beagles, there are a few tips and tricks to flip the odds in your favor. Cottontails don’t hibernate, and they need to leave their dens to eat, so understanding their general habits and how the thaw changes their behavior can give you the upper hand when hunting without a dog.

Hunter looking for rabbits in think brush
Rabbits generally like to hunker in the thickest brush they can find. On sunny days, however, you can sometimes find them in the open.

My approach begins with identifying optimal rabbit-holding habitat. I focus on farmsteads, creek bottoms, thickets and overgrown hedgerows adjacent to open meadows. Naturally, the dogless hunter will have a much easier time locating and taking rabbits in snow where their tracks are easily seen and a flushing cottontail becomes an easy target against a backdrop of snow.

During most of the winter, hunters are usually focused on flushing rabbits from their hideouts or finding them during their limited time out to feed. When the snow is deep and their preferred meal of grasses and forbs are covered, rabbits are reduced to eating bark and twigs — and probably their own poop — to survive. This is why it can be a total windfall to be out when the sun and warm temperatures reveal bare ground. Cottontails will key on their favored food source of grasses and other green vegetation. In my experience, rabbits will also be away from their dens longer and will travel farther during favorable weather, giving you plenty of opportunity to intercept them during their mealtime meanderings.

ingram-late-season-bunnies-sign
Rabbit sign runs the gamut from droppings and tracks to freshly browsed briars. Piece the clues together to find the best spots.

Aside from being in the right place at the right time, your standard dogless rabbit hunting tactics apply during the defrost. Walk through likely areas during the early-morning and late-afternoon hours, let their sign guide your way, keep quiet, search for would-be hiding places and kick a few bushes and brush piles to move bunnies into gun range.

As much as I enjoy a quiet morning alone in the woods, I’ve also had the opportunity to tag along on some hunts with buddies and their beagles. If you think the odds aren’t in your favor hunting without a dog, think again. I’ve had equal success going solo and behind a pack of beagles. Things are always just better with dogs, but chasing cottontails without canine counterparts can still be productive and enjoyable.

Beat The Odds With Beagles

Tom Doyle, of New Russia, N.Y., has been hunting, trialing and training beagles for the past 16 years. He enjoys guiding clients and pleasure hunting for snowshoe hares in the rugged Adirondack Mountains and chasing cottontails in the woodlands and agricultural areas of the Lake Champlain Valley in New York and Vermont. He has found the latter part of the season to be tricky for both hunters and dogs for a variety of reasons.

Beagle on rabbit track
When beagles get on a track, the race can last for 30 minutes or more. Remain as vigilant as a deer hunter in order to connect.

With rabbits reproducing and cycling several times each year, it’s often around the mid-winter thaw when females are in heat or perhaps nesting, which can make them scarce and not producing as much scent. Males may also extend their normal ranges in search of does to breed, making them harder to locate and catch in a circle at times. Basic bunny biology aside, Doyle notes how the weather and conditions can create additional challenges for his beagles to get on track and push rabbits to the gun.




“During this time of year, when you have frost and ice or bare ground, the scenting conditions are pretty tough,” says Doyle. “The last few seasons here, we’ve also been getting a lot of rain, which freezes, melts and refreezes. All of this creates more ice. That’s hard on the dogs, and ice just doesn’t hold scent very well.”

Rabbits can also play tricks in those areas where they’ve been run before, whether sitting as still as a statue or pulling some crafty getaway maneuver.

“That rabbit may have picked up on the pattern and has plenty of time to stop and sit there to think about his next move,” Doyle says. “He may listen, then run across a log, then turn around and run back across the log, jump off midway and head the other direction.”

Recommended


To combat the myriad mid-winter challenges, Doyle recommends reducing your pack to your top one or two dogs only. It may not be an easy choice, especially when you’re hunting with a bunch of beaglers, but it can put the advantage back on your side.

“My field champion and her brother can run in anything and do it all, so there are times when I’ll put just one down or run the two of them together,” he says. “With large packs in tough conditions, sometimes there are too many on the ground and it can turn into chaos with dogs that can’t smell the track trying to get to the front of the pack.”

ingram-late-season-bunnies-hero
There are few better ways to get the kids out of the house in winter than a good old-fashioned rabbit chase.

Doyle suggests that after jumping a few rabbits early in the day, conditions may improve enough to put a few more dogs down on the next race.

Just like the dogless rabbit hunter, Doyle advocates for picking your days with optimal conditions or sleeping in and pushing the morning back a bit on those days when it’s poor to start but will improve by late morning. You may need to bushwhack a little bit more, but he encourages hunters to stick to the thicker areas and those places where you’ve jumped rabbits before. Traveling to hunt an area that has fresh powder on the ground or snow in the forecast is another tactic he utilizes to stay in the game during the mid-winter thaw.

Whether you hunt with beagles or bust the brush on your own, chasing cottontails during the winter could become the perfect cure for any big game or bird hunter deep in their off-season despair. Dust off your favorite shotgun or rimfire and lace up your boots for an easy and enjoyable outdoor adventure. Keep an eye on the weather and prime yourself for the thaw when the right conditions come into effect. This window of wintertime warmup may last a few days to a week or more. If you haven’t tried it for yourself, don’t put it off any longer. Hunting rabbits in winter is a worthwhile endeavor and an easy and accessible way to take out a family member, friend or other new hunter to celebrate the great outdoors and gather some great table fare.

Guns & Loads for Cottontails

Remington Model 870
Remington Model 870

1. Remington Model 870: Is any gun safe complete without an 870? I bring out the 20-gauge Express Magnum my father gave me for a few hunts each season—both for nostalgia and for utility.

Stevens 555
Stevens 555

2. Stevens 555: This budget-friendly over/under is a great entry point for any hunter falling for the siren song of the classic stackbarrel configuration. Interchangeable chokes and a barrel selector allow for strategic shot strings.

Winchester Wildcat Sporter
Winchester Wildcat Sporter

3. Winchester Wildcat Sporter: New to me this season, this feather- light semi-auto .22 LR offers several modern innovations, including an optics-ready Picatinny rail.

Options for rabbit loads

4. CCI Subsonic Hollow Point .22 LR: For close- to mid-range shooting where high velocity and long- distance accuracy don’t matter as much, it’s hard to beat these classic CCI rounds (pictured at left above). 

5. BOSS Shotshells: BOSS’ copper-plated bismuth shells (pictured top right) have made a big splash in the waterfowl and upland hunting scenes, but these hard-hitting non-toxic loads are just as lethal on bunnies.

6. Federal Upland Steel: If your small-game sorties ever turn into waterfowl shoots, or you hunt where lead is prohibited, these steel shotshells (pictured bottom right) come in handy.

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