Tips on Outsmarting Wily Late-Season Rabbits

Knowing the nature of your quarry and staying put when your brain urges you to move are clear steps to bagging your limit of cottontails right now.

By Tim Lilley

Rabbits learn quickly. No matter where you live and no matter how you hunt them, the cottontails you chase grow wise in a hurry to the ways of hunters. So if you want to enjoy successful hunts all season long, you have to adapt - just like the rabbits do.

Sometimes, though, it can be tough, especially when you get into a rabbit-hunting comfort zone. That is, you hunt the same places the same ways with the same buddies. There's nothing wrong with that - as long as you remember that cottontails act differently later in the season than they did during those first few outings of any given hunting year.

If you want to enjoy the same kind of success you did in the early season, you'll have to act differently, too. So think of this as a chance to go back to "rabbit school" and recall some of the basics that will help you fill your game pouch as the late season unfolds.

One thing is certain. No matter where you live, the New Year rings in with it a population of rabbits that are more wary, more skittish, than you encountered before Thanksgiving. Even if they haven't been hunted a lot, chances are good that they've encountered hunters. And, yes, some of them will have escaped bawling bands of beagles from earlier hunts.

The longer they survive in a given season, the more unpredictable a given population of cottontails will become. Even with the best dogs around out in front of you, you'll have to be on your toes . . . just not too anxious.

Maybe the single biggest mistake you can make when hunting late-season rabbits is to move too quickly. Anyone who's been fortunate enough to enjoy a day afield with one or more beagles knows that, in general, rabbits are going to run a big circle back to where they were first jumped.

Photo by Soc Clay

If you're in a group, have the hunters spread out a little, always paying attention to who is where and knowing the safe shooting angles. Then, it's a matter of listening to the dogs and anticipating where that streak of brown or flash of white will come from.

Once pressured, rabbits that have access to good, thick cover are going to stay in it as long as possible, hoping for hunters to simply pass them by. Sure, dogs are going to jump them when they pick up fresh scent. But late-season hunters who are willing to be slow and thorough are going to jump quite a few rabbits all by themselves.

Most importantly, you should find the thickest cover you can, and then work it thoroughly. Look for abandoned homesteads and farm buildings. Hunt land with plenty of brushpiles and stands of thick, tangled, thorny cover. These are the prime locations for late-season hunts.

This approach will pay big dividends if you're hunting land you're familiar with because chances are good that you've jumped rabbits there before and have seen the escape routes they use. When it comes to these pathways to freedom, cottontails are creatures of habit. They'll use them again and again; and you can use that knowledge to your advantage - especially if you have a buddy or two along.

Say you're approaching a brushpile that's held rabbits before; and say that you know exactly where and how they've tried to escape. Give one hunter a chance to cautiously work into position for a shot along that path before you go in and work the cover. Doing so will greatly improve your odds of taking a rabbit.

With or without dogs, there are a number of thick-cover hotspots where you can expect to encounter late-season rabbits. As suggested earlier, abandoned homesteads and farm buildings are outstanding. So are brush-choked draws adjacent to crop fields and stands of cover that serve as natural windbreaks along the edges of fields or natural waterways that meander through them.

If you're using dogs, the key is to react to the bawling signal of a chase only by quickly figuring out the best potential shooting lanes where you are already standing. Get in position and be ready for the cottontail to return to the scene of the flush.

If you're hunting without dogs, go slowly. Be thorough in covering likely looking spots. And if you're alone, try to anticipate likely escape routes before starting to hunt out a given piece of cover, and do so with an approach that will offer shots at those lanes.

The simplicity of a rabbit hunt is what makes it so attractive, even late in the season when cottontails are more wary than at any other time of year. You know where they'll be - in the heaviest cover around. You know how they'll react when your dog jumps them, and you know how they'll react if you're hunting alone.

You don't need special equipment or clothing, beyond brush-busting clothes that will protect you as you work through typical rabbit cover. You'll also need blaze orange that is visible from every side. Like many other hunters, I always wear a blaze orange hat and a game vest that sports the bright safety color front and back. Blaze orange is especially helpful when you're hunting in a group and making your way through thick cover. It is imperative to be as safe as possible. Blaze or fluorescent orange clothing is a must.

You don't even need a specialized shotgun. When I was old enough, I inherited Dad's 16-gauge single-shot smoothbore. Its full choke made shot placement critical, forcing me to concentrate and become an accurate shooter quickly.

These days, my shotgun of choice is a 12-gauge over-and-under equipped with choke tubes. It's versatile and capable of taking any game I can hunt with a scattergun. When it comes to cottontails, its barrels sport improved cylinder tubes, and its chambers hold small-game loads of No. 7 shot. It's a very effective combination for rabbits.

Many hunters prefer a 20-gauge, and it probably is the best all-around choice for rabbits. Semi-autos and double-barreled models like mine provide the quickest follow-up shots when necessary, although pump guns are among the most popular shotguns for hunting in heavy cover.

If you want a real challenge, use a 28-gauge scattergun or even a .410. The latter, most readily available in full choke, will force you to become the best shot you can be when rabbit hunting. Shot loads in .410s are generally so small that a full-choke pattern is necessary for effectiveness. As you know, full-choke patterns are tight enough that you'll have to be right on that rabbit to score.

Just remember that late in the season, the shotgun you use won't ever be as impo

rtant as where you use it. With one possible exception, rabbits are going to stick to the thickest cover they can find.

There is a situation where cottontails, even those that have faced significant hunting pressure, will venture away from that thick cover. If you wake up to a mild midwinter day after a stretch of unusually chilly temperatures, you're likely to find cottontails in more open areas, albeit still close to cover, enjoying the warmth. Around the country, one hunter's cold day will be another's mild day. Admittedly, this concept is relative. But it rings true no matter where you live.

So do the other concepts mentioned here. Rabbits are the same everywhere, especially when the season gets into its homestretch.

Remember that the thinking hunters score more easily and most often because they acknowledge how cottontails transform themselves into wily, evasive, unpredictable targets. But at the same time, they also realize that some elements of the hunt won't change much.

The bottom line is that, like many other species of game, rabbits are creatures of habit. No matter how wary or how unpredictable they may seem to us hunters, there still are some routines we can use to help push the late-season odds in our favor.

Among them is the cottontail's penchant for using the same escape routes over and over; the other is holding tight as we walk by. None of us can predict how every encounter will play out. But we can improve our chances for more consistent late-season success by changing our approaches and tactics just like the rabbits do.

Rabbits really do learn quickly. The best thing you can do to offset their knowledge as the late-season plays out is to learn from them . . . just as quickly.

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