Dead-of-Winter Rabbits

When fall turns into winter, weather conditions can add new challenges to rabbit hunts. Here's a look at how to deal with some commonly encountered situations.

by Jeff Samsel

Black skies spitting bitter drizzle made it seem like snow could start falling at any time. Meanwhile, the same skies formed a harsh backdrop to the barren woods, indicating clearly that the heart of winter had arrived. It made you thankful for waterproof boots as you trudge through a creek bottom, where tangles of evergreen vegetation provide the only ground cover around.

Buddies flank you left and right in the field that this tiny creek divides. Everyone is alert in spite of little action. Still, you know that a rabbit could pop out from under your feet at any time.

Such weather conditions are tough and the cover is scarce, but those factors were considered when you planned this outing. Time has taught you that the dead of winter doesn't bring an end to good rabbit hunting prospects. In fact, it sometimes makes prospects better, but the changing conditions do cause you to alter your approaches.

Rabbit hunting in its most traditional form is done with beagles or other hounds, and hunting with dogs is clearly the most effective way to locate and get shots at rabbits any time during the season. Many hunters don't have that option, however, so they go without dogs, using one of a few basic strategies.

The most common plan is to conduct a "drive," where two or more hunters work an area of cover side by side in hopes of jumping rabbits. In other cases one hunter plays beagle, zigzagging through the best-looking cover around, while one or more hunters stay ready to shoot from the edges of the thickest stuff. In still other cases, a hunter has neither canine nor human companions, and he has to play jumper and shooter.

Photo by Michael Skinner

Yet, whether running packs of beagles, pushing rabbits for a partner or hunting alone, all rabbit hunters can increase their late-season success simply by taking into account changes that the progression of winter inevitably brings about. Most changes relate to the likely behavior of the rabbits. Others relate to hunters' comfort or care of dogs. All can be important, so let's take a closer look at these.

The first thing that every rabbit hunter should take into account this time of year is that cover becomes increasingly less abundant as winter progresses. In some places, in fact, decent cover even gets downright scarce. Hunters generally have to seek out either evergreen vines or vegetation that forms thick enough tangles to provide significant cover, even without its foliage.

The beds of small creeks and areas immediately around them often retain thick cover when everything else has become bare, making them potentially great areas to hunt late in the season. Many clearcuts up to about five years old also have enough dense cover to hold rabbits throughout the winter. Field edges that have been allowed to grow up are other good prospects. In forests or very new clearcuts, hunters also should not overlook toppled trees or piles of downed trees as potential rabbit-holding areas.

Just as cover becomes scarcer through the heart of winter, food can also become less widely available. This farther narrows the number of areas where rabbits are likely to be, because they never want to be too far from their forage. Therefore, hunters must find areas of good cover that are close to areas where rabbits are likely to feed, be it on grasses, crops or roots.

In farm country, rabbits often concentrate around harvested grain fields, where readily available food inevitably will have been spilled. They eat a lot of different things, though, and are apt to show up in a lot different types of areas on a farm.

In the wild uncultivated areas, many types of low-to-the-ground, tender vegetation provide forage. The key is to find abundant forage close to dense cover, regardless of the surrounding terrain.

Because tough conditions cause the rabbits to become more concentrated, hunters are wise to invest more time looking around prior to actively hunting than they might earlier in the season. Early in the year, when good cover abounds and food is always nearby, hunters make very good use of their day by simply hunting everything that looks good and covering lots of ground. Through late winter, more time spent walking a broader area or even driving open roads translates into more productive hunting time.

For many late-season situations, the best strategy is to hunt a little bit of a lot of different areas, working each tangle of cover for a fairly short time before moving to another. Hunters need spend no more than half an hour or an hour hunting each thicket, overgrown ditch or field edge that offers good potential, and then walk or drive to another to begin again. The first couple of spots may not produce a single rabbit, yet a third one might be full of them.

If time allows and hunting grounds are sufficiently convenient, separate scouting days can even prove to be time well spent in late winter. Scouting may or may not reveal actual rabbit sign, like droppings or gnawed vegetation, but discerning hunters can cover a lot of territory in a day devoted to scouting. Thus they can really home in where the best cover close to food sources exists. From there, it is easy to develop a very efficient day plan for finding the rabbits.

In addition to daytime scouting by foot, rabbit hunters can do a lot effective scouting during mornings and evenings simply by driving rural roads or roads that cut through public hunting lands. Rabbits move a lot very early and late in the day, and long-grass areas common in ditches and under fences along road edges are the types of places they like to go to.

By driving slowly and watching, hunters can find the areas that rabbits are using. Then it is just a matter of getting permission to hunt and figuring out where the rabbits are spending their days. Around public lands, the process is even simpler. A hunter can simply return on the following day to the area where he saw the most rabbits and then look for the best cover in that area.

Beyond the changes in available cover and food, which affect rabbit whereabouts throughout the latter part of winter, certain weather conditions that are common this time of year affect how rabbits behave and how hunters must approach any given day. With virtually every cold front come harsh winds and precipitation, and both can impact hunting conditions.

Rain, more so than any other condition, makes rabbits less likely to be susceptible to being jumped. When it's raining, rabbits are more apt than they are at any other time to hole up or sit tight, especially if hunters

are working without dogs. With or without dogs, hunters must work more slowly and methodically and check out cover much more thoroughly than they otherwise might.

To keep rabbits from fleeing to dens before ever being approached, hunters who are working without dogs should be as quiet as possible, limiting conversation to absolutely essential talk. One great way to limit conversation is to pre-establish hand signals for walking, stopping, going certain directions, getting ready to shoot or other things hunters anticipate a need to communicate about.

Hunters kicking up the rabbits, whether hunting alone or on a group drive, should also plan to stop regularly as they work. Many rabbits hold tight, even if hunters walk very close to them, as long as the hunters keep moving. However, when people stop, rabbits often get nervous - probably believing they have been spotted - and break. When hunters mix regular pauses of a minute or longer into their drives, they often increase the number of rabbits jumped quite significantly.

In addition to rain, another condition that can affect rabbit hunting is wind. Cold north winds, which commonly blow hard after fronts have passed this time of year, send most creatures looking for shelter. Rabbits, which do not have heavily insulated fur, are no exception. They usually turn to ditches or other depressions to get out of the wind, making their locations more predictable.

Windy late-winter days lend themselves to setting up drives through creek bottoms or overgrown ditches. Depending on the size of the ditch and the amount of brush, hunters can either drive side by side together through the bottom or work together, with one hunter driving from the ditch and one or two hunters flanking him in the surrounding field.

One advantage that the coldest, windiest, most bitter days offers is that rabbits are much less likely to dart off quickly or hop erratically when jumped by dogs than they are on milder days. They use their energy more efficiently on extra-harsh days, which often translates into better shots for hunters.

For hound-hunters, wind can also impact the dogs' abilities to locate rabbits. Neither calm days nor windy days are necessarily best. They are just different. Windy days carry scents farther and dogs can more easily wind rabbits on such days, which is very helpful in broad areas of cover. Calm days make it easier for the hounds to key in on the rabbits' actual locations.

The toughest conditions for beagles probably are fairly strong and shifting winds, which scatter scents a lot of different ways. Anytime the wind is blowing hard, try to work the beagles on the downwind side of the best cover as much as possible.

Because late winter does bring the harshest conditions of the season to rabbit hunters, proper clothes also can be very important. While looking good afield won't cause you to kill any more rabbits, being comfortable on a cold, wet day and having proper mobility to walk and handle a gun can make a huge difference in how long you stay focused and how long the hunt lasts.

Since rabbit hunting invariably involves a lot of walking, footwear is as good a place as any to begin. Boots ought to be tough enough to ward off thorns and be waterproof, at least on the bottom. Late in the season, when hunters might be stomping through creek bottoms, fully waterproof boots are a better idea. Socks should be wool or some synthetic fabric that stays warm even if it gets a bit damp. Neither socks nor boots generally need to be heavily insulated, however, because walking goes a long way toward helping keep feet warm.

Hunters also need to consider the amount of walking they will be doing as they make all decisions about dress. Clothes that are comfortable for standing still can get uncomfortably hot pretty quickly during a rabbit hunt. Dressing in layers is best, if there is some convenient place to put layers that have to be peeled off. Specific standards of dress vary enormously from one hunt to another; however, you are generally better off erring on the side of less hot for rabbit hunting.

For all parts of the season, clothes should be designed for trudging through the thickest brush abound. Rabbits and thorns simply go together, and hunters need pants in which they can step right in among the thorns. Heavy canvas bib overalls, which provide protection for most of the body, afford hunters a lot more confidence for plowing into the thickest stuff.

Under-layers ought to be made of wool or some type of modern synthetic fabric that stays warm when wet or repels moisture from the body. Moisture, whether it comes from the outside from rain or from inside due to perspiration, can turn cold quickly when hunters stop walking on a winter day. Wet cotton shirt cuffs can put a chill through the whole body and, more likely than not, bring an early end to an outing.

The best hats for late-season rabbit hunting have earflaps, for the sake of both warmth and protection from thorns. Wool is a good material for reasons already discussed.

Gloves must keep hands sufficiently warm but also allow proper mobility. For completely dry days, very thin cotton gloves work fine, just to keep skin from being directly exposed to cold air. If there is any threat of rain, fingerless wool or polypropylene gloves are better suited for the job.

A final thing worth noting about clothes is that a hunter cannot wear too much fluorescent orange. Some of the best rabbit cover can conceal almost anything, and the more square inches of orange that you have on from the head down, the safer you stay.

Because dogs, just like hunters, can be affected by extreme weather, hunters who are running packs should always pay close attention to their beagles. On very cold days, if a dog seems to be experiencing pain in its paws, tail or ears, frostbite could be beginning to set in. In the field, hunters can put warm towels on potentially frostbit areas for localized warming and then put lotion on that spot to soothe it. The dog should then be taken to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

At the opposite end of the equation, hunters sometimes forget that dogs can get hot and dehydrated even on cold days. No matter what the thermometer says, dogs still need regular watering breaks.

Also, while it's not specific to late-season hunting, it is worth noting that rabbit hunters who run dogs should always have tweezers available for pulling thorns out. In fact, tweezers are good for any rabbit hunter to have handy, whether he runs dogs or not, as thorns are completely indiscriminant in where they stick.

A final thing that every rabbit hunter ought to keep in mind - especially for the latter part of the season - is the value of establishing and maintaining relationships with farmers. It is not hard to get to know landowners if you make the effort to say hello and stop to chat occasionally when your paths cross.

Keep in mind that those farmers also probably wouldn't mind having a few rabbits to fry up, but they rarely find time to go out and hunt rabbits. A hunter who shares his game with a

landowner as a token of appreciation is pretty likely to find permission to hunt again the next time around.

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