The heyday for rabbit hunting may be a thing of the past, but it's still one of the most popular hunting endeavors in Indiana. Sure, it's taken a backseat to more glamorous hunting, such as whitetail deer and turkey, but some 70,000 Hoosiers still take to the fields every year to chase cottontails. Those who don't hunt rabbits are missing an opportunity to share great times afield with friends and family.
Rabbit hunting has changed a lot since back in the day. In the past, approximately 200,000 Hoosiers hunted rabbits annually. The significant drop in participation is due to several factors.
It's well-known that hunter numbers in general have dropped off over the past few decades, and small game hunting has not been immune. Partly this is due to the overall decline. Other reasons include loss of habitat, loss of access and the growth of the deer and turkey populations.
"We didn't used to have a lot of deer and turkey," said Budd Ververka, the farmland game research biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He said, "Rabbits were the big hunting activity. It was more of a social gathering, too."
Many people believe the rise in deer and turkey hunting and the decline of rabbit hunting participation has also contributed to the lack of recruitment of young or new hunters. With rabbit hunting, people are often hunting in groups. Young hunters tag along with their dads and there is a lot of talking and laughing. The hunters swap stories and jokes and share some great camaraderie. It's a far different experience for a young hunter as opposed to being stuck silently in a cold tree stand waiting for a deer or forced to sit stock-still while turkey hunting.
Ververka said he and the DNR are examining the current season dates and looking at the possibility of creating more opportunity for hunting rabbits. Right now, the statewide season opens close to the time of firearm deer season, so many people are choosing to hunt deer rather than rabbits. Ververka said that if the season was opened a little sooner, there would be more time to chase rabbits prior to the deer opener.
Some of the state properties already open earlier. The DNR might also move the close date for some of the state-owned properties to the end of statewide season to create more opportunity. The only thing that probably won't be considered is a later statewide closing date. Studies have shown that mid-February is about the latest the season should last, because later would crowd too close to the time when rabbits start nesting.
Overall, the rabbit population and rabbit hunting is in pretty good shape across Indiana. Hunters are harvesting on average about 200,000 rabbits per season. That's a far cry from the 1,000,000 that were harvested annually in years past, but there is also only a third of the number of rabbit hunters there used to be back then. Admittedly, the average number of rabbits bagged per hunter per season is down, too. Much of that can be attributed to loss of habitat.
Farming practices and loss of rural land are the main causes. Crops these days have moved more toward soybeans and corn. We've lost much of our small grain farming. Habitat that used to be comprised of small farms is now subdivisions. There are still a few rabbits there, but obviously, they can't be hunted in a subdivision.
Today's bigger farms are much cleaner, with sharper edges. There are few brush piles, overgrown ditches and fences. Now, the landscape is mostly all big woods, immature forest, or cropland. "Rabbits like it messy," said Ververka.
Rabbits have found a way to adapt to the changes, though. They face a lot of obstacles in their environment, ranging from habitat loss to a plethora of predators, but they've weathered the changes and even appear to have shifted some of their preferences for habitat. Some rabbit hunters are finding rabbits in places they never used to look.
A good friend of mine is probably one of the most dedicated rabbit hunters I've ever seen. He lives all year for rabbit season and is constantly buying, trading, and running dogs. He scouts for new properties throughout the year and is always ready come opening day. Some of what he has observed the past several years is pretty interesting.
He has witnessed a migration of sorts of rabbits moving closer in to farmsteads. Of course, rabbits have always been around the family farms, but he firmly believes that rabbits are moving in more abundance up closer to houses, barns and equipment storage areas. He believes the reasons are both because of a loss of habitat and also because of the rise of coyote populations.
Rabbits have always had predators. They come in many forms. There are birds of prey, foxes, bobcats and even free-ranging dogs and cats. But nothing compares to the coyote. Yotes are probably the most dedicated and efficient killers rabbits face. By moving toward rural homes and other places where there is a lot of people activity, the rabbits can get a little reprieve from the coyote pressure. Of course, they still must survive predation from other sources.
NUMBERS AND AGE STRUCTURE
Ververka expects this season to be similar to the past several years, last year excluded, and hunters should expect fairly decent numbers of rabbits. Last year was an anomaly when looking at recent hunter success. The extremely hot, dry weather really took a toll on hunter success and Ververka said many hunters across the state simply opted not to hunt a lot. The rabbit numbers were still there, but the extremely dry conditions made it very difficult for the dogs to track. Hunter success was diminished as a result.
A look at some of the numbers from the state properties gives a good view of what happened last year. Some of the property harvest was down 80 percent or more. At Kingsbury Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA), DNR workers checked in 116 rabbits while working a check station in the 2008-09 season. During the same checking period last season, workers checked in only 22 rabbits.
Ververka and the DNR are in the midst of a very interesting three-year study based on harvested rabbit eye lenses. The lenses are collected from the rabbits, dried, and then aged. This gives biologists the date of birth, which is important in understanding the breeding and nesting timing for the different locations within the study. It also helps biologists learn the average age of rabbits being harvested and determine important breeding and survival data as well as population age structure.
This method was originated by a researcher in Illinois in 1967. In 2007, an Australian researcher reevaluated the methods used, recalculated the formula and came up with a variation. Ververka will run the Indiana figures through both formulas and will publish a report of the findings when complete. Hoosier hunters should keep an eye out for the release of this document; it should provide some very interesting pieces of information.
There should be good numbers of rabbits for hunters this year, but the makeup of the age structure may be a little different than usual. Hunters may find a higher number of adult rabbits than first-year hoppers. The reason is two-fold.
First, we had the extremely dry conditions last season, so the harvest numbers were down significantly. This could leave a higher number of rabbits surviving the winter and being carried over into the mix this year. Rabbits have a high natural mortality anyway, but the reduced harvest still should bounce up the numbers some.
There is an area of concern going into this season, though. Biologists are unsure what kind of effect will be seen due to the extreme weather conditions this spring. There were multiple large rain events throughout the spring and lots of flooding. March and April are the primary nesting months for rabbits in Indiana and much of the bad weather occurred during April. Time will tell as far as how many nests were lost due to flooding.
Ververka was on both the Glendale FWA and the J. Edward Roush Lake properties earlier this year and saw very little damage due to flooding. He observed "significant numbers" of rabbits on both properties, which is a very good sign. Of course, the abundance in numbers is probably swelled due to extremely low harvest on both areas last year.
This month is a great time to be in the field chasing Hoosier hoppers. The weather has cooled down and some of the other hunters have gotten their deer and other hunting interests out of the way. Bunny-chasers can find lots of great areas to target and see less pressure from other hunters.
Good dogs are almost a necessity at this time of year though. Early in the year, hunters without dogs can have a little success kicking up a few bunnies by wading through the brush. By now, though, a lot of the brush and greenery has died out, fallen over or been destroyed by the elements. There have been several weeks of hunting pressure, too. The rabbits will be in thicker, nastier cover and holding tight. Good dogs that don't mind getting their tails bloody are the ticket to bring 'em out.
Hunters either need access to land that hasn't been hunted or they need to be willing to work a little harder at this time of year. All of the areas with easy access, especially on public land, will have been hunted hard by now. However, there are often areas that are more difficult to reach which may be completely untouched by other hunters. A lot of hunters won't bother with an area unless they can back their trucks in and almost drop the tailgate right into the hunting area.
If hunting with well-trained dogs, another option is to hunt areas that look "woodsy." Hunters with dogs that are wont to chase deer will often shy away from locations with a strong potential to jump a deer. These spots can often hold a lot of unpressured rabbits for the hunter with more disciplined canines.
WHERE TO HUNT
Private ground is always preferred, but it's not always possible in today's hunting scenarios. Be of good cheer, though, because there is some really good rabbit hunting on some of our state properties. Hoosier hunters bag an average of over 3,000 rabbits per year off the FWA properties and that doesn't even take into account the numbers taken from the hunting areas at J. Edward Roush, Salamonie, Mississinewa, and Patoka lakes. Let's take a quick look at a few of the public land opportunities here in the state.
The aforementioned Glendale FWA is definitely a top choice for chasing bunnies. There are over 8,000 acres at the site with plenty of great rabbit habitat. Hunters typically have good success there and, according to Ververka's personal observations, there should be good numbers of hoppers on the FWA this season. The property has an annual harvest of between 400 to 500 rabbits. Call (812) 644-7711 for more information.
Another excellent property is the Kingsbury FWA up near LaPorte. This 7,100-acre property also is home to lots of cottontails and success runs high each year. The average harvest here is approximately 500 rabbits per year. To learn more about the hunting opportunities at Kingsbury, call (219) 393-3612.
Ververka also saw plenty of rabbits when he visited the J. Edward Roush Lake property earlier this year. This property is a lake property, but has also been brought over into the FWA category. Hunters bag similar numbers of rabbits at Roush as at the two previously mentioned FWAs. There are more than 8,200 acres comprising the area, including approximately 900 or so acres of water, so bunny-chasers should find plenty of room to roam. More information on hunting Roush may be obtained by calling (260) 468-2165.
While on the subject of lake properties, rabbit hunters don't want to forget about the hunting land at Salamonie, Mississinewa, and Patoka lakes. There is a good amount of opportunity at all three locations and each one usually yields an average harvest of over 200 rabbits annually.
The Salamonie Lake property offers over 11,000 acres in Wabash County. The number for information is (260) 468-2125. Reach the hunting information line for Mississinewa Lake at (765) 473-6528. That property totals 14,386 acres and is located close to Salamonie. It straddles the line dividing Wabash and Miami counties. Patoka Lake is centrally located in the southern part of the state. Excellent hunting opportunity exists there with over 26,000 total acres. The lake takes up a third of the property, but that still leaves over 17,000 acres to hunt. To find out more about hunting at Patoka Lake, call (812) 685-2464.
These are some of the best locations on public land, but many of the other properties, such as Atterbury FWA, Pigeon River FWA, Jasper-Pulaski FWA and others, offer excellent hunting opportunities as well. Remember, the hunting season for cottontail rabbits concludes on these properties on January 31, 2012. The statewide cottontail season closes on February 15, 2012.