December 19, 2019
By Stephen Carpenteri
The burning question among rabbit hunters is: Can one hunt rabbits alone and on foot, without a dog? Considering that I spent most of my youth and early teens doing exactly that, I can say without a doubt, yes.
Rest assured, it is possible to be a successful, houndless rabbit hunter. Limit days are possible for hunters with infinite patience who are sharp-witted, sharp-eyed and quick on the draw.
HOUNDLESS COTTONTAIL STRATEGIES
Hunting cottontails without a hound can be tough, but it can be done. What’s required is an intimate knowledge of rabbit habitat, the ability to walk very slowly through dense cover and eyes sharp enough to pick out the form of a hunched-up cottontail backed into a blow down 20 feet away. Easy enough.
Many, many years ago I had the luxury of roaming the family farm with my single-shot Winchester Model 67. Long hours in the field taught me that stealth and patience were mandatory for this kind of grassroots hunting. In those days, I was allowed to use only .22 Short ammunition, so getting close to my quarry was critical.
Our farm was replete with wetlands, briar patches, sapling stands, irrigation ponds and fence lines, all overgrown and thick as steel wool. I discovered that the cottontails had complete trust in their natural camouflage and used the dense cover to keep them safe. All I had to do was move slowly through the brush, stopping often, spotting them as they patiently waited for me to go on by.
I found that rabbits would hunker down in the tall grass or back up against a sapling, blowdown or brushpile and sit practically in plain sight as I crept slowly by. I learned to keep moving, very slowly, scanning the forest floor around me, taking one slow step at a time. I learned that if I stopped suddenly the rabbit would take that as a threat and scamper away, but if I moved slowly and deliberately, angling away from potential targets, I could close the distance to 10 yards or less. Many times, I was able to walk past a flattened, sitting rabbit that was just a few feet away. As long as I pretended not to notice them they’d stay put, giving me a chance to make the shot.
WHERE THEY HIDE
Cottontails are fond of overgrown fence lines and the brushy areas beneath powerline poles, gas lines and other places where thick cover is abundant. Walking the fencelines, I’d stay about 10 feet out and move parallel to the fence posts. Most rabbits will be found backed up against a post, stump or clump of grass, but some will be snuggled into the tangled weeds, brush and sapling cover nearby.
Over time I learned to recognize the places where a rabbit should be and most of the time I was right. If the cover is dense enough to offer a safe haven from winged and fanged predators, there will probably be a rabbit in it or somewhere nearby.
I would often stand still and stare at a piece of cover for 20 minutes or more, sure that a rabbit was holding tight. Every so often a cottontail would “blink,” lifting itself out of its hiding place for a better look at me, a scenario that usually ended in my favor. Many curious cottontails were in a half-crouch, ready to take off running, when I’d catch them behind the ear with a .22 slug.
MORE HIDING PLACES
Part of the old family farm featured an overgrown irrigation ditch that was deep and thickly wooded, no more than 30 yards from bank to bank. I found that if I walked slowly along one side of the ditch the rabbits would run to and along the other side, giving me a chance for a shot when they stopped for a quick look back.
Look for cottontails in thick cover including hedgerows, woodlot edges and creek bottoms. It’s best to walk inside the woods while scanning the outer edges for signs of sitting rabbits. Some cottontails will sit tight and hope you pass by, but others will jump and run. When this happens, I try to keep an eye on them, gun up and ready, because cottontails have a habit of stopping for a quick look back before they take off again at high speed. It’s not easy to spot a sitting rabbit in thick cover after he’s been jumped, but if you stay focused on your target you’ll get a quick glimpse of him. Take the shot right away because he won’t sit still very long.
When hunting small patches of woods, brush or fields, it’s a good idea to sit tight for about 20 minutes after you kick up a rabbit. As is the case when a cottontail is jumped by a pack of hounds, the cottontail will slowly make its way back to its original hiding place.
This is also good for hunters to know even when they miss a chance at a rabbit. If you jump a cottontail in a certain place one day but don’t get a shot, just come back another day and the odds are you’ll find the same rabbit in the same place.
Another great place to still-hunt for cottontails is along abandoned railroad tracks. Some of these have been turned into hiking trails, so check with local authorities before you go out with a rifle or shotgun looking for rabbits.
In areas where it’s still legal to hunt the tracks, it’s an easy matter to walk along the rails at a slow pace while scanning the track-side berms for sitting rabbits. The cover here is usually thick and forbidding, providing perfect cover for loafing cottontails.
Rail berms are loaded with rabbits because they are often the only available cover. Also, they tend to border crop fields and farm lands where there is plenty of food for cottontails to eat during the night. By day the rabbits tuck into the thick brush beside the tracks.
Keep a sharp eye on the slopes and tops of these berms because that is where most of the rabbits will spend their day. On the return trip, walk along the opposite side of the berm to catch rabbits that have learned to avoid the relatively open track side.
Snowshoe hares are much larger than cottontails and are much easier to see. Through most of the hunting season they are nearly all white and stand out like a sore thumb, especially on bare ground.
Hare cover is nearly opposite that of the cottontail’s favored habitat. Even the thickest alder swamp seems airy and open compared to a cottontail’s standard briar patch. I think this is because hares do not go to ground when pursued (a real advantage for hunters) and they tend to trust their long, strong legs to get themselves out of trouble when their white camouflage fails them.
I have been still-hunting snowshoe hares since the early 1960s and can’t remember a single one that acted worried, afraid or even concerned about my presence. They will usually hop away a few yards and then sit quietly, offering an easy shot at close range. At 10 or 20 yards in thin cover a snowshoe hare offers a big target. Its head is the size of an orange centered by a big, black eye. Experienced marksmen will have no trouble making a clean head shot.
When hunting the thickest evergreen-and-alder cover it’s worth taking the time to hunker down to scan the forest floor around you with binoculars. Hares are rather trusting critters and will usually sit tight, fully exposed, while deciding what their next move will be.
Deep snow and cold are no deterrents to hares. Within hours of a storm’s passing, hares will be out making tracks, leaving no doubt as to how many there are and where they’ve been. I would not bother trying to “track” a hare simply because there are so many tracks and trails it’s impossible to sort them out, but the good thing about tracks is that they reveal where there are good numbers of hares. Hunt carefully and you’ll find them—no dog required.