March 26, 2021
By Tony Peterson
You don’t have to work too hard to hear hunters’ laments about small-game opportunities on public land. In many areas, especially those with decent-sized population centers, the general feeling will be that the small game is shot out and it’s not worth the effort. This may be true on certain parcels, but that belief is most often centered on squirrel populations, not rabbits. Bunnies often thrive on public land where you couldn’t shoot a limit of bushytails if you were given a full season to try. For anyone willing to carry a 20-gauge on a long hike, this is good news.
Those beautiful acres of deciduous forests that beg you to rest against a tree with a .22 or a .17 in your lap and scan the treetops for squirrels are worthless for rabbits. Cottontails are nature’s candy bars, and because everything eats them, they tend to live where the cover offers real advantages to seeing another sunrise.
This means that overhead tangles are a must because whether it’s day or night, avian predators will be looking for rabbits—and the rabbits know it. Everything from frozen cattail sloughs to plum thickets and gnarly fencerows qualify, or at least demand a closer look from hunters.
To narrow down your search, scour satellite imagery to pare down possible rabbit hideouts. Edges between two types of cover are good places to start, as are overgrown homesteads and building sites and anything that doesn’t feature tall, mature trees or blatantly open and featureless ground.
The easy-to-walk two-track that winds its way through 600 acres of public land will have plenty of boot prints on it. The low ground, well off that trail and covered in aspens and willows, probably won’t, but it might have rabbit tracks and droppings. On private ground, you could have easy walk around an old farm site where you can pick off sunning rabbits, but that’s a pipe dream on public land.
You’ll have to get into the morass, and you’ll have to stay there until you start running across sign. The good news for you is that rabbits leave a lot of sign. If you’ve got snow, spotting a concentration of tracks and droppings is easy and essential for success. You might also see patches of saplings where the bottom foot or so is peeled off. That’s when you know you’re around rabbits. If you don’t have snow to work with, droppings are key.
But remember, it’s not enough to find some rabbit sign. You want to look at the ground and definitively know that some rabbits have spent days upon days using that exact spot. When you do, keep any eye out for the best hiding spots scattered throughout the cover. An old blowdown that is draped with saw grass yet still offers rabbits room to run underneath is ideal. The goal is to find the places where cottontails feel safe being above ground in daylight.
WEATHER AND TIMING
The ideal situation for adding a few bunnies to the game bag is a warm(ish) winter evening, just before sunset. Unfortunately, that’s not something you can rely on when you have limited hunting time and are subject to the whims of Mother Nature.
Temperatures that are seasonal will do just fine. A serious cold snap is a different story. If the temperatures are so low that bunnies will run a calorie deficit, no matter how much they eat, simply by being out in it, you’re going to have a long day of jumping on empty brushpiles. A day when the sun is shining and the temps lean in the warmer direction are a better bet for moving cottontails.
While the last hour of legal shooting light is the best, you can have rabbit action all day long if hunting in spots with decent numbers. My hunting partners and I usually try to time our routes so that we hunt some of our secondary cover during the middle of the day and work our way to prime spots as sunset looms closer.
GROUP OR SOLO?
Beagle-free hunting turns at least one member of the party into an honorary dog. If you’re hunting solo, well, you know who the dog is. This part is the hardest for new rabbit hunters to understand. You can’t just walk next to cover and hope rabbits will move; you’ve got to get in there and make them nervous.
The ideal hunt involves two or three hunters making small drives if cover allows. My hunting partners and I often switch off as the shooter(s) and the brush buster(s). In some cases, like long fence rows, making drives is key. In others, where the cover is thick enough and the line of travel isn’t so easy to predict, we’ll hunt in such a way that one person works forward for 10 or 15 yards and stops, then the other person goes. This can work with more hunters if you’ve got a bigger party, but it demands a serious eye toward safety for all involved given the often difficult nature of the terrain.
This also means that shotguns are the weapon of choice for us. Rimfires are awesome for rabbits in areas where you can count on seeing them sitting statue-still, but they aren’t great for multiple hunters navigating gnarly cover. You’ll probably only get a second or two to make your shot once a bunny breaks, and that means you’ll want to send a load of 6s in his direction if you have any desire to eat rabbits at the end of the day (you do).
No matter who you hunt with, if you plan your routes according to the best cover and resign yourself to getting into the thorns, you’ll find that rabbits live on public land that might be largely devoid of other small-game opportunities. After a few hours of hunting them, you’ll probably get why no one else is putting pressure on them.
That’s motivation enough to get out there and search for public-land rabbits in my book.
Bonus game to add to your bag.
Maybe you want a break from all-day rabbit hunting, or you’re in an area where the squirrels aren’t shot out. If this is the case, planning a route back to the truck to swap your 20-gauge for a .22 and heading into the hardwoods might be worth it. Winter squirrels are most active when temperatures are peaking at midday, so get out there when the sun is shining.
If you’re in the North Country, you might also notice some rabbit tracks running a little bigger than usual. In Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, specifically, a dual cottontail-and-snowshoe-hare hunt can be had. The beauty of snowshoe hares is that they don’t have underground burrows, meaning you can always find them somewhere if you look hard enough. They also leave a ton of sign and are prone to sticking to hare trails when the snow is deep enough. This allows you to predict escape routes.
Lastly, they call the big woods home. Huge tracts of national forest or open-to-the-public timber company land will hold hares, and often, cottontails. This can easily be one of the most fun, and productive, combo hunts that you can find on public land anywhere.