By Guy J. Sagi Consistent success when hunting with a handgun takes an unusual orchestration of skill, knowledge,…
In most parts of the country rabbit hunting is the longest game season; going from early fall into the winter months. So, you are able to bag some game long after you hang up your bow and pack out your treestand.
Rabbit hunting is a two-fold sport to me. I am an avid hunter and spend most of my hunting season at my camp in New Hampshire. But, in the winter I quickly get frustrated with the hustle and bustle of the city and long to get back into the woods. So, I grab my snowshoes and head out rabbit hunting.
Rabbit hunting is great exercise, especially when there is 3 feet of snow on the ground, which keeps me active. But, it allows me to scout for deer in fresh snow and still put some meat in the freezer.
Why Rabbit Hunting?
I got into rabbit hunting when I was a young kid. I grew up in a house located directly behind an old farming field and when I was about eight my parents bought my brothers and me a beagle. We were not an avid hunting family but since we watched Snoopy, Santa thought this was the best choice.
We quickly learned what a hassle beagles are, but also how great at hunting they are. She was constantly flushing pheasants, grouse, and woodcocks, and would relentlessly chase rabbits. We would open our back door in the morning and hear her baying all day. At night she would come home, covered in briars and mud.
My father thought it was best to capitalize on this. Although none of us had ever hunted before, we took a course and started going out. We were never serious hunters, but it was a way to tire out our dog and minimize damage to the house.
Rabbit Hunting Guide
I can’t sit here and give you all the ins and outs of rabbit hunting, there are many things you can only learn by being out in the field. However, I have been doing it long enough to give you the basics and pass along some knowledge I acquired in the woods.
You should feel confident enough to head into the woods and give it a shot.
There are two main types of rabbits people hunt; the cottontail and the jackrabbit. You need to be able to tell which is which, because some states may permit one, but not the other. Rabbits are so quick and agile that you only have a split second to decide whether to shoot or not.
Also, I am not going to get into the weeds with my identification. I know the haters will say “well technically speaking jackrabbits are hares” and blah blah blah. This is a basic article to get you, the novice rabbit hunter, into the woods hunting rabbits.
There are all sorts of different cottontails, but this is what the generic cotton tail will look like.
It will have a grayish brown, almost rust color fur, with an all white under belly. Additionally, it will have a white bushy tail, and as you could guess it looks like a cotton ball. On average it will be 15-18 inches long and weigh 1-2 pounds. The ears of a cottontail are short and stubby.
A jackrabbit is going to look similar to a cottontail, but noticeably bigger than a cottontail. It will be 24 inches or taller and weigh somewhere between 3-6 pounds. The jackrabbit will also have longer ears and legs. The jackrabbit will not have a bushy white tail.
I can’t reiterate this enough, know which rabbit you see before you fire a round. Also, know the laws regarding the rabbits in your area. Some states have very lax restrictions on jackrabbits but cottontails are highly regulated. Ignorance is not an excuse to the wildlife officials.
Rabbits are pretty versatile and practically exist everywhere – swamps, marshes, forests, deserts, prairies, and grasslands. Like most small game species they will seek protection from predators and often look for shelter. Here, in New England, I will see rabbits in thick brush, pricker bushes, and briars. However, in other parts of the country where bushes and cover isn’t available, rabbits will lay in overhangs or near rock piles.
The primary diet of a rabbit are herbaceous plants, basically any plant without a woody stem a rabbit will consume, which is why they destroy your garden beds.
However, rabbits are survivors and their habitat will dictate their diet. If a rabbit lives near an abundance of berries then they will consume berries. If that rabbit lived in a marshy area then it would eat marsh plants. I’ve even heard of rabbits eating things like tree bark during the winter months up here in the northeast. They are survivors.
Rabbit Hunting Tactics
Like bird hunting there are really two ways to hunt rabbits, with or without a dog.
Hunting rabbits without a dog is a little more work, both physically and mentally, but trust me you can still get your daily limit.
If you’re going on a rabbit hunt with multiple buddies then you should try a drive. Actually, rabbit hunting is a great way to learn how to do a proper drive. So, let’s assume you are going hunting with a few buds and no dog. Drives can be dangerous, so read more about drives, watch Youtube clips, and practice, before you head out on a drive with live ammo.
Basic Advice On Driving Rabbits
You will have drivers and standers. The driver is going to “push” or walk through cover, which you believe holds rabbits. The goal of the driver is to flush rabbits out of cover. From there you will have your standers set up on the edges of the cover. The stander’s job is to keep watch for any game that may flush. You should have your standers in areas, in which you think the game will exit their cover, so look for openings or game trails. When doing a drive wear orange, communicate, and be visible.
Know your shooting lanes. When I push we draw a quick map. Then each hunter on the drive gets a shooting lane which we identify by using a clock hand. For example, stander A may get anything from 7-9 o’clock. We don’t have anyone shoot towards the cover (because there are pushers there) nor do we have the driver shoot. If you don’t know where another hunter is, just let the damn rabbit go.
If you are a solo hunter, you are going to have to do even more work, but again it is doable and these are some of my favorite hunts. Find a piece of land where you think rabbits are hiding. Walk slowly in those areas, stopping often, and scanning for rabbits. If you see logs, brush, briars, or anything else that could hold a rabbit, kick it, shake, and move it, try to scare rabbits out of hiding holes.
Like I mentioned earlier, I do alot of bird hunting in the winter months now. Another great way to find rabbits is to follow fresh tracks. They will usually lead you to a good piece of cover that you can push.
Tips for the solo hunter. You have to remember to stop often. If you keep walking rabbits will hold tight, but if you stop the rabbits will get worried and run. Also, rabbit hunting is quality over quantity. I used to think that the more ground I covered then the better my odds of seeing a rabbit were. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Looking back at it, I probably bypassed hundreds of rabbits. Now, when I go solo and dogless, I will slow down, stop, and scan relentlessly. I see more rabbits now than ever, despite the dwindling population of rabbits.
Hunting With A Dog
Have you ever been deep in the woods and heard a hound baying? Odds are you were in the midst of a serious rabbit hunter following his pack of hounds, specifically beagles. Beagles are by far the most popular rabbit hunting dog. They have a relentless drive, nose, stamina, and are still small enough to maneuver in and out of thick cover.
Nowadays only serious rabbit hunters have beagles. In fact, it can be difficult to find a beagle who was bred from a hunting breed. Like labs, they were turned into family dogs and lost their hunting drive. However, in remote parts of the country you can still find hunting beagles.
Generally speaking, rabbits like to circle their “homes”, so when a dog finds a rabbit the rabbit will exit its cover and run in a giant circle. This is when a beagle comes in handy. The beagle will give chase, baying to alert the hunter that the rabbit is on the move. The hunter will listen to the hound to get a sense of direction. The hunter then sets up in an area to pick off the rabbit, before they make it home.
Different Dog Breeds
Now of course you don’t need a beagle to rabbit hunt. I get a lot of rabbits during bird season and I run pointers. Some serious bird hunters may shun me for this, but I will shoot a rabbit only if my bird dog isn’t looking. I don’t want my bird dog to get into the habit of chasing bunnies. However, my dog will inadvertently bump rabbits giving me ample opportunity.
Tips when hunting with a dog. Don’t shoot as soon as the rabbit flushes. Give it some time to distance itself from the dog. Make sure your dog has orange on. Like I said I have a pointer, she doesn’t bay, so I have her wear an orange vest, collar and strap a bell on her.
Don’t shoot unless you are positive you know where your dog or other hunters are.
Here is some quick advice on shot placement. Rabbits are fragile. Some pellets into its chest cavity can destroy the majority of the meat. I always try to lead the rabbit and go for a headshot. This way the meat stays intact, there is no fecal matter or other toxins on the meat, and the inside of the rabbit is clean.
Rabit Hunting Gear
You can rabbit hunt in nothing, but jeans and sneakers, I actually have. But, there are some things you should wear to make your hunt more comfortable.
For starters, a good pair of boots that you can walk in for hours, through rough terrain. I wear LL Bean’s upland boots with the BOA system. I found that briars and brush were pulling on my boot laces, which would ultimately cause my boots to become undone. With the BOA system I don’t have this issue.
I wear briar resistant pants. In New England, I need to walk through thick briars, pricker bushes, and brush. My legs were getting sliced and diced so the briar resistant pants have protected my legs. I wear a briar-resistant shirt and gloves for the same reason.
I wear an upland jacket or vest. It has pockets specifically made to carry shells, water, and emergency gear. It also has a game pouch on the back that makes it easier to pack out rabbits or birds.
I also carry the basic survival equipment, you know first aid, knife, fire starter, compass, maps, and so forth.
So what gun do you want to take out in the woods? Well, you have two choices: a shotgun or 22 rifle. I usually take a shotgun, specifically my 20GA SxS. I like it because it is light enough to carry all day, it’s small enough to maneuver through the woods, and it doesn’t mangle the rabbit.
You can use a 12GA with mid-sized shot (not buckshot), it is a fine choice, but in my experience, it mangled the rabbit too much. However, it was more likely my shot placement than the gun. I have also used a 410 shotgun, you just need to get close enough to the rabbit. Basically, any shotgun that you would use to hunt small game or birds would work.
The 22 is a great choice, but you need to be a good shot. But, it is light, accurate, easy to shoot, and most importantly doesn’t destroy the meat of the rabbit. My cousin only ever uses a 22 and always has a rabbit in his freezer.
If you are shooting a shotgun, look for 7 ½ or 8 shotshells. I personally like to use non-toxic rounds, because I feed game meat to my kids. My favorites are Kent Bismuth, Federal Upland Steel, and Federal Premium Prairie Storm. I have never had an issue with these shells. Pre-kids, I preferred Federal Premium and Remington shells. I never had an issue with these lead shots, plus they were fairly affordable.
If you go the 22 route, then any 22LR round works, as long as you remember 22LR has a reputation for being fragile. So, buy the cheap 22 for target practice and quality 22 for hunting. I have had good luck with CCI and Remington Yellow Jackets. However, try different 22 rounds and see which one works best with your gun.
So you headed out into the woods and bagged a few rabbits. What now? Well, first you need to clean the rabbit, which is very similar to cleaning a deer, but obviously on a smaller scale. Watch a Youtube video on it, because if I try to explain this you will be more confused. But, basically, you want to remove the hide and guts.
Now you want to cook the rabbits, but you don’t know how. You can treat rabbit the same way you would treat chicken or any other fowl, by baking, braising, grilling, or making stews or soups.
I am a traditionalist and find rabbit stew to be one of the finest game dishes there is. I will combine rabbit meat with root veggies, like potatoes, carrots, celery, and onion, add some chicken or game stock, and let it simmer for hours. Sometimes I will clean out my freezer by adding game birds and rabbits into the same pot and making a stew.
I recently got into making rabbit tenders. I will cut off some meat, bread it, and fry it. Served with fries and ketchup. My kids love them.
Rabbit Hunting Made Easy
There you have it – a quick guide on how to hunt rabbits. You can read every article on rabbit hunting, watch countless Youtube videos, or talk to other hunters, but nothing can replicate time in the woods. Chasing cottontail can be surprisingly addictive. So, get out there and have fun!