All hunters dream of that trophy animal from some exotic destination whose massive proportions represent the pinnacle of the big-game world. A trophy that reflects the hunter’s skill and prowess. This passion leads us to purchase the best equipment and expensive tags, to book hunts in exotic locations, all to pursue the best and biggest game. Sometimes, though, this drive begins to overshadow the simple joy we find in hunting. Periodically, it’s healthy to get away from the big-game obsession and rediscover the joys of pursuing small game. There is a simple pleasure and purity that’s only found in of getting out of bed with the rising sun and heading into the field with a small-caliber rifle to pursue not a trophy, but simply your next meal. And nothing in the small-game world better reflects that than hunting the cottontail rabbit.
Cottontails are present in nearly all 50 states, making them perhaps the most common game animal in North America. There are more than a dozen different subspecies of cottontail residing everywhere from the dairy farm fields of New England to the brushy sands of the Arizona deserts. These little rabbits can survive and thrive in almost any environment. Living in small family groups, cottontails stay in small home ranges so long as there is sufficient food, cover, and other rabbits to sustain their needs. Though the mating season is generally in the spring, female cottontails can give birth more than 12 times per year and can have up to 14 kits at a time. These birthrates can lead to incredibly high and concentrated populations of rabbits in a small area.
That’s not always the case, though. Their populations vary from year to year, spiking during years of mild winters and in areas with few predators. For hunters, this adds an extra challenge to hunting rabbits, as areas that held a lot of cottontails the year before maybe “bunny-less” upon their return the following year. Even during years when rabbit populations are at their peak, cottontails are by no means easy to hunt. Pursuing them can still require all the patience, dedication, and skill of hunting big game.
Rabbits are hunted in a variety of different ways throughout the country. From being driven by hounds from the swamps into shotgun range, to being sniped at long range on the open plains, how you hunt rabbits depends on the hunter’s inclination and region. For those first starting down the bunny-hunting trail, though, there are a couple simple ways to get started.
Quick tip: A piece of old hunting wisdom states one should only handle and eat rabbits in months that contain the letter R (from September to April). There’s some merit to this: Rabbits are susceptible to Tularemia, a disease caused by ticks and transferable to humans, but most infected animals don’t survive the winter months (which contain the letter R). This trick doesn’t necessarily apply to areas in the south with mild winters, though.
Cottontails love thick brush and high grass—wherever they can find cover. Start searching for rabbit sign in areas with thick cover, adjacent to their food sources. These foods vary from region to region, but generally include grasses, young plants, berries, and of course agricultural resources. Search for tracks and scat around possible areas until you find a large amount of rabbit sign. Once you find a good location, there are a couple of ways to begin hunting.
How to hunt them once you’ve found them
For those who prefer a more traditional hunt, where quiet stalks and accurate shots are the name of the game, still hunting cottontails is the way to go. Especially effective during early mornings and late evening, still hunting rabbits can make for quite a challenge for any hunter. Possessing heightened senses and being extremely wary of predators, rabbits are very good at avoiding being eaten. So approach areas where rabbits concentrate cautiously.
Move around the brush, looking underneath bushes and on the fringes of thick grass. Watch for movement and rabbit-like shapes rather than the rabbit itself. For the more energetic hunter who likes faster action, there’s nothing better than kicking brush. It sounds simple but can be incredibly effective. Best done with a shotgun, this method of rabbit hunting is straightforward. Go into the thickest part of the brush and try to kick out a rabbit. It can be an incredibly exciting and productive way to rabbit hunt.
No matter how you choose to approach it, rabbit hunting is a lot of fun. Cottontail rabbits are easily one of the tastiest wild game animals in existence. This, combined with the fact that they are fairly easy to hunt and field dress, makes them ideal for introducing a child to hunting. It’s also an excellent way for adult hunters to step away from the big game dream for just a moment and reawaken the young hunter inside.