Cottontail rabbits are arguably the most ubiquitous wildlife species in the United States. They are also the most popular game animal, enjoyed by youthful beginners as well as seasoned nimrods.
Part of the cottontail's popularity stems from its wide range, from South America to southern Canada. This highly adaptable creature is at home in suburban areas as well as traditional agricultural surroundings.
The best habitat for rabbits contains a mixture of food and cover. An ideal spot would be a brushy area just off a farm field. A mixed or checkerboarded pattern of cover types will carry more rabbits and provide more hunting than large expanses of any one type of habitat.
Rabbit seasons are long, typically starting in early fall and running into late winter. Even with long seasons and generous bag limits, there is little danger of overharvesting. When rabbit numbers decline, hunting pressure drops off. Luckily, it doesn't take much of a reservoir of rabbits to rapidly rebuild populations. After all, they do breed like rabbits, you know.
Rabbits start breeding at six months of age and bear three or four litters a year of four or five young per litter. When hunting season starts in early fall, rabbit populations are at their peaks.
Most rabbits are taken with shotguns, though good sport can be had with rifle or handgun, if you are skilled enough. Hunting rabbits with beagles is the most enjoyable and often the most productive method. Beagles are short-legged dogs, so they don't press a rabbit too hard. If they did, a rabbit would take shelter in a woodchuck hole, stone wall, or other secure spot.
A rabbit tends to stay in its home territory, so will usually circle back to the general area from which the dogs jumped it. The wise hunter waits for the rabbit to circle back and positions himself where he can get a clear and safe shot.
Hunting without a dog is much easier if two or more hunters work a piece of cover in leapfrog fashion. One hunter moves slowly forward in zigzag pattern while the other hunters remain still and silent. The standing hunters usually get the shots at rabbits that are evading the moving hunter. Since all members are taking turns at moving and standing still, everyone gets an equal opportunity.
Because hunting is generally at fast-moving targets and typically in brushy areas, safety demands that all members of the hunting party wear hunter-orange vests and hats.
Rabbits are generally most active in early morning and late afternoon, so these are the best times to hunt them. One exception is in periods of extreme cold, typical of late January. Then rabbits are likely to be out in the middle of the day, seeking to gather what warmth they can from the sun.
Deep snow can make rabbit hunting tough. If your beagles cannot get around due to deep, soft snow, it's likely rabbits can't get around either. Under such conditions, rabbits will stay close to their holes, likely to take cover as soon as they are disturbed. All you need do is be patient. Before long a crust will make it easier for dogs and rabbits to get around, and the fun will start again.
Superb Table Fare
One of the great joys of rabbit hunting is enjoying the fine table fare they provide. One simple way of preparing rabbits starts with field preparation. Carry some plastic bags, so after you take a rabbit, gut it, and skin it, you can place the carcass in your plastic bag, then in your game bag or knapsack. Be sure to place the entrails under a rock or on a tree branch to keep them out of reach of your dog. He is almost certain to be infected with dog tape worms if you allow him to eat rabbit entrails.
When you get home, cut the carcass into five pieces--two front legs, two hind legs, and the saddle. Soak overnight in a light salt solution in the refrigerator. You may lightly parboil the rabbit and then fry it as you would chicken--after first dipping pieces in egg and rolling them in seasoned breadcrumbs. It's a meal worthy of a successful hunter.
Suit Your Load to the Game
Rabbits are thin skinned and easy to kill.You don't need heavy magnum loads to take them. In early season I prefer to hunt with my side by side 20 gauge, choked improved and modified.
I carry low-brass shells with 7 1/2, 8, or 9 shot.With this array I am equally prepared for woodcock, grouse, or rabbits.With vegetation still heavily leafed, your shots are going to be fast and close.
Later in the season when the leaves are all down and the grasses have been flattened by snow, you can see and shoot farther, so I switch to number 6 or 7 l/2 shot with a bit more power in my loads.Or, I go to my 12 gauge and number 6 shot, particularly if there is a chance of encountering squirrels or some other tougher game.