Now before you jump my case about the broad generalization of the word “rabbit”, let me clarify. I’m talking about cottontails which are rabbits and jackrabbits which are hares. Entirely different species, yes, I know, but for today I’m lumping them both together and calling them all “rabbits”.
In my home state, rabbit seasons are open year-round, but be sure to check with your state’s wildlife agency for season dates. In general, rabbit hunting is at its best when the weather is cool, November to February-ish. You can’t hunt big game exclusively year-round, you’ll run out of tags eventually. So, picking up small game hunting is a great way to extend your season. Check out my top ten tips for finding and bagging bunnies.
1. Hunt the Cover
Rabbits are known for their fondness of nasty, thick, prickly, unwelcoming cover. These inhospitable haunts give rabbits shelter from predators making it tougher for coyotes and foxes, hawks, owls and the like to reach them. This dense cover also acts as a thermal blanket and provides protection from the elements. Areas with substantial amounts of grass and brush are also highly coveted rabbit habitats. For this reason, upland game hunters often flush out rabbits in their pursuit of pheasants and other upland birds. In general, the thicker the better when it comes to cover - these locales are rabbit factories.
2. Look for Grub
Cover alone is not enough, rabbits have to eat, too. The distance they like to travel between cover and food sources is minimal though. Knowing this, you can seek out locations that have both cover and food within close proximity. For instance, overgrown ditches or field edges that border an agricultural field. Or, look for thick timber that butts into an agricultural field or possibly a grassy clearing with clover and other lush natural vegetation. Fencerows can also be fantastic hideouts as they usually have a buildup of overgrown grass and weeds beneath. I have an extensive tree row behind my house that borders pasture on two sides and an agricultural field on another side. This location is a constant rabbit producer because of its extensive cover and nearness to food.
3. Hunt the Uninhabited
The rural American countryside is littered with uninhabited properties - old run-down farmsteads, empty barns and sheds, long abandoned school houses, damaged grain silos and other dilapidated structures often overgrown by weeds and brush. While these structures may be past their prime for traditional purposes, they happen to be excellent for rabbit hunting. They are void of much human activity, have generous amounts of cover from existing structures and overgrown vegetation, and they are often located close to agricultural fields. This creates the perfect environment for rabbits to thrive. Other more unconventional areas to look are around broken-down farm machinery, junkyards, and ponds surrounded by a lot of brush and vegetation. It’s worth your time to seek out the land owners and secure permission for these deserted areas.
4. Sun Bunnies
On cold sunny days, I often hunt whitetails by scouring southern facing slopes. The deer are looking for solar power to help them beat the chill and rabbits are no different. When it’s cold outside, they like to sun themselves to help regulate their body temperature. So, seek out southern facing slopes and from there identify brushy areas. Rabbits will move to the sunny side of the cover they are hiding out in to soak up a few rays. If there are no “slopes” then just hunt the sunny side of brushy cover.
5. The Predator Factor
Rabbits have a reputation, one that makes most people blush to talk about. However, I’m not easily embarrassed so I’ll get right to it - rabbits breed like crazy. Case and point - the popular, albeit crude, saying about people getting busy like rabbits. It’s true, the little furballs are prolific baby makers, they are pumping them out just as fast as predators are gobbling them up! That’s the dilemma for rabbits though, they are wildlife prey animal #1. They spend their lives constantly avoiding the threat of being snatched up and ripped apart by a predator.
Predation is an issue I have talked a lot about for wildlife as a whole and it’s definitely a major factor for rabbits individually. As it turns out, rabbits may not be the only animal with impressive breeding habits, coyotes happen to reproduce at incredible rates as well, although I don’t think you’ll ever hear an expression about people getting busy like coyotes. That aside, the point is that predators are rapidly expanding their population and range, and rabbits are at or near the top of their dinner menu. Coyotes are an obvious predator, but rabbits also take a lot of heat from foxes, feral cats as well as larger cats like mountain lions and bobcats. Don’t forget the aerial threat because hawks, owls, falcons and other large birds also feast on rabbits.
In general, wild animals don’t make a habit of hanging around areas where there is a steady human presence. However, for rabbits, taking up residence near humans can be beneficial to their existence. Predators avoid humans, and areas where there is frequent human activity, as much as possible. By living in the brush and available cover around homes, barns, oil rigs, machinery lots and other areas with a regular human presence, rabbits aren’t as susceptible to predation. Takeaway: don’t disregard areas with human pressure, comb through the cover and see what you shake out.
6. Look for Droppings
There is no more obvious indicator of rabbits being in the area, aside from seeing a rabbit itself, than the presence of their poo. When you find piles of rabbit droppings, stay alert because you’re on their stomping ground and they have the advantage. Rabbits often create quick escape trails by clearing paths near their dwellings. They are familiar with the territory and will make a quick exit and if you aren’t ready, you’ll probably miss your shot!
Strange Fact: Those little rabbit droppings you find in the yard are actually second-generation bunny turds. Some animals chew their cud, essentially chewing their food twice to aid in the digestion process. Rabbits chew their food twice as well; however, they go about it in a much different fashion. Instead of regurgitating their food, they digest it completely and it becomes feces in the form soft moist droppings. Rabbits then eat that feces to take advantage of any nutrition left over that wasn’t absorbed the first time around digesting it again, this time depositing a dry version of that first dropping.
7. Rimfire vs Shotgun
Shotgun, rifle, handgun - each method is effective, it’s all about personal preference and in some cases, what you have in your hand at the moment.
I hunt small game with a .22 almost exclusively, in either a pistol or long rifle. Rimfires are great for all sorts of small game and really shine on rabbits. A .22 has several things going for it, the first of which is that it’s lightweight. Being lightweight makes it easier to carry and quicker to shoulder allowing you to get a shot off more rapidly. The tried and true .22 is also incredibly accurate, has a longer effective range than a shotgun and because it’s a single projectile you won’t ruin as much meat as you would with the spray of a shotgun. Not convinced yet? Well, .22’s are cost effective to shoot plus they are easy on the ears and the shoulder with less noise and less recoil. When it comes to shooting - aim small, miss small. Hunting small game with a .22 makes you a better shot, if you want to bag anything you really have to hone your skills, you only have one shot, not a spray of pellets.
Although a rifle happens to be my favorite rabbit hunting firearm, shotguns are staples in the small game category, beloved by many. 12, 16, 20 and .410 - pick your poison, they are all effective. Full disclosure: when hunting with a shotgun, my personal preference happens to be my wife’s 20-gauge pump shotgun. Shotguns really show their prowess when it comes moving targets. With rabbits, your target is going to be small, quick and at a fairly close range. If you’ve ever hunted rabbits or scared one out of the brush, you know just how fast they are and their tendency to dart around in an irregular pattern as they are making their escape. The spray of your shotgun increases the likelihood you’ll hit the rabbit, where with a .22, that outcome isn’t as assured.
Using the right choke can have an impact on your success, don’t go too tight. Because your shots are going to be close range, an open barrel out to 25 yards or an improved cylinder out to 35 yards work great.
As far as a time frame goes, early mornings and the hours around sunset will most likely produce the most rabbits. Or, if you are like me and have food and cover close by as well as kids and dogs that are constantly watching the windows like hawks, you might score some midday fur.
Now that you’ve narrowed down your hunting window and pinpointed areas of cover or food sources, you need to know how to work them. If you have beagles, awesome, they’ll do the heavy lifting for you. However, if you aren’t hunting behind dogs you’ll need to put in some extra effort. While they are very skittish, rabbits have a tendency to hunker down and hold their position, not moving unless forced, this happens to be especially true in cold weather. If you aren’t thorough you might just walk right past a rabbit and not even know it. So, work the area you are hunting in an irregular pattern, walking in a zigzag and varying your speed, stopping and starting intermittently. The unpredictable pace and change of direction while walking can sometimes be enough to push rabbits out. If you are hunting thick tangles of brushy cover that you can’t walk through, then make a lot of noise and use your foot or a large stick to disturb the area and see if you can pressure a rabbit out. If you’re working a large timber stand, walk the borders of the property. Usually the outside perimeter of wooded areas has the best habitat for small game because the sun is able to get in and encourage undergrowth, better known as prime rabbit cover. When you bump a rabbit, it will bolt and put a good amount of distance between itself and the perceived danger, but it will eventually stop, turn around and assess the situation to determine if there is still a threat. Because rabbits have a small home range, they aren’t going to run for miles. Instead, they’ll jump, run and then circle back returning to the initial location. So, keep your eyes not only in front and to the sides, but also remember to look over your shoulder frequently. Rabbits that bust out of the gate and then disappear often circle back and escape under your radar.
9. Guns Up!
Being prepared in a split second to shoulder and shoot is a requirement in rabbit hunting. There is nothing slow about cottontails and jackrabbits. So, when a rabbit jumps out and hauls tail out of the cover you dislodged it from, throw your gun up, aim, and lead your shot just a little to compensate for the speed. Moving shots can be tough if you don’t practice and being indecisive or slow to react will get you nothing.
10. Don’t Forget the Kids
Small game hunting is a great way to get kids involved and introduce them to hunting. They don’t have to shoot to have a great time. While I take my kids along on a lot of hunts, many of them require them to sit still and be very quiet - two things that kids naturally struggle to do. Rabbit hunting allows them to walk, talk and take a more active role in the hunt. Plus, a kiddo’s lower field of vision can be great for spotting. My kids double as beagles, they hit all the low stuff, flush them out and after the shot they are more than happy to retrieve them!
If you have a kiddo old enough to shoot, small game is a great place to start. As I mentioned previously, the dodging, darting and speed that rabbits use to evade make them a challenging shot. Kids that cut their teeth on rabbit hunting will no doubt be better shooters for it.
Don’t forget the kids, don’t leave them behind! Rabbit hunting is a fun and exciting way to pique their interest in hunting and the outdoors. A kid’s passion has to start somewhere and it’s our responsibility to mentor them and give them the opportunity to foster a love for this lifestyle.
Get out and bust some bunnies my friends.
P.S. - Did I mention that rabbits are delicious, because they are!
Hugs, Handshakes and Happy Bunny Hunting