by Doug Howlett - Thursday, December 29, 2011
(Photo Courtesy of USFWS)
Some years back, I was invited to hunt rabbits with a group of dedicated houndsmen who loved to run (and shoot) rabbits with their beagles. The day had been a relative success with our group scoring on about 18 rabbits for the day. For my personal efforts, I had managed to pull the trigger on a small number of the critters, missing a couple and accounting for a few in the final bag. The hunt had reminded me how enjoyable a small-game hunt can be—no stressed strategizing to score on the biggest racked trophy around or overly tactical effort like calling a longbeard to the gun—just trying to nab game as it appeared for the sake of shooting and adding to the bag limit. The whole experience left me wanting more.
The problem was, I didn’t have a pack of beagles. But I knew some places where I had frequently seen rabbits, both on my farm and my brother’s, so I decided to set off for some brush with a shotgun stoked with No. 6s draped across the crook of my arm. The results were surprising. While I didn’t bag as many rabbits on that first solo effort due to some tricky shooting, I scared up a lot more than I had expected. The effort opened up a new world of hunting to me. With rabbit season where I live running well into February, long after most other seasons have closed, it’s a great opportunity to grab another day or two of time outdoors and, with a little effort, enjoy a bit of exercise that typically results in more meat for stews or to accompany a side dish of risotto.
Whether you’re hunting solo or with a buddy or two, hunting rabbits without hounds is a relatively simple affair with good odds for success. Rabbits are abundant anywhere wild cover is available, meaning you are almost certain to find game. Here’s how to score on your own rabbit adventures.
Find ‘Em First
Rabbits don’t travel far between cover and food so one of the best places to find them is in thick, brushy areas right next to where they like to eat—open grassy areas with clovers and broadleaf weeds, or crop fields that have been planted in soybeans, peanuts, wheat, alfalfa and the like. Brushy patches of blackberries, honeysuckle, blueberry and other viney, tangled brush provide great cover for animals where they can feed without fear of being nabbed by avian predators. Brushy ditches and fencerows through fields, as well as brush piles and windrows, also provide excellent havens.
In the deep winter chill, brushy areas on south-facing slopes (or in flat-land the side of cover facing the sun) can be more productive, as rabbits will slip to the edge of their hideout and sun themselves for warmth.
In many areas where deer hunters have worked to establish lush, green plots to attract whitetails, you’ll find the overgrown edges bordering these deer magnets will also harbor a nice population of bunnies. The brushier the borders around these open areas, the better. Rabbits will also grow thick in overgrown clearcuts that have repopulated with small saplings that provide abundant twigs and bark for rabbits to chew on.
It doesn’t take much to pull off a rabbit hunt, but a few key items will certainly make it more successful and comfortable for you. Some guys are content to sit at field edges at dawn or dusk, looking to snipe a few targets as they appear to feed, and for that, a precision-scoped .22 is ideal. This is a fine way to hunt them that will definitely produce, but after a season of sitting in a stand for whitetails, I personally don’t want to sit and wait for rabbits. I want to go after them and kick them up, which means using the scattergun. A 12-gauge remains the most versatile game gun for any sportsman, and without a doubt, serves the rabbit hunter ably, but I prefer a lighter, more compact 20-gauge for tromping brush and swinging in cover. The smaller, well-pointed charge, loaded with No. 6 shot is more than ample for rabbits.
Because you will likely be traipsing through thick, briar-laced cover to kick these creatures into the open, your legs will take some abuse. For this, a good pair of vinyl-faced brush pants or heavy chaps are a must, along with light, but durable boots with leather or Cordura uppers for walking. I like an old-style canvas upland game jacket too, with a lined nylon game pouch built into the rear for toting a brace as you collect the small treasures. A small backpack can also do the trick for keeping your hands free for more shooting.
When hunting with others, safety orange vests and/or hats are a really good idea, too, since hunters are generally obscured by the thick cover in which rabbits are found, yet are in close proximity to each other while hunting them.
Walk ‘Em Up
My favorite and most productive hunts are in spots where the brush is no more than waist-high and surrounded by relatively open ground that a bolting rabbit has to cross for an exposed shot. With your shotgun at the ready, simply plunge in and slowly walk a zigzag pattern—keeping your eyes alert for flashes of brown—and listen for scurrying ahead of you. Pause frequently, creating an almost herky-jerky approach that will leave rabbits guessing which way you are about to go and making them nervous. A nervous rabbit is one ready to move. I like to walk slowly for about 10 to 15 paces and then pause 20 to 30 seconds before moving on. This seems to work well. When working overgrown cutovers, look for areas that are no more than two to three years old. More than that, and they will be so grown up that while they’ll harbor plenty of rabbits, seeing and shooting them may be next to impossible.
A hunter can walk plenty of rabbit-rich brush, but if it is so thick he can’t see more than a few feet in front of him, then it will be a lot of wasted effort. Like the smaller patches of brush and tangles of honeysuckle and briars I prefer to hit, other good spots that offer the perfect blend between hideout and visibility include fencerows and ditches in fields as well as brush piles pushed up at the edge of open woods. Whether hunting rabbits or other species, I try to note these high-production spots throughout the season and return to them time and again when hunting for rabbits.
If hunting with partners, take turns with one guy working brush in this manner, while the others post slightly ahead, repositioning quietly and frequently as you progress. When hunting in pairs, hunters can also flank each other, standing 15 to 20 yards apart depending on the amount of brush they’re working, and alternate walking ahead of each other and pausing.
Hunting rabbits is really no more difficult than that—its simplicity in approach and execution, a big part of what makes it so much fun.
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