Rabbits on the Run
Cottontails inhabit every county in Missouri. They can be pursued without years of experience or a daunting investment in equipment. They are challenging, but not so elusive that they discourage first-time hunters. Perhaps best of all, cottontail meat is lean and savory. Reminiscing about the hunt is best done over a steaming plate of pan-fried rabbit.
If hunting had an affirmative action program, the cottontail rabbit would be its celebrity spokesperson. No other game animal is better suited to encourage novices from every walk of life to try their hands at hunting.
Following are some tips for aspiring rabbit hunters.
The only indispensable piece of rabbit hunting equipment is a shotgun. This is a firearm that throws an ounce or so of small pellets at the target, in contrast to a rifle, which fires a single projectile.
The least expensive type of shotgun is the single-shot. These sell for $75 to $150 new. If you make the rounds of gun and pawn shops you may find a good used single shot for $50.
With a single-shot, you have just one chance to bag your game before reloading. This encourages good shooting skills.
The most popular rabbit gun is the pump-action. Pump guns are modestly priced (some under $200 new) and hold three shells. You reload after each shot by pulling the gun's front stock back to eject the spent shell and then pushing it forward to chamber a new shell.
Semiautomatic shotguns reload themselves. All the shooter has to do is pull the trigger three times. Good autoloaders start at a little over $500 new.
Double-barreled shotguns are the ultimate rabbit guns. They come in traditional side-by-side or over-and-under varieties. Low-end doubles start at around $600. They pack one less shell than autoloaders and pumps, but a third shot seldom amounts to more than a hasty farewell salute to a departing bunny anyway.
Shotguns come in sizes. The two most common are 12 and 20 gauge, with 12 gauge being the biggest. A 20-gauge is more than adequate for rabbit hunting and doesn't kick as hard as a 12-gauge.
Finding shells for shotguns of other gauges can be troublesome, so I don't recommend them for beginning hunters.
Shotguns also come with barrels of different lengths. Most are 26 or 28 inches long. A short barrel makes a gun quick in hand and maneuverable in tight quarters, like the thickets that rabbits favor. A 26-inch barrel is best for rabbits.
Every shotgun barrel has a choke, a narrowed section near the muzzle. Choke controls how quickly pellets spread out after leaving the barrel.
The goal is to have the pellets spread out enough to cover a 2- or 3-foot circle at the distance where most shots occur, making it easy to cover a moving target. At the same time, the pellets should be close enough together that several strike the rabbit, producing a quick, clean kill, but not so close together that too many pellets ruin the meat.
Common chokes in hunting guns, in order of increasing tightness, are cylinder, improved cylinder, modified cylinder and full. A cylinder choke is too open for most rabbit hunting situations, and a full choke too tight.
That leaves improved cylinder and modified cylinder. In dense cover, where you seldom get a clear shot at a rabbit more than 20 yards away, improved cylinder is a good choice. More open cover, where you shoot rabbits as far away as 35 yards, calls for a modified choke.
No matter what choke you use, you will encounter some shots that are too close or too far. That's when a double-barreled gun comes into its own. Each barrel can have a different choke, allowing the hunter to select the best choke for each shot . . . assuming you are capable of such rational thought while drawing a bead on a zigzagging cottontail.
Many single-barreled shotguns sold today have interchangeable chokes that screw in and out of the muzzle, allowing you to adjust for different cover.
Rabbits are easy to kill. Sometimes a bunny tumbles after a ridiculously poor shot, leaving you to wonder if it died of gunshot or surprise. Use the lightest load available. No. 8 shot is adequate for most situations, though you might want to carry some shells loaded with slightly larger No. 6 pellets for long shots.
The most important garments for rabbit hunters are a hunter orange vest and matching cap. Rabbit hunting requires split-second shooting decisions. You want your hunting companions to be able to see you.
Remember the story of Brer Rabbit and the briar patch? Rabbits really do love places studded with thorns that chew the hides off their enemies. If you hope to meet Brer Rabbit on his turf, you'll need more protection than denim jeans afford. Invest in a pair of brush pants or chaps.
Boots should be lightweight and provide good ankle support. High tops will keep brambles from climbing under your cuff and up your shin.
Where to find 'em
You won't find rabbits in large expanses of forest or pasture. Instead, look in between, where brushy vegetation offers shelter adjacent to food. A narrow finger of forested land in an alfalfa field is a rabbit factory. Osage orange hedges that separate crop fields in west-central Missouri are good bets, too.
Stream corridors, however narrow, will harbor rabbits if they aren't heavily grazed and have some rose bushes or other low, shrubby growth. Ditches answer the same purpose in southeastern Missouri.
Hunters often drive past rabbit bonanzas without recognizing them. Railroad, power line and pipeline rights-of-way add up to thousands of acres of first-rate rabbit habitat. Abandoned farm houses, often the only places where sumac, blackberry and other brush are allowed to grow amid cropland, always hold a few bunnies.
Brushy edges of junkyards are cottontail gold mines. The same is true of areas where farmers retire worn out discs, seed drills and pickup trucks.
Most rabbit hunters look for brush piles. All are not created equal, however. A dome of cedar limbs so dense that it offers no access is little use to a cottontail. What you want is a pile with lots of openings and cavities inside.
Size is important, too. A brush pile five feet across is big enough to shelter two or three rabbits, and scaring them out takes only a well-placed kick. But a brush pile 20 feet across can harbor 10 bunnies without you ever seeing one.
Hunting rabbits with hounds is wonderful, but most new hunters don't have this option. Anyway, freelancing for rabbits allows you to learn things about rabbit behavior you would never discover by watching cottontails with a pack of beagles on their heels.
- Cottontails will swim creeks and hide beneath overhanging banks. They can disappear into a clump of grass scarcely larger than themselves.
- In severe weather and late in the season, rabbits tend to sit tight, almost requiring the toe of a boot to flush them. But bunnies get edgy if predators linger in their proximity. Pause every 20 or 30 feet to look around, and a rabbit may panic and bolt, offering a shot.
- If you know that the area you are hunting has woodchuck holes, have one hunter stake out these escape hatches while the other beats the surrounding brush. Sentries should stand atop tree stumps, brush piles or anything that allows them to look down through cover.
- When hunting in groups, always have someone walk the edge between brushy cover and open ground. Rabbits often hop just outside thick cover and run a short distance along a road or open field, creating a golden opportunity for a shot.
- Take time to plan strategy before hunting an area. Say you are hunting with several friends and you come to a 10-acre field of soybeans the farmer left standing because cockleburs took it over. At one end of the field is an impenetrable multiflora rose hedge. The opposite end opens onto a large expanse of bare ground. The long sides of the soybean patch are bordered by brushy ditches.
- Rabbits will feed in the soybeans, especially early and late in the day. If they flee into the rose thicket, they're home free, so start there, forming a line of hunters between the soybeans and the thicket. Walk the length of the field, driving the rabbits ahead of you toward the open end.
- Hunters on the outside will get lots of shots as rabbits try to duck into the bordering ditches. Hunters in the middle will get increasing action as they near the end of the field and rabbits run out of cover.
- When you reach the end of the field, send some of your party back to the far end of the field to stand guard where the brushy ditches meet the rose thicket. When they are in place, have the rest of your party flank the ditches, again driving the rabbits ahead of them.
A matter of principle
New rabbit hunters have an opportunity to develop hunting ethics that will enhance their enjoyment and protect the future of their sport by portraying a positive image to nonhunters. Always ask permission before hunting on private land and respect livestock, fences and other property.
Take time out during the hunt to think over your actions. If you take four rabbits from a small strip of cover, you might get a couple more by scouring the strip again. On the other hand, you might want to leave the remaining rabbits for "seed."
Perhaps you shot a rabbit at such close range that its food value was ruined. There's a lesson in that; easy shots aren't always worth taking.