Rabbit hunting can fill several needs for the hunter, not the least of which is a full pot.
Rabbit hunting is one of the tried-and-true ways to fulfill our lives as hunters, and definitely one of the best species for youth to hunt. Between cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, and snowshoe hares, small game hunters have found that hunting rabbits is not only a lifelong learning experience, but one best shared with family and friends.
As easy as we may make it sound, there are plenty of veteran hunters that will tell you rabbit hunting is not always that simple. So let's get things pointed in the right direction by listing some of the basic gear, tactics, and locations where you'll find these delicious wild game animals.
Before that, it's worth addressing the question of using dogs for rabbit hunting. It's a decision we all need to make for ourselves, and it could end up being a great one. We suggest reaching out to a veteran dog owner to learn as much as you can about what's involved.
Owning a good hunting dog is a dream for many, but it comes with a lot of commitment, sometimes more than we're willing or able to give. Training and working with a rabbit hunting dog is a whole lesson in itself, one we won't spend time on here.
Canines aside, there are certain things you'll want to make the most of a rabbit hunting excursion, and we'll cover as many as we can.
Rabbit Hunting Gear
Not everyone agrees, but most solid rabbit hunters will tell you right off that your blaze orange vest or coat is a must. In many public land areas, it's a requirement. Many feature game pouches to help carry your quarry, not to mention the other storage spots a vest can provide. It's worth it to find one that fits well and is high quality, and it ought to last your entire rabbit hunting career.
If you don't go the vest route, you'll need a good quality game bag. It's also worth it to invest in waterproof boots that can be walked in for hours.
A good pair of briar-proof chaps or bib overalls (or even normal, uninsulated bibs) can be the difference between ripping through good rabbit cover and ripping through your pants. However, anything cotton is a bad choice for brush busting while rabbit hunting. For winter hunting, a pair of gloves goes without saying. Many still use a thinner pair of leather gloves for protection in warmer weather.
Maybe the most important item on your short list is a rabbit hunting firearm. Many lifelong hunters, myself included, go straight for the 12-gauge, but sometimes you'll find they are just a little too much gun. The power and velocity of today's shot shells can really do a number on a rabbit, even if you're using smaller shot sizes.
The easier-to-carry 20- and .410-gauge guns can do the same job and won't make your arm sore from carrying it all day. They swing quicker in the cover and are easier to find a lead on a running rabbit. The 12-gauge purists may bristle at this, but it's true. The venerable .410 shotgun comes in a lever action, over/under, pump, and semi-auto actions that are perfect for youth hunters.
Rabbit Hunting Strategy
Begin by focusing on the edges such as where a swamp meets an open field or where recent logging has been done to find obvious brush piles that provide cover. Hedgerows provide good cover for bunnies, but maybe the best areas are ones with thick cover like briars and brambles that make it nearly impossible to penetrate.
Here is where a good pack of beagles can be a hunter's best friend. As seen in the video, a well-trained group of beagles work the cover like any good gun dog, using their noses to obtain scent and move the game.
A group of beagles can jump a rabbit, smell the trail, follow that trail, and bring the rabbit back around to where you're standing. When pursued by a dog, rabbits will typically run in a large circle, or semi-circle around the area where they've first been jumped, and if the dog stays on the trail, the rabbit eventually comes around full circle, to where the hunter is waiting and can get a good clean shot.
For hunters without dogs, of which there are many of us, "jumping a bunny" is a solo affair. You need to patiently work the edges of found cover such a hedgerow or thickets at the edge of a forest, stopping often as wild game will get nervous when you stop moving. Many hunters such as myself will toss a branch or other large object into a thicket or mess of brambles to get a reaction from anything within.
You're going to have to get used to the idea that you will have to lead these animals just like we lead birds. Get out in front of the rabbit's nose as it runs and make sure to follow through. Today's high-brass shotgun ammunition filled with size 7 1/2 or 8 BBs have plenty of power to stop a running rabbit in its tracks, although many folks prefer the bigger fives and sixes.
Honestly I've shot many bunnies with low-brass target loads as well.
Hunting alone is a given sometimes, but hunting with a partner is honestly what makes a hunt something special. Working together to move some rabbits means being able to work both sides of a thicket or brush pile. Staying about 30-yards apart is the key, giving each hunter a chance to see movement, identify it, and take a safe and clean shot.
Patience is the key, especially when hunting with dogs. There is no rabbit stew worth taking your prized dog to the vet to remove pellets, as giving your dog or dogs the chance to work a moving rabbit is why you got them in the first place. This gives you a chance to see what they can do and usually get a cleaner shot meaning less meat wasted.
One small thing that most beagle owners like to do is to let them see, smell, and taste a downed bunny so that they can understand what a successful hunt is all about.
Maybe one of the best places to start your search for a good rabbit hunting area starts right on public land. With hundreds and even thousands of acres to access there is sometimes no end to the cover that you can find in your home state and it's there for all to use. Since some of the best bunny hunting happens in the winter, public land is free of deer hunters and has everything you need to be successful.
Here is where your orange clothing is not only necessary, but in some states mandatory. The good thing is that at this time of year, the thickest cover can be a bit more accessible in this way: snows have compressed some briars down to a minimum by being made smaller.
I've found over the years that rabbit hunters make for great grouse hunters since the areas that rabbits like are many times the same that the ruffed grouse likes, and even the wily pheasant. Not that bunnies are interested in eating catkins like a grouse, but that grouse are often holed up in the middle of the briars trying to escape a goshawk or an owl. I've shot many a rabbit while grouse hunting over the years, and vice versa.
Early morning hunts along fencerows and field edges can garner some shots as well as pushing around the marsh and along the cattails for "swamp rabbits." The honest truth is that the cottontail rabbit exists and does well in such a wide variety of habitats that it's fairly common and one of the best reasons why we've hunted them for a lifetime.
Caring for Your Kill
Most hunters will field dress their rabbit in the field, but many hunt close to home so it's not a big deal to wait and do it all there. It is a simple matter of skinning it and gutting it such as we've done with all game animals in the past, but on a much smaller scale, then get ready to eat one of the best-tasting game animals of them all.
Here is a great rabbit hunting video, tutorial and recipe right here.
One of the things I've noticed many times about carrying a bunny home in my game bag is that sometimes the critters are full of fleas, (not to mention ticks) which means that your game bag could be inundated with them as well.
The bottom line is that rabbit hunting is a great way to start a youth hunter off, especially as it comes to show them all of the different types of cover that our other favorite game animals like as well. Seeing some deer in the woods while rabbit hunting will make any kid crave the hunt just like we did and small game hunting is how most of us got our start.