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Last Minute Cottontails
Those who hunt rabbits from opening day until season’s end know cottontail hunting in late winter is tough. Early in the season, cottontails often seem to be everywhere. Prime cover is abundant, little snow and ice has fallen to destroy food supplies and cover, and the solution for bagging rabbits is simple. Find a thicket or grass patch somewhere and start hunting.
Toward the end of the season, however, finding rabbits usually isn’t quite so easy. Rabbit hunters have taken a toll on the game, and Mother Nature has sorted through those remaining and claimed the weakest through reduced food supplies, predators, disease and inclement weather. Those that survive are savvy, battlewise veterans that can easily elude the casual rabbit hunter.
Add to this the fact that cottontails over much of the country change their habits, and habitat, during late winter, and it’s little wonder many rabbit hunters go home with empty game bags. Late-season rabbits are scarce and elusive, a combination that dumbfounds many sportsmen.
Despite all these negatives, however, late-season rabbit hunting can be productive and fun. It may take a little more time to find them, but cottontails are available, even in January and February, if you know where and how to look.
Following are several tips for last-minute rabbit hunting. No single tactic will work every time, but using a combination of these rabbit hunting methods can greatly improve late-season rabbit hunting success. Regardless of where the hunt takes place—in the mountains, in farmland, in rolling hills or even in overflow bottomlands—employing these basic strategies provides a needed edge on hard-to-find, late-season cottontails.
Rabbits must eat a lot of food to survive during winter. But because their thin coat of fur doesn’t provide much insulation from wind and cold, rabbits almost always opt for adequate cover first, and a ready food supply second. This is especially true during late winter when previously good cover is useless or nonexistent. Long periods of cold weather, rain, ice and snow separate marginal and good habitats, and rabbits concentrate in good habitat for protection from the elements.
The types of cover to investigate late in the season all have one thing in common; they’re thick, very thick. Thick enough to offer rabbits protection from the elements and predators no matter how rough the weather gets. To find cold- weather cottontails, think thick.
Big brushpiles, honeysuckle thickets, blackberry brambles, overgrown ditches and gullies, switch-cane brakes and dense stands of native grasses all provide excellent winter rabbit habitat. In the early part of the season, this type of cover provides such an impenetrable rabbit retreat most rabbit hunters shy away from it. But after brisk winds, ice storms, snow and hard cold lay down a good portion of the surrounding cover, rabbit hunters can begin to reap the harvest in areas they were forced to pass by earlier in the season.
A good pack of small beagles can be extremely helpful on blustery, cold, overcast days when rabbits are in the thickest cover. Larger breeds may have a hard time working through heavy thickets, but beagles have an uncanny knack for squirming over, under, through and around seemingly impenetrable places.
Rabbit hunting in teams can help shortstop rabbits that shoot away in front of the dogs. One or two hunters are stationed near a bottleneck or opening in the cover, standing off to one side so shots will be angled away from their partners. The other rabbit hunters walk through the thickets behind the dogs, kicking and stomping through the cover, and hopefully driving a few rabbits toward those blocking the escape routes. This is a superb technique for hunting narrow swaths of dense cover like overgrown fencerows and ditches, blackberry thickets and brushpiles. But safety should be foremost in every hunter’s mind. All rabbit hunters should wear blaze-orange bodywear and hats, and shots should never be taken in anyone else’s direction. Blockers must remain in their assigned postion until the drive is over, and no one ever shoots until the target is positively identified.
Rabbit Hunt The Sunny Side
On sunny days, cottontails spend as much time as possible warming themselves in direct sunlight. This may be on the very edge of cover, in a small opening or on a slope facing the sun, usually where the ground is fairly dry. Knowing this can be very helpful, especially when rabbit hunting without dogs.
Take advantage of the cottontail’s sunbathing habits by stalking slowly along the shady side of narrow cover strips like ditches and brushpiles and catching the rabbits while they’re sunning. Be quiet and move slowly, allowing an approach that’s close enough for a shot with a .22 rifle or pistol. Or, if you’re using a shotgun, give the rabbit a chance and jump it from its form, knowing where it will flush from.
Work the sunny side when rabbit hunting with dogs, too. On bright days, sun-warmed edges are where beagles are more likely to jump a rabbit to begin the chase.
Look ‘Em In The Eye
Late-season rabbits are prone to sit tight in their forms, saving energy and staying warm. Protective coloration makes them almost invisible when motionless, so hunters and dogs may pass right by without ever seeing the animal they seek.
To overcome this disadvantage, rabbit hunters must learn to see details. Don’t look for the entire rabbit, look just for an eye. Br’er Rabbit’s camouflage is superb, but that round, black eye breaks its pattern of concealment and can be easily spotted if you train yourself to look for it. This can be a real boon when you’re stalking tight-sitting rabbits without the help of a dog. Walk along good cover, look for that big black dot, and get eyeball to eyeball with a fat rabbit.
Scout For Winter Sign
If snow falls, or inclement weather continues for long periods of time, several types of rabbit sign become readily apparent to resourceful rabbit hunters.
After a light snow has fallen, tracks can help pinpoint rabbits to a particular piece of cover. A heavy snowfall may keep rabbits virtually immobile until it crusts over. But a light covering of the white stuff lets them move around in search of food, and that provides ideal conditions for tracking them to their hideouts. Remember, though, that a few rabbits can create a lot of tracks in just one night. Don’t expect to kick 20 rabbits from a briar patch that may hide only two or three.
Another way to locate late-season rabbits is by spotting the trails they use when traveling between feeding and shelter areas. These trails look like little footpaths, four to six inches wide, where the ground cover is matted down or nipped back. If you know what to look for, you can find these trails any time of year. But they are most apparent a day or two after a light snow, when they’ll look dark against the white background. If several trails are found in one area, it’s a good bet the rabbit hunter will see some action in a short time.
“Cuttings” are another tip-off to winter rabbit haunts. When succulent foods are scarce or normal feeding areas are locked under hard ice or crusted snow, cottontails often move into woodlots or old fields where they feed on the bark of tree saplings and berry canes. Look for bark stripped off just above the snowline; if the gnawed areas look fresh, the area merits attention.
Rabbit hunting late-season cottontails can be tough, for sure. But despite the challenges involved, some of the most exciting hunting of the year is on tap for the knowledgeable last-minute hunter. If a rabbit hunter follows the tips presented here, the last hunt of the year could be the best remembered.