A couple of generations ago, before the great whitetail deer population explosion and before states like Kansas had regular deer seasons, small game hunting ruled supreme, and no animal was more sought after by hunters than rabbits – once America’s most popular game animal. And hunting rabbits, the right way and most exciting way, meant using beagles.
Not nearly as many hunters pursue rabbits today, but those who do will tell you that it’s a whole lot of fun, especially when you throw in a pack of beagles. If that’s not enough to entice you, maybe the thought of a platter of golden fried rabbits or a pot of rabbit’s cacciatore will make you grab your shotgun and head to the nearest brush-filled cover.
There are numerous species of rabbits in North America, but the two most commonly hunted are cottontails and varying hare, commonly called snowshoe rabbits. Cottontails are widely distributed and can be found in more than two-thirds of the lower 48 states, while snowshoes are primarily limited to the most northern regions of the Northeast, Midwest and the higher elevations of the Rockies as well as throughout Canada and Alaska.
Most states have very long rabbit hunting seasons along with liberal bag limits, which can extend your hunting season into February and March. It’s not uncommon for a state’s rabbit season to run four, five or even six months in length. Here in Montana, where I live, there’s no official rabbit season and no limit; you can hunt rabbits whenever you like.
While the classic way to hunt bunnies is with beagles, you shouldn’t let the lack of a beagle or a pack of the little hounds keep you from pursuing rabbits. I’ve killed lots of cottontails while kicking brush piles and walking old fencerows and cornfields. Mind you, it isn’t as much fun but, then again, what small game or bird hunting is without a dog?
I’ve had the good fortune to hunt snowshoes a few times with packs of beagles in Vermont and Minnesota and, in a word, it was a hoot! On those occasions, I found myself in the company of serious houndsmen and good dogs in Christmas card settings. It was complete with snow-covered conifers and little campfires set among the trees where one could go to warm up or get a fresh cup of coffee while the dogs ran a snowshoe around the far side of a cedar swamp.
Rabbit hunting, whether your quarry are cottontails or snowshoes, is really about the dogs, camaraderie among friends, warm campfires and fun days in the field. It’s hunting at its simplest and best. There are no Boone & Crockett rabbits or record book cottontails, no Cottontails Unlimited, no special cottontail or snowshoe shotgun or rifle or camouflage. A single shot .22, .410 or 20-gauge will do just fine.
Generations of older sportsmen cut their hunting teeth on rabbits… it’s an old American tradition and one worth keeping alive. So get off the couch, turn off the football game, find a kid and take to the field for rabbits. You’ll be glad you did!