There’s nothing like the music of a pack of beagles hot on the trail of another cottontail. It’s an exciting and productive way to hunt and popular with a dedicated segment of the hunting community who spend every waking hour of rabbit season following their dogs through the brush. The trouble with beagles, however, is those other nine months of the year. You still have to feed them and you have to continue shoveling the kennels, even in the sweltering heat of August. Don’t forget about the vet bills. And who’s going to take care of them when you want to go on vacation? Truth is, you have to be pretty dedicated to rabbit hunting to keep a pack of dogs around.
The good news is that it is possible to kill a rabbit without the help of a pack of beagles. It’s tough, there’s no question about it, but a hunter determined to bring home a few rabbits for supper can succeed if he follows a few basic rules.
Habitat, Habitat, Habitat
First, know where to look. Rabbits are adaptable critters and can live just about anywhere. But no matter where they live, they always seem to prefer certain types of cover. In a word, rabbits love thick. Rabbits love old fencerows, overgrown pastures, honeysuckle thickets, clear-cuts and anywhere else there is lots of thick cover and an abundance of green vegetation. Clover, grasses and honeysuckle are high on their list of preferred foods, but they’ll also eat the bark of shrubs and young trees.
The obvious way to find good rabbit country, of course, is to look for scattered piles of wood-brown droppings about the size of peas. The more, the better. Even if you find lots of rabbit scat, getting those cottontails to show themselves can be a daunting task.
Walk, Stop, Look
Second, know how to look. It’s just about impossible to catch a rabbit sitting in an open pasture. In other words, they aren’t going to be easy to see. If you were a cottontail where would you hide? Every predator, from a fox to a hawk to a coyote to a human, loves the taste of rabbit. They are on the bottom rung of the food chain, which means that in order to survive another day they have to hide pretty darn well. Stopping every few steps and pausing can make even the most comfortable bunny nervous. He may think he’s been busted and before you know it, you’ll have a rabbit on the run. That tactic doesn’t always work, but it’s far more effective than simply walking without stopping at all.
When you do walk, walk through the thickest cover you encounter and even climb onto brush piles and jump up and down. Kick clumps of honeysuckle and blackberries and look under low-slung cedars. In fact, expert rabbit hunters can sometimes spot bunnies before they run. Instead of looking for an entire rabbit in a brush pile, however, they look for a solid patch of brown fur, even a coal-black eye or anything else that just doesn’t belong. As soon as you see it, be ready. Rabbits have a way of knowing they’ve been spotted and will often dash for new cover.
However, unlike a rabbit fleeing from a pack of dogs, which will almost always circle back to where they first jumped, a rabbit flushed out by you often won’t run far at all, just far enough to dive into another thicket where they can’t be seen. That’s why it’s vital to take the first shot opportunity you get, even if it’s just a flash of brown and white through thick cover. Of course, when you hunt rabbits without a dog, any opportunity for a shot is a good one, because they won’t come along very often.