If you’re looking for fun, challenging game, rabbits are some of the most rewarding hunts mother nature can provide. Don’t be fooled by their tame appearance. Cottontails have a sixth sense for danger and can disappear in a flash as fast as you spot them.
They also prefer thick cover. You’ll rarely find one in an open field unless they’re feeding. However, they depend on open areas for their favorite foods: grasses, clover, broadleaf weeds, garden crops, soybeans, and wheat. For this reason, the best place to find them is in a thicket or scrub adjacent to a large field.
The good news is that they’re abundant, and breed like, well, rabbits. For this reason, many states have no restrictions on hunting them. This frees you from the trouble of getting a license and tags. Check with your local laws, first. The last thing you want is to end up in legal trouble over a tiny rabbit.
Even in states with small game hunting restrictions, rabbits can usually be hunted year-round. This makes them ideal for hunters whose favorite big game such as whitetail deer is out of season. Depending on the time of year, they can be found in different areas, which we’ll talk about in a little bit.
If you’re new to this exciting sport, read on! We’ve got a bag full of tips and tricks to share. We’ll talk about where to hunt, how to hunt, when to hunt, and what kind of gun to hunt with. Follow our advice, and your hunt will be as easy as pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Rabbit Hunting Tips for Beginners
Advanced hunters have an advantage over us amateurs: beagles. A good hunting dog will run through cover, barking and scaring up rabbits and getting them running in your direction. Since this is a beginner’s guide, we’re going to assume you don’t have a hunting beagle ready to help you out. That’s fine. Hunting rabbits the hard way can be very rewarding.
Scaring Them Out of Cover
Unless you’re very lucky, you’re not going to spot a rabbit that’s hiding in dense vegetation. They’re prey animals, and they’re experienced hiders. Instead, you’ll need to look for likely hiding spots, and scare them out.
Unlike deer, which will break and run from noisy humans, rabbits behave as if Simon said “stop”. Tromping through the bush is unlikely to get them running unless you’re about to step on one. Instead, you’ll need to take advantage of the cottontail’s nervous nature.
The most effective approach is to walk about ten steps, then count to thirty in your head. Walk ten more steps, then count to thirty again, and so on. The walking isn’t what scares them out. It’s the stopping and waiting.
When they see a predator stop, rabbits start to worry that they’ve been spotted, which turns them into a nervous wreck. That’s what really gets them going. It’s not unusual for a rabbit to spook ten or twenty seconds after you’ve come to a full stop.
Hunt With a Friend
Of course, scaring a rabbit out of cover doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get a clean shot. It may run away behind enough branches or brush that you can’t even see it. One way to reduce the chance of this happening is to hunt with a friend. You may scare a rabbit in your friend’s direction, or vice-versa. Not only that but hunting with a friend is more fun!
The best way to hunt as a team is to walk abreast, about 50 feet apart. You don’t want to walk towards each other or at odd angles since it could be easy to accidentally shoot your hunting buddy.
Advance forward just as you would if you were hunting alone. So move forward ten paces, then count to thirty in your head. Keep standing still while your friend walks forward ten paces, count to thirty, step forward yourself, and so on. This is a great way to scare rabbits in each-others’ direction.
Practice Snap Shooting
In a rabbit hunt, you’ll have about a second to identify your target, shoulder your weapon and fire. If you’re used to staring down the sights at bigger, slower game, this can be a new experience, so you’ll want to practice before you go out in the field.
Rubber pistol targets are a good choice for this, particularly if you have a friend who can throw or bowl them so they’re moving when you shoot. Remember, no cheating! Hold your gun at your hip, and wait until the target is moving to shoulder it, aim and fire.
It takes some getting used to, but you’ll need to master this technique if you want to have a successful cottontail hunt.
Best Guns to Hunt Rabbits
There are three types of guns that are commonly used for rabbit hunting. Let’s take a look at each of them:
Shotguns are the ideal rabbit shooting gun. This is because of the snap shooting method we’ve already mentioned. The spread on a shotgun gives you a lot more leeway than you’d get from a deer hunting rifle. Since rabbits are small game, there’s no reason to use a choke. A wide open barrel will give you the maximum amount of spread to get the job done.
Any size of shotgun will be powerful enough for the job. Bigger guns are louder, have more kick, and don’t offer much advantage when hunting small game. If you want to use a 12-gauge for shooting cottontails, it will do just fine, but you’ll be shooting expensive ammo and putting a beating on your shoulder.
A 20-gauge is more than enough gun to clean out a whole thicket of rabbits. The most important thing to remember is to use birdshot, not buckshot. Ammo companies love to pitch their buckshot as the “most powerful” or “hardest hitting”, but they only shoot a few large pellets instead of hundreds of tiny ones, so you’re likely to miss.
Worse, buckshot can really do a number on a rabbit carcass, to the point that it’s not worth cleaning and eating. Stick with birdshot. You’ll need to pick a few pellets out of the meat, but it will be edible and un-mangled.
A rimfire rifle is another good choice for rabbit hunting. .22 LR is the most popular choice because it’s such a common caliber. Even a .22 short or .20 caliber packs more than enough punch to kill small game if you do anything more than wing it.
Whether a rifle or a shotgun is best will depend on the kind of hunting you’re doing. We’ve talked mostly about hunting rabbits that are hiding in the brush. It’s the most common hunting method, and it means you’ll be shooting at relatively short ranges. As we’ve discussed, you’ll also be snap shooting, and a shotgun has a big accuracy advantage because of the spread.
On the other hand, a standard 40/40 birdshot loses effectiveness pretty quickly at anything beyond 40 yards. If you’re hunting in a field, you want to shoot from as far away as possible to avoid spooking that cottontail. A .22 LR is effective at much longer ranges and gives you the opportunity to get a shot off before the rabbit even knows you’re there.
Never use anything bigger than a .22 for rabbit hunting, unless the rabbits are pests and you don’t intend on eating them. It makes a mess, and most of the meat will be ruined. Besides, even if your hunt is just a fun form of agricultural pest control, a smaller caliber is still cheaper.
An air rifle has its own unique challenges, but also some significant benefits. The challenges are twofold: power and range.
Simply put, not all air rifles are made for hunting. Cheap backyard BB guns, and even some target shooting models, just don’t have enough force behind them to reliably kill anything. Look for an air rifle with a muzzle velocity of at least 500 feet per second. Anything slower than that, and you’ll have a hard time penetrating deep enough to hit vital organs. Use a .20 caliber if you can. They’re significantly more powerful than a .177, and they’re heavier, so they tend to shoot straighter.
Range is another drawback of air rifles. Most are only recommended for use up to 30 yards. That’s shorter than shotgun range, and unlike a shotgun, an air rifle doesn’t give you a nice widespread.
So why use an air gun?
In many jurisdictions, they’re your only option. Most European countries ban gunpowder weapons for all but a select few licensed hunters. In the US, most cities and states heavily restrict where and when you can hunt with standard firearms. With an air rifle, you can shoot a rabbit in your backyard without waking up the neighbors.
Preparing For the Hunt
Besides your hunting weapon of choice, you’ll also need to bring some gear with you on the hunt. To begin with, you’ll want durable pants. Heavy gauge denim will protect you from most nicks and scratches, but a thorn bush will punch right through a pair of jeans and put a bunch of holes in you.
The best choice is a pair of vinyl-faced canvas field tactical pants. These will stand up to just about anything, and give you the confidence to walk through the thickest brush.
You’ll also need to protect your upper body. For this, a heavy canvas coat is your best option. A Carhartt or similar jacket will take years of deep woods abuse. Since you’re liable to have to force your way through brambles, you’ll need a pair of leather or Kevlar gloves to protect your hands.
Most rabbit hunters are looking to bag more than one rabbit in a day. To do this, you’ll need – what else? – a bag. Good field bags can run anywhere from around $50 to hundreds of dollars. It all depends on what material they’re made of. In mild weather, you can get away with an oiled leather or canvas bag. When it’s hot, a bag of rabbits can start to smell at the end of the day. To avoid this, you’ll want a cooler-style field bag instead.
Finally, you’ll need to think about safety. Particularly in heavy brush, it can be hard to see your fellow hunters, even a few feet away. Since you’re not trying to sneak up on the rabbits to begin with, wear orange or yellow reflective hunting vest. It’s wise to wear an orange hat, too, just to make sure your buddies can see you.
How to Dress and Cook Rabbit
If you’re used to dressing deer or other big game, you might expect dressing a rabbit to be a drawn-out process. Nothing could be further from the truth. This isn’t much more complicated than butchering a chicken.
To begin with, lay the rabbit on a clean surface, and make a small incision in the back, just below the shoulder blades. A rabbit’s skin is very thin, so you won’t need to press very hard to make your cut. Put your (gloved) fingers inside the opening, and pull the skin apart towards the head and tail. It should tear easily down the centerline of the body.
Continue pulling the skin apart. It should tear down to the base of the head and the ankles, leaving little “socks” on the feet. Remove the feet and the head, and gut it just as you would a deer. You’ll need to take the same precautions you would with a deer, too. The last thing you want to do is puncture the intestine and foul your meat. You can also consider tanning the rabbit hide.
Speaking of meat, rabbit is one of the healthiest meats in the world. It has fewer calories than beef, pork or chicken, and almost zero cholesterol. Rabbit is also delicious. It has a light texture, with just a hint of gaminess. It’s very lean, so it’s best not to overcook it.
Rabbit can be cooked in just about any way you like. It can be fried, baked, roasted, or made into a meat pie. The most popular recipes are usually stews, though. This makes rabbit a great treat if you’re cooking in the field. Just bring some butter, spices and clean water and a camp pot, and you’ll have a delicious meal in no time.
Rules, Regulations, and Licenses
Depending on your local regulations, rabbit hunting season will be at different times. In most states, it’s illegal to hunt rabbits in the early spring, while mothers are nursing their young. Some states open rabbit season in early summer and let it run until the end of winter, while others wait until fall to start rabbit season.
Some states don’t require licenses for hunting small game on your own land. Check your local laws, because, like everything else hunting related, this varies widely across all 50 states. Even in those states, it may be illegal to hunt rabbits during mating season.
Most states have a specific exception for pest control. If you’re a farmer or backyard gardener and your crops are being gobbled up by cottontails, check your local laws about getting a pest control license. Some states require them, others don’t. The downside here is that most states don’t allow you to eat anything you’ve shot as a pest.
Best Time to Rabbit Hunt
Several factors determine when it’s a good time to hunt rabbit. Let’s look at a few of them:
Time of Year
Although most states start rabbit hunting in the fall, a lot of hunters wait until the first snowfall to go hunting. Rabbit tracks are easy to spot in the snow, and you can follow them right to their hot spot. Rabbits are also less active in colder weather, meaning they’re likely to be home when you start beating up the bush.
The Moon Cycle
Rabbits’ primary predators are birds of prey. Since a full moon makes them much easier to spot at night, they’re less active during that time of the month and will tend to roam closer to home even when they’re out foraging in the daytime.
Like whitetail deer, rabbits are sensitive to changes in barometric pressure. When a cold front moves in, the pressure begins to drop, and they will stop moving and seek shelter. That said, they’ll become more active in the area around their shelter, scurrying to gather food to bring home.
If there’s a cold front coming in and you know a good spot for rabbits, chances are they’ll be active right up until the temperature actually drops.
As you may have guessed, the best general conditions for rabbit hunting are just as it’s beginning to cool off. Overcast skies, fog, and light rain are also excellent conditions. One time you aren’t going to find them is when there are high winds or heavy rain. They’ll be in their dens, hiding from the weather.
How do You Bait a Rabbit For Hunting?
Before you bait a rabbit for hunting, check your local laws. While most states allow you to use bait for luring small game, a few states, like California, forbid the practice.
Assuming baiting is legal in your state, you’ll also want to consider whether it’s really the way you want to go. Baiting makes it easier to hunt but takes a lot of the “sport” out of it since you’re not getting out in the brush and walking around. That said, it’s an excellent way to attract some cottontails if your hunting space is limited to a few acres.
Good baits include corn, lettuce, carrots, and alfalfa. Arguably the easiest method is simply to go to your local pet store and buy some rabbit feed.
Next, you’ll have to choose a location for your hunt. Bait gives you the advantage of choosing your territory, so pick a spot with clear lines of sight, ideally near the edge of some woods or a tree stand where rabbits are likely to congregate.
You want the rabbits to have time to get used to the bait and get comfortable going to that spot for food, so set the bait two or three days before you want to hunt. Because your bait has to last a few days, make sure to leave a nice big pile. To reduce the human smell in the area, bring a spray bottle with apple cider, and spray the area around the bait. Not only will that cut down on your scent, but the smell of apple cider drives cottontails wild.
After that, it’s just a matter of waiting a couple of days, then going to your chosen blind before dawn to get set up. If any rabbits have found your bait, they’ll wander out as soon as it’s light.
There’s a lot that goes into a successful rabbit hunt. You can hunt them in open fields, beat the bush to drive them out, and even bait them. No matter what your method, the challenge is the same: to get an accurate shot off before your quarry escapes. Particularly in the open, this means spotting a rabbit and drawing a bead before it realizes you’re a threat.
As we’ve discussed, you can use a variety of weapons to bring in a cottontail or three. The only real rule – other than state laws – is that you want to avoid large calibers that can destroy the meat. You can even use a bow for fetching rabbits, although this takes a lot of skill even for experienced bow hunters. Be sure to check out our reviews on the best compound bows for beginners and also our beginner’s guide to bow hunting.
We’ve also talked about bringing the right gear. At the end of the day, that comes down to rugged clothes, gloves, and a good field bag. It also means wearing an orange cap and vest for safety, particularly if you’re hunting in the woods. The gear is inexpensive compared to a deer hunting kit, so this experience is available to everybody.
Eating rabbit was a common experience for our ancestors. Nowadays, most people have never even tasted it. That’s a shame, because it’s delicious, and it’s one of the healthiest meats around. After a rabbit hunt, you and your whole family can enjoy this old-school delicacy.
And of course, rabbit hunting is just plain fun. It’s a great way to get out and enjoy nature, alone or with a friend.
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