Rabbits rank right up there with squirrels as the species that introduces most people to hunting. There are all sorts of ways to shoot a rabbit.
It can be done with a small-caliber rifle, catching the bunnies sitting on the edges of fields or hedgerows. A group of hunters can walk through a brushy area pushing rabbits out of the thickets and into open areas where shooters are positioned to get the rabbits as they emerge. A lone hunter can walk through promising cover slowly, waiting for a bunny to burst out of nearby brush. If your reflexes are quick, you can get a shot before the rabbit races out of sight. Rabbits allow for a day with lots of shooting and the chance at a good harvest of healthy, locally-sourced meat.
Where to hunt rabbits
Rabbits are found where there is ample food combined with cover that will enable them to hide from predators. Stands of conifers, fields of goldenrod, thorny brush like multi-floral rose, greenbriar, or blackberries all provide places for rabbits to thrive. Anyplace that has experienced fire will produce low-growing, but dense growth within a few years of the burn — this is great rabbit habitat. It provides both food and cover from the ever-present hawks and owls. The same holds true for places that have been recently logged for timber. Some of my best rabbit hunting spots are farms, but logged parcels on public lands can be great habitat for rabbits, which means there are plenty of places to go and hunt that don’t require hunters to seek permission from landowners.
Gone to the dogs
While many hunters change to big-game hunting or migrate to upland birds, a few of us get serious about rabbit hunting, and that means one thing—beagles. You can own one beagle or a dozen. Some hunters will chase bunnies with a pack, and allow the dogs to cooperate and ensure more success. I have also owned a few beagles that just seemed to get the job done whether they have the assistance of other packmates or not. I usually hunt with my own pack, but will often hunt with several fellow houndsmen. When this happens, we each bring our best dog to make a single pack of “brag hounds.”
One thing that all of us beagle aficionados agree upon is that it is the sound of the chase that provides the real pleasure. There is nothing like the sound of a pack, scent trailing with their noses and claiming the scent with their voices, loudly proclaiming to their packmates that the trail left by the rabbit has been detected and the pursuit is on.
We translate all that barking and baying into English, and understand that the dogs are really telling their packmates, “I got the rabbit right here! Come on in and join me!” Sure, each beagle is trying to outperform the others, but there is a great deal of cooperation—the barking and vocalizing shares location and direction of the quarry with packmates. When the pack comes to a temporary hurdle, the dog that solves the problem barks and the others rush to the call to help.
The great escape
Like with any other game species chased by hounds, rabbits tend to run in circles. This doesn’t mean that a rabbit runs the same exact circle over and over again; although very tricky rabbits sometimes will do just that.
Smart rabbits will overwhelm an area with scent before making a deceptive exit from that repetitive loop. They’ll make a giant leap away, or hop along downed logs or bounce on big rocks that don’t hold scent like the brushy vegetation does. This means you get all sorts of opportunities to see the rabbit. A dogless hunter might see five different rabbits in a particular covert, or likely rabbit-holding area. A houndsman might see a single rabbit more than five times as the beagles follow the bunny in circles. The wily rodent will make one loop on a path that works best for escape. If that fails, it’ll try another circle in a different direction. A smart rabbit will keep doing this as many times as it takes to escape.
Compared to other wild game that hunters pursue, rabbits are quite a ways down on the food chain, and thus have more predators. Everything that eats meat will eat a rabbit. Weasels, mink, fisher, martin, fox, coyote, hawks, owls, eagles and even crows will eat rabbits (yes, I have seen crows prey upon a nest of baby rabbits). Rabbits survive by being good at escaping, and prolific in reproduction in order to maintain a viable population in a world where they are almost always on the menu.
Patience is a (rabbit hunter’s) virtue
So, I can wait for a good shot. What do I mean? If I am walking through rabbit habitat (rabbitat!) without dogs, I may be forced to shoot the rabbit as it is running away, which might be a lower-percentage shot, and also means that I could be putting more pellets into the edible part of the rabbit. If I’m hunting with dogs, and the dogs are chasing, I become a statue and wait for a shot.
I wait for an opportunity. The best chance at a good shot is when the rabbit is moving toward me or provides a broadside target as it darts across a dirt road or squirts between clumps of goldenrod or briars. If I see the rabbit too far away or running away from me, I enjoy the sound of the hounds and wait for a high-percentage shot.
I hunt with a .410 (a small-bore shotgun), because I eat rabbit for iron, not lead. The small-bore, double-barrel that I use often results in no meat loss, so I am willing to wait for an ideal shot. Of course, some rabbits will go into a groundhog hole before I get that shot, and that’s OK—I brought the dogs to do the thing they love most, so they are more than keen to find another rabbit.
I never shoot the bunny when it first jumps out in front of the dogs—that can be hazardous, indeed deadly, to the dogs. Every rabbit gets at least one circle to escape. I give the first rabbit a half hour to let the dogs settle in and sing a few verses to me, which means I let the rabbit run and the dogs chase for anywhere from three to five circles.
If you’re rabbit-curious, and like to know where your food comes from, I invite you to try rabbit hunting, with or without dogs. The meat is lean, healthy, delicious and sustainable.