You probably had Nov. 3 marked on your calendar for one reason. It marked the opening of muzzleloader deer season. But this date also marked another opener too, on a game animal that stays legal through Feb. 28 and offers a bag limit of six per day.
That animal is the rabbit. Cottontails can offer great sport from now through the end of the season on Feb. 28. Unfortunately, many people think you need a pack of beagles to successfully hunt rabbits. In fact, exciting sport can be enjoyed just working through the woods, fields and brushy areas either alone or with a friend or two along to help you ferret out the quarry.
Of course if you have access to a good pack of beagles, by all means let them accompany you on the hunt and flush out the quarry. But if not, you can still have lots of fun and bag quite a few cottontails.
To successfully hunt rabbits without dogs it helps to understand the behavior of this quarry and the types of habitat the animals like. Once you have that knowledge under your belt, it's simply a matter of putting in the walking time and kicking enough brush to get the animals moving.
As a rule, plan on hunting mornings and evenings for the best results. Cottontails have become increasingly nocturnal in recent years as they have lost much of the brushy habitat they prefer. They are most active and easiest to find during the first and last few hours of the day.
If the wind is blowing strongly, search for rabbits in protected gullies and hollows where they are sheltered from the chilling breezes. On still, sunny days, search for them on southern exposures soaking in the warmth of the rays.
Search out mixed field and forest habitat with lots of brushy cover. I've had good luck in areas with raspberry, greenbrier, blackberry and honeysuckle mixed with saplings, brush piles and multiflora rose.
Occasionally, cottontails will actually forage out in wheat, clover, corn or soybean fields, but they'll usually be right near the edge where cover is readily accessible.
Pay careful attention to old abandoned farm equipment and ramshackle sheds. When overgrown with weeds, these structures become havens for rabbits.
Keep an eye peeled for the runways rabbits make as they clear trails through their habitat. These are the escape routes they use if a fox or coyote wanders up.
Picture a miniature deer trail when you look for these. Also search for small oval "beds" where the rabbits curl up against a log or under a fallen tree in weeds to rest.
Rabbit hunting requires lots of walking, so wear a good pair of well broken-in boots. Heavy canvas-faced brush pants are also necessary, since you'll need to bust through thick cover and thorns to get the quarry moving. Finally, wear a good amount of blaze orange on your upper body and head so other hunters will see you.
Walk in a zigzag pattern as you probe the cover instead of just plunging straight through. The erratic movement alarms the quarry and makes it flush since it can't tell which way you're going.
Also employ the stop-and-go approach. Walk for a few steps and then pause.
This sudden halt in your progress seems to make rabbits think they've been spotted and must flee to escape. And it also makes it easier for you to get off a clean shot if a cottontail does burst out. Instead of being in mid-stride, you'll be ready with your feet firmly planted and not wrapped up in greenbriers or grapevine tangles.
Pause for 20 to 30 seconds, then move forward to another good area and stop again. If you work with a friend, mix up the pauses -- sometimes both stop together, other times have one hunter keep moving while the other one pauses.
As soon as you flush a rabbit, swing the shotgun on it quickly. Track the moving blur of fur and then slap the trigger just as the barrel moves ahead of the quarry. Of course always make absolutely sure that another hunter is not in the line of fire before you pull the trigger.
You can choose any gauge from 12-28 for cottontails, and size 4, 5 or 6 shot all perform well. Just keep the choke fairly open -- skeet or improved cylinder is best. Modified will work, but is a bit tight for most rabbit cover.
The limit is six rabbits per day, but if you bag two or three, consider it a great day's hunt and enjoy the delicious meals those rabbits will provide.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.