Gerald Almy: Winter rabbit hunting tactics

Gerald Almy

With deer seasons closed, many Shenandoah Valley hunters oil their guns and store them away for the year. But that’s a big mistake. There are several game animals you can still hunt, including grouse, squirrels and a species we’ll look at today, the cottontail rabbit. Rabbits remain open for hunting through February.

A pack of beagles isn’t required to enjoy cottontail hunting success. But you do need to understand the feeding, resting and travel patterns this winter quarry exhibits to get the most out of rabbit hunting. It’s also important to know the most reliable tactics for jumping them and getting good chances for a shot.

Here are some insights that should help up your odds for cottontail success this winter.

Hunt early and hunt late: Many years ago rabbits moved often during daylight hours. As clean farming, planting fescue, and removing brushy edge cover degraded their habitat, they increasingly began moving more at night and at dusk and dawn. The hunter who gets out at daybreak or hunts the two hours before sunset will jump the most game.

Hunt sunny slopes on bitter cold days: While rabbits move mostly early and late, one exception is on sunny days following a cold front. They’ll often move at midday then on sun-drenched south and southwestern slopes of hills — a lot like whitetails.

Hunt the right vegetation: Rabbits can use dozens of types of vegetation. Some of the most reliable types to focus on include patches of greenbrier, raspberry, blackberry, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, sumac, olive and plum. Edges of cultivated fields with corn, soybeans, alfalfa, clover, wheat, oats and rye are also worth checking out if there is sufficient escape cover nearby.

Hunt the thickest cover: Since the reason rabbits have become nocturnal is because of lack of cover, it seems logical that the best spots to find them are areas with thick cover. Search out brushy draws and hollows, overgrown hedgerows, corners of fields with tall grasses and weeds. Railroad rights of way, clear-cuts, and fallow fields are all worth trying. Many of these spots offer tender forbs, fruits and other food sources besides the cover they provide.

Don’t ignore abandoned human property: Old dilapidated barns, farm machinery overgrown with weeds, broken-down sheds — all tend to get overgrown with brush and attract rabbits at times. Poke around them and you may get a shot at a cottontail or two that comes scampering out.

Focus on small habitats: Concentrate on small farms and overlooked tiny public hunting parcels. These places tend to get overlooked by other hunters and the small farms have more cover than the larger ones that use modern edge-to-edge farming practices. Look for those with brushy field corners, overgrown hedgerows and scattered fallow fields.

Be on the lookout for sign: Keep an eye peeled for rabbit droppings — round small pellets left in piles of a dozen or more. Also watch for cottontail runways — small trails they clear in their home areas for quick escape routes.

Walk in an unpredictable pattern: Whether you’re hunting alone or with one or two friends, the best approach for bagging rabbits is to work in a zig-zag or weaving pattern through the cover, rather than walking a straight line. This erratic movement tends to alarm the quarry.

Hunt into the wind: When possible, this approach pushes your noise and scent away from the quarry and allows you to approach closer before it flushes.

Try stopping suddenly: This is a trick I use on grouse, woodcock and pheasants, too. As you move through the cover and approach a good-looking area, stop suddenly and stand still for up to half a minute or more. Often this flushes rabbits that become unnerved by the silence and think they’ve been spotted and must flee to escape. If you’re hunting with a friend, mix up the pauses sometimes and other times both stop at once.

Shoot fast: Carry your gun at port arms when in good cover to be ready for snap shots. Rabbits aren’t going to lollygag around when they bust out of a briar patch. Point at the rabbit quickly, lower your cheek to the gun, track the fleeing cottontail with the barrel, and pull the trigger just as it moves ahead of the quarry.

Use the right choke and shot size: Typically hunters use too tight of a choke for rabbits. An open barrel is best for shots of 10-25 yards. Improved cylinder works out to about 35 or 40 yards. There’s little use for modified or full chokes, because you’ll rarely see a rabbit farther out in the thick cover they inhabit. Size 4, 5 or 6 shot all work well on cottontails.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.