Cottontail hunting is constantly underestimated. The practice has fallen out of favor over the years, and I don’t see why: it’s exciting, accessible, inexpensive, and offers some of the best food you can find in the woods. And while practice and popular opinion may say otherwise, one person who definitely agrees with me is Kevin Murphy.
As a longtime guest on the Netflix series of MeatEater, including an episode featured in Part 2 of Season 10, he has become a huge influence when it comes to small game hunting. That’s why I picked it up to talk about one of my favorite times to hunt cottontail rabbits: late winter and early spring. As you’ll learn, it’s not the easiest of tasks, but it does require a skill set that Kevin believes is slipping away from modern society.
“It takes a bit of effort to get out and wade through the brambles and cut yourself. You have to be able to wield a shotgun and shoot something that’s running,” Kevin told MeatEater. “I grew up with a BB gun in my hand. I would shoot everything: sparrows, mice, rats, you name it. That’s just part of growing up. I graduated with a better air pistol, a .22, and then a shotgun. People don’t have the same skills anymore, but I would like to see more people hunting rabbits.”
Kevin’s desire for more rabbit hunters is due in part to a decline in their habitat, which can be attributed to different land management practices and a lack of demand for small game. But Kevin also thinks it’s a really fun way to spend the “off season.” Deer and duck seasons are over and turkey season is only a few months away, leaving a perfect window to chase rabbits. So with that in mind, here are some tips on how to hunt cottontail rabbits in late winter.
The cottontail ecosystem
Let’s start from the 30,000 foot view. As you navigate Xmaps, there are a few key things to look for. Like any other animal, Cottontail rabbits need shelter, water, and food to maintain a healthy population. But those needs look different for these rabbits than they do for many other mammals.
“You want open cover fields with mature borders, smaller trees and young trees. As for the big trees, you have to stay away from them,” Kevin said. “If you see an old house, junk cars, old barns, or bare foundations, those are always good places.”
Essentially, you are looking for small to medium sized growth bordering open areas for rabbits to feed on grasses and young trees. While tall native grasses are also good habitats for rabbits, Kevin notes that it’s nearly impossible to hunt them effectively, so he avoids those areas entirely. Other key habitats include patches of heather, blackberry bushes, and small, dense thickets.
“If you’re not bleeding, you’re not hunting cottontail at the end of the season,” he said.
Weather can also be a factor in effective cottontail hunting. Right after a snowfall, small game can be much easier to track, and cold temperatures will also cause animals to move. The same goes for light drizzle and fog. If you’re running dogs, Kevin waits until the frost melts because scents can be hard to follow in sub-zero temperatures.
read the sign
Reading rabbit signals can be a great introduction to trail keeping in general because they leave behind key identifying information. While hunting late in the season means you’ll find smarter and more cunning animals, there are also some advantages. Much of the rabbits’ habitat has been knocked over by weather, winds, and predators, meaning they’ll be a little more concentrated in the right areas. But, as Kevin said, “You have to have rabbit signs before you can hunt rabbits.” Here are some things to look for.
Roads: Once you’ve surveyed your surroundings, start looking for small game trails in and out of the brush. They will be especially concentrated around food sources like blackberries and honeysuckle.
Sunshine: Particularly in the cold of late winter, rabbits like to bask on south-facing slopes. If you can find an elevated, sunny area near dense brush, you will probably find a rabbit.
Faeces: Kevin has a good tip for rabbit droppings. There are two kinds. The dark green droppings are fresh. But rabbits are coprophagic, meaning they eat their own feces, so if you come across poop that is a soft, almost white color, it means it has been redigested. It also means that he may have found an excellent location for established rabbit populations.
Fur: Rabbits will shed and scratch their fur against young trees and undergrowth as well, so keep an eye out for loose bits of fur on the ground or clinging to small limbs and rough ends.
bite marks: Rabbits’ large front teeth are constantly growing, so they need to chew on wood and brush them to keep them worn down. Watch for teeth marks, which are often made in small parallel grooves on branches and young trees.
Drive the roads: Areas with high rabbit populations generally go hand in hand with the killing of roadkill and predators. So, if you’re exploring an area, be sure to drive along the roads and look for roadside rabbits, dead or alive. That may mean you are in the right place.
Find Parts: Lastly, Kevin has some key tips for spotting rabbits through the brush. These wary animals have survived so long into the season for a reason: They can be difficult to identify. “Don’t look for a whole rabbit. Look for an eye or an ear. Just a piece of rabbit,” he said. “When you look, try not to visualize a whole rabbit because you won’t see a whole rabbit.”
Take your time (and bring a stick)
Particularly in late-season cottontail hunting, rabbits will have nerves of steel. You could be standing just inches away from them without even knowing it, so slowing down during the hunt is a key strategy.
“Take your time. I’m pretty impatient, that’s why I like dogs,” Kevin said. “I like to cover ground. But now I’m a lot slower and I take my time, which has really helped. game that I put in the back of my hunting bag. I’ll take it out, sit down for a while, rest, watch the dogs and look around. I’ve learned that you have to be patient this time of year.”
If you are hunting with a group, this rule also applies to how you walk through a field or brush. Like heavily hunted upland fowl, rabbits late in the season have learned that their best chance is to sit still, so if you’re going to drive them off, you need to walk in a zig-zag to cover most of the land. Also, bring a stick to stir up clumps of weeds, bushes, and anything else that might be hiding a cotton boll. You can also try an old-fashioned disco.
“If you have two or three friends, it’s better to be in a line and not be apart,” Kevin said. “That way you push the rabbits away and they don’t run after you. You will see them like this. Instead of zigzagging, just line up in a row. If you are going to hunt a field, stay together. Walk, stop and talk, turn around and keep them going. If they can, they’ll slide in behind you if they get that chance.”
X marks the spot
An advantage of hunting rabbits late in the season is that the habitat is reduced. Finding one rabbit can mean finding multiples.
“This time of year is pretty good because they’re starting to come together to breed,” Kevin said. “It’s like fishing, where 10% of your lake will house 90% of your fish. I think it’s the same with rabbits. We have seen it on many public lands. Everything looks the same. But for some reason, there are certain parts that always have rabbits.”
In general, Kevin pointed out that a rabbit’s range is probably no more than 200-300 yards tops, so if you start seeing a few rabbits, there’s a good chance there are more nearby. It’s just a matter of taking your time and working your way through a dense layer.
Kevin’s personal choice for cottontail hunting is a 20-gauge shotgun with a slightly larger shot size, maybe size 5 or 6. Some public hunting lands require steel shot. For steel loads, Kevin recommends larger shot sizes, like 3 or 4. In my own personal experience, 7 1/2 shots can be hard to get out of a rabbit, especially if it’s a body shot, so that the biggest loads are the best. But, if you’re a confident shooter, smaller shot sizes will work just fine.
Lastly, practice with moving targets along the ground. Rabbits aren’t necessarily hard to kill, but if you can practice with a tighter pattern and moving targets, you’ll be able to save as much meat as possible by guiding the rabbit around and shooting at its head. The smaller pattern of a 20 gauge or even a .410 will also help, along with a modified choke. Spend some time on the sporting clays course at your local shooting club to practice these trick shots.
A quick safety note
As you hunt, keep an eye out for strange behaviors by whitetail rabbits. While very rare, they can potentially transmit tularemia (also known as “rabbit fever”), an infectious disease that can spread to humans and could be dangerous if not quickly diagnosed and treated.
“My grandfather always told me not to shoot a rabbit sitting down,” Kevin said. He says that he could be sick. Rabbit fever was a big deal when he was growing up and it still exists. You hear about it from time to time.”
Live rabbits infected with tularemia may appear confused, sleepy, and unafraid of your presence. So if a cottontail is too easy to shoot, that could be why. And, if you’re cleaning any rabbits, be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly. A liver covered in white spots is an identifier. Again, tularemia is rare, so use common sense and protection and you’ll be fine.
A part of me is hesitant to write this article because rabbit hunting seems to be a hidden gem these days. Once the duck and deer seasons are over, I usually have public land to myself and more than a few rabbits to chase. But, as Kevin pointed out, interest has waned, which means conservation efforts and habitat have also waned. So perhaps the best thing we can do for rabbit hunting is to wave the banner for rabbit hunting. It’s worth a shot.
Regardless, chasing cottontail rabbits will make you a better hunter. You’ll learn how to read signs, take photos as you go, and process meat that may be my favorite wild game meat: buttery, tender, and soft. If you can think of something better to do in the doldrums of February, I can’t wait to hear it.