The chances are that you don’t hunt enough rabbits, which is really too bad. They are tasty, challenging, and a fun way to get outside. It can be a fun hunt with kids, and you probably already have the tools you need to do it.
Maybe you’re like the old timers who told my buddy, Rob, “We don’t hunt rabbits, we just kill ’em,” but you’re missing out. Check with your local regs, but you’ll probably find long and liberal seasons on cottontail rabbits. Let me share some tips for hunting and cleaning rabbits that will have you rethinking these marvelously tasty little game animals.
Those of you who are already onboard, I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.
Find Some Bunnies
The first thing you have to do is not call them bunnies — your family will eat rabbits, but they’ll have a hard time stomaching bunnies. Now you just need to find some rabbits to hunt. Private land is great, but there’re lots of public lands out there, too. Just start paying attention when you’re walking around in the wilds and notice the little pellets rabbits leave.
You’ll find them everywhere in sagebrush country. Rabbits like to eat vegetation with cover nearby. Clumps of sagebrush and grassy openings in between are ideal in the West. You’ll find them on the edges of fields surrounded by brush and trees.
Rabbits Keep Diurnal & Crepuscular Hours
Cottontails are diurnal and can be active all day. If it’s hot, they’ll wait until the early or evening hours to come out (crepuscular). They are often active on cloudy days, and they are often active right before it rains or snows. I’ve found them on mornings when the temps were in the teens. Some folks say they don’t come out on windy days, but I’ve killed many rabbits in the wind. You can hunt them right up until the end of shooting light.
You don’t need specialized clothing to hunts rabbits, but there are some things to keep in mind. Rabbits often don’t dig their own holes, but they live in holes left by ground squirrels and other critters, and those holes are treacherous for your ankles. I like to wear sturdy boots.
Because you’re hunting in the early and late hours of the day, the sun shining in your eyes will inhibit your vision into shadows. Wear a cap so you can tilt the brim down which allows you to see into shadows.
Unlike big game and coyotes, rabbits can see a similar range of colors that we can see. So, if you’re wearing orange, they may just see you sooner and flush farther from you, but be sure to adhere to clothing requirements for your state.
Cottontails are fun to hunt with just about any weapon. When you want to fill the freezer, a shotgun with 6 or 7 shot is a good way to go. I prefer to use steel shot because nothing ruins dinner faster than my wife biting into shot. Use a strong magnet to find and remove all the steel pellets. .410, 20ga. and 12 ga. are all great choices. Just try not to ruin too much meat — aim for the head.
When you want a challenging hunt, use a .22 rifle. You’ll not get as many opportunities as with a shotgun (unless you can nail moving targets with a .22), but you’ll enjoy the challenge of hitting a small target offhand without a lot of time. It’s great training for big game, too. Remember to aim not for the rabbit, but for its eye. With the quieter rounds, you may get more opportunities than with a shotgun blowing out the whole area, too.
Hollow point bullets are good, but round nose should be effective with good placement. Any commercial bullets are fine, and I’ve had good success with sub-sonic rounds at short range. You don’t need to buy anything fancy.
I’m looking forward to hunting cottontails with a recurve or longbow. I hear it’s a blast.
Rabbits aren’t rodents–they’re lagomorphs. They’re only distant cousins of rodents. The Eastern Cottontail is the most common rabbit in the USA–even in the West, it’s still called the Eastern Cottontail.
Rabbits are coprophagous: They eat their own scat to re-digest it and get more nutrients out of the plants they ingest. It’s a lot like elk and deer chewing their cud, which comes back up into their mouths from their digestive system. But, since rabbits can’t vomit, this works better for them. The scat they eat is soft and black and called cecotropes. Since they eat the cecotropes again, you probably won’t find them in the wild, just the hard pellets they leave the second time.
Some folks use dogs to hunt rabbits, and beagles were initially bred specifically for hunting rabbits and hares, and they can find them and run them to the hunters. That’s something I’d like to try, but I really enjoy the calm of hunting rabbits on my own or with a friend. The open desert in the evening hours, disturbed only by the occasional gunshot is a great way to end a day.
When you’re after rabbits, plan on walking a lot, but don’t plan on getting anywhere. Hunting an area 200 yards long and 100 yards wide could take more than an hour.
Rabbits don’t always flush when you walk by. What really gets them moving is when you pause for a while and then walk again. When you pause it seems like they think you must see them, then when you move again they run away and that’s your chance to see where they go or shoot them on the run.
Slowly walk ten or twenty yards, then stop for a full thirty seconds. Constantly scan with your eyes and watch for that little white tail to go bobbing away. They hide under the edge of the brush, so that’s where you should look. Watch for the eyes, which are perfect little circles and break up the otherwise cluttered brush.
If you’re with a friend, use the same method, but only one of you walk at a time. Send your friend forward forty yards while you stay and watch for flushers. She stops and watches while you advance forty yards past her. Do this in a zig-zag pattern across and down a field.
Just yesterday, my friend Rob walked past a bush and stopped ten yards farther while I leapfrogged him. As I approached the same bush, a rabbit flushed three feet from where Rob had walked.
Cottontails often run a short distance, then pause for several seconds before taking off again. Watch for that pause and aim for the eye. Watch where they run to and go to that spot and pause. You can often get three or four chances on the same rabbit when you chase cautiously in more open terrain.
Gutting and Cooling
Once you’ve got your rabbit, gut it immediately. Some folks like to just put them in a game vest pocket and keep hunting. When I’ve tried that, fleas and ticks get everywhere. Gutting it allows the meat to cool and when the carcass is cool, the insects leave on their own.
But who wants to stop hunting to gut an animal? Well, there’s a super fast way to get the guts out without using any tools. Check out this quick video where I demonstrate on a jackrabbit — it’s even faster on a cottontail.
Use a stick to wrap around any leftover strings and pull them out. Now that the guts are out, set the carcass up on a bush to cool. As the body cools, all the fleas and ticks will leave. Just pick it up on the way back through.
Most diseases your neighbors warn you about eating rodents and rabbits are carried by the ticks and fleas. These diseases should not be taken lightly. Rabbits may carry tularemia — “rabbit fever” — and it can be transmitted to humans. It’s not only in the fleas but also in the rabbits’ blood. It’s a good idea to wear disposable gloves to handle and clean your rabbits. A sure sign that your rabbit has tularemia is a liver that is discolored and mushy. Here’s a picture of a healthy liver and a diseased liver. Personally, I don’t eat rabbits with a bad liver.
Carrying Your Rabbits
While it’s great to leave the carcasses to cool, it’s not convenient if you’re already on the circuit back to the car. The best thing is to carry them in your hand so it can cool. But, it gets tiresome carrying a rabbit around by the ears or legs — and what do you do with more than one?
Get a forked stick that has some flex to it. Lay the rabbits’ heads inside the fork and pinch the stick together, keeping the rabbits from falling out and giving you an easy handle to carry them back to the car. Bring a container or sack to carry them home so you don’t get blood and hair in the car.
Skinning a rabbit is as easy (and barbaric) as gutting it. Just hold it by the nape of the neck with one hand near the head and the other hand toward the back, then pinch the skin between your fingers and pull hard. The skin will comes off the back like a banana peel. Pull the rest off the legs, and don’t worry about getting it off all the way to the toes.
Now you’ve got a bunch of meat with a head and feet attached. The simplest thing is to use heavy scissors to cut off the head and the feet below the ankle. Kitchen scissors will work, but tin snips make really easy work of it. If you’re just using a knife, try to work it between the bones so you don’t dull it too much.
Use a knife or scissors and slice up the center of the belly all the way to the neck to remove the remaining glands and the heart and lungs. Just scrape them out like you would a fish. The heart is a tasty little morsel, so hang on to it. Trim away the flimsy flesh on the sides and cut away the ribs. They’re not worth cooking with the rest of the meat, but they are good in stock.
Use your shears to cut the feet off below the ankles and wrists.
You can separate the front legs, the back legs, and the backstraps (saddle) for cooking or cook it whole or freeze it for later. Try this tasty rabbit stew recipe.
Awesome Off-Season Hunt
Are you a Hunter, or are you a _____ hunter (deer hunter, elk hunter, bird hunter, duck hunter, etc.)? Do you only hunt one specific game for a few days each year? There’s more game available for more time than most of the big game seasons allot you. Small game like rabbits are not only good training for patiently lining up a shot and controlling yourself while making a kill, they’re also good introductory hunts for new hunters. You can do it without committing to several days of hunting and be very successful, and you’re not committed for several more hours or days of butchering. Hunting big game is like hunting matrimony, and hunting rabbits is like casual dating. Get out there and have some fun.