A few decades ago rabbit hunting was at the top of the list in the Cotton State. Small farms and garden patches provided plenty of opportunities for hunters of all ages. As the deer population grew hunters turned their attention to a larger quarry. However, running rabbits still holds a place in many hunter’s hearts.
Rabbits are found all across the state. From the mountains and forests of the north to the coastal plains and swamps to the south, all areas support a healthy population of rabbits. One common denominator for bunny hideouts is thick cover.
“Rabbits need thick cover to survive, says Kyle Studdard of Munford. “Matted briars and heavy weeds are areas I look for rabbits.”
Studdard comments that rabbits have adapted to predators over the years. With the increase in the coyote populations, rabbit have had to move into heavy, dense cover to avoid becoming a canine dinner. Hawks and other birds of prey have contributed to the rabbits shifting their hideouts.
Agricultural fields along fence lines bordered with almost impenetrable briars and vines are a good starting points for cottontails. These spots offer food and cover. Usually when jumped, the rabbits will run along the edge to escape the dogs.
“Clear cuts are also good spots to hunt for rabbits,” Studdard said. “The rabbits will bury up in piled up brush tops or log piles.”
The log piles not only provide several escape routes, but they also provide warmth during cold weather. Thick heavy weeds and grasses in along clear cut locations will hold rabbits.
Edges along pine plantations that have heavier cover of vines, weeds and brush are good holding spots for bunnies. Pine in the 3- to5- year growth range are usually the thickest. Humps and high spots in swampy areas will harbor some rabbits as well. Don’t be surprised if some of the swamp rabbits make a run across shallow waters.
Rabbits generally spend their entire life in about a 10 acre area. Smaller, brushy spots are more likely to hold rabbits than one large area. Don’t count out food plot edges. Plantings for deer and turkey are also favored rabbit foods.
Beagles are probably the most popular dog breed for chasing rabbits. Studdard prefers the 13-inch size beagles. He runs this size and breed in rabbit field trial across the Southeast. Studdard has won several of the American Kennel Club, Small Pack Option competitions over the past few years.
Training the dogs to chase rabbits is a major part of the sport. Generally the instinct to hunt rabbits is bred into the dog. However, the dog does require some guidance and discipline to effectively chase rabbits. It’s possible to hunt rabbits without dogs, but it can be tough.
“Not every beagle is a rabbit dog,” Studdard said. “It’s bred into the dog but it is best to hunt younger dogs with older, more experienced dogs.”
It is important to get the dogs around rabbits for training. The younger pups will fall in behind the older dogs and learn from them. Studdard notes that quail and rabbit scents smell very similar to a dog. Oftentimes young dogs will react to the scent of quail.
Overcast and cool days are the prime conditions to hunt rabbits. Wet or frosty conditions are not as favorable for the dogs. Also, snow can clog up the dog’s nose making it difficult for pick up the scent.
“I use a starting pen for my dogs beginning around five months old,” Studdard said. “I put a starter rabbit in the pen with the dog for about two weeks.”
By keeping a rabbit in the pen with the pup, he learns the scent of the rabbit. The holding pen is around two acres. The scent pad on a rabbit is very small, not much larger than the size of a pin head. Once the rabbit begins to run it sweats. This sweating releases scent making it easier for the dogs to trail.
Studdard uses the Trionics training systems. This system incorporates a shock collar and tone alert. If the dog gets too far out Studdard will yell a command to the dog to return. If the dog does not respond he will use the control unit to send a tone to the collar. Generally the dog will respond before a shock is released.
When a dogs opens up, barking, that indicates the rabbit is up and running. The other dogs will join in the race sounding off. The rabbit will usually try to double back around where it started from in an attempt to lose the dogs. It appears the rabbit is running in a circle.
The hunt is primarily the chase. The barking dogs and speedy bunny ring excitement in the air. Watching and listening to the dogs work and chase after the rabbit is the thrill of the hunt.
Hunting rabbits and shooting rabbits are totally different. The quick and darting trek of a rabbit can cause top shooters to draw a blank. Shotguns are the preferred and most commonly used firearm to bag the speedy lop-eared varmints.
“I use a 20 gage with a heavy No. 4 shot,” said Studdard. “There are some hunters that use a .410 gauge to hunt rabbits.”
Other popular shot-shell sizes include No. 5, 6 or 7 1/2 in the smaller gages. Shooters need to be ready at all times with their guns in position. Rabbits flying around in thick brush only offer a couple of seconds for a quick shot. Hunters need to make certain the rabbit is out front and away from the dogs.
To preserve the integrity of the meat, shooters should aim for a head shot. If the rabbit is running straight away, shoot just in front of the rabbit’s nose. With a bunny trotting across a small lead may be required, based on the rabbit’s speed and distance.
Rabbit meat is a tasty food when prepared properly. Many wild game cooks say that rabbit can be substituted in any recipe that uses chicken.
Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoor editor. You can reach Charles at ChrJohn7@aol.com