Michigan is blessed with some of the best in the Midwest…
Looking for a fun filled hunting adventure that will keep you warm on a cold day, provide plenty of exercise and sweet meat for the pan? Perhaps you should consider an outing to a nearby briar patch in search of cottontail rabbits. Once the brown blur explodes underfoot and scampers at lightning speed through the underbrush I guarantee your heart will be pumping, your aches and pains will disappear and the adrenaline rush will keep you coming back for more. Here’s why.
Michigan is blessed with some of the best rabbit habitat in the Midwest and outstanding populations; although in some areas of the state coyote and redtail hawks have put a dent in cottontail numbers. However, the great thing about hunting rabbits is there are a lot of them, found in almost all counties and they provide the brand of outdoor adventure that makes it a joy to trek all day through thick brush.
Another plus is rabbit hunting is a fantastic way to teach youngsters how to hunt. Rabbits are fun to track and if you get a kid in tall grass or thick brush it is certain to get his primal juices flowing when Mr. Cottontail bolts in front of his face. Small game hunting is a great family sport, teaches kids hunter safety and helps them hone shooting skills. Most of the outstanding big buck hunters I know were brought up chasing bunnies in the snow.
Some savvy hunters use cottontail forays as an opportunity to scout land, learn the terrain, roll in the earth, find swamps and seek likely hunting spots for deer or turkey. Others hunt rabbits first, and then clear shooting lanes for deer hunting with chain saw, clippers or a hand saw. Smart hunters sack brush and make custom rabbit hotels that hold cottontails for future hunts.
There are a growing number of rabbit hunters that do not own dogs. They are jump shooting junkies who prefer to find game and flush out likely targets using their own hunting skills. This is fast-action shooting at its best. From the time you jump a bunny and get off a shot requires ultra-fast reflexes and a knack to spray BBs through the brush in an accurate fashion. Hitting a dashing cottontail sprinting through thick cover requires skill, patience, experience and a touch of luck. Sometimes you dump them all but in most cases it takes a half box of shells to bring home a few rabbits. One thing is certain, when the rabbit blasts out in front of you it provides an adrenaline rush that makes jumping rabbits a hoot. For many it is very addictive and they cannot wait to do it again.
Timing is critical for this sport. Go too early and the brush and grass hide far too many animals, or go too late and deep snow and freezing temperatures will send them down holes. The trick is to hunt from late November through early January. Fresh snow is perfect for this game because it helps you to identify tracks, determine how many rabbits are in the area and discover hideouts.
Sure, rabbits love brush piles but when the snow is fresh they will stop and stay under blankets of weeds or snow covered underbrush. Some back into pockets, usually facing south so they can get a taste of warm sunlight during the day. Savvy bunny jumpers soon learn where and how to find their quarry through in-the-field hunting experiences.
Some weather causes bunnies to be very active. A warm front following cold weather will bring them out and above freezing temperatures will get them going. The trick to hunting success often hinges on the skill of the hunter to understand weather and animal patterns. Most know that high winds put them down, icy rain sends them down holes, warm fronts highlighted by brief periods of sunshine will get them hopping.
Rookie rabbit jumpers make the common mistake of blitzing through cover and passing by bunnies that hold tight. Veteran hunters know that you will jump many more rabbits with a slower approach mixed with a stop-go pace. The idea is to use your hunting instincts to find and jump animals. Look into the cover and locate hiding spots, step on any overhanging grass that could harbor game.
Don’t go fast and get overheated. Take your time, seek out animals that are sitting tight, learn to make frequent stops. Have your gun in the ready position, finger on the safety and learn to anticipate when rabbits will bolt from cover. Seasoned veteran rabbit hunters often look for the black eye of a critter in the grass or brush. Head shots at close range guarantee fresh rabbit stew with no pellets in the meat. Also, a frequent stop causes sitting rabbits to become nervous, unravel and break from cover in an effort to avoid the lurking predator.
I’m a fresh snow rabbit hunting junkie and when the white stuff hits the dirt I love to go bunny chasing. Slowly falling flakes enhances the outing, not blizzard conditions, and I like a warming trend that soon makes the snow somewhat slushy. Ideal conditions are temperatures in the 30’s and fresh snow followed by above freezing temperatures during the day. The fresh snow covers old tracks and with good conditions you can follow fresh tracks and eventually jump your quarry. A single track in fresh snow often soon leads to shooting fun.
I like to carry my 12 ga. Benelli auto loader when searching for meat. My goal is to dump them all, but most still get away even when I pepper the brush with pellets. Fast running cottontails are a challenge to hit. Most hunters make the common mistake of not properly leading running animals and they end up shooting behind bunnies. As a rule of thumb you need to give them about one foot lead, although putting the sights slightly above the bouncing cotton ball will dump’em when they are running straight away. But that is indeed the real problem with rabbits; they simply do not run in straight lines. Just about the time you get the lead and are ready to squeeze the trigger, they dodge left, then right and disappear in the brush. Sometimes they are simply impossible to hit. Did I hear someone say “they can be faster than a speeding bullet?” Sure makes for a challenging hunt.
Over the years I’ve perfected a strategy that guarantees success. I simply shoot. Rather than waiting for open shots, or trying to get a perfect lead, I get the bead out front and lay down hot lead. Some days I surprise myself with the number of bunnies I take with marginal shots in thick brush. I’m cheap when it comes to buying expensive shells so I use 2 3/4 -inch number 4 steel shot, same loads I use for wood duck. The big pellets have plenty of knockdown power, I can shoot long distances and still dump critters and I find far less lead in the meat than #6 shot.
Want to have some more fun? Try using a .22 rifle. Wow! Now hitting a rabbit is very difficult but the rifle comes in handy when on stand and shooting at a stationary bunny at long distance. Head shots are the goal and remember to use a tree or brush as a gun rest to steady your aim for the perfect hit in the beaker. Although my buddy Bryan Smith likes to tote a .22 autoloader and shoots like crazy at the miniature brown targets as they bounce through the brush at the speed of lightning. Once in a while he gets a critter or two. Some hunters like to sit for rabbits using dogs to flush likely targets. Scope3d rifles are fun to shoot and offer up the brand of accuracy that makes toppling bunnies a treat.
One strategy is to have a hunter on stand near rabbit holes or old farm buildings they use as sanctuary, as other hunters tramp the brush and thick cover. If the grunt misses a jumped bunny the sit man has a final chance before the runaway dives into a hole. This strategy works well in thick swamps, rolling hills and briar thickets too filled with thorns for any sane man to approach.
Finding ideal cottontail habitat is easy in southern Michigan where old apple orchards, abandoned buildings and thick brush next to agricultural fields provide suitable conditions for rabbits. Bunnies are crazy about hiding under brush, fallen trees, leaning grass, hollow trees, and any structure like a fallen barn, buildings, field tile, and stacked fire wood, under hay wagons or around old farm machinery. The common denominator of course is cover where they can get out of the cold and avoid predators.
I’ll never forget a trip to an abandoned farm that had many apple trees. Tracks by the dozen lead me to a pile of logs covered with hay, which provided a natural umbrella from the elements. I kicked the rabbit hotel and two brown spitfires blew out the side. I got a good shot at one and tumbled the fast-running cottontail. A second kick produced another rabbit and soon I had my five bunny limit from that single pile. I’m not certain how many cottontails were under the hugs shelter but I pretty much ran out of shells.
Are you prepared to have some shooting fun when the first snowflakes dance in the wind? Consider a cottontail hunt when winds subside and critters come out to play. Sneak through the underbrush in search of brown ground rockets, with your finger on the safety and scattergun ready. When a cottontail explodes from his liar and zooms underfoot, I guarantee your heart will be pounding.