The brown blur dashed through the tall grass and I got a lead on him and touched the trigger. When I bent over to pick up my prize a second bunny ran to my right and a third went left. I was so shocked I barely got a snap shot at the third critter and managed to roll him like dice. That’s the way Michigan cottontail hunting can go. Some days you walk your legs off for a couple shots and other days they are exploding beneath your feet like firecrackers on July Fourth. One thing is certain; they provide fun sport and good eating for Michigan sportsmen.
In my younger days I was a bunny nut and hunted from opener through winter with family and friends. Back then pheasants were abundant and I’d join up with high school friends on weekends to drive cornfields for roosters and jump shoot rabbits. We would have our limit of pheasants at lightning speed and spent most of the day jumping cottontails from tall grass and willow thickets. Guess I’ve been pursuing cottontails for over 60 years and although pheasants are gone and hunter numbers have declined, rabbit hunting is still very popular.
I’m not certain what happened in 2017 to lead to the tremendous increase of rabbits in southern Michigan. Perhaps I’ve trapped and shot enough coyotes from my hunting turf so rabbits can reproduce. Then again maybe conditions were ideal and rabbits went wild making little bunnies. I’m flush with cottontails on my hunting grounds and look forward to the lengthy season ahead.
I must admit that I save the best for last and try to get pheasant hunting and outings out of the way for waterfowl and squirrel and bucks before I concentrate on cottontails. Guess I like to wait for the first snow when bunnies are active and out dancing in the new blanket of snow. Fact is there are simply more rabbits available in late November through December than the rest of winter when Mother Nature serves up bitter cold critter killing weather. Early season is when the cover is still thick with tall grass and bunnies are bouncing in every direction, that’s when cottontails go crazy. This is perhaps the best gunning of the entire year and the results supply a pot full of cottontail stew.
Cottontails are prolific breeders but populations can be affected by bad weather, mostly long cold winters with deep snow and increased predation. Coyotes raise havoc with rabbit numbers. Back in the day it was easy to find plenty of ideal habitat but changing agricultural practices and decline of thick habitat has helped the population to decline.
If you want cottontails you need to concentrate efforts in thick cover. Rabbits are found just about anywhere with dense cover. The more abundant the brushes, tall grasses and cover the more critters. A briar patch thick with vines and thorny brush is an ideal rabbit hiding location. Thick fence rows, ditches covered with grass and alders can be a bunny hot spot. Another example of a rabbit honey hole is around old abandoned farms or dwellings, stored farm equipment, automotive junk yards, barns and more. Rabbits hang in the thick foliage and hide in holes found along the rundown buildings.
The availability of plenty of cottontails makes it worthwhile to kick them up. Sure they hold tight but two hunters moving slowly can get them jumping in every direction. It is a riot to bag a few rabbits without using dogs. However, you need to concentrate on locations with good populations.
One deadly trick is to place one hunter near the tangled thicket littered with holes while the other hunter walks the cover and jumps ’em up. If the stalker misses a shot the stander can take them before they dash down a hole.
Hunters must hit locations with sparse cover in the early season but as crops are harvested and cover declines rabbits move to thicker, safer locations. Come fresh snow look for animals in extremely dense cover highlighted by thick brush, grass and briars or thorns. Likewise you can find bunnies hiding under brush piles where critters have sanctuary from the elements and predators.
Cottontails live in a relatively small home range and they do not like to leave their home turf. Jump one and it darts through the thicket and goes out a distance, but if you get on its trail it will circle back to its home turf. Dogs following a scent trail can bring a bunny full circle at lightning speed. Usually the circle is within a hundred yards and hunters must work to get in position to take advantage of the running target. Naturally some places are better than others for rabbit hunting and it is not hard to locate hot spots. Look for rabbits around small fields of grasses or agriculture crops bordered by thickets or small woods. Don’t overlook hay bales, brush piles on freshly cleared land sites, timber clear cuts and densely covered power lines. Cottontail love honeysuckle, tall grass, thick weeds, pine trees, briars, and all brands of thick vegetation.
Some things simply go together like honey and bread. One such combination is hunting cottontails with beagles. Dogs find rabbits and jump them out of hiding locations and open up with a chorus of music that adds a new exciting dimension to rabbit hunting. Dogs not only get bunnies moving, they enhance the hunt by running the rabbit in a circle as hunters set up stand locations for a shot. Just the sound of a beagle baying on a hot rabbit trail will get your blood flowing and the adrenaline rush of hearing the fired up hound accentuates the hunt, makes it more exciting. Hunters listen to the hounds and enjoy the chase even more. The sound of an excited beagle baying on a hot rabbit trail on a snowy Michigan day is the brand of hunting music hunters find addictive. When the beagle music starts, your adrenaline will kick in because you know soon it is time to raise the gun and make a clean kill. At times the sound of the baying dog is so exciting the hunter doesn’t want the fun to end.
Some hunters prefer to walk up rabbits using stalking skills. Many bag plenty of rabbits using .22 rifles, pistols or archery equipment. However most prefer a lightweight shotgun like a .410 or 20-gauge with a modified choke. Which weapon you prefer is a personal choice but a shotgun is the best for those who want to harvest maximum numbers of fast moving rabbits. Some folks prefer a #6 shot size for rabbit. Others prefer the more powerful #4 rounds that offer more knock down power and place less BBs in the meat.
I use my waterfowl hunting vest with waterproof game bag when hunting rabbits. The deep pockets come in handy for extra shells, warm, dry gloves and the game bag holds my prized harvest leaving my hands free for shooting.
If you want to jump bunnies, here’s how it works. Enter the thick brush at a slow pace, looking for telltale rabbit sign like fresh tracks. Keep your finger on the safety and gun across your chest in a ready position and be prepared for a rabbit to sprint out of cover at lightning speed. The trick is to move relatively slow, say take ten steps and stop, look and listen. It is the pause in your step that drives cottontail crazy and they break from the cover and frantically try to get away from you. Shots are in close range but happen at lightning speed. You need to spot the critter, shoulder the gun, flip the safety off, get a lead on the fast moving target and squeeze off an accurate shot. It all happens in less than a couple seconds. Are you ready?
Stalking is an art form and those who carry archery gear quickly learn the importance of sneaking up on unsuspecting cottontail at a snail’s pace and ambushing your target. This requires advanced woodsmanship skills and attention to details. Locating a wild rabbit hidden in cover is not an easy task but if you train your eye to seek brown spots you will soon begin to see them. The thrill of the stalk is addictive and if cottontails explode from under your feet the excitement level soars. Stalking requires you hone predatory skills, become the ultimate hunter, sneak like a fox and spot game like an eagle and execute a clean kill.
Don’t think for a minute that rabbits are a cake walk. They are well camouflaged targets hidden in grass, brush, against stumps and they rocket out of hiding like a jet fighter blasting off an aircraft carrier. Stalking bunnies as a kid is where I honed my skills used for whitetail deer. Sure my daddy taught me plenty of tricks but sneaking up on cottontails is a challenge that makes stumbling hunters into true sportsmen. This is best practiced alone, although a friend can be used at the other end of the thicket to take pot shots at escaping bunnies. Stalking is much different than spreading out hunters and driving or simply moving cottontails. That’s the beauty of cottontail hunting; there is a variety of hunting tactics that can be used to harvest game.
For this brand of hunting most hunters prefer to jump shoot rabbits, which requires snap shooting skills. Cottontail in heavy cover seldom provide an open shot, there is no time to swing and you have to blast at a dashing target. For this kind of shooting you simply shoulder the gun and shoot in one smooth motion. Oh sure you can try to pick an opening, try to get a proper lead but most bunnies are out of sight fast as you can snap your fingers. If you have a bunny running broadside swing past his head and touch the trigger the instant the bead reaches his nose. For going away shots try to not center your bead on the bouncing white tail but aim at the head and try to hit targets in the head or neck area to save more meat.
When cottontails go crazy and the action is fast paced you will quickly learn you can get off more killing shots if you hold your gun in the ready position. Those who carry guns over their shoulder or cradled in their arm will go home with more shells than they prefer. For increased accurate shots have the gun in ready position with hand on the grip.
Cottontail hunting is fantastic fun and excellent outdoor exercise. With a little work, a friend or two and perhaps a good dog, cottontail hunting is rewarding and a pile of laughs. Time spent outdoors, afield in Michigan, the camaraderie and fantastic wild game eating all combine to make the effort well worthwhile. When the weather is warm, conditions ideal and bunnies are jumping from underfoot like popcorn popping, the excitement is downright addictive, even a tad crazy.