Rabbit Hunting This Winter
Remember watching Elmer Fudd on Saturday morning cartoons? As a kid, I always thought he was crazy for his eternal hunt of that wascally wabbit.
“Bugs Bunny always wins – why doesn’t he give up?” I thought.
That was, until I first tried rabbit hunting myself.
Now I won’t call myself a Fudd-equivalent (mostly because I have hair), but I now totally get the attachment to rabbit hunting. While it’s not nearly as popular as it was a few decades ago, it’s making a comeback among new adult hunters. But why is it such a good “gateway animal” for new hunters to start on?
Why Rabbit Hunting?
As you first start hunting your own food, it’s often easier to start with small game species (e.g., squirrels, birds, rabbits, etc.). They are usually very plentiful, have more liberal hunting seasons, and can be found across the country pretty easily.
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Rabbit hunting, specifically, is perfect for this time of year. You’d face a lot of challenges with early season rabbit hunting simply because the plants are so dense and you’d hardly ever see one. But there is almost no vegetation during the winter rabbit hunting season, and they stand out much better against the snow (in most cases).
It’s also one of the few species you can hunt throughout the winter, while seasons for most upland bird and big game species are closed after the New Year. Because there are few hunters who capitalize on it, you can often have the woods to yourself instead of competing for a parking spot at the trail head. It’s also really good exercise to combat the holiday eating you did, as you might have to walk a few miles to end up with a couple rabbits.
And finally, it’s usually easier emotionally for many people to start hunting small game animals. Shooting your first squirrel or rabbit might still produce some tears for you, which is good; that lets you know you truly do care about what’s best for the animal. But right or wrong, it will usually feel easier than shooting a deer.
Rabbit Species and Habitats
Depending on where you live, you could be hunting one of several species. Hares (jack rabbits and snowshoe hares) and rabbits (cottontails) have overlapping ranges in several states. In Minnesota, for example, you might chase a cottontail rabbit from a brush pile or jump a snowshoe hare from beneath a spruce tree. They are similar in some ways, but tend to prefer separate habitats.
Cottontails are typically found across the country in back yards, old fields, woodlots, and farmsteads. They like to stay concealed in brush piles or thick clumps of grass, especially in the cold winter months. Their fur stays dark gray and brown throughout the winter, which can make them stand out against the white snow, though their tails still look like giant white cotton balls. They range in size from 1 to 2 pounds. In winter, they will often travel along trails they have packed down.
Snowshoe hares are generally found in more northern settings with conifer trees and bogs. They hide out under low-hanging spruce branches and browse on twigs. While they sport brown fur throughout the summer, it turns to solid white as winter arrives to help them blend in. Snowshoe hares are usually larger than cottontails, and can weigh up to 3 pounds or more. True to name, they have exceptionally large hind feet that can spread out and keep them on top of the snow.
Rabbit Hunting Gear
Luckily, you don’t need much hunting equipment for hunting rabbits. If you do any kind of outdoor activities during the winter, you likely have the gear you need.
Rule number one on clothing: don’t wear cotton! Performance clothing made out of polyester and wool is best to keep you from overheating and sweating. Make sure to comply with your state’s blaze orange laws, as many agencies require you to wear a certain percentage of blaze orange clothing while small game hunting.
Good-quality hunting boots are also a necessity. As I said, you may have to walk a lot to put some rabbits in your hunting vest. That means you need boots that will keep your feet warm without overheating, and they need to be broken in so you don’t get blisters. If snow conditions are deep, you may want snowshoes or at least some gaiters to keep the snow out of your boots.
You’ll also obviously need a good shotgun in the 12 to 20 gauge range to effectively kill a rabbit on the run. (Check out my free gun buying guide if you are looking for advice on that.) Most rabbits and hares will flush from cover, run a short ways to another hideout, and then pause again to blend into their surroundings. Shooting a rabbit that is holding still will produce the most ethical shot, but don’t be afraid to take a shot at a running rabbit. For most small game species, almost any small game ammunition (size 7 shot) should work out just fine. You could also use a .22 caliber rifle, but you’ll have to limit yourself to motionless rabbits.
In the Field: How to Hunt Rabbits
Where to Find Rabbits
Once you have everything you need for rabbit season, it’s time to head to the field and start your first rabbit hunting trip. Here are a few winter rabbit hunting tips to help you out. Whether you have access to private land or public land, start your search by targeting the habitats above for each species. Focus on walking habitat edges (e.g., the intersection of a brushy swamp edge and an overgrown field) and take extra time to investigate brush piles, downed tree tops, or other places where a rabbit could hide out. Rabbit hunting without dogs can be a little tricky simply because you have to flush them from this thick cover yourself, but it’s definitely doable (that’s all I do). If you stumble across a rabbit trail, it always pays to follow it and see where it leads.
For example, on a recent snowshoe hare hunt in Minnesota, I walked a zig-zag pattern through an area that had been planted with spruce trees 10 years ago. As I passed clumps of trees, I would pause every few steps with my shotgun mounted to my shoulder. This sudden pause will often unnerve small game animals into flushing from their cover because they think you have spotted them. This particular technique has always worked great for my rabbit hunting trips.
Once they enter the open grass, however, they seem to either sprint to the next clump of trees to hide underneath them or they pause only 15 yards away and hold absolutely still to blend into the snow. I never try shooting rabbits if they are more than 25 to 30 yards away, as the shotgun pattern can get a little sparse beyond that to ethically put them down quickly.
Speaking of which, do you know where to aim on a rabbit? Unlike big game animals, the most ethical shot for rabbits, squirrels, or even birds is a head shot. For shotguns, you should really just point at the head and the pattern of BB’s will spread out in that area. For running rabbits, point the shotgun slightly ahead of the nose to lead the pellets out in front of them. If you’re using a .22 caliber rifle on motionless rabbits, the best spot to aim is right below the ear and behind the eye. Their brain is about the size of a quarter, and a shot placed in this area is all but guaranteed to hit it.
Surprising Emotions of Rabbit Hunting
Fair warning: the first time you shoot a rabbit, you might be shocked at how much they might kick afterward. You might feel like you messed up the shot and nobody wants them to suffer. Similar to the chicken with its head cut off, even a perfect brain shot on a rabbit might still result in a kicking animal for 20 to 30 seconds afterward. This can be really hard to watch. But it’s just nerves still firing, and the animal is dead in almost all cases.
If the rabbit keeps running after the shot (but you hit it the first time), you could take a follow-up shot at the head from closer up. But a closer shot will often ruin more meat and spread more pellets throughout the body that you’ll have to pick out later. Since we’re hunting for meat, this is just wasteful. If you can sneak up on them and grab them, you can also grasp the back legs with one hand and the head/neck in the other. Quickly pull up on the legs while pulling down and back on the head, which will sever the spine and kill them quickly. Again, this can really seem brutal and leave you a little sick to your stomach. But if you’re going to eat meat, I think it’s a privilege to be involved in the process.
Field Dressing a Rabbit
After dispatching the rabbit, you can place them in your vest pocket or a backpack to carry them throughout the rest of your hunt. One of the best rabbit hunting tips and tricks I ever learned was to put them in a plastic grocery bag first, as the blood can make a mess out of your hunting vest quickly. At the end of your hunt, it’s time to field dress them. I plan on doing some videos on how to do this soon, but here’s a quick explanation for now.
Skinning a Rabbit
Start by removing the hide from the body. Make a shallow cut around the hind leg at the first knee joint. Keeping your knife blade up and away from the body, only cut through the skin and make a cut from this knee joint up to the genital area. At this point, you will basically start peeling the skin away. Work your fingers under the hide around each leg and pull it down towards the front of the rabbit. Once you get to the tail area, you will likely need to use your knife to cut through the tail bone. When this is separated, hold the rabbit’s hind legs in one hand and peel the skin down with the other hand. A freshly-killed rabbit will slide out of the fur very easily. Once it gets to the front legs, you will need to push the legs through the hide. The paws will stay attached to the legs and the hide should break loose without having to cut it. Once the hide gets down around the neck, you can use your knife to cut through the neck and sever the head.
After the hide is removed, you should sever all the paws from the legs at the first joints. Pruning shears work great for that, but you can also use your knife to sever the tendons and work it between the joint. This takes a little practice, so don’t get frustrated!
Removing the Entrails
After skinning the rabbit, it’s time to remove the entrails to keep the meat safe. You’ll want to be careful with this step so you don’t spill the stomach contents onto the meat.
WARNING: Graphic picture below of the field dressing process.
Keeping the blade up again, gently insert the knife under the stomach, and use the fingers on your other hand to hold the entrails away from the blade. Cut from the genital area along the stomach muscle to the ribs. Reach in and pull the stomach, intestines, and other organs out, being careful to not rupture the bladder or stomach contents. Cut around the diaphragm (thin membrane between the chest cavity and stomach), and cut the heart and lungs out. You can save and eat the heart, kidneys, and liver if you wish. The heart is delicious, but the liver and kidneys have a strong taste.
Rabbit for Dinner
Once the entrails are removed, you should rinse the carcass down with water to remove any dirt, fur, or debris. At that point, you can quarter it up into pieces and either toss it in the freezer or fry it up fresh. There are lots of great recipes out there (Hank Shaw’s got several dynamite recipes). But there’s nothing quite like slowly braised rabbit stew to warm you up on a winter night after a hunt.
This winter, even next weekend, consider going rabbit hunting for your first time. It’s a great way to start hunting on your own, and they are the perfect gateway animal to the broader hunting world.
As always, let me know if you have any follow-up questions in the comments below.
And here’s to a great New Year!