Arkansans who hunt rabbits from opening day until season’s end know cottontail hunting in late winter is tough. Early in the season, cottontails seem to be everywhere. Prime cover is abundant, little snow and ice has fallen to destroy food supplies and cover, and the solution for bagging rabbits is simple. Find a thicket or grass patch somewhere, and start hunting.
Toward the season’s end, however, finding rabbits usually isn’t so easy. Hunters have taken a toll on the game, and Mother Nature has claimed the weakest through reduced food supplies, predators, disease and inclement weather. Rabbits that survive are savvy animals that often elude casual hunters.
Despite these things, late-season rabbit hunting can be productive and fun. It may take a little more time to find them, but cottontails are available, even in January and February, if you know where and how to look.
Rabbits must eat lots of food to survive during the winter. But because their thin coat of fur doesn’t provide much insulation from wind and cold, rabbits almost always opt for adequate cover first and a ready food supply second. This is especially true during late winter when previously good cover is useless or nonexistent. Long periods of cold weather, rain, ice and snow separate marginal and good habitats, and rabbits concentrate in good habitats for protection from the elements.
The types of cover to investigate late in the season all have one thing in common: They’re thick, very thick — thick enough to offer rabbits protection from the elements and predators, no matter how rough the weather gets.
Big brush piles, honeysuckle thickets, blackberry brambles, overgrown ditches, cane brakes and dense stands of native grasses all provide excellent winter rabbit habitat. In the early part of the season, this type of cover provides such an impenetrable rabbit retreat that most hunters shy away from it. But after brisk winds, ice storms, snow and hard cold lay down a good portion of the surrounding cover, hunters can begin to reap the harvest in areas they were forced to pass by earlier in the season.
A good pack of small beagles can be extremely helpful on blustery, cold, overcast days when rabbits are in the thickest cover. Larger breeds may have a hard time working through heavy thickets, but beagles have an uncanny knack for squirming over, under, through and around seemingly impenetrable places.
Hunt the sunny side
On sunny days, cottontails spend as much time as possible warming themselves in direct sunlight. This may be on the very edge of cover, in a small opening or on a slope facing the sun, usually where the ground is dry. Knowing this can be very helpful, especially when hunting without dogs.
Take advantage of the cottontail’s sunbathing habits by stalking slowly along the shady side of narrow cover strips like ditches and brush piles and catching the rabbits while they’re sunning. Be quiet and move slowly, allowing an approach that’s close enough for a shot with a .22 rifle or pistol. Or, if you’re using a shotgun, give the rabbit a chance and jump it from its form — a nestlike cavity on the surface of the ground, usually made in dense cover — knowing where it will flush from.
Work the sunny side when hunting with dogs, too. On bright days, sun-warmed edges are where beagles are more likely to jump a rabbit to begin the chase.
Look ’em in the eye
Late-season rabbits are prone to sit tight in their forms, saving energy and staying warm. Protective coloration makes them almost invisible when motionless, so hunters and dogs may pass right by without ever seeing the animal they seek.
To overcome this disadvantage, hunters must learn to see details. Don’t look for the entire rabbit; look just for an eye. Br’er Rabbit’s camouflage is superb, but that round, black eye breaks its pattern of concealment and can be easily spotted if you train yourself to look for it. This can be a real boon when you’re stalking tight-sitting rabbits without the help of a dog. Walk along good cover, look for that big black dot, and get eyeball to eyeball with a fat rabbit.
Scout for winter sign
If snow falls or inclement weather continues for long periods, several types of rabbit sign become readily apparent to resourceful hunters.
After a light snow has fallen, tracks can help pinpoint rabbits to a particular piece of cover. A heavy snowfall may keep rabbits virtually immobile until the snow crusts over. But a light covering of the white stuff lets them move around in search of food, and that provides ideal conditions for tracking them to their hideouts. Remember, though, that a few rabbits can create a lot of tracks in just one night. Don’t expect to kick 20 rabbits from a briar patch that may hide only two or three.
Another way to locate late-season rabbits is by spotting the trails they use when traveling between feeding and shelter areas. These trails look like little footpaths, 4 to 6 inches wide, where the ground cover is matted down or nipped back. If you know what to look for, you can find these trails any time of year. But they are most apparent a day or two after a light snow, when they’ll look dark against the white background. If several trails are found in one area, it’s a good bet the hunter will see some action in a short time.
Hunting late-season cottontails can be tough, for sure. But despite the challenges involved, some of the most exciting hunting of the year is on tap for the knowledgeable last-minute hunter. If a hunter follows the tips presented here, the last hunt of the year could be the best remembered.