When I first saw the cottontail, its head was sticking out of the burner on the kitchen stove. But almost as soon as it appeared, it withdrew into the stove again, disappearing like a rabbit in a magician’s hat trick.
“There’s a rabbit in that stove,” I told my hunting partner.
“Sure,” he said. “And I’ve got a bear in my back pocket.”
“I’m not kidding,” I responded. “Get your gun ready, and watch the hole where they pulled the burner out. That’s where I saw him poke his head out. I’m gonna kick the side of the stove and see if he’ll run out.”
My buddy wasn’t quite ready for what happened next. The old metal stove was laying on its side, and the instant my boot banged against it, the rabbit burst out of the burner hole. In its haste to escape, the cottontail ran right between my friend’s legs. The hunter twisted around like a human pretzel, trying to get off a shot, but the white-tailed sprinter disappeared in a briar patch before my friend could squeeze the trigger.
“Well, I’ll be darned,” he said demurely. “If we’d have bagged that one, maybe we wouldn’t have had to cook him.”
“Well, we didn’t get him,” I reminded him. “And since you’re the one who let him escape, it’s your time to kick and my time to shoot.”
The place we were hunting was a grown-up hillside on a small east Arkansas farm. A heavy snow was falling, and during two hours of hunting, we’d managed to spook only a single cottontail. The rabbits apparently were staying in dense cover, seeking shelter from the storm. Then, quite by accident, I kicked the old stove, part of a large pile of trash and brush the landowner had used to slow the erosion in a steep washout.
After we saw the first cottontail, we started booting other items in the old dumping ground — corrugated tin, drainage tiles, bed frames, boards, boxes, tires, 5-gallon cans — and an hour later, we had bagged five more rabbits.
Rabbits survive the winter by finding warm, dry places for shelter. Because they have thin coats, protective cover is very important in helping conserve their body heat.
Dumping grounds, although unquestionably unsightly, provide just what the rabbits need to protect them from the elements and from predators. And the hunter who knows this can bag lots of rabbits when other hunters are going home empty-handed.
Trash dumps of various sorts can be found on farms throughout the state. Some are no bigger than a few yards square — a pile of old lumber or tires or some rusted rolls of fencing wire. Others may cover an acre or more, sites used for years by single families or even whole communities.
Rabbits are attracted to the dumps mainly because of the thick cover. Dump sites are usually grown up in dense weeds, briars, sumac, grass and small saplings amid abandoned farm machinery, 55-gallon drums, stumps and discarded lumber. Brush, old tin and empty boxes are thrown on top, and beneath this unsightly jumble, rabbits find countless places for concealment.
Rabbits also like dumps because most are near good food sources such as croplands or grassy fields. Dumps are often located on low ground or in washouts that afford rabbits protection from the wind. Hunting pressure is light on most trash dumps, too, which adds to their appeal to rabbits.
The dumps I prefer to hunt are those filling hillside washouts. The best are surrounded by open pasture on the upper slopes and hilltops and don’t yet have saplings growing in them. These are in the earliest stages of plant succession and are usually characterized by thick stands of blackberries, sumac, tall grasses and honeysuckle. In many instances, the landowner will have pushed up large brush piles in the bottoms of the gullies, and if these have tender grasses and other food plants nearby, you’re sure to find rabbits.
Beagles can be a real help in these covered draws. The hunters position themselves where they have a safe view of the open edge and let the dogs work the rabbits out of the cover. The action gets fast and furious when the beagles are on a hot trail, and the hunters must be ready for some quick shooting when the cottontails break form and skirt the open edges along the dump.
Although having dogs along can be a real asset, dump sites are also excellent locales for going “dogless.” Wear heavy brush-buster pants, a heavy coat, good gloves and hard-soled boots; then work your way slowly through the dump, taking care to avoid broken glass, barbed wire, nails, sharp metal and other dangerous objects. Carefully kick everything you see, and prepare for some snap-shooting. Dump rabbits rarely exit the cover entirely when jumped by a man, and there may be only a split instant to shoot before the rabbit is out of sight. For this reason, shotguns are the firearms of choice for hunting the draws.
A two-man drive works especially well when hunting these trash-choked washouts. One hunter is stationed at the narrow end of the draw to serve as the blocker. The other hunter, the driver, works from the wider end down toward the point and stomps, rattles and shakes everything that might conceal a rabbit. Most rabbits will flee downhill from the driver, but some will hold tight and circle the high side of the wash as the driver passes. The shooter must be attentive and ready to act quickly, always being conscious of the driver’s position.
Whether you hunt a trash dump alone or with a companion, man or dog, it’s best to hunt very slowly. Stop every five or six steps, and look around carefully. You may spot a rabbit skulking off through the junk. Or a rabbit may flush from its form when it thinks it’s been discovered. If you stop a lot, it seems to give rabbits the idea that they’ve been found out.
Regardless of the area you hunt, be sure to follow all safety precautions. Because trash-dump hunts often require hunting at close quarters with your partner or partners, safety should be the foremost thought on everybody’s mind. Wearing blaze-orange clothing is the most important safety precaution. A hat and vest will suffice, but the more orange, the better. A camouflage-clad hunter is nearly invisible in the underbrush. Blaze orange, however, stands out like a sore thumb, thus lessening the chance of a shooting accident.
Getting down in the dumps is a great way to find winter rabbit-hunting action. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not promoting dump building. It would suit me just fine if I never found another trash dump to hunt. But despite being unsightly messes, trash dumps are a fact of life in many parts of rural Arkansas. And there’s sometimes a lot of value in other people’s throwaways. When ordinary hunting areas don’t produce, get down in the dumps for rabbits.