A Small Game Hobbyist’s Best Rabbit Hunting Techniques
rabbit hunt is a fantastic way for new and experienced hunters to spend more time in the field, add wild game to their freezers, and hone their shooting and tracking skills. Small game seasons last for months and provide plenty of hunting opportunities outside of big game seasons. Additionally, small game tags and hunting gear can be very affordable, increasing access to the outdoors for people who don’t want to break the bank when it comes to participating in the outdoor activities we love. Hunting bunnies tick all of those boxes, plus they’re absolutely delicious.
Fortunately, rabbit hunt is quite simple. There are just a few things to know before taking the trusty .22 out for a walk in search of rabbits. After researching some information about the life history of rabbit, knowing how to identify rabbit species and fresh rabbit sign, and having the appropriate knowledge equipment for the hunt, you’ll be ready to hit your local bunny spots in no time.
Bunny Boom and Bust Cycles
Most people are familiar with rabbits. Their cute faces, fluffy, round bodies, and long ears are hard to confuse with any other creature. Rabbits prefer to eat things like leafy greens, flowering plants, and new vegetative growth when they can get it. However, in the depths of winter, they will resort to bark, shrubs, buds, twigs, and other woody foods. Good shelter habitats near food sources are great places to look for rabbits. Places like rock or debris piles, culverts, and clumps of shrubbery are good places to check for a sign of a fresh rabbit. Telltale bunny footprints, poo, or even digging trails in the snow can tell you the last time a bunny was around.
Everyone has heard the colloquial phrase “breed like rabbits”, and this statement is certainly true when it comes to the life history of rabbits. Rabbits can breed up to five times a year and produce up to nine offspring per litter. That’s a lot of bunnies!
Because of this high rate of reproduction, biologists often refer to rabbit populations as having a “boom and bust” cycle. This concept can get a little complicated because it intertwines both the reproductive cycles of rabbits and the reproductive cycles of their predators. The key is for a population of rabbits to breed heavily for a short period of time, usually around five years. During this period, the number of predators is almost always lower. As the population of rabbits increases, the population of predators also begins to increase. Around the four years of this period, the growing number of predators in the landscape begin to kill and eat rabbits faster than the rabbits can reproduce. As a result, the rabbit population decreases again. The population of predators follows as the number of available prey also decreases. As the number of predators decreases, rabbit survival begins to increase again and the cycle of boom and bust begins again.
Scheduling your bunny hunts during boom times can help you fill your bag limits and your freezers faster than during bust times. However, keep in mind that your hunt also influences local rabbit populations. If you repeatedly fill catch limits during peak times, your rabbit population may have a harder time recovering than if you choose to shoot two rabbits per trip instead of four. It is important to have a personal set of hunting ethics in place before going into the field.
Rabbit species to target
Eastern rabbits are the most common rabbit species in the United States. Although there are many subspecies of rabbits, most national hunting agencies do not differentiate between them in their hunting regulations. However, I would recommend doing a bit of research to see which subspecies live near you. Some of them, like the new england rabbitare protected and cannot be hunted.
In addition to the rabbit subspecies, there are other species adjacent to rabbits. Hares are the closest relatives of rabbits and have different life histories, habitats, and bag limits than rabbits. This means that knowing how to identify the different species of rabbits is not only useful, but also vital in avoiding any potential hunting violations. For example, depending on where you live, it may or may not be legal to hunt snowshoe hare. Snowshoe hares are not rabbits and hunters should be able to tell the difference between the two in areas where both species are found. Likewise, hares are not actually rabbits; they are also hares. In Colorado, snowshoe hares and jackrabbits are legal to hunt, but they have different bag limits than rabbits. Hunters are expected to know the difference.
.22 vs bunny shotgun Hunt
There are two types of shooting styles when it comes to hunting rabbits with guns. One method is to swing a shotgun to moving rabbits, leading them like you would a wild bird as they run through thick ground cover. Although many people like to hunt rabbits this way, I find that shooting small game can damage a lot of meat compared to hunting with a .22 rifle.
Rabbit hunt with a rifle can be a little trickier than using a shotgun, but saving all that delicious white rabbit meat is worth it. When using a .22 (or the comparable .17 HMR for that matter) for rabbit hunting, it’s closer to spotting and stalking a deer in the woods rather than shooting a flying dove. Personally, this is my favorite way to do it. When I spot and track rabbits in Colorado, the first thing I do is look for signs of fresh rabbit like fresh tracks or droppings in the snow. Once I locate a good spot for the rabbits, I start hunting through the habitat, keeping my eyes peeled for little furballs perched atop the snow. Once I spot a rabbit curled up in the sun, under a bush, or feeding on a rabbit brush, I ready my gun and wait for a good steady shot. Once the rabbit presents a clear shot to its head or vital signs, I pull the trigger.
After weighing down my bag with a few rabbits, I hang them in the cold for the night and let the meat rest until the next day. I’ve found it makes the rabbits easier to skin because they’re not that fragile, and it saves the extra hair from the meat when I get to work processing them. Aging the meat after skinning can also tenderize the rabbit. With other species it may make the meat taste milder, but rabbits are already so mild that I don’t really notice a difference in flavor. I use a knife with a sharp, replaceable scalpel blade to clean all my rabbits. Once they’re all skinned and quartered, I seal them and stick them in the freezer or brine them for dinner the next night. Brining rabbit meat helps it retain moisture, stay tender and become deliciously salty. I would recommend it for everything rabbit recipe you’re cooking, whether it’s braising, grilling, sautéing or baking.
Rabbit hunting can be deliciously addictive and the tasty meals that come at the end of a hunt are well worth the effort. This winter, I strongly suggest you grab the old .22 and see if you can pack bunnies for the freezer.