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How to Fool Late-Season Rabbits
You can find and hunt cottontails in a variety of ways in winter. Our expert offers some tips on how to make the most of this challenging, enjoyable sport.

By P.J. Reilly

Steam billowed up into the clear blue sky with each breath I exhaled as I cradled my 12-gauge shotgun in my arms and leaned against the trunk of a sturdy hardwood. I hunched my shoulders to press the warm collar of my jacket against my neck to fend off a chill.

Snow blanketed the forest floor as I stood at the upper rim of a deep, wide, mountain hollow. I had a great vantage point for looking into the tangled thicket below. Other than a few remnant leaves on the sapling branches there was no foliage in the hollow on this crisp January day.

The place looked markedly different than it did the last time I hunted here, two months earlier. The bawling of the brace of beagles sounded different, too. Their cries were clearer and echoed afar in the barren landscape. But the excitement the sound stirred within me was the same.


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The beagles were in hot pursuit of a rabbit my hunting buddy spied as it skittered into some thick cover off the trail we had been walking. We quickly went to the spot where he last saw the bunny and the dogs immediately picked up the trail. My buddy stood fast where the chase began, while I walked about 200 yards farther down the trail to lean against my tree and wait.

I could see neither the dogs nor the rabbit, but I could follow the chase by listening to their excited barking. They went down into the hollow, snaked around through the thick covert for a good 20 minutes, and then began to circle back toward the spot where my buddy was waiting. Bang!

I walked toward the sound and reached my buddy just in time to see him dressing the first rabbit of the day. He finished the job and then said, "Let's go get another one."

Late-season rabbit hunting sometimes is just that simple, but it also can be a frustrating, seemingly futile endeavor. That's what makes it such an exciting game - that, and the prospect of setting a fine rabbit stew on the dinner table after a successful outing.

FINDING GAME
To successfully hunt rabbits in winter, you have to know where to look for them. To do that, you have to understand their winter habits. Rabbits love to eat anything green that's within their reach. During spring summer and fall, they can find green plants just about anywhere. In winter, however, the tender green sprouts of summer are long gone.

To sustain themselves during the barren winter months, rabbits will adapt to the conditions presented by their environment. They'll eat twigs and tree bark if that's the only food available. They will dine on anything they might be able to scrounge in a farm field, however, such as corn, soybeans, oats or other crops, or weeds and seeds left behind by the combine. If your rabbit-hunting area is in farm country, count on finding rabbits near harvested fields.

In deep woods, try to find areas with grape tangles, wild berry bushes and fruit trees or young saplings. These are the rabbit's winter grocery store. If you can find rabbit food in winter, you're sure to find rabbits. It's that simple.

Understand, however, that no matter whether you're hunting farm country or deep woods, rabbits are not going to be running around in the open during daylight hours, which is when you'll be hunting them. The landscape is bare at this time of year, which means little cover for rabbits, and predators can scan wide expanses of real estate from a single, well-selected vantage point. Rabbits know they need to hide from predators. To do that, they need security cover. Find thick cover near rabbit food sources and you're in business.

Rabbits are likely to be most active during the winter on the first warm days following cold spells. We all know the routine. You'll have several days of sub-freezing temperatures with high winds and possibly some snow or freezing rain, and the system finally passes on one day, giving way to calm, clear skies with lots of sunshine and a marked increase in temperature. That first calm day is the best day to go rabbit hunting. They'll be out looking for food, making them easier for you or your dogs to find.

TACTICS AND GEAR
Gear needed for a late-season rabbit hunt will depend on the tactics you intend to employ. Let's look at some different ways to hunt rabbits at this time of year and discuss the gear that is best suited for each type of hunt.

One of the simplest and most enjoyable ways to hunt late-season rabbits is to simply head into the field with a shotgun and try to kick a few up by yourself. Often, rabbits will scoot out from under some brush in front of you as you're walking through thick tangles of cover.

Rabbits can appear at any second and are certain to be in high gear the instant you see them, so walk with your gun up and ready to shoot. Don't walk along with your shotgun slung over your shoulder or hanging at your side in one hand. Carry your shotgun in the port arms position with your trigger hand gripping the butt like you hold it when you shoot, and your other hand on the shotgun's forearm. Walking like this, the shotgun will be close to your chest. When a rabbit appears, all you have to do is mount the gun, take aim and shoot.

As you're walking, look for likely rabbit hideouts including brushpiles, fallen trees, thick grass, etc. Stomp through, around and on top of these hideouts, making as much noise as possible to get the rabbits to flush.

Also, as you're walking through the woods, swamps or overgrown fields, don't walk at a steady pace. Walk and stop. Walk and stop. A rabbit's first instinct will be to sit tight and hope you keep walking past. Often, however, the rabbit will shoot out of its hiding place if you stop nearby. It probably thinks the reason you stopped is because you've spotted it and are in the process of stalking it. In this case, instinct tells the rabbit to run.

For this type of hunting, your best bet is to carry a lightweight shotgun fitted with an open choke, such as skeet or improved cylinder. This is jump-shooting in its truest form. A rabbit will streak across your trail from one pocket of brush headed toward another, and you will have just a second or two to mount your shotgun, find your target, determine the appropriate lead and squeeze off a round.

Speed is the key, and if you're lugging around a big, auto-loading goose gun with a 32-inch barrel, your movements are sure to be encumbered. I like a nice, short, over-under 12-gauge with skeet chokes in each barrel. This allows me to get off two quick shots - when there's time for a second shot. Because you're likely to have only enough time to get off one shot at a rabbit on a solo kick-'em-up hunt, single-shot shotguns are perfect.

Plan on loading your shotgun with high-velocity 2 3/4-inch shotshells carrying No. 6 shot. These high-velocity shells are commonly called high-brass shells. Their greater velocity gives your shot a little more punch than a standard, low-brass shell, but doesn't pack the wallop of a 3-inch shell. It's a bit tougher to knock a bouncing rabbit off its feet than it is to drop a flying pheasant or grouse, and the last thing you want to do is wound a rabbit and have it find a hole to crawl down.

No. 6 shot is big enough to do the job yet small enough to put a good number of pellets in each shell. The high brass powder load will send the shot flying with enough velocity to knock a running rabbit off its feet, even if you only hit it with one or two pellets.


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