It’s been said that the cuter the critter, the sweeter the meat.
According to a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey on small game hunting, more than 4.5 million hunters tend to agree. That year, these outdoorsmen combined for more than 51 million trips in the field, testing their skills against a classification that includes squirrel, raccoon, opossum, and rabbit … perhaps the tastiest species of the group.
Whitetail deer and turkey are the most sought-after game today, yet rabbit has a long and devoted following among hunters, who prize it highly for its meat and fur. For those looking for a reason to get outdoors and enjoy a largely convenient and inexpensive kind of hunting, rabbit is an excellent choice.
Eastern cottontails and, to a lesser extent, the larger jackrabbit of the mid- and southwest, have been a mainstay of the American diet since Colonial times. Packed with protein, they are coveted for their lean, mild flavor and can be prepared in a variety of dishes. Braised, roasted and pan-fried are popular methods of table fare.
But make no mistake: getting rabbit from the field to the plate is not easy. Hunting them successfully requires patience and an understanding of their tendencies that can confound even the most seasoned of hunters.
To that end, here are five tips you can use to improve your next hunting experience.
1.) Know Your Angles — When a rabbit bolts from cover and the adrenaline flows in your veins, it’s hard not to rush and lead the target with a parallel shot. But shooting parallel invites trouble. Remember that your hunting party or hunting dog may be close by and within direct line of fire. Instead, plant your feet a comfortable distance apart, take a deep breath and aim your gun barrel or bow downward before firing. And call out your shot to avoid confusion among your party, as well as possible accidents.
2.) Do Not Rush — In many ways, rabbit hunting is like fishing with a crankbait. It’s all about maintaining a rhythm. Reel…reel… pause. Reel…reel…pause. So, when walking among those brush piles, evergreen boughs or fencerows, maintain a steady pace. For example, take 8-12 steps and pause. Look around for a minute, checking for signs of movement, or for the glistening dark shine of the rabbit’s eyes (especially in winter), then repeat. Also, closely observe your hunting dog if you’re using one. Watch for his cues that a flush is imminent. The key is, rabbit will run at some point, so don’t be in a hurry. And when they do, note that they will often stop and even return to their forms (nests). So stay still, take your time with your shot and fill that bag.
3.) Avoid Overkill — Rabbit hunting does not mean rabbit obliterating. Most hunters will use a shotgun (12- and 16-gauges with IC chokes are very popular), but rifles, pistols, crossbows and bow and arrow rigs are also preferred. To ensure a clean kill, choose as small a caliber of ammo as possible. If possible, aim for the head to ensure less damage to the meat. Shot sizes from 5 to 7.5 are more than adequate to get the job done. Try not to use a shotgun larger than a 20-gauge model. And if you’re choosing to consume your prey, go with non-lead ammunition.
4.) Go Vertical — It’s easy to take the safe route and walk level ground during your hunt. After all, fighting through briars, brambles and thorny thickets where rabbit call home is tough enough (long sleeves and gloves, anyone?). But to maximize your chances for success, consider climbing on top of that brush pile or forgotten stack of cordwood, if they’re stable enough. Often, the noise and vibration from above will flush your quarry and provide a shooting opportunity that otherwise might not happen. And be ready for movement behind you. Rabbit are notorious for making a run for it from the blind side.
5.) Proper Preparation — Wild rabbit are often a haven for fleas. In order to ensure your house stays free of infestation, keep your kills outside as long as possible before cleaning them. As a dead rabbit’s body temperature cools, fleas lose interest in hanging around and will seek warmer hosts. So dress the rabbit after a period of time and check their fur as you clean. If it’s cold outside (below 50 degrees), your kill will be fine for a few hours before refrigeration or freezing. Lastly, contact your local game department for any news of diseases or outbreaks in your hunting area before you set out. Rabbit is frequently laced with Tularemia, a bacterial infection that will taint the meat.
NOTE: Always check with your local and state hunting regulations before your hunt. Seasons and bag limits vary from state to state.