Winter-Only Cottontails

The season on rabbits opened in mid-September along with squirrel, ruffed grouse and archery deer, but for me, rabbit hunting doesn’t kick off until we have a good, solid freeze and there is some snow on the ground. It’s a tradition thing with us Clancy’s. My father, who introduced me to rabbit hunting in 1954, when I was 6 years old was a stickler for not hunting rabbits before the first lasting snow of the winter.

“A good cold snap weeds out the sick one’s,” he always said. “Besides, the rabbits are easier to see when there is snow on the ground.”

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Brush is the key to finding cottontails.

Now I don’t know if there is any biological data to support the first part of Pa’s thesis on rabbit hunting, but there is little doubt about the second. Cottontails are a whole lot easier to see when there is snow on the ground.

Cottontails don’t need much in life. Something to nibble on and some brush to hide under and a cottontail will do just fine. Brush is the key. You won’t find many rabbits in a neatly manicured grove or pastured woodlot. Cottontails need brush piles, dead-falls, tree-tops leftover from logging, briar and bramble in which to hide. Without that kind of cover a cottontail is just dinner for a hawk, coyote, fox, bobcat, owl, or housecat.

My favorite way to hunt cottontails is to do just what I was doing on this morning, just walking slowly along the edge of the woods, my eyes scanning the edge of every bit of cover to which a cottontail might be attracted. I had not walked far when I spotted the first rabbit. This one was sitting on his haunches on the sunny side of a toppled box elder tree. The glint in his round, brown eye is what caught my own eye. Many times, it has been the eye which has drawn my attention to a motionless bunny. Maybe it’s the shape, maybe the gleam, most likely a combination of the two. The eye also makes for a great bull’s-eye, although in this case, I try to put my tiny slug just below and behind the dark orb instead of in the 10 ring. When I dropped the hammer on the familiar rifle, the rabbit simply tipped over on his side, kicked his hind legs a time or two and that was that.

Many farm groves have either been grubbed out or manicured like a golf course. These are worthless for rabbits. But there are still groves to be found, which are overgrown with weeds and bramble, much of it growing thick over, around and through decades worth of abandoned machinery and assorted junk. They are worth looking for.

Bunny number two just happened to be sitting next to a pile of brush under a toppled box elder. I shot the rabbit in the head and then took a few minutes to get out my pocket knife and clean both rabbits. Cottontails are easy to skin, especially when still warm. I washed the carcasses out with snow and slipped them into a plastic bag I always carry when hunting rabbits or squirrels. Not only does this save me making a mess at home, but I’m sure that the fox, crows and jays, which come along and clean up the hide, heads and entrails appreciate the fact that I clean them in the woods. I’m sure, that if I had wanted to I could have continued down the bank of the river and shot a few more cottontails that morning, but two was plenty for that morning.

A Quick And Easy Recipe For Cooking Cottontails
Any recipe, which you enjoy using to cook pheasant, ruffed grouse or chicken, will work just fine for cottontail. Here is one of our family’s favorites.

Cut the rabbit into five pieces, two hind legs, front legs and back. Rinse well under cold running water to make sure you get all of the hair off. Rabbit hair really clings to meat and nothing will turn off an appetite quicker than finding hair on the main course.

Dissolve 1/2-cup Kosher salt and 1/2-cup brown sugar in an ice cream bucket full of warm water. Stir until the sugar and salt dissolve. Put the rabbit pieces in the bucket and place in the frig overnight. Take the meat out of the pail, rinse and brown lightly on both sides in a frying pan with hot butter or olive oil depending upon how health conscious you are feeling at the moment.

Place the browned rabbit pieces in a crockpot with about a half-cup of cooking wine. Season with salt, pepper or whatever your favorite seasonings might be and let it cook on low all day. The meat will be fall-off-the-bone tender when you sit down to eat. I like to serve rabbit with brown rice, salad and a fresh vegetable.

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