When it comes to rabbits, it’s best to forget fairy tales and think furry tails.
Long the icon of nursery rhyme cuteness, a rabbit’s biggest fan is the modern hound-owning rabbit hunter.
These beagle-loving men and women, who brave the briars and brambles to listen to a pack of dogs launch into a chorus of yips and bawls that cause the hardest of hearts to melt with happiness, live for the hunt.
The thick, sweet meat of a rabbit stew served with gravy and a hot buttered biscuit is just a plus.
“For us it’s all about family, and having fun,” said Tat Simson of Morton. “The kids love to hear the dogs and watch for the rabbits, and, as they get older, they join in the shooting.
“Nothing is more dear to me than seeing a child fall in love with the outdoors behind a pack of beagle dogs. I’ve never seen one stop rabbit hunting to play a video game.”
Simpson prefers to hunt on private land, especially when deer season is open (January), where neighboring deer hunters won’t be bothered by the yapping of the beagles. The truth is that he and his hunting party often jump deer and cause them to go next door where deer hunters may get an opportunity to take a shot.
But it’s in February, at least in the northern three-quarters of the state where the deer season ends Jan. 31, when rabbit hunters get busy and are happiest.
“February has become the best month for rabbit hunters,” Simpson said. “Rabbits like to hide in the thickets and brush that sometimes surround food plots planted for deer. There are several hunting clubs around that invite us to hunt their land when the deer season has closed.”
Squirrel hunters also see February as a banner month. Both the rabbit and squirrel seasons end Feb. 28.
It is a time when memorable hunts are often made.
“I don’t know if I can define any one hunt as standing out from all others,” Clyde “Shot” Risher said. “The experience is the sum off the parts, and includes the weather, the hunting party, the dogs working, the shots made and the ones that missed. Having a new hunter bag a rabbit is just a great feeling as well.
“We have friends from Kentucky who visit every year just for a chance to spend a few days rabbit hunting.”
Not a cheap habit
For a basic hunting sport — dogs, thick habitat and strong legs are all that is needed — rabbit hunting is not cheap.
Any hunting sport involving canine partners can become a costly proposition. Food alone can cost $1,000 or more per year, even for a small pack. On top of that the cost of vet bills and equipment makes the sport on par with golf.
In recent years, as more hunters have invested in more expensive “thoroughbred” beagles, there has been an increase in both the technology and cost of tracking colors. They are necessary to prevent lost dogs, which are an investment.
Training collars, which might help dissuade the beagle from chasing a deer, are an additional cost.
A quality dog box or trailer is another expense.
The dollars can add up in a hurry.
Takes a smart dog
But, true houndsmen and rabbit hunters know you can’t put a price tag on a dog with rabbit sense.
According to Simpson and Risher, rabbits run in circles up to a quarter mile across. Along the way the prey will double back on a track, swim creeks, or find holes where they can avoid the pursuing pack of dogs.
“A good rabbit dog is more or less a hunter when you get him,” Simpson said. “He (or she) has the desire to hunt instilled in their breeding. A top dog will be true to its breeding and just run rabbits, but dogs are born with the instinct to chase what runs from them. A beagle that will hunt just rabbits is a rare find. No matter what a man does as far as training, there is nothing better to teach a puppy with than an older, experienced dog.”
Trusting the dogs is a must.
“If there is one thing a new hunter must learn it is to trust his dogs and allow them to do their work,” Risher said. “Avoid calling to them or getting too far in front them. The rabbit will always come back to where it was jumped, so just be patient. Beagles that see a rabbit will sight-run, but others will snuffle out the trail, sounding like a bunch of vacuum cleaners as they search for the strongest scent.”
Hunters who hunt the same areas repeatedly will learn the lanes and trails to cover to intercept the rabbits. Shotguns are the most common firearm used and No. 6 shot seems to be the most popular. As to gauge, the 12s and 20s are top choices, with family heirloom 16s and .410s in the mix.
Personally, I have killed rabbits with head shots from a number of rifles, including a squib load in a .358 Norma Magnum and a .50 Hawken muzzleloader. A few others have lost their heads to a super accurate .243 that serves as my deer rifle. My favorite rabbit gun, however, is my 16-gauge Winchester Model 12, with a modified choke.
Walking the walk
No doubt, hunting rabbits with a pack of well-trained beagles is the most common method, but it isn’t the only one.
Not if you can walk the walk.
Maintaining a pack of beagles for a few hunts a year is out of the reach of many sportsmen, yet for the heartiest of souls willing to put their boots on the ground, rabbits are still a possibility.
Stomping through thickets and kicking at brush tops can jump rabbits, and while one person can do that, it is more fun and productive when two or even three orange-wearing hunters work together.
Spread out about 15 to 20 yards apart, walk through the woods and kick every log, stick or blow-down you come to. Be ready to the flash of fur as the rabbit takes off.
Being aware of where other hunters are is paramount.
The thicker, the better
“Habitat is more important for rabbits than many people realize,” said Rick Hammrick small game specialist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “Being so near the bottom of the food chain, rabbit populations are cyclic. When predator numbers are high, rabbit number decline, and as predators decline, rabbit numbers rise. Any given area in the state may be in this cycle at any given time.”
The primary predators for rabbits are hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes and bobcats. Others include feral cats on adults, and skunks, raccoons and snakes on young. Rabbits offset being a top choice on everyone’s dinner menu by being very prolific at reproduction.
Mature rabbits are capable of having a number of litters of young every year, and young rabbits must be up and running quick.
“Brush piles (or rabbit hiding places) are a one good way for land managers to protect rabbits and give them a place to raise their young,” Hammrick said. “About the only other thing they need is a convenient food source. Where there are brush piles or hiding places near food sources rabbits will thrive.”
Every hunter has noticed rabbit excrement on a stump or log during the winter. Since only a portion of the rabbits diet is digested and absorbed the remainder is rejected in its waste. During stressful periods, when food gets in short supply, the rabbits will consume the protein–rich pellets.
Mississippi is home to two species of rabbits, the cottontail, also called a hillbilly or bunny rabbit, and the swamp rabbit, which also shares the moniker of Canecutter. There is a marked difference in the two when it comes to size.
The cottontail weighs about 2½ pounds while the swamp rabbit can reach over four pounds. The swamp bunnies give birth to fully furred young that are quickly mobile, while cottontails make a nest and birth young that are both naked and blind. The swamp rabbit is in many ways very close to the European hare.
Hunting on property that has both upland and creek bottom habitat can produce both species.
“We have some acreage in Leake County where we can hunt without having the dogs get lost,” Simpson said. “There is a good mix of rabbits there and we shoot enough in a hunt so that every hunter has a few to take home if they want them.”
Field dressing short cut
A warning to first-time rabbit hunters, field dressing a rabbit that can’t be immediately cleaned and dressed, is a must, especially ones killed early on what is to be a day-long hunt. Field dressing can be a messy experience, but there is one tip to eviscerating a rabbit that is worth the time and effort to master.
Take a sharp knife and cut around the anal opening then make a three-inch incision from just under the tail toward the belly. Holding the head in one hand, squeeze the rabbit’s rib cage and push down with the other hand. Then hold the rabbit securely by the head with both hands and swing it downward like you mean it. The entrails should fly out the incision. A bit of practice will soon make you an expert. This technique makes final dressing easier and far more pleasant on the nose.
Just like squirrel hunting, rabbit hunting is as basic as it gets. Including a license, box of shells and a second-hand single shot, a hunter can be enjoying the hunt for under $100.
Clothing is whatever you have that can wade through briars and thickets, topped by as much orange as possible. A game bag for those harvested is a plus, as is a sharp pocketknife.