While others are planning their summer vacation, there’s no such musing going on in my head. My imagination is captivated by thoughts of fried rabbit, stewed rabbit and bunny and noodles (an old family recipe). Of course, you can’t have any of these dishes prepared, without the main ingredient. Since rabbit season is set to open July 1, the promise of a mouth-watering main course is in the offering.
The primary hunting focus will be on two rabbit species, the cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) and the less numerous brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmann). Both species can be found in the state sharing the same habitat. Almost anywhere, from rolling foothills, to the desert and even in some backyards, rabbits can and will make themselves right at home. Once they move in, with their ability to mate several times a year and produce survivable litters that average three in number, populations can explode. Of course, these little bundles of gray-brown fur with puffy white tails fall victim to any number predators, including mountain lions, coyotes, foxes and birds of prey. However, when habitat conditions are favorable, there are still plenty left over of for human hunters.
My own scouting in several areas this spring has confirmed that this will be bonus year for rabbit hunters. In one area, I saw more than ten limits of cottontail rabbits in less than an hour. Nearly all of the rabbits were young and not easily spooked. And even when put to flight, the little four-footed speedsters didn’t go very far. It was enough to stimulate my own predatory urge to make preparations early on.
That’s the great thing about rabbit hunting it’s not gear intensive. About the only requirements are a shotgun, small caliber rifle, or a bow and appropriate ammo or arrows. Most shots will be less than 40-yards, with half that distance more common. And rabbits aren’t hard to bring to bag. Any gauge shotgun, from the miniscule .410 to a .12 gauge will work. And low base #8 or #7-1/2 shells are more than adequate. Those who select a rimfire cartridge for rabbit hunting will find a scoped .22 the right choice. For the archers in our midst, field points and even blunt tipped arrows will do the job.
The cottontail rabbit is the most prevalent and desirable species. Found throughout the U.S., there are numerous subspecies varying only in size and coloration. Believe or not, both swamp and marsh rabbits found from Florida to Texas, are nothing more than oversize cottontails. Here in California, the typical cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) measures about 13” to 17” in length and weighs a little over three pounds. Coloration can vary from dark gray to a grayish brown, but all will have a highly visible puffy white tail. While far less common, but still present in substantial numbers, the tiny brush rabbit (S. bachmann) shares some of same habitat with its larger cottontail cousin. Found primarily in coastal areas, the brush rabbit prefers rather dense chaparral habitat. These little rabbits average about 10” to 14” in length, and usually weigh less than two pounds. Even though the brush rabbit is a subspecies of the cottontail, their smaller size and the fact that the underside of the tail is gray rather than white set them apart. On most of my rabbit hunting adventures I usually see one or two brush rabbits every time, but those little bundles of fur can disappear quicker than a coon down a hollow log. What I can’t set my sights on isn’t going to end up in the game bag. Nevertheless, an occasional brushy is counted as part of my five rabbit limit.
The best bets for success on rabbits will be found in the rolling foothills, riparian areas and at the edge of farmlands. In my experience, early morning hunts seem to produce better than late afternoons (especially during hot weather). When temperatures abate, rabbits can be found almost anytime of the day. In the Central Valley, brush covered ditches; washes, river and stream bottoms and where brush abuts agriculture are rabbit magnets. In foothill areas along both the eastern and western Sierras are always good bets. And along the canals, as well as the New and Alamo Rivers in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, are great spots to find rabbits.
Some hunters have the notion that hunting rabbits in hot weather isn’t the right thing to do. Furthermore, many are under the impression that rabbits taken during the summer months are uneatable. This mostly comes from the discovery of an occasional Botfly larva under the skin, near the neck of some rabbits. This can be a disconcerting experience, as the larvae are fat, wiggly and about one inch in length. Not to fear, the presence of larvae doesn’t affect the quality of meat. Beside, when the rabbit is skinned and field dressed the larvae can easily be removed and discarded. Simply put, larvae or not, cottontail or brush rabbit is still some of the most tender and delectable game meat you can ever eat.
ALWAYS NEAR PROTECTIVE COVER, cottontail rabbits can disappear in a matter of seconds. Hunters who hesitate will miss their opportunity.
PHOTO BY DURWOOD HOLLIS
COTTONTAIL RABBITS OFTEN FREEZE as a protective device. Their coloration blends in well with the surround terrain often prevents an approaching predator from seeing them. PHOTO BY DURWOOD HOLLIS