Cottontail hunting is consistently underrated. The practice has declined in popularity over the years, and I can’t see why—it’s exciting, accessible, inexpensive, and offers some of the best table fare you can find in the woods. And while popular practice and opinion may say differently, one person who definitely agrees with me is Kevin Murphy.
As a veteran guest of MeatEater’s Netflix series, including an episode featured in Part 2 of Season 10, he’s become quite the influencer when it comes to small game hunting. That’s why I tracked him down to talk about one of my favorite times to hunt cottontails: late winter and early spring. As you’ll learn, it’s not the easiest undertaking, but it requires a skill set that Kevin believes is slipping from modern society.
“It takes a little effort to go out and wade through the briars and get cut up. You’ve got to be able to wield a shotgun and shoot something that’s running,” Kevin told MeatEater. “I grew up with a BB gun in my hand. I'd shoot everything—sparrows, mice, rats, whatever. That's just part of growing up. I graduated to a better BB gun, a .22, and then a shotgun. People just don’t have the same skills anymore, but I’d like to see more people rabbit hunting.”
Kevin’s desire for more rabbit hunters is partly due to their habitat decline, which can be chalked up to different land management practices and the lack of demand for small game hunting. But Kevin also thinks it’s just a damn fun way to spend the “off-season.” Deer and duck seasons have wrapped up and turkey season is just a few months off, which leaves a perfect window for chasing rabbits. So, with that in mind, here are some tips for how to hunt late winter cottontails.
The Cottontail Ecosystem Let’s start from the 30,000-foot view. As you’re browsing onXmaps, there are a few key things to look for. Just like any other animal, cottontails need shelter, water, and food to maintain a healthy population. But those necessities look different for these rabbits than they do for many other mammals.
“You want open cover fields with grown-up edges, smaller trees, and saplings. As far as big trees, you pretty much need to stay away from those,” Kevin said. “If you see an old homestead, junk cars, old barns, or bare foundations, those are always good places.”
Essentially, you’re looking for small- to mid-size growth that borders open areas for rabbits to feed on grasses and saplings. While tall native grasses are also good rabbit habitats, Kevin points out that they’re nearly impossible to hunt effectively, so he avoids those areas completely. Other key habitats include briar patches, blackberry bushes, and any small, dense thickets.
“If you’re not bleeding, you’re not late-season cottontail hunting,” he said.
Weather can also play a factor in effective cottontail hunting. Just after a snowfall, small game can be much easier to track, and the cold temperatures will get animals moving as well. The same is true for light drizzle and fog. If you’re running hounds, Kevin waits until the frost thaws because scents can be difficult to follow in below-freezing temperatures.
Read the Sign Reading rabbit sign can be a great introduction to tracking spoor in general because they leave some key identifying information. While late-season hunting means you’ll encounter smarter and more wily animals, there are some advantages too. Much of the rabbits’ habitat has been knocked down by weather, winds, and predators, which means they’ll be a bit more concentrated in the right areas. But, as Kevin said, “You must have signs of rabbits before you can hunt rabbits.” Here are a few things to look for.
Trails: Once you’ve studied your environment, start looking for small game trails in and out of the underbrush. They’ll be especially concentrated around food sources like blackberries and honeysuckle.
Sunshine: Particularly in the cold of late winter, rabbits like to warm themselves on south-facing slopes. If you can find a sunny, elevated area near dense thickets, you’re probably going to find a rabbit.
Droppings: Kevin has a hot tip for rabbit scat. There are two kinds. Dark green droppings are fresh. But rabbits are coprophagic, which means they eat their own feces, so if you come across a scat that has a bland, almost white color, that means it has been redigested. It also means you might have found a great location for established rabbit populations.
Fur: Rabbits will shed and scratch their fur against saplings and brush as well, so keep an eye out for loose bits of fur on the ground or stuck to small limbs and rough points.
Gnaw Marks: Rabbits’ large front teeth are constantly growing, so they need to gnaw on wood and brush to keep them worn down. Keep an eye out for teeth marks, which oftentimes will be made in small, parallel grooves on branches and saplings.
Drive the Roads: Areas with high rabbit populations generally go hand-in-hand with roadkill and predator kills. So, if you’re scouting an area, be sure to drive the roads and look for rabbits on the road—dead or alive. That may mean you’re in the right place.
Look for Pieces: Lastly, Kevin has some key advice for spotting rabbits through the brush. These wary animals have survived this long into the season for a reason—they can be hard to pinpoint. “Don’t look for a whole rabbit. Look for an eye or an ear. Just a piece of rabbit,” he said. “When you look, try not to visualize a whole rabbit because you won’t see a whole rabbit.”
Take Your Time (and Bring a Stick) Particularly in late season cottontail hunting, the rabbits will have nerves of steel. You could be standing just inches away from them without even knowing it, so slowing down during your hunt is a key strategy.
“Take your time. I'm pretty impatient, which is why I'm a dog person,” Kevin said. “I like to cover ground. But I'm a lot slower now and I take my time, which has actually helped me. I have a little hunting stool that I put in the back of my game bag. I’ll whip it out, sit on it for a little bit, rest, watch the dogs, and look around. I've learned that you need to be patient this time of year.”
If you’re hunting with a group, this rule also applies to how you’re walking through a field or brush. Much like heavily-hunted upland birds, late-season rabbits have learned that their best chance is to stay put, so if you’re going to flush them, you need to walk in a zig-zag pattern to cover the most ground. Also, carry a stick to agitate brush piles, bushes, and anything that may be hiding a cottontail. You could try an old-fashioned drive, too.
“If you've got two or three buddies, it's best to be in a line and not broken up,” Kevin said. “That way you push the rabbits, and they don't run back behind you. You will see them that way. Instead of zigzagging, just line up in a row. If you're going to hunt a field, stay together. Walk and stop and talk, beat around, and keep them going ahead of you. If they can, they'll slip in behind you if they get that opportunity.”
X Marks the Spot One advantage to hunting late-season rabbits is that habitat is reduced. Finding one rabbit may mean finding multiples.
“This time of year is pretty good because they're starting to get together to breed,” Kevin said. “It's kind of like fishing, where 10% of your lake is going to hold 90% of your fish. I think it’s the same way with rabbits. We've seen that on a lot of public ground. It all looks the same. But, for some reason, there are certain parts that always have rabbits.”
In general, Kevin pointed out that a rabbit’s range is probably no more than 200 to 300 yards at most, so if you start seeing some cottontails, there’s a good chance there are more holding nearby. It’s just a matter of taking your time and working your way through dense cover.
Gear Recommendations Kevin’s personal choice for hunting cottontails is a 20-gauge shotgun with a slightly larger shot size, maybe size 5 or 6. Some public hunting lands require steel shot. For steel loads, Kevin recommends larger shot sizes, like 3 or 4. In my own personal experience, 7 1/2 shot can be difficult to remove from a rabbit, particularly if it’s a body shot, so larger loads are best. But, if you’re a confident shooter, smaller shot sizes will work well.
Lastly, practice with moving targets along the ground. Rabbits aren’t necessarily difficult to kill, but, if you can practice with a tighter pattern and targets on the move, you’ll be able to save as much meat as possible by leading the rabbit and getting a headshot. The smaller pattern of a 20 gauge or even a .410 will help as well, paired with a modified choke. Spend some time at the sporting clays course at your local gun club to practice these tricky shots.
A Quick Safety Note As you’re hunting, keep an eye out for strange behavior from cottontails. While very uncommon, they can potentially carry tularemia (also known as “rabbit fever”), an infectious disease that can spread to humans and could be dangerous if not diagnosed and treated quickly.
“My grandfather would always tell me not to shoot a sitting rabbit,” Kevin said. “He says it might be sick. Rabbit fever was a big thing back when he was growing up and it's still around some. You hear about it every once in a while.”
Live rabbits infected with tularemia may seem confused, drowsy, and unafraid of your presence. So, if a cottontail is a bit too easy to shoot, that could be the reason. And, if you’re cleaning any rabbit, be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly. A liver covered with white spots is an identifier. Once again, tularemia is rare, so just use common sense and protection and you’ll be fine.
Part of me is hesitant in writing this article because rabbit hunting seems to be a hidden gem these days. Once duck and deer seasons pass, I generally have public land to myself and more than a few rabbits to chase across it. But, as Kevin pointed out, interest has been declining, which means conservation efforts and habitat have been declining as well. So, maybe the best thing we can do for rabbit hunting is to wave the banner for rabbit hunting. It’s worth a shot.
Regardless, chasing cottontails will make you a better hunter. You’ll learn how to read sign, take shots on the run, and process meat that may just be my favorite wild game meat—buttery, tender, and mild. If you can think of anything better to do in the doldrums of February, I can’t wait to hear about it.