As big game seasons close across the country, it’s a good time to turn your focus to small game. Not only are rabbits great table fare, but they also offer an excellent opportunity to sharpen your archery skills. After all, this is probably the time of year when bows are neglected most.
Most hunters pursuing cottontail rabbits use a .22 Long Rifle or trusty 12 gauge. If putting meat on the table is your ultimate goal, either gun is a great choice. A shotgun or rimfire will increase your effective range, be better suited to traverse heavy brush, and allow for quick shots at fleeting rabbits. But if you want to challenge yourself and get the dust off your bow, grab the stick and string.
If you’ve never tried archery hunting cottontails in timber, you’ll be surprised at how difficult it is to get an unobstructed shot. You’ll quickly get a better understanding of your arrow’s trajectory in relation to your line of sight after flinging a few. Learning to navigate tight shooting lanes and drawing in awkward positions will come in handy on your next big game hunt when a buck or bull hangs up in thick cover. This is the kind of practice you can’t replicate in your backyard or at a shooting range.
You’ll quickly learn discipline and the importance of the often preached, “aim-small miss-small” philosophy. Sloppy shot execution at a rabbit tucked in a thicket at 20 yards will almost always result in a miss. These errors occur when excitement and adrenaline get the best of us. Small game hunting is a great way to practice making those shots with real consequences on the line.
Bowhunting rabbits is similar to gun hunting, so most of the same hunting strategies can be deployed. The only notable difference is that archery equipment generally requires a more covert approach to increase your odds of a stationary shot. For this reason, my preferred strategy is simply still hunting. Methodically weave your way through the woods to check out thickets, brush piles, downfall, and other likely candidates that might hide a rabbit.
Another useful tactic shared with gun hunters is to conduct a drive with a hunting party. A “soft drive” will be more effective for bowhunters and prevent rabbits from fleeing at top speed. The idea is to keep enough space and vegetation between two hunters so that if a rabbit spots someone, it will bound away in the direction of the other person. The perfect scenario for a soft drive would be a shelter belt, tree line, or hedgerow where two hunters can easily and silently parallel each other.
Odds are, you already have everything you need to bowhunt rabbits. Your trusty whitetail rig paired with a few miscellaneous “junker” arrows can get the job done. Because most of your shots will be about 20 yards, arrow weight doesn’t matter all that much. The point of impact of an arrow weighing 400 grains will not be much different than an arrow pushing 500 grains at close range. For this reason, every time I switch my arrow setup, I keep the old ones for small game. This way it doesn’t sting too much when I blow up or lose a couple arrows from time to time.
The only piece of specialized equipment you may need is a couple small game heads. Old broadheads will also do the trick, but small game heads offer a few advantages over traditional big game broadheads.
My preferred small game broadhead is a “Judo” point. There are a few different designs out there, but the premise is always the same. These heads have barbs, springs, or roughened edges that protrude from the ferrule. They’re designed to catch the ground and prevent the head from burrowing into vegetation or soil. These heads are fairly durable, inexpensive, and cause a reasonable amount of carnage. They’re the best option if you’re using expensive arrows that you really don’t want to lose.
The other common type of small game head is the rubber blunt point. The beauty of this design is that the rubber absorbs the blow and prevents your arrow from burying into an unexpected log. The rubber preserves the life of your shaft and generally prevents carbon from splintering. The downfall of these points is that there are no cutting edges, making head and spinal shots necessary for immediate kills. These are fine options if you’re hunting around a lot of timber or buildings, or prioritize having meat with little damage.
Small game hunting with a bow is the perfect offseason activity to bridge the gap between big game and turkeys. You’ll hone your archery and stealth skills, as well as add some variety to the freezer.