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Chasing Winter Cottontails


With gun, pistol or bow Michigan sportsmen love rabbit hunting



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January 01, 2010
Michigan sportsmen are fortunate to live in a state rich with small game like squirrel or grouse but the number one sport species sought by Wolverine state hunters is the cottontail rabbit. The season begins September 15th and runs until March 31 and you are allowed 5 per day and 10 combined possession statewide. Rabbit can be hunted with any gun, pistol or bow and hunters are required to wear blaze orange hat or gloves while hunting. Check the DNR Michigan Hunting and Trapping book for regulations.

While some prefer to chase cottontail in fall, most wait until snow is on the ground to help tracking, before making treks to likely rabbit hideouts. Of course cottontails are available in almost every Michigan County, although the flood of summer '08 has devastated populations in the Ludington and Manistee area where 10 inches of rainfall killed many rabbits and deer. Cottontail populations for the rest of the state are on an upswing and hunters can expect plenty of fun-filled hunting adventures this winter when an orange army takes to the snow-covered woods in search of rabbits. If your goal is to find plenty of rabbit this winter concentrate your efforts in areas that support substantial populations of cottontail. The following anecdote best describes this point.

With fond memories I recall an outing to Gladwin County, near the Cedar River in search of cottontail rabbit. Jack Duffy from Midland, owned a farm that was home to many bunnies and the snow surrounding the old farm building was covered with fresh tracks, most leading to the nearby corn crib loaded with golden ears that spilled nuggets onto the snow.

We loaded shotguns and followed fresh tracks that disappeared under snow covered mounds of tall grass growing around the abandoned buildings. "There he goes!" shouted Jack as he jumped a cottontail and fired two shots at the fast-bouncing brown blur. Minutes later Jack lifted a piece of sheet metal that blew from the roof, fell on tall grass and was covered with fresh snow and when sunlight penetrated the dark hiding location three bunnies bounced from the safety of the metal cover across the snow at lightning speed. Jack dropped the metal, shouldered his shotgun and tumbled two of the three critters. Although he owns dogs and enjoys chasing bunnies through dense swamps, Jack also likes jump shooting critters that live close to his old farm. Come mid-afternoon we had game bags bulging with bunnies and our legs were tired from trouncing through the deep snow. Jack's secret to rabbit success hinges on hunting in locations that support a good population. On this outing we jumped several in a variety of cover: snow covered mounds of grass, under sheets of tin or wooden boards, inside stacked ground tile, under a hay wagon and from a pile of brush and wood found near an abandoned chicken coop.

A Love For Brush

Cottontail love a variety of cover and come winter solid numbers congregate where it offers protection from the elements, food and protection from predators like fox, coyote and owls. Hotspots are highlighted by thick brush, cattail marshes that have frozen, standing corn, thickets along ditches or fences, thick brush bordering railroad tracks, around abandoned farm buildings and more. Scout these locations and locate tracks before you go trouncing through the snow.

Hey, back in my high school days I'd make winter treks to Wixom Lake and spend afternoons hunting near abandoned cottages surrounded by brush piles made by folks cleaning yards of summer homes. Come winter the piles attracted rabbits and I could count on seeing plenty of cottontails by kicking brush piles or overturning snow covered canoes, aluminum boats and boat docks stacked along the frozen lake.

Scott Goldammer from East Lansing is a rabbit chasing nut. If you ask him the secret to how he finds bunnies he would likely talk about the need for thick cover. "If I had to pick one rabbit spot, it would be the large brush pile we constructed while trimming shooting lanes for deer hunting. When deer season ends we brake out the scatterguns and go jumping on brush piles to flush bunnies in the open for a clean shot," replies Goldammer. Scott has several brush piles scattered throughout his 40 acre bunny hotspot, some in the woods, along ditches, in tall grass and near a large briar patch. The blackberry briar patch is located on a hill and is highlighted by numerous natural rabbit holes bordered by thick briars as tall as a man, alders, fallen trees, and downright thick brush. Jump a rabbit near the patch and they will sprint for the safety of the multitude of holes.

Scott's strategy is simple: set one hunter on stand near the briar patch to pick off rabbits that are jumped by other hunters. Some days the drivers get clean shots and score big, other times the stand hunter will out-produce those who push critters his direction. Scott likes to use a .22 scoped rifle when on stand. "I enjoy the challenge of making accurate head shots on rabbits using my Ruger bolt action rifle and I don't waste any of the special meat," Goldammer explains. "When jumping bunnies or making a rabbit drive I prefer to carry my Benelli autoloader and I like to use #4 shot rather than the customary #6 shot shell because I want more knockdown power and less lead in the meat. The other benefit of #4 shot is you can kill rabbits at very long distances, let's say 45 yards."

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Scott Goldammer, East Lansing, says there are plenty of cottontails to hunt on any given day. You just have to know where to look and hunt during a winter thaw. Kenny Darwin photo
Jump' Em

Perhaps the most exciting rabbit hunting strategy is to track them in the snow and jump shoot bunnies. While most savvy trackers can predict when they will jump a cottontail, most hunters are surprised when the brown blur blasts from underfoot. The instant you see the fast escaping rabbit, sprinting to escape, running wide-open, dodging brush and trees, your body gets a major adrenaline rush. You instinctively jerk the gun to your shoulder and try to hit the tiny zooming target before it bounces out of range. The fast-paced action only lasts a brief second or two, then the cottontail quickly bounces out of range and disappears in the thick brush. Some hunters find jump shooting the essence of what rabbit hunting is really all about.

Those who love chasing winter cottontails understand how important it is to check every type of cover for critters. At times cottontails are found in tall grass, thick brush, on south side of trees or ridges, any pocket of cover formed by drifting snow or where snow creates a canopy over grass, branches, stumps, corn, or in a thicket. Rabbits are slick at utilizing thick brush to camouflage their outline. Many times they nestle near a stump, tree, low hanging pine bough and cover that break up their outline and conceal them from hawks, owls or other predators. Savvy jump shooters kick tiny pods of cover that other hunters overlook. If deep snow falls, you can expect cottontails to hide under brush or grass bent over or under pine branches touching the snow which create an ideal hide out.

Stop And Go

Try a stop and go technique when after cottontail in brush. This strategy will give you time to relax while hunting, keep your senses sharp and increase the number of rabbits you will see. Too many hunters move too fast, rush past hiding animals, get overheated and do not rely on hunting instincts to spot and jump bunnies. Stopping causes sitting rabbits to become nervous, unravel and break from cover in an effort to avoid the lurking predator. Look at tracks, follow them and try to spot the animal, usually you will get a glimpse of a black eye against the white background. A slow approach will provide sitting shots at close range and guarantee fresh rabbit stew with no pellets in the meat.

Pick Your Weather

Ask most Michigan bunny chasers what is the most important element of hunting success and you'll get responses like: fresh snow to find tracts or locating thick habitat. But if you ask a handful of serious cottontail chasers the same question, their answer will be: knowing how to hunt the different weather winter throws at you. They have come to understand weather and the conditions that mean the difference between success and failure. Put simply, some weather causes an increase in rabbit activity. The trick is to simply go hunting during ideal hunting conditions if you want to up your odds at success.

During winter, weather changes continually and it impacts how rabbits feed or move. Savvy Michigan sportsmen watch the local weather channel and go afield during ideal weather conditions. Most wait until temperatures are above freezing and winter winds have subsided.

Rabbits tend to move the exact same time as whitetail deer. If the barometric pressure is falling rapidly and a cold front is arriving, they move less than when the barometric pressure slowly moves and warming trends are approaching. Cottontails have built-in mechanism to signal them when to feed and when to scramble for cover. The idea is to go hunting on days when their activity increases, many times before severe weather arrives.

If I could control the weather I'd create perfect conditions by keeping air temperature above freezing overnight, which stimulates rabbits to leave holes and roam their home range in search of food. Come dawn rabbits will take cover outdoors, not deep in underground holes, which makes them accessible to hunters. Perfect weather would be highlighted by overcast skies and a light fog or drizzle that sends wildlife on a feeding spree. If you have bright sunlight that bumps temperatures above freezing you can count on the rabbits responding by leaving dens. Fast-falling temperatures, high wind and below zero temperatures are certain to send cottontails scurrying for the comfort of a warm den and hunting in adverse conditions can be a waste of time.

Fresh Snow

Falling snow can bring bunnies out to play. Perfect conditions are highlighted by slowly falling snowflakes, not a winter blizzard, and warming trend the next day that puts temperatures above freezing. Ideal conditions are often following a gradual warming trend with temperatures in the 30's during the night that give way to above freezing temperatures during the day. The fresh falling snow will cover old tracks and help to outline recent cottontail activity and help hunters to identify fresh tracks. Some days you can follow a fresh track, notice where the animal is feeding and eventually circling to find a hiding spot and quickly jump the critter. A single track in fresh snow often leads to fast-paced cottontail hunting.

It is common to find rabbits during winter after freshly fallen puffy snow have covered the forest floor. But idealistic snow is the packable variety, you know, the kind of snow that is ideal for packing snow balls or making a snowman. The brand of white stuff that is actually melting slightly, which often refreezes at night, then thaws the following day. Bunnies are quick to take advantage of the warm weather during the day and often take up hiding locations far from core range holes. This makes an ideal situation for hunting and almost guarantees success. Hunting during warming trends almost guarantees success. Some say that overcast weather is important for rabbits to roam freely. You know, the kind of weather that leaves a slight layer of fog over snow and no wind, weather that make it difficult to see in the swamps and lowlands, yet you can hear a dog bark a mile away. These conditions are ideal for cottontails to be out dancing during the day because they feel safe in the low light conditions.

Unfortunately, many rabbit hunters do not have the work flexibility to take to the woods every time weather conditions are ideal for hunting. Most wait until the weekend and hope they hit it right but some are quick to take a day on vacation when cottontails are on the move. Their reward is hunting in fresh snow and quickly filling game bags with tasty meat. If more hunters studied weather and warm fronts, hunter success rates would no doubt skyrocket. The key to rabbit hunting success during winter hinges on weather conditions and the activity level of cottontail rabbits.

Dogs Are Deadly

Mastering various rabbit hunting techniques is always a challenge but few are as rewarding as hunting with beagles. Rabbit hounds add so much to the adventure, simply because they have the skills needed to jump cottontail and chase them directly to waiting hunters.

There is something powerfully addictive about the howling music a beagle makes while hunting. Sure, there is the occasional bark when the dog picks up the scent of a rabbit but the barks quickly turn into a high-pitched howl, which crescendos into frantic squealing howls, as the critter is jumped and the dog chases and eventually closes the distance to its quarry. The music is exciting and entertaining, which enhances the fun of the hunt and for many is the sole purpose for being afield. Some dog lovers would rather listen to the music of hounds on a hot rabbit trail that actually harvest the bunny.

With few exceptions, most rabbit dogs will help you to score and quickly fill your game bag. There are several hunting tactics that work with dogs but the most popular is for two hunters to spread out and walk through brush. When a rabbit is flushed and the beagle is on the hot trail, one hunter stays behind as the other follows the dog which eventually circles the prey to the hunter on stand. Another is for hunters to take stand on the edge of thick brush or a swamp and the dogs are sent into the thick habitat to jump cottontail and chase them to the waiting guns. Those who chase rabbit with beagles will double their take, plus they have the satisfaction and enjoyment of sharing the great outdoors with family, friends and family pet.

Truth is, beagles have a keen sense of smell that quickly detect which way fresh tracks lead and they can track, locate and jump rabbits that hunters will not disturb by simply walking through brush. Savvy beagle hunters will work several likely rabbit hideouts in a single day, allowing the dog to thoroughly work each location, cover the entire ground and put any cottontail in the area on the run.

Looking for some hunting fun this winter? Cottontail rabbit offer State hunters an excellent opportunity to get outdoors and score, big time. Action is awaiting those willing to go the extra mile and work thick brush. Try double teaming prime locations; one hunter does the hard work walking through thick brush while the other takes stand near holes or well-used runways. Try brush piles, one hunter is the jumping while the other covers his back. Cottontails come from under brush at lightning speed, afterburners turned on full blast and they are a difficult target.

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