BY TIM E. HOVEY
When the days start getting longer and the weather warms, I start getting things ready for a hunting tradition that I started over 20 years ago. I start calling and texting a group of friends that are like minded and equally obsessed. We do a little pre-scouting and settle on a location. We pack up the day before the season opener and meet at our chosen spot. Come July 1, every year since the early 2000s, I’ve been running to the desert to hunt the cottontail opener with friends.
Like many long-time hunters, I began my hunting career chasing cottontails and jack rabbits. They are abundant just about anywhere you find a water source and taste amazing on the plate. New hunters just getting started can hone their stalking skills on the wily rabbit and usually find plenty of shot opportunities.
Just like most wild critters, their presence and abundance are heavily tied to the rainy season. In periods of heavy precipitation, they can absolutely explode in number. Conversely, when rain events are infrequent, their reproduction dips and you may not encounter as many in wild spots.
The ideal place to look for a consistent population of cottontails is around a year-round water source. A spring or creek that offers water all year will definitely hold rabbits. Good foraging and hiding vegetation in and around the spring will give cottontail and their young places to feed and hide from predators. Once you find an area that has these features, make note of it. As long as the water is there, rabbits will occupy the area.
When I first started exploring the desert, I had no set agenda. I just wanted to sling a firearm over my shoulder and check things out. Hiking the desert floor, I located two old springs that had been there for quite a while. I noticed lots of rabbit droppings around the springs and plenty of vegetation. It wasn’t long before I was kicking up rabbits as I walked. This chance discovery has been my cottontail rabbit honey hole for almost 20 years.
Cottontail rabbits are more active during the early morning and late evening. Known as the crepuscular period, this can be a great time to hunt them. Unlike their larger cousin, the jack rabbit, cottontails don’t much like the heat and tend to escape underground as the day gets hot. Hunting them at first light is a great way to add a few cottontails to your bag.
I like to hunt cottontails two ways: kicking the brush with a shotgun on sniping them from a distance with a small centerfire rifle. Both are challenging and effective.
Last year, our hunting group decided to head out the evening before and camp in the desert, waking early to chase bunnies on the opener. Since there was a larger group this year, I decided to split us all up and go with the shotgun.
The following morning, we were greeted with a slight wind and temperatures already in the high 80s. Not ideal, but none of us cared. I took my friend John and Ron and headed a mile or so down the canyon, leaving the rest of the group further up the drainage to give us all room to hunt. It wasn’t long before I started hearing the distant boom of shotguns from the group to the north. Our group soon got into bunnies and started dropping them as the sun came up. We all realized that with the forecasted temperatures hitting triple digits before noon that our hunt was going to be a short one.
At close to 11:00 a.m. we all met back at camp to see how things had gone. All had mentioned that it seemed that the rabbit numbers were down due to the drought period, but everyone had bagged a few rabbits and had a great time running the desert for cottontails.
Cottontail rabbits are a light meat animal with a great flavor. We’ve prepared them a number of ways, and I have yet to be disappointed in the outcome. Probably my family’s favorite way to prepare rabbit is by making rabbit stew.
Parting out the rabbit, the meat is deboned and diced up into smaller chunks. The meat is lightly seasoned, rolled in flour and pan fried until brown. The meat chunks are added to a simmering soup pot filled with chicken stock, diced carrots, onions and potatoes. We always add some flour to thicken the broth. This is left on low simmer for several hours. Served over buttermilk biscuits, this is a family favorite.
Whether you’re a seasoned hunter or someone just getting started, chasing the challenging and at times abundant cottontail rabbit will sharpen your skills. It’s also a great way to get new hunters into the hunting fold. In areas where they’re abundant, hunters just getting started should encounter enough shot opportunities to make it interesting.
It’s time to dust off that old shotgun, grab your boots and go kick the sage for cottontails. If you’re like me, it’ll take you back to a simpler time where you can just hang out with your buddies. For me, it takes me back to when I first started hunting and the excitement of what was just over the next hill. And I think in today’s weird world, thinking about simpler times is just what we all need.