For hunters who’ve had the opportunity to experience it, the sound of a happy, cohesive pack of beagles snuffling the ground and sounding off in unison while tracking cottontail rabbits is winter’s sweetest music. Although rabbit seasons are winding down across the country, there’s still time to get in a few more good hunts. Just keep in mind that late-season, cold-weather rabbit hunting is full of subtlety. That’s why we reached out to three diehard Virginia rabbit hunters for their advice.
Frank Spuchesi of King George, Virginia, has been rabbit hunting since he was a teenager. He was mentored by Mickey Ford, a cottontail expert who’s run beagles since 1959, employing lessons taught to him by his father and grandfather. Roger Summers is another of Spuchesi’s main rabbit hunting pals. Chip Watkins, owner of Monquin Creek Outfitters, grew up rabbit hunting on lowland family farms along the Pamunkey River. Today he manages some 25,000 acres of prime habitat for waterfowl, deer and turkey upland birds and rabbits. Here are their top 5 tips for bagging more bunnies when the season is ticking away.
1. Wait Until Mid-Morning to Start Hunting Rabbits
A rabbit’s scent doesn’t stick to the ground well on frosty mornings, says Spuchesi. “Once the sun comes up a little and the frost burns off, the dogs do a lot better on the track. So don’t be in a rush on really cold mornings. Sleep in and let the sun come up.”
Summers adds, “If you have a lot of snow and ice, you might just want to stay home. Ice or snow that’s frozen over is terrible for the dogs, increasing the cuts on their pads. You could put boots on them, but it’s usually not worth it. The rabbits hole up for a couple days after a particularly nasty weather event.”
“If the temperature is above freezing and the crusty top of the snow is just starting to melt, the rabbits leave good tracks and the dogs can follow them better,” adds Spuchesi.
“Light, snow, however, is good,” notes Summers. “Something like an inch or three. A light, fresh snow lets you see the tracks better and point out where rabbits are concentrated.”
2. Let Rabbit Sign Tell You Where to Hunt
“A good rabbit hunter is always looking for sign,” says Spuchesi. Tracks in fresh snow are obvious, as are fresh droppings. What’s also easy to spot if you know what to look for are rabbit cuttings, whether there’s snow or not. “Rabbits like to eat the bark of small trees, especially in late season, just like beavers,” says Watkins. “Finding freshly chewed small saplings can point to good rabbit populations.” The chewing is at the base of the trees and shrubs, no higher than a typical cottontail can reach. “I’ve seen them chew just about everything, even small pine trees,” says Summers.
3. Don’t Let Late-Season Rabbits Hear You
Rabbits have big ears for a reason. They’re on the menu for just about every wild predator, and they know it. Their ears act as an early warning detection system, each one being able to tilt and rotate some 270 degrees, letting them pick up the faintest sound. So you need to keep quiet. “Rabbits that are still alive in late season aren’t stupid,” says Spuchesi. “Their hearing is their best sense, and they’re constantly listening. I’ve had rabbits hear the safety coming off the gun and turn around. They can hear you talking 100 yards away. Be as quiet as you can, whether its talking or crunching leaves and sticks. You must be stealthy.”
4. Leave Some of the Female Rabbits for Seed
While breeding seasons can vary by geography, cottontail breeding in Virginia typically begins in February and lasts through September. Some breeding, though, occurs in January. Spuchesi says that breeding female cottontails put out very little scent, and the dogs have a harder time finding them and running them. He speculates that this is nature’s way of helping them survive against predators and protect young rabbits in the nest.
“If you let the dogs run, the female rabbits will typically go into a hole earlier than the males,” says Spuchesi. “Buck rabbits tend to run longer and farther, often giving you a shot. In our experience, if you let the dogs run late in the season, you’ll mostly kill buck rabbits.”
Preserving the does is a good thing for conservation, helping to ensure future generations.
5. Stick to Thick Cover for Winter Rabbits
Hunt cover that was too thick to even penetrate before frost and snow knocked some vegetation back. “Late in the year, a lot of the cover is gone,” Spuchesi says. “So rabbits will be concentrated in the thickest cover available. Focus on that cover and hunt more slowly, letting the dogs really work areas.”
Watkins recommends finding places that haven’t seen much hunting pressure, especially properties with cutovers, overgrown hedgerows, and places where treetops are piled after logging operations. Landowners can help create their own late-season hotspots by creating habitat that protects rabbits from predators. “A few of the old-timers taught me to take pallets and stack them six or seven high,” Watkins says. “Throw brush and limbs over them and you create nesting and hiding spaces for rabbits.”