Be vewwy, vewwy kwiet; we’wwe hunting wabbits,” said that icon of hunting, Elmer Fudd.
However, ol’ Elmer, despite enjoying folklore status as one of the best known nimrods around, never bagged his bunny. Of course, very few rabbit hunters in Texas ever went head to head against a talking rabbit with a Bronx accent who walked upright and could pull just about anything out of his pocket.
Texas sportsmen have two main species of rabbits, eastern cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus) and swamp rabbits (Sylvilagus aquaticus). Neither stands upright, but both species occur statewide and often overlap. They look almost identical except that swamp rabbits typically grow slightly larger, about 3 to 6.5 pounds compared to 1.5 to 3.5 pounds.
Jackrabbits are also legal game in Texas but few hunters pursue them in comparison to the other species.
In general, darker swamp rabbits tend to show more brown and black on their fur and sport a dark ring around their eyes. In contrast, grayish-reddish cottontails exhibit a pale cream-colored ring around their eyes and show more whitish fur. Cottontails typically prefer upland habitat, while swamp rabbits readily take the wetlands.
A few Texas rabbit hunters use dogs, preferably trained beagles, to flush the “long-eared varmints,” as Yosemite Sam might say, from impenetrable thickets. Not everyone can afford to feed, house and maintain a pack of beagles or even wants to go through that much effort.
Short of landing an invitation to join a rabbit drive, most sportsmen must resort to their own efforts to jump rabbits or ambush bunnies another way. That often takes considerable work, luck and sometimes, contrary to Fudd’s Fundamentals, a little noise.
Rabbit hunters usually work in teams. They walk line abreast across a field of likely cover, each kicking every clump they encounter. They jump on fallen trees, which provide excellent cover for hiding bunnies. Sometimes, a person might carry a stick to poke around in grass clumps while others watch with ready shotguns.
When a rabbit bolts from cover, shooters must react fast and throw a lot of lead in the direction of the bounding furball. It doesn’t take much shot to bring down a thin-skinned rabbit, but it takes significant skill or luck to hit one. Use open choke shotguns loaded with No. 6, 7.5 or 8 lead shot.
Almost any shotgun might bag a bunny. Many people prefer a fast, light 20-gauge pump or semi-automatic. Hunters don’t need much knockdown power, but they should use light, short-barreled shotguns that can swing quickly.
Shots typically occur within about 20 to 25 yards or less, so leave the T-shot magnums at home. While hunters might see dozens of rabbits, most won’t offer shots and few offer a second shot. One or two hops from those powerful hind legs and they disappear into heavy brush quickly.
When hunting heavy brush, teams of hunters need to communicate. They should wear orange to keep each other in sight. In the rush of the moment when a rabbit hops into the open, they need to know whether they can safely shoot in that direction. A hunter should never fire unless he can positively identify his targets and what remains in the field of fire behind the targets.
Hunters should also wear heavy canvas pants or briar chaps to bust through thick cover while flushing rabbits. Briars can easily rip light cotton and skin to shreds.
Without dogs, look for areas that limit the territory where a rabbit can roam. Many hunters bag rabbits while walking along levees bordering flooded rice fields or spoil banks lining canals in a marsh. Some natural bayous flowing through marshes offer a strip of high, firm ground that can hold rabbits. Providing the only high ground surrounded by water, these levees, ridges and spoil banks congregate rabbits in huge numbers.
Limited room to maneuver on a constricted levee or spoil bank allows hunters to concentrate on areas that might provide the best shooting. Frequently, if someone kicks up a rabbit on a narrow ridge, the hunter might flush the same rabbit a few feet farther down the ridge because it cannot run to the side.
Jumped rabbits sometimes circle back to their original locations. They don’t like to leave familiar home territories for very long. In their home thicket, they know several holes or escape routes to use to vanish quickly when danger approaches. After jumping a rabbit, pause a while to see if it circles back home and presents a shot.
A new clear-cut or recently burned forest with new green sprouts makes an excellent place to look for cottontails. Fires or clear-cuts reduce the amount of cover available to rabbits, forcing them to congregate into what remains. Often, a brush fire burns so quickly that it cannot consume everything. It leaves a few remaining clumps that might hold several rabbits.
Rabbits also like to nibble on the new shoots springing up after a fire or in a clear-cut. In the evening, they sometimes emerge from heavy cover to gorge on new sprouts. People walking slowly along a path might keep an eye out for rabbits at the edges. Look for the ears, tail or eyes, which stick out more than the camouflaged fur. They also feed heavily on plants growing next to roads and trails.
Sometimes, a lucky hunter bags a bunny by walking along such trails. In one day many years ago, I bagged three rabbits that way. Two fell to the same shot. I spotted two rabbits on the side of a trail, a few yards apart. One disappeared quickly, while the other hopped along the bunny trail a short distance before it disappeared.
As I crept close to where the rabbits vanished, I noticed a grayish brown silhouette sitting broadside to me at the edge of a small clearing in the weeds. I crept a little closer until I could make out the distinctive outline of my long-eared quarry about 35 yards away. One sure thing beat two possibles, so I squeezed the trigger.
At the single report from my 20-gauge, the lone silhouette crumpled. A load of Number 6 shot finished the task quickly. As I approached, I discovered not a single dead rabbit—but two!
Apparently, the second cottontail had hopped along the trail until it found its buddy and sat next to it. From where I shot, I could only see one rabbit. The other rabbit must have rested unseen next to the first one like oxen in a yoke. Pellets from the blast hit each rabbit in the head, killing them both instantly. That’s one way to save on costly ammunition!
Story by John N. Felsher