Across the pine savannah, unseen dogs began howling as they jumped another cottontail. Despite wearing heavy brush pants, I could barely move through thick underbrush punctuated by briars as I tried to reposition myself for a better shot.
“Look out. He’s running your way,” yelled one of the other hunters.
Tensing up with anticipation and adrenaline, I listened to frantic howling moving closer and anticipated a quick shot. I picked a small clear patch between two thickets where I knew the rabbit must certainly pass and prepared to swing my shotgun into action.
Instead, I heard something about 40 yards behind me. I turned and looked just fast enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of a speedy brown object with a cottony tail vanishing into a brushy thicket at least 200 yards ahead of the dogs. I never saw it again. With so many predators looking for a meal, rabbits know how to disappear.
“A rabbit basically lives to feed everything else,” explained Bobby Bond, a wildlife biologist with WRD. “Everything loves to eat a rabbit. In most studies of what coyotes eat, rabbits are normally in the top three on the list. That also goes for bobcats. Foxes also eat many rabbits, but not as many as coyotes and bobcats. Wild ranging dogs and cats do a number on rabbits. Hawks and owls also grab rabbits. Rabbits that move the most, die the fastest.”
Many people began hunting rabbits by following their fathers, grandfathers or other relatives at a very young age. As they grew up, they passed the tradition to new generations.
“I’ve been hunting rabbits from the time I could just about walk,” recalled Ben Baker from Ashburn. “The first animal I ever killed was a rabbit. I shot it with a pellet rifle at about 30 yards and surprised the heck out of my daddy. I was about 5 years old.”
Georgia sportsmen can bag four types of rabbits. Cottontails can live in a variety of habitats, whatever gives them the most cover and food. They like briars, shrubs, thickets and similar places where they can hide from predators. Its home range averages about 4 to 13 acres. A swamp rabbit lives in about 5 to 19 acres.
“Cottontails can be in almost any habitat anywhere in the state,” Bond said. “They are most common in fields and shrub-scrub habitat. Old fields and young clearcuts and pine plantations with thick, gnarly cover are good for rabbits.”
Besides eastern cottontails, Georgia sportsmen can also hunt swamp rabbits, marsh rabbits and Appalachian cottontails. Swampers, also called canecutters because they like to eat cane shoots, prefer floodplains, river shorelines, bottomlands, swamps and other wet areas. Appalachian cottontails live in the rugged mountainous terrain of Fannin, Rabun, Towns and Union counties in northeastern Georgia, usually at elevations of 3,000 feet or more.
“Swamp rabbits are not as common across Georgia but can be common in the right habitat locations,” Bond explained. “Swamp rabbits are more commonly associated with thick habitat near a water source like a river, creek or other streams through the Piedmont area and farther north or in parts of the northern coastal plain. A swamp rabbit can be almost twice the size of a cottontail. Marsh rabbits are the smallest species and are all in the upper and lower coastal plain. In southern and southeastern Georgia, marsh rabbits are fairly common.”
Because rabbits like thick cover, many people turn to dogs, specifically beagles, to root them from their lairs. A fully trained beagle could cost anywhere from $300 to $1,000. Although beagles with good lineage already come with hunting instincts bred into them, they still need some training.
“I enjoy listening to the dogs and knowing what they are doing,” commented Brent Terry, of Williamson. “When a rabbit takes off and the dogs get on a hot trail, that gets exciting. It gets really exciting when eight or 10 dogs all of a sudden start barking.”
Dogs jumping a rabbit in thick cover does not necessarily guarantee a shot. However, it does guarantee a lot of fun, whether the person fires at a bounding bunny or not. Sure, hunters like shooting rabbits and eating them, but few hunt for the kills. They do it for the howls and the camaraderie. Unlike sitting quiet and still high in a tree all day, rabbit hunters can spread out, talk and have a good time while walking the fields and forests.
“It’s also a very social sport,” Terry said. “I’ve hunted with the same guys for 20 years. There’s always a lot of trash talking, but it’s all in good fun. It’s a great way to introduce children to hunting.”
On that frosty morning of my rabbit hunt, I envisioned an easy hunt. I thought the dogs would do all the work pushing rabbits out from entangling thickets impassible to humans. All I had to do, so I thought, was wait for the dogs to chase the rabbit in front of me so I could make an easy shot.
In reality, I spent most of my day chasing the dogs chasing the rabbits and jockeying to get where a rabbit would certainly erupt from cover at any minute with dogs hot on its trail. That’s a serious mistake for anyone who wants to bag cottontails. I never fired a shot all day, although the more experienced, and patient hunters in our group did kill some rabbits.
At one point, several dogs with their noses pressed to the ground passed a few feet from me. They ignored me standing there with a shotgun ready to shoot anything that resembled a cottontail. However, that bunny disappeared long before I even looked for it. A rabbit on the run might stay 100 or 200 yards ahead of the dogs.
When chased by dogs, a cottontail might run 200 or 300 yards in a circle. Swamp rabbits grow larger than cottontails and run farther. A swamper might run 600 to 800 yards before it circles back. Excellent swimmers, swampers readily take to water. Sometimes, they jump into small creeks and hide under overhanging brush, logs or root masses with only their noses protruding from the water.
“Most of the time, rabbits circle back around, but not all of the time,” Terry explained. “Cottontails especially like to circle. Swamp rabbits don’t circle as much. It’s not uncommon to run one rabbit for an hour or 90 minutes if we can’t cut it off. When they do run a circle, swamp rabbits typically make a really long trek.”
Rather than chase the rabbit, wait for it to return. When dogs flush a rabbit, find a good tree or other cover with at least 30 yards of visibility near where it first took off running and wait. Be quiet, patient and still. The rabbit might return to its old familiar territory. Listen for rustling low to the ground, and watch for any movement. Pay particular attention to thickets or other cover and little paths that traverse it. Sometimes, fleeing rabbits jump into a hole or other hiding place and remain still.
“When the rabbit jumps, settle down and wait to see what it might do,” Terry advised. “Don’t walk all around. The rabbit might run back your way. If the dogs start heading back in your direction, stay put. Get next to a tree and keep still. Rabbits have good eyes and they can see any movement. The hunter might never see the rabbit, but the rabbit will always see the hunter. Survival is a way of life to a rabbit.”
When hunting in heavy brush, hunters need to wear orange, at least a hat, but preferably also a coat or vest, so everyone can easily see everyone else. Determine safe places to shoot before spotting a rabbit. People should never fire unless they can positively identify their targets and what remains beyond. This rule especially applies to shooting low. What looks like a brown bunny might be a beagle.
Many rabbit hunters prefer a fast, light .410 or 20-gauge shotgun loaded with number 6, 7 1/2 or 8 shot. Most shots at rabbits occur at 25 yards or less, so use an improved cylinder or modified choke. Since hunters can rarely fire more than one, possibly two shots at a rabbit, so many hunters carry single shots or double-barrels.
Even with everyone wearing orange, hunters don’t always see their companions. Many hunting teams bring radios or walkie-talkies to keep track of everyone and hear updates on what the dogs and rabbits are doing. Sportsmen can buy very light short-range radios similar to systems used by military and law enforcement personnel that clip on their belts or hunting vests.
Most rabbit hunters use dogs, but people without canine help can sometimes bag a few bunnies. Squirrel and bird hunters occasionally kick up a cottontail and kill it, but to successfully hunt rabbits without beagles takes considerable work, skill and some luck.
“It’s hard to shoot a rabbit without dogs, but I’ve done it,” Bond remarked. “When hunting without a dog, hit a clearcut with some open areas close to thick areas. Walk through the thick areas to jump the rabbits, and watch for them to run in the open. Typically, it’s better to hunt rabbits late in the season, especially without dogs, when there’s not as much cover. By February, a lot of the vegetation dies off and people might find a few spots where they can see and shoot rabbits.”
Some hunters without dogs walk through fields in line abreast, hoping to kick up something. Sportsmen could take turns smashing through thickets, kicking grass clumps or fallen logs as others watch the edges for anything that might bolt out. A good pair of thick canvas pants or leather briar chaps and some snake boots come in handy when busting through thorny cover.
“When hunting rabbits without dogs, keep two things in mind—cover and food,” Baker advised. “We jump lots of rabbits when hunting quail. Keep moving. Walk along the edge of the field quietly at first or last light and keep watch.”
Georgia sportsmen can find rabbits on many WMAs with thick brushy habitat or fields that offer them abundant places to hide from predators. Lands specifically managed for small game or quail usually offer the best rabbit hunting. Places with recent clearcuts generally hold the most rabbits.
Take advantage of the colder months when stomping briars feels good. Let the rabbit dogs do their work, and shoot a few bunnies for the table.