Hoppers To Hunt

 

Deer and upland bird seasons are getting closer, but hunters should take note that July 1 marks the opening of cottontail rabbit season in California, something author Tim Hovey (below, with daughter Alyssa) circles on his summer calendar. (USFWS/STEVE MARTARANO; TIM E. HOVEY)

 

The following appears in the July issue of California Sportsman:

By Tim E. Hovey

Starting about the third week of May I begin to see a shift in my outdoor interests. 

The rods, reels and tackle that have been out and cluttering up the shop since the end of hunting season start getting moved aside to make room for what’s coming. 

As we move into June, I notice that I stare a few seconds longer at pairs of mourning dove that cut through the neighborhood at dusk looking for roosts. I also start pointing out cottontail rabbits that began to show up in the brushy patches near my house. 

My wife usually demonstrates her level of interest in my talent for pointing out suburban wildlife by rolling her eyes. She knows what’s coming and she’s become used to a noticeable elevation in my hyperactivity at this time of year. It can only mean that hunting season is right around the corner.

FOR MOST OF MY ADULT life, my friends and family have known not to include me in any plans once the calendar page flips after June 30. As we move through the true beginning of summer, I start getting my hunting gear ready to chase the fast and abundant cottontail rabbit.

July 1st is opening day of the season and, to me, it is a day more exciting than Christmas. Hunting rabbits near my house in Atascadero along the Central Coast was where my hunting career started. Some 40 years later, that youthful hunting excitement remains today. 

Following an exceptional rain year in spring 2017, I started to notice a serious abundance of rabbits in the areas I hunt. The much-needed water had greened up the hills and the wildlife had definitely responded favorably.

During one scouting trip, I counted over 80 rabbits during a two-hour hike. Seeing the rebounding wildlife as the season approached convinced me that this amazing bounty had to be shared.

Last season, I hunted with several different friends and, of course, my daughters. The kids seemed to really enjoy the spot-and-stalk method of chasing cottontails. Moving slowly through the brush during the early morning, we’d spot rabbits waiting for the warmth of the sun near their burrows. Using shooting sticks and .17 HMR rifles, the kids had no problem dropping their first five-rabbit limits of cottontails.

When it was my turn, I’d grab the shotgun and walk through the sage looking for flashes of brown fur cutting through the very narrow shooting lanes. Rabbits will usually hold tight until disturbed, then suddenly burst from cover. 

Depending on the thickness of the habitat, you may only get a split second to take a shot. This flash of opportunity is challenging to me and the reason why I love chasing bunnies.

Shotgun hunting is my favorite way of pursuing cottontails. Rabbits are thin-skinned animals and any size shotgun loaded with number 7s or 8s work fine. 

In the last few years I’ve added a specialized choke to my Browning Silver Hunter. It helps me extend the range of my shots. This has definitely helped me fill my bag limit faster in wide open country. So has scouting. 

Rabbits will occupy a wide range of areas if permanent water is around. They love sage bushes, rabbit brush and any vegetation that provides thick cover. They are more active in the early morning and later afternoon during the cooler parts of the day. During the heat of the day, they’ll usually head underground to stay cool.

Scouting for rabbits is easy. I actually look for a good, safe area to shoot first and then walk through brush trying to kick up bunnies. Old and new rabbit droppings in the area will usually tell me if any are using the surrounding habitat. If green vegetation and a water source are close by, the area will hold rabbits.

AS I GET OLDER, I find that the fire to chase anything during hunting season by myself is dimming. I’d much rather spend my time outside with good friends and family, building memories. During the last cottontail opener, I invited my good friend Jose De Orta and his son Adrian along. During last year’s dove season, Jose and I located a spot nearby that was absolutely loaded with rabbits.

So when it was time to hunt that same area we arrived the night before and spent the evening in a nearby hotel. We arrived at the hunting grounds an hour before daybreak and got our gear ready.

This was Adrian’s first shotgun hunt for cottontails. He had bagged a limit with a rifle, but those bunnies were sitting in one spot and not moving. Swinging a shotgun on a moving target is tougher to do and was going to take some practice.

We spread out to give us all some room and started hunting. I hiked further north and walked a dry creek bed where we had seen rabbits during the dove season. I spotted a few bunnies but they were scattering out of range before I could get a shot. After an hour of hunting, I had yet to pull the trigger.

Meanwhile, over where Jose and his son were hunting, I heard the regular clap of shotguns being fired. It sounded like I was in the wrong place.

I hiked back to where I had parked and noticed something under my truck. Several dead cottontails in two piles were placed in the shade of the vehicle.

I grabbed the rabbits and placed them in the cooler. I decided to drive further down the hunting area where Jose and his son were hunting. 

We spent the next hour or so chasing game and enjoying the day. Adrian limited out first and I was a close second. Jose closed out the day with his limit around noon. We gathered up our limits and took some great photos. After cleaning our rabbits, we headed home.

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of chasing rabbits during the July 1 opener. This season I’ll be camping overnight in the desert with a good buddy. We’ll walk the brush flats in the early morning and hopefully fill the coolers with fresh meat.

Hovey (left), Adrian and Jose De Orta with cottontail limits. (TIM E. HOVEY)

RABBIT HUNTING IS FUN and relatively easy. If you’re new to the sport, it’s a great way to get started. Plus in good rabbit habitat your opportunities will be abundant. A shotgun, a box of shells and a pair of good hiking boots are really all you need. 

If you’ve chased bunnies before, do all sportsmen and -women a favor and take a new hunter out on a hunt. As I get older and seasons come and go, my enjoyment and success are measured in who’s with me and what I can pass on to others. 

In my opinion, rabbit season is the perfect time to expose new hunters, young and old, to our hunting heritage. CS

 

LICENSE TO THRILL

Working for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss hunting and fishing regulations with quite a few wardens. Hands down, they state that their busiest time of the year – the season they write the most citations – is the cottontail opener. 

My good friend James Kasper, who was a warden in Southern California for over a decade, tells me that most hunters just forget that their hunting license expires the day before the opener. 

If you plan to chase rabbits this season, make sure you grab your new hunting license before you head out. TH

Photos by Tim Hovey

MAKE A MEAL

Another reason our family loves to hunt rabbits is because they are one of our favorite wild species to eat. 

Before we head out, I make sure our coolers are filled with ice blocks. I will almost always field dress and prepare the meat out in the wild. Doing this allows me to get the meat on ice quicker. Back home, I will debone all the meat and decide how I want to prepare it. 

The flavor is mild and the meat will pick up the flavor of any marinade. We’ve prepared rabbit several different ways and have never been disappointed. The meat is easy to cook with and, essentially, rabbit can be substituted in any recipe that calls for chicken.

Last year we purchased a high-end smoker and this season I’m excited to try a few smoking recipes on our wild game like cottontails. TH

 

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