Hunting Rabbits With A Special Friend

The author (left) and his dear friend, Darren Bergen. (TIM E. HOVEY)
The author (left) and his dear friend, Darren Bergen. (TIM E. HOVEY)

The following appears in the December issue of California Sportsman: 

By Tim E. Hovey

We drove as far as we could and then got out. We knew with the recent snowfall, we wouldn’t be able to get much further on four wheels. 

We hiked in the snow along the Oregon Basin ridge near the Wyoming town of Cody for over a mile. The sky was grey but our mood high; we were there to hunt rabbits, just like we’d done the previous 20 years we’ve hunted together. 

We split up by ourselves, but still we were together on the mountain. For over an hour, I hiked the ravines with my friend, Darrin, looking for game. One or two times I spotted him nearby, and he was doing exactly what I was doing. I stood there and watched him as he hiked the hills, feeling lucky to have a good friend who loved what I loved equally. 

We met back near the vehicle, each of us with a couple of rabbits. We sat on the tailgate and watched the setting sun fight through the rain clouds. I don’t drink, but I had a cold beer with Darrin, parked there in the middle of a sage-covered field. 

That was my first Wyoming rabbit hunt, and despite the cold temperatures, sharing the hills with a good friend made the time in the field well worth it.

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A GREAT SMALL GAME OPTION 

I’ve hunted rabbits all over the Western United States and I never tire of pursuing the speedy animals. Limits are usually generous and they can be abundant in the appropriate habitat. They make great table fare and are fairly easy to hunt. Most longtime hunters probably started their careers by chasing rabbits, and I would imagine that even part-time hunters have the preferred firearms in their safe to pursue the wily rabbit.

Rabbits can be found in diverse habitats. They tend to concentrate in brushy fencerows or agricultural field edges. They also adapt well to man-made structures such as debris and brush piles or landscaped backyards. Natural habitat that includes grasslands and brushy terrain with available hiding areas or existing burrows will also hold rabbits. They are usually more active at dawn and dusk, spending much of the day in burrows or in cover to wait out the heat of the day. During cooler periods, they can be active all day.

Signs of cottontail activity are easy to spot if you know what to look for. Rabbit prints are unique. Their back legs leave elongated, side-by-side marks like the numeral 11. The front legs leave small marks in the dirt – one at the top of each back leg print. Droppings are small, round and numerous. Find these signs in brushy habitat and rabbits will be close by. 

When looking for prints, I also pay close attention to the abundance and freshness of predator prints in the area. One of the main food sources for coyotes, foxes and bobcat is rabbit. If I find fresh predator prints in good habitat, I can almost guarantee rabbits are near. 

Once I find a suitable hunting area, I make a decision on how I want to hunt it. Flat, brushy terrain with substantial cover calls for the shotgun. If the terrain is hilly or uneven, I like to grab the rimfire rifle and a set of binoculars. I’ve hunted rabbits using these two relatively common techniques since I was a kid, and each has helped me put fresh rabbit on the plate.

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RIMFIRE  

I used a borrowed .22 rifle to harvest my first rabbit when I was 12, and I still enjoy using rimfire rifles to hunt rabbits. Waking early and glassing quality habitat is a great way to locate rabbits feeding or warming themselves in the morning sun. I like to find a spot I can glass from and quietly sit waiting for things to start moving.

Rabbits will show themselves if you get to your spot early, and they will stay still and quiet. Even the crack of the .22 won’t startle them for long.

Put the rising sun at your back to eliminate any glare and start searching gaps in the vegetation or open areas. Rabbits love to come out and feed in the morning. If you rise before they do and glass from an elevated position, opportunities will present themselves. 

If you’re looking to stretch the distance on some of your shots or you’d like a round that has laser-like precision, investigate the .17 HMR rimfire round. Hornady introduced the cartridge in 2002. The blistering muzzle velocity combined with the aerodynamic bullet design and ballistic tip makes the round substantially more accurate than the slower .22. I’ve personally taken rabbits with the Hornady .17 HMR round out to a distance of 200 yards. That’d be a tall order for the fatter, slower .22 round. 

This round has a tremendous amount of energy upon impact, so keep that in mind when using it on small game. Due to its accuracy out at distance, I usually use the .17 HMR for longer shots, 100 yards and beyond. Closer shots are fairly destructive and will definitely reduce the amount of meat you’ll be bringing home.

Author Tim Hovey (left) and his daugher, Alyssa. (TIM E. HOVEY)
Author Tim Hovey (left) and his daugher, Alyssa. (TIM E. HOVEY)

 SHOTGUN

No matter what type of hunt I have planned, I always add my shotgun to the gear, especially later in the season. Whenever I see good rabbit habitat, I grab the Browning and take a walk. Cottontails will hold tight to cover at times. Walking through brush with a shotgun and kicking up rabbits is a great way to bag your limit. 

When I’m busting brush for rabbits, I’m by no means subtle or stealthy during my walks. I kick bushes, make noise and let them know they need to move. Opportunities are frequently brief and fast. Most of the time you’ll just detect a flash of fur as the rabbit runs for cover. I call this type of shooting snap-shooting and it may take some practice to become successful. 

Rabbits are thin-skinned animals and can be brought down with lighter shotgun loads. I use 2-inch shells with 7 and 8 size shot to get good results. In my opinion, for an easy hunt nothing beats grabbing a box of shells and walking through rabbit habitat with a shotgun.

With an increase in opportunities and their tendency to stop or freeze near cover, rabbits are an excellent option as a first game animal for first-time hunters and kids. Both of my daughters practiced rifle shooting by chasing rabbits, and both try and get out for a bunny hunt with me at least once during the season.

Tasy rabbit stew. (TIM E. HOVEY)
Tasy rabbit stew. (TIM E. HOVEY)

LOOKING FOR JACKS 

Almost anywhere you find the cottontail, you’ll most likely find jackrabbits. Larger and substantially faster than cottontails, jackrabbits are true hares and can be over twice as large as their cousin. 

While they’ll likely race off when encountered, they tend to stop at a distance where they feel safe. Most of the time this distance is well within range of a well-sighted .22 or the very precise .17 HMR. Walking the brush with a shotgun loaded with size 6 shot is also my rig of choice for adding jacks to the cooler.

Cottontails are one of my favorite game animals to eat. It’s a white meat that picks up the taste of any marinade and it’s very easy to cook in a variety of ways. It may seem cliché, but many who taste it for the first time equate it to chicken. Jackrabbit is also good, but depending on the size and age of the animal, it may be a bit tough on the plate. Our favorite way to prepare jackrabbit is to slow-cook a rabbit stew in the Crock-Pot.

 CALIFORNIA OPTIONS 

The cottontail rabbit season is one of the longest available to California hunters, opening on July 1 and ending on January 29. The limit is five rabbits per day, with ten in possession. Jackrabbit hunting is open year-round with no take limit. 

They are available throughout the state, in a variety of habitats that are both natural and man-made, and they are my favorite small game to hunt. 

If you’re looking for an easy hunt with plenty of opportunities, try chasing cottontails through the heavy brush, or their larger cousin, the jack. The action can be consistent and exciting, and you really can’t beat the taste of wild rabbit. CS

Darrren Bergen (left) with the author's daughters Jessica (left) and Alyssa. (TIM E. HOVEY)
Darrren Bergen (left) with the author’s daughters Jessica (left) and Alyssa. (TIM E. HOVEY)

Darrin Robert Bergen

1969-2016

They say you’re fortunate if you have five really good friends over your lifetime. I will always consider Darrin Bergen as one of those good friends. 

In over 20 years of friendship, we’ve hunted, hiked and fished all over Southern California and parts of Wyoming. He was a true outdoorsman, and in the wild is where he felt most comfortable. Due to his adaptability and love of the outdoors, I often thought that Darrin was born 150 years too late. 

With no kids of his own, Darrin quickly attained the status of uncle to my daughters. Every Christmas, without fail, he would send Alyssa and Jessica gifts designed to nurture their outdoor interests. And always, gifts from Uncle Darrin were opened last. 

Last year, Darrin invited me and my daughters out to Wyoming to hunt deer with him. During our November trip, Alyssa and Jessica thoroughly enjoyed glassing canyons and joking around with Uncle Darrin, so much so, that a return trip was planned for the following year before we left Cody for home.

Darrin passed away unexpectedly in September of this year in Cody, Wyo., and I will truly miss him. He was an amazing friend and one of the smartest individuals I have ever met. He spent much of his professional life as a fisheries biologist and the two of us collaborated on several published projects together. I have many fond memories of Darrin and I in deep discussions on a variety of topics at the edge of some canyon miles from anywhere. I know that of all our adventures together, these conversations at the edge of the world are what I will miss the most.

I realize that nothing lasts forever, but it truly hurts knowing that I will never again glass a canyon, share a rabbit hunt or simply head out to the wild with a rifle slung over my shoulder, with Darrin at my side. He was truly a good friend. If I had known that last year’s hunt with my daughters was going to be the last time we saw him, I think we all would have savored that moment much longer.

To my hunting friend and little brother: I will miss you. Enjoy your hunt! TH

 

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