Rabbit hunting is, without a doubt, a very popular hunting pastime in Michigan, which offers many opportunities throughout the state during the winter months.

There is no doubt that I spend more time each year hunting rabbits, especially local rabbits (and also snowshoe hares elsewhere whenever the opportunity arises) than any other game, which I do avidly since I was a farm boy.

Rabbit was the first game animal I ever harvested, and I will always remember when, after finishing my morning chores of collecting eggs from the coop, I threw a rabbit near the corncrib. He immediately ran with great bounds towards the nearby orchard and disappeared.

I quickly brought the basket of collected eggs to our farm and got my mother’s permission to fetch the rabbit with my .410 single-shot shotgun. I was only allowed to take two shells, because according to her, that was more than enough ammo to shoot a rabbit.

There was a light dusting of snow that morning, and I eagerly located the tracks starting near the corncrib, put a shell in the .410, and started following them. I was amazed at how far a fast-running rabbit could leap with each bound, but these were easy-to-follow trails in the orchard, ending in a pile of pruned apple tree branches, and there was no was no trail leading to the exit.

I would like to clarify at this point, folks, I had just started carrying my grandfather’s .410 single-shot during the previous annual pheasant season, and had learned to shoulder and shoot it fluidly, a bit anyway, although it’s highly unlikely that I had ever hit anything because the small pattern of a .410 is very unforgiving on fast moving targets.

There were always plenty of pheasant hunters visiting our farm who were really good shooters, and some of them were still shooting the same roosters as me. They naturally assumed that a small kid with a .410 was nowhere near hitting the collapsing cock. They were probably right, and I didn’t argue because I was very happy to be carrying a shotgun and finally playing an active role.

Realizing the rabbit was definitely under the small brush pile, I held my .410 to the “port arms” and quickly kicked the pile. The bunny came out immediately and the .410 seemed to talk to itself. Well folks it was probably just luck when I shot that bunny while it was still in the air only about four meters away but from then on I became a hunter passionate and dedicated bunny!

One of my favorite rabbit hunting techniques is always stalking a rabbit after a fresh snowfall. I usually do this solo, but it can also be done with an extra hunter or two flanking the tracker. For that, I prefer a rifle, or even a handgun, in .22 rimfire. I also often use my .17 caliber scoped GAMO air rifle, but my favorite is my traditional caplock muzzleloader, a .32 caliber CVA “squirrel rifle” that I assembled from a kit a long time ago.

Spotting the bunny and shooting it in the head while it’s still standing still is the main objective, but shooting while running can be frequent, which is quite difficult with a gun, but certainly entertaining.

Here on my farm when I started to develop the wildlife habitat including in my backyard I took into consideration future rabbit hunting and created certain areas in what I call ‘rabbitat “. For this I like to involve a group of hunters and do what I call old fashioned bunny driving with supports placed on funnels (aka “pinch points”) in the thick cover, and have drivers moving the rabbits to the supports.

This may involve only hunters doing the driving part, or in my case, I take out my entire kennel, including hunting dogs, bird dogs and even a little yelping rat terrier! Dogs of any breed definitely increase the chances of chasing rabbits from their hiding places, and performing a well-planned rabbit hunt remains the most productive rabbit hunting technique I have ever experienced.

Of course, the most popular rabbit hunting technique is using beagles, a breed of dog synonymous with rabbit hunting. The versatile beagle breed was developed primarily with rabbit hunting in mind, and listening to the enthusiastic and joyful chorus of a pack of beagles singing to a cool scent on a cold, freezing winter day is a unique and memorable like no other.

Cottontails have a set litter which they are reluctant to leave and usually turn after being jumped by beagles (snowshoe hares do the same, but have a slightly larger litter). I’ve seen hunters new to the game start hunting beagles, which may not be very effective. The key, once a rabbit has been jumped by the eager and happy hounds, is for the hunter to pick a spot, hopefully offering decent shooting angles, and instinctively wait for the rabbit to return.

The barking of beagles turning around will give a clue when this is happening, and sometimes the rabbit can be way ahead of the dogs. I have actually seen rabbits, being chased, casually stop to breathe, then get up on their hind legs to assess the situation before continuing. It also pays to keep an eye out for other rabbits, not being hunted, who suddenly appear as they are moving away from the hunting scene.

Due to generally moving targets in thick cover, I prefer a shotgun for rabbit drives and when using beagles. For me, that involves small bores, and my favorites are .410 (using birdshot number 4) and 28 caliber (using birdshot number 4, 5, or 6). My favorite all-purpose “rabbit gun” is a Remington Express 870 28-gauge pump with a modified fixed choke (it’s also my favorite “pheasant gun”). Although rabbits have thin skin and fine bones, they can be surprisingly stubborn, and I don’t like to use grit finer than number 6.

A few years ago I discovered some very unique 28 caliber Saga ammunition (made in the USA) at Randy’s Hunting Center in Bad Axe, which features a number 4 half ounce light load ( lead) in a 2 ½ inch shell. After modeling it with my Remington 870, I went back and bought several more boxes to have on hand.

Although I don’t use this load on pheasants, I think it provides a very effective and short shot string for headshots (my main focus) on rabbits (and squirrels too) without too much “pepper” the subjects with shot. It works for me, anyway.

Eastern cottontail rabbit makes a great fat-free table meal in a wide variety of delicious recipes (hasenpfeffer is a family favourite) and can be used in something as simple as “rabbit noodle soup” . I know rabbits provide a winter flavor that my whole family enjoys.
Whatever technique I use, I look forward to my winter rabbit hunting adventures in Michigan and thoroughly enjoy them.

Email freelance outdoor writer Tom Lounsbury at [email protected]