Using a hunting dog for rabbits is first-rate fun.
A few decades ago, rabbit hunting was at the top of the list in the Cotton State. This was because small farms and garden patches provided plenty of opportunities for hunters of all ages.
But as the deer population grew, hunters turned their attention to larger quarry. However, running rabbits still held its place in the hearts of many hunters.
It’s no doubt that running rabbits with a pack of dogs is fun. The yipping sound of the small breed’s bark will get a cottontail up out of a thicket.
Rabbit hunting may not have the trophy status of the white-tail, but the excitement is still there; the hunter’s face lights up as the race begins.
Hideouts for Bunnies
Rabbits are found all across the state. This also includes, from the mountains and forests of the north to the coastal plains and swamps to the south, all areas support a healthy population of rabbits in Alabama. One common denominator for bunny hideouts is thick cover.
“Rabbits need thick cover to survive”, says Kyle Studdard of Munford, AL. “Matted briars and heavy weeds are areas I look for rabbits.”
Studdard comments that rabbits have adapted to predators over the years. With the increase in the coyote populations, rabbits have had to move into heavy, dense cover to avoid becoming a canine dinner. Also, hawks and other birds of prey have contributed to the rabbits shifting their hideouts.
Agricultural fields along fence lines bordered with almost impenetrable briars and vines is a good starting point for cottontails. These spots offer food and cover. Usually, when jumped, the rabbits will run along the edge to escape the dogs.
“Clear-cuts are also good spots to hunt for rabbits,” Studdard says. “The rabbits will bury up in piled-up brush tops or log piles.”
The log piles not only provide several escape routes, but they also provide warmth during cold weather. Thick, heavy weeds and grasses along clear-cut locations will hold rabbits, too.
“Rabbits generally spend their entire life in about a 10-acre area.”
Edges along pine plantations that have a heavier cover of vines, weeds, and brush are also good holding spots for bunnies. Pine in the three- to five-year growth range is usually the thickest. Humps and high spots in swampy areas will harbor some rabbits as well. So, don’t be surprised if some of the swamp rabbits make a run across shallow waters.
Rabbits generally spend their entire life in about a 10-acre area. Smaller, brushy spots are more likely to hold rabbits than one large area. Don’t count out food plot edges. Plantings for deer and turkey are also favored rabbit foods.
Beagles are probably the most popular hunting dog breed for chasing rabbits. Studdard prefers the 13- inch size beagles. He runs this size and breed in rabbit field trials across the Southeast. Studdard has won several of the American Kennel Club, Small Pack Option competitions over the past few years.
Training the dogs to chase rabbits is a major part of the sport. Generally, the instinct to hunt rabbits is bred into the hunting dog. However, the hunting dog does require some guidance and discipline to effectively chase rabbits. It’s possible to hunt rabbits without dogs, but it can be tough.
“Not every beagle is a rabbit hunting dog,” Studdard says. “It’s bred into the dog but it’s best to hunt younger dogs with older, more experienced ones.”
It is important to get the dogs around rabbits for training. The younger pups will fall in behind the older dogs and learn from them. Studdard notes that quail and rabbit scents smell very similar to a hunting dog. Because of this, oftentimes, young dogs will react to the scent of quail.
Overcast and cool days are the prime conditions to hunt rabbits. However, wet or frosty conditions are not as favorable for the dogs. Also, snow can clog up the dog’s nose, making it difficult to pick up the scent.
“I use a starting pen for my dogs beginning around five months old,” Studdard explains. “I put a starter rabbit in the pen with the hunting dog for about two weeks.”
By keeping a rabbit in the pen with the pup, he learns the scent of the rabbit. The holding pen is around two acres. The scent pad on a rabbit is very small, not much larger than the size of a pinhead. However, once the rabbit begins to run, it sweats. This sweating releases scent, which makes it easier for the dogs to trail.
Studdard uses the Trionics training system. This is because the system provides control by incorporating a shock collar and tone alert. If the dog gets too far out, Studdard will yell a command to the dog to return. If the dog does not respond, he uses the control unit to send a tone to the collar. The dog will usually respond before a shock is released.
When a hunting dog opens up (barking), that indicates the rabbit is up and running. The other dogs will join in the race, all sounding off. The rabbit will usually try to double back to where it started from in an attempt to lose the dogs. This makes it appear as if the rabbit is running in a circle.
The hunt is primarily the chase. The barking dogs and speedy bunny ring excitement in the air. Watching and listening to the dogs work and chase after the rabbit is the thrill of the hunt.
Hunting rabbits and shooting rabbits are totally different. The quick and darting trek of a rabbit can cause top shooters to draw a blank. Typically, shotguns are the preferred and most commonly used firearm to bag the speedy lop-eared varmints.
“I use a 20 gauge with a heavy No. 4 shot,” Studdard advises. “There are some hunters that use a .410 gauge to shoot rabbits.”
Other popular shot sizes include No. 5, 6, or 7 1/2 in the smaller gauges. Shooters need to be ready at all times with their guns in position. This is because rabbits flying around in thick brush only offer a couple of seconds for a quick shot. Hunters need to make certain the rabbit is out front and away from the dogs.
To preserve the integrity of the meat, shooters should aim for a head shot. If the rabbit is running straight away, shoot just in front of the rabbit’s nose. With a bunny trotting across, a small lead may be required, based on the rabbit’s speed and distance.
Rabbit meat is a tasty food when prepared properly. In fact, many wild game cooks say that rabbit can be substituted in any recipe that uses chicken.