Chasing Colorado’s Cottontails
Colorado’s rabbit hunting season opened in early October, as leaves, grasses and even pumpkins were turning from green to autumnal oranges and yellows. Moving into November, an increasing frequency of cooler nights brings the expectation of morning frost and summer quickly gives way to the fall hunting seasons. For most, thoughts of Colorado hunting conjures up images of high elevation elk herds or majestic mule deer out on the plains. But for many, the splendor of fall reminds us of our first trips afield – hunting small game.
For anyone interested in becoming a hunter, or interested in mentoring a friend or family member, small game hunting is a very logical entry point – and cottontail rabbits are a particularly good place to start. Cottontails reproduce prolifically and are found almost anywhere there’s a food source and adequate cover. So they are often the most plentiful game on the landscape. This means that for most hunters, cottontails can be found close to home. Combine that with a long continuous hunting season, which begins in October and continues through February, and the odds are you’ll find time to get out for several hunts over the season (see Colorado Small Game & Waterfowl brochure for specific dates and regulations). And, as a bonus, the mild flavor of a properly prepared cottontail is a delicious protein source that pairs well with corn, squash, potatoes and a variety of other commonly found fall vegetables.
If you live in or travel through Colorado’s rural or suburban areas, you’ll notice cottontails scattered about homes like lazy lawn ornaments – appearing devoid of natural survival instincts. In the wild, cottontails behave like a completely different animal; they’re fast, crafty and challenging for even the most seasoned hunters. Fortunately, finding success in the field can be as simple as identifying the proper habitat; understanding feeding and resting behaviors; and having the fitness to get out and beat the brush. With a little trial-and-error, you’ll develop tactics for jumping rabbits and the patience required for creating good shooting opportunities. Your biggest challenge may be convincing friends that a day chasing cottontails will be one of their best hunting days this season.
Building Your Skillset
Pursuing cottontails will teach you how to deal with the elements in the outdoors and reinforce important outdoor skills. You’ll learn the importance of layering clothing to stay warm, but not to sweat and get chilled; the value of comfortable waterproof boots; and the importance of taking in calories and water needed to fuel your body across miles of fields. You’ll train your eyes to quickly read signs of wildlife and spot game. And first time hunters will benefit from an introduction to field dressing on a scaled-down level. Rabbits are tiny in comparison to elk, but the principles of field dressing will teach a great deal about cleaning and preparing any harvest for consumption.
TIP: Invest in Quality Boots
Quality boots are key to a positive outdoor experience. Nothing will end a hunt quicker than cold, wet, sore feet. Make sure boots are waterproof, have a proper fit and are durable enough to shed goatheads, cactus needles and thistles commonly found out on the Eastern Plains.
Finding Hunting Spots
If it looks like easy shooting, it’s probably not a good cottontail area. With a long list of predators, ranging from raptors to coyotes, cottontails rely on thick cover and/or holes for survival. The trick is to find habitat that provides some open shooting lanes or to take advantage of early snows to create a contrast advantage that will make the naturally camouflaged cottontail stick out like a sore thumb.
On a recent hunting trip with a couple of buddies from work, we found a State Wildlife Area out on the Eastern Plains that offered exactly what you’re looking for in quality cottontail habitat. In the series of images below, you will see a swampy area with cattails, areas of thick brush, areas with downed trees and fields of thick tall grasses – distinctly different, but all areas that produced cottontails during our hunt. You do not need to find the same cover, but you should get a sense of the amount of cover required to harbor a productive population of rabbits, which will provide an outstanding day of hunting.
Knowing Where to Look
While I’m not going to give away the name of the State Wildlife Area that we hunted, I’ll share three resources that will help you find your own cottontail spots.
- Colorado State Recreational Lands brochure – Inside you will find hunting access information for all of Colorado’s State Wildlife Areas, State Trust Lands and State Parks.
- Regular Walk-In Atlas and Late Cropland Walk-In Atlas – The atlases include a comprehensive list of public land access, which provide more than 173,000 acres of small game hunting. Visit the CPW website to learn more about the Walk-In Access Program (WIA).
- Colorado Hunting Atlas – The searchable online map provides detailed satellite views of Colorado. Combine the Colorado Recreational Lands Brochure and the WIA atlases with the Hunting Atlas and you have a virtual scouting tool that will cut down on driving time by helping you identify the best potential cottontail cover.
Reading Cottontail Signs
Find the following evidence and you’ll find the rabbits.
Packing for Your Hunt
Don’t underestimate the demands of a day spent in the field. Whether you’re planning to head out for a dawn to dusk adventure or just a couple of hours, you need to be prepared. One of the many great things about rabbit hunting is that it is not gear intensive. Here’s a checklist of ten items you should have for your hunt:
- Shotgun – No joke! I know people that have driven many miles to hunt, only to realize they forgot to pack their shotgun.
- Shotgun shells – Shot sizes 5 or 6 work great for rabbits, pheasant and quail. Do not use dove loads; you’ll end up wounding rabbits and the ones that you harvest will be full of shot.
- Blaze Orange Hat and Vest/Coat – This year, many of the Walk-In Access properties out east will be open to big game and small game hunting. Play it safe and wear your orange.
- Sunblock – Colorado sun. Enough said.
- Fresh drinking water – Bring at least a gallon in the car and a water bottle or water bladder with you in the field. If you are in the market for a new blaze orange hunting vest, you should consider one of the models with an integrated water bladder.
- Knife – At a minimum, you will want to field dress your rabbits before heading home.
- Plastic grocery store bags – The bags are almost free and they are a great way to store rabbits in your gamebag. It will help keep your vest or coat clean while hunting and your vehicle clean after hunting.
- Snack/Energy bars
- Dry socks
- Dry shoes/sneakers – Weary feet will welcome a change to a dry, light pair of shoes or sneakers for the drive home.
TIP: Beat the Brush!
Rabbits are “crepuscular,” meaning they are most active in the twilight hours of both sunrise and sunset. To jump cottontails that are bedded down for many of the daylight hours, you’ll need to beat some brush. Walking in the open areas next to cover will not be enough to get cottontails moving.
Pressing through thick cover on our first cottontail hunt of the season, Chad, Jerry and I were reminded that while pheasants and other upland game birds present challenging shooting scenarios, cottontails provide one of the smallest shooting windows of any small game animals. In some cases, you’ll jump a cottontail and see only rustling brush – catching sight of neither hide nor hair. Crafty cottontails will quickly disappear down well-protected game trails, vanishing without a trace.
We found ourselves laughing throughout the hunt as a weed pulling on our boots would shake nearby brush and elicit “rabbit” cries from excited hunters. The challenge caused hunters to become increasingly jumpy as the cottontails continued to thunder out from underfoot. Our excitement, frustration and anticipation grew with each passing minute. Our hearing and sight became better linked. But still, time after time, the swift cottontails exploded from their squats before we were able to draw a bead on them. In the first hour of hunting, we had jumped more than a half dozen rabbits and only had one in the game pouch.
As with any type of hunting, the challenge is always to positively identify your target and make a safe and ethical shot while preserving as much meat as possible. With cottontails, the greatest challenge comes with preserving edible meat. Their loins and back legs provide the majority of edible meat, so the challenge is to make a quick assessment of the shooting situation, while being patient enough to wait for the cottontail to present a good shot. Much like big game, you’re looking for a lethal ethical shot that does not unnecessarily destroy the meat. This is complicated by the fact that a fair number of the rabbits that you see will flush from their squat (resting place) and head directly away from you, providing a poor shot at their back and rear legs – exactly what you are looking to preserve. Often, if you’re patient, a cottontail will pause shortly after being jumped. Unfortunately, they will be in thick cover so you really need to stay focused on their path of travel. If a rabbit does not present a good shot, don’t pull the trigger.
KEEP IT CLEAN – It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of jump shooting a cottontail. Just remember to always collect your empty shotgun shells and pick up any trash left by other hunters. Respecting the land and landowners helps guarantee future public access.
Enjoying a Successful Hunt
A successful hunt is never measured by a full or empty game pouch. But in our couple of hours of hunting, we had jumped well over a dozen rabbits, shot close to a half of a box of shells and had a truly outstanding time. With four rabbits to show for our efforts, the day was productive in every way. As friends and hunters, we enjoyed the glory of a picture perfect fall hunting day. A couple of hours in the field had lowered stress levels, provided us with dinner, and refueled our passion for a season of upland hunting adventure.
Skinning and Cleaning Your Rabbits
You shouldn’t be intimidated by the thought of field dressing your harvested game. Rabbits are a fairly easy place to start. Watch the following video by Steven Rinella MeatEater for a quick and easy way to get the job done.
How to Skin and Clean a Rabbit — Steven Rinella MeatEater
Cottontail rabbits are one of the most widely available, easily harvested, and tastiest species of North American game. The ease of butchering and preparing rabbits makes them a great starter item for the beginner hunter. After following these procedures, the flesh is ready for any recipe calling for wild or domestic hare or rabbit. –Steven Rinella
Written by Doug Skinner. Skinner is an editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.